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The "Imago Dei"
The Biblical Teaching that
Mankind Was Created Similar to God

by Ronald W. Leigh, Ph.D.
Image of Bible and cross
May 31, 2014
Copyright © 1996, 2001 Ronald W. Leigh
Biblical quotations are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
—————— Contents ———————
A. Introduction
B. Passages related to the imago dei
C. Man and the animals
D. Man's relation to God, various views
E. The image: man's essential nature
F. The effect of the fall
G. Angels and the image
H. Implications
——————————————————

A. Introduction

“Imago Dei” is Latin for “image of God” and is used throughout this paper to refer to the fact that man was created in God’s image and likeness.

The imago Dei is one of the Bible’s most important teachings.  What you believe about the imago Dei will govern what you believe about other key doctrines such as the nature of man and the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Carl F. H. Henry points out that

The importance of a proper understanding of the imago Dei can hardly be overstated.  The answer given to the imago-inquiry soon becomes determinative for the entire gamut of doctrinal affirmation.  (Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, Baker Book House, 1960, “Man,” p. 339)

What is this image?  It cannot be a physical similarity, since God is spirit (John 4:24) and thus invisible (Colossians 1:15;  1 Timothy 1:17;  Hebrews 11:27).  Rather, it has to do with the nonmaterial part of man, that is, man’s soul, spirit, or inner person.  In particular, it has to do with man’s capacity for reflective thought (including self-awareness), feelings, and responsible decisions.

Many different views of the imago Dei have been held by different theologians and groups throughout church history.  For an overview, see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Eerdmans, 1949), Part 2, Chapter 3.

While this paper focuses on the basic similarity between God and mankind, remember that there are also very significant differences including God’s existence before creation, omnipotence, absolute holiness, etc.

B. Passages related to the imago Dei

Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

In Genesis 1, Moses describes the process of creation largely by recording what God spoke.  In some cases God’s speaking is the act of creation (for example, verses 3, 14-15).  In other cases God’s speaking is a description of the creation (for example, verse 5), or an announcement of his intent (verse 26).

The imago Dei is strongly emphasized in this passage, as can be seen from the following three observations.

(1) The imago Dei is the very first thing that God says about man.  God has a great deal to say about man, both about mankind in general and about particular men and women.  But the very first thing he said about man is that he intended to make man in his own image.  Compare Genesis 5:1, which begins a new section of Genesis – an “account of Adam's line.”  Here again, the first thing said about man is that God created him in his own likeness.

(2) The imago Dei is stated repeatedly for emphasis.  Phrases such as “in our image” or “in our likeness” appear four times in these two verses.  None of the other facts about mankind is repeated so many times in such short scope.  In fact, rarely in the Bible is anything repeated as much as this.  (Two other examples are:  the repetition of the concept of substitution in Isaiah 53:4-6, and the repetitious description of God’s character in Revelation 4:8-11.)

(3) The imago Dei is presented in sharp contrast to the creation of other living things, as recorded in the previous verses (see 11-12, 20-22, and 24-25).  Ten times in these previous verses the phrase “according to their kinds” (or something very similar) is applied to all other living creatures, describing their creation and/or reproduction.  But there is an abrupt break in this pattern beginning at verse 26.  Instead of “their kinds,” it is now “our image,” which is never said of the animals.  Along this same line, notice that there is no hint that man is included with the animals in any sense (except that they were both created).  Instead, God says that man is to rule over the animals.

Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9-10

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. . . . this should not be.

Both passages call for respect for human beings based on their similarity to God.  In one case the offense is killing another person, which calls for the death penalty.  In the other case it is cursing others.  But in both cases the reason for the prohibition is the imago Dei.

Notice that these two passages, as well as the ones cited below, are discussing mankind after the fall.  They would make little sense if the image were destroyed by the fall.  Even in his fallen state, there is something about man that remains similar to God.  This fact is seen most clearly in James 3:9 where the activities of praising and cursing are in the present tense (at the time James is writing) and it is these contemporaries of James "who have been made in God's likeness."

Psalm 8:3-8

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?  You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.  You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

Although this passage does not explicitly refer to the "image" or "likeness" of God, it does include the same two elements found in Genesis 1:26-27 – man’s high position and man’s rule over the animals.  The high position is found in the words, “made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.”  The early Greek translation known as the Septuagint (LXX) and the King James Version use “angels” in place of “heavenly beings,” while the New American Standard Bible and New Revised Standard Version use “God.”  The Hebrew word used here is actually “elohim” – the same word used throughout Genesis 1 and the rest of the Old Testament to refer both to God and to heathen gods.

It may be possible to make a case for the use of “angels” here, based on the use of this passage by the writer of Hebrews (2:7, 9).  See the section below entitled “What about Angels?”

Psalm 82:1,6

God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the "gods" . . . . I said, 'You are "gods"; you are all sons of the Most High.'

Here again the term translated “gods” is “elohim,” the same term used at the very beginning of the verse.  In this psalm those being addressed are the leaders of Israel (or possibly the rulers of the nations).  Their behavior is characterized as evil (v. 2) and ignorant (v. 5).  They are called “gods” in order to draw attention to the contrast between their behavior and their high status and responsibility.  They are “gods” in the sense that they are God’s “offspring” (see verse 6, compare Acts 17:29) and are serving in an office created by God to administer his justice.  Certainly they are expected to act as God would act, as  righteous judges, rather than acting in an evil and ignorant manner.  The passage implies enough of a relationship between God and these leaders to allow the same term, “elohim,” to be applied to both.

Acts 17:28-29

'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'   Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold, or silver, or stone — an image made by man’s design and skill.

Here Paul addresses the men of Athens and quotes two phrases from their poets which imply that mankind is in some way closely connected to God.  So, even among some who had not received God’s special revelation on the subject, there was the recognition of our similarity to God.  Paul is combating the notion that God is like an inanimate idol, so he is actually attempting to raise the Athenians’ concept of God to something more like man!  (Earlier, in verse 24, he had made the point that God is the creator.)

This passage reminds us of the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above …  (Exodus 20:4).  The phrase “an idol in the form of” could be translated “a graven image or likeness.”  Rather than trying to represent God by an idol, man should remember that he is like God.

C.  Man and the animals

One of the most significant implications of the Bible’s teaching on the image of God is that man is utterly distinct from the animals.  This fact is abundantly clear from the following four facts.

  1. Man is made in God’s image, animals are not (Genesis 1).
  2. Man was given rule over the animals (Genesis 1:26).
  3. Animals do not “correspond” to man (Genesis 2:18-20).
  4. In the Bible, two way communication (revelation and prayer) is common between God and man, but nonexistent between God and animals.

We humans have far greater similarity to God than to animals – a fact denied or utterly distorted by our culture.  Many deny the existence of God, and thus have no choice but to group man with the animals.

(nothing) man and animals

Even among those who believe in God, many have bought the evolutionary fable and thus also group man with the animals.

God man and animals

However, the biblical picture is significantly different, for man is grouped with God.

God and man animals

 

D.  Man's relation to God, various views

There have been widely varying views among different philosophical and theological systems regarding man's nature in relationship to God.  On one extreme are those systems which have physical gods or no gods, and on the other extreme those which claim that men can become gods.  The following table selects only a few systems for comparison.

United
Nations
Agenda 21
Idol makers, Hinduism Secular,
Liberal
Neo-ortho­doxy Historic
Christianity
(Chalcedon)
Historic
Christianity
(Bible)
Mormon­ism, Hinduism
Replaces God with Mother Earth Man makes his gods in his mind, or in physical represen­tations No God Distant God. No propo­sitional knowledge of God, or verbal communi­cation with him. Does not recognize the signifi­cance of the imago Dei (requires Christ to have two natures) Greater emphasis on the imago Dei (allows Christ, the God-man, to have a single nature) Man can become a god
 
Mother Earth
 
—————
 
Animals (Man)
 
 
 
 
God

makes

Man
Animals
 
 
 
 
 
 
Man
 
 
Animals
 
 
God
(wholly other)

 
—————
—————
 
Man
 
—————
 
Animals
 
 
God
 
—————
 
Man
 
—————
 
Animals
 
 
God
 
—–similar—–
 
Man
 
—————
 
Animals
 
 
God
 

 
Man
 
—————
 
Animals
 

 

E.  The image:  man's essential nature

Personhood

As stated earlier, the imago Dei has to do with man’s soul, spirit, or inner person, that is, the nonmaterial part of man rather than man’s physical body.  In a single word, the imago Dei is personhood.  When we say that man was created in God’s image, we are saying that man is personal in the same sense that God is personal.

In particular, the imago Dei has to do with man’s capacity for reflective thought (including self-awareness), feelings, and responsible decisions.  Of course, the decisions can include moral decisions, but it is primarily the decision making ability (rather than any particular type of decision) which is involved in the imago Dei.

The distinction between essential nature and moral nature

It is helpful to make a distinction between essential nature and moral nature.  Essential nature has to do with man’s essence or basic makeup, which in turn determines his capacity.  Moral nature has to do with man’s character, that is, the goodness or badness of his decisions and his resultant behavior.

Even though the imago Dei gives man the capacity for fellowship with God, man must also be holy in order to have the right to fellowship with God.  For Adam, this holiness was his untested innocence before the fall.  For fallen man, this holiness is the positional righteousness which God gives to those who trust in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22).

When God created man in his image he gave him the capacity to reflect, feel, and decide.  The creation of man as recorded in Genesis 1 contains no discussion of morality, that is, of right and wrong behavior.  Even the statement in verse 31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (italics added) should not be understood in a moral sense.  If that were its meaning, we would have to ask, “In what sense are the sun, moon, stars, land, sea, and animals moral?”

By the way, one of the implications of the distinction between essential nature and moral nature is that sin is not a necessary part of man’s essential nature.  Certainly, all men are sinners.  But it is possible to be fully human and still be sinless, as is the case with Adam and Eve before the fall, with Jesus Christ, and with redeemed humans in glory.

F.  The effect of the fall

God instructed man what he should and should not do (Genesis 2:15-17).  This is the point at which morality enters the picture.  Man's essential nature had been determined by God at the time of his creation, but now his moral nature would be determined by his own choice.  At the fall, man's moral nature became sinful, but his essential nature retained the imago Dei.  Man’s essential nature is the same before and after the fall.  This is why the above passages which deal with man after the fall can appeal to the imago Dei which still exists in man.

Of course man’s moral nature was changed by the fall.  In Genesis 3:22 God says “The man now has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”  When we read here that man became “like” God, we should not conclude that man had no likeness to God before the fall.  Obviously, a different aspect of “likeness” is in view here.  Man was like God before the fall as far as his essential nature is concerned, but now (having struggled with good and evil) is like God as far as morality is concerned.  Each individual now has a sin nature (a tendency toward sin) as well as his own history of sin which makes him guilty before God and separated from God as punishment.  Paul’s description of the change in man due to sin in Romans 1:18-32 obviously focuses on this moral aspect.

So the moral nature of man was changed by the fall.  A reversal of this change takes place instantly when an individual trusts in Christ as savior and is justified (declared righteous) by God.  Then, in practice, he should gradually becomes more like Christ (Ephesians 4:13) and more like the Creator (Colossians 3:9-10, cf. Ephesians 4:22-25).

But the fact that man’s moral nature changed at the fall does not mean that his essential nature changed.  None of the punishments that resulted from the fall – pain, toil, and banishment from the garden and from God's presence – hint at a loss of personhood.

Certainly there is no total loss of the imago Dei at the fall, for Romans 1:20 teaches that certain spiritual truths are “clearly seen” even by those who are lost.  At the most, there may be a partial weakening of man’s capacities  due to the fall – in particular, man’s ability to understand spiritual truth (1 Corinthians 13:12).  But even this passage does not explicitly state that man’s ability to understand was diminished by the fall, only that it will be increased in the eternal state. 

The great changes that accompany the resurrection and glorification of the saved, described in 1 Corinthians 15:35-56, have to do primarily with man’s body.

Some appeal to 1 Corinthians 2:14 to prove that the unregenerate have no spiritual understanding.  But this passage, interpreted in context, is referring to the Corinthian believers who were unresponsive to the Spirit.

Also, some cite this verse, "God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes" (Ecclesiastes 7:29) as support for the idea that moral goodness was included in the imago Dei.  But a quick survey of various translations indicates a complete lack of consensus regarding the meaning of this verse.  Besides, it is unwise to build doctrine on the contents of Ecclesiastes.  This book presents major difficulties in knowing which of its statements are recorded as examples of mere human wisdom and which statements deserve more weight.  If you were to insist that the above quoted translation of this verse be taken at face value, what will you do with 9:1-3 which says that the righteous and the wicked share a common destiny, and (more pertinent to our topic) 3:18-19 which says that man has no advantage over the animals?

G. Angels and the image

Angels are also created in the image of God.  There are no explicit biblical statements to this effect.  Nevertheless, it is very likely that angels (both unfallen and fallen) possess the imago Dei for the following three reasons.

(1)  Angels act like persons.  In the Bible, angels are often found interacting with both God and man.  And the way they think, feel, and decide appears to be personal.

(2) Some of the angels fell and were being held for punished (2 Peter 2:4;  Jude 6).  This implies that they had free choice and made responsible moral decisions for which they were held accountable.

(3) The first two reasons point to a similarity between angels and man and thus imply that angels possess the imago Dei.  However, several New Testament passages teach that angels are actually superior to humans, which gives us even stronger reason to conclude that angels possess the imago Dei.  For example, the writer of Hebrews states that man was created just below the angels.

What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.  (Hebrews 2:6-8)

The writer of Hebrews then applies this to Jesus because he became man in his incarnation

... we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels ....  (Hebrews 2:9)

In verse 7 the phrase "a little lower than the angels" is part of a quotation from Psalm 8:4-6.  Regarding the word "angels," the Hebrew uses the word "elohim" which could be translated either "God", "gods," or "angels" as discussed above.  The Septuagint (LXX) uses "aggelos" which must be translated angels, and the writer of Hebrews is quoting from the LXX at this point.  The fact that he quotes the LXX is not in itself an automatic endorsement of the LXX’s use of "angels."  However, he repeats "angels"” in verse 9 (where he is no longer quoting the LXX) which makes us more certain that he is intentionally referring to angels.

Also, Peter ranks angels above humans.  He describes how the false and arrogant teachers are so quick to slander celestial beings, something which angels do not do.  In the process he makes this observation:

angels ... are stronger and more powerful  (2 Peter 2:11)

In a very similar passage, Jude also ranks angels above humans.  Jude contrasts the reluctance of the archangel Michael to slander the devil with the quickness of the “godless men” to slander celestial beings (Jude 8-10).  Jude’s point seems to be: not even Michael does that!  This is a point which makes sense only if the angel Michael is assumed to have more power or greater status than men.

Based on the above considerations, the proper hierarchy must be, starting at the top, God, them angels, then man, then animals.  If this is the correct hierarchy, then it seems reasonable to conclude that angels possess the imago Dei along with man, as indicated in the following diagram.


H. Implications

Both the human sin problem and its solution are logically dependent upon the imago Dei.

Freedom and the Fall

The image is necessary for man to be free.  Freedom is possible only when one has the ability both to understand the situation and to make a decision.  Meaningful communication between God and man is dependent on man’s similarity to God.  Because of the imago Dei, God can communicate his standards to man.  In turn, man can understand what God expects and thus bear responsibility for his actions.

If there is no imago Dei in man, there is no possibility of a fall.  The human dilemma is only possible because man is made in God’s image.

The Incarnation and the Substitutionary Death of Christ

Jesus Christ took the punishment for our sins, as our substitute.  In order to be a valid substitute, Jesus had to be like those for whom he would suffer (Hebrews 2:14-17).  Bulls and goats do not qualify (Hebrews 10:4).  So the second person of the trinity, the Son, had to become human in order to be our substitute.

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil … he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.  (Hebrews 2:14-17)

Jesus was fully God from the beginning (John 1:1-2).  He then became fully man and at the same time remained fully God.  It is the image of God in man which made it possible for him to become incarnate and be simultaneously human and divine.  See Hebrews 2:7-9;  John 10:24-39 (cf. Psalm 82:6).  See the paper, Jesus: the One-natured God-man.

Thus both the fall and salvation are possible only because of man’s being made in God’s image.