Of all the major religions of the world, only the biblical religions of Judaism and Christianity affirm that human beings are made in the image of God. Even the other Middle Eastern monotheistic religions of Islam and Zoroastrianism do not view human beings as divine image bearers.
The Bible states that of all God’s creatures (including angels and animals), only human beings were created in the express image of God. While the Judeo-Christian Scriptures specifically mention the imago Dei (Latin for “divine image”) only a half dozen times (Genesis 1:26–27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; Colossians 3:10; James 3:9), it seems all of Scripture is written with the imago Dei in mind.
Genesis 1:26–27 is the most important text that describes this vital and unique doctrinal truth:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
A careful examination of this passage shows that Hebrew references to “image” (tselem) and “likeness” (demût) convey the idea of an object similar to or representative of something else, but not identical to it.1 Further, the words “image” and “likeness” should not be understood as referring to two different things but rather as interchangeable terms that reflect a Hebrew form of synonymous parallelism.2 The New Testament Greek word for “image” (eikōn) conveys virtually the same meaning as the Hebrew. Both languages indicate that God created humans to be similar, but certainly not identical to, himself. Therefore, from a biblical perspective, human beings are in some sense both like and unlike the God who made them.
Three Views of the Imago Dei
The question that many Christians have is just how the image of God in human beings is to be defined. While there isn’t universal agreement, today biblical scholars generally view the imago Dei in three primary ways:
1. Resemblance View: This position asserts that humankind possesses a formal nature that serves to resemble God. This nature, then, bears certain qualities, characteristics, or endowments (such as spiritual, rational, volitional, relational, immortal, powerful) that make humankind like God. This resemblance perspective has largely been the traditional view within Christian theology.
2. Relational View: This perspective, while allowing for the idea of formal traits, nevertheless insists that humans are most like God when it comes to their unique relational qualities. Thus, it is humankind’s ability to engage in complex interpersonal relationships that best reflects the divine (echoing the community life among the divine persons of the Trinity). This view is especially popular today.
3. Representative View: This viewpoint insists that being made in the image of God is more about what a person does than what a person is. Thus, when human beings perform certain functions (e.g., take dominion over nature or appropriately represent God on Earth), then the divine image is most deeply evidenced. This perspective is also popular today among scholars.
Unifying the Views
I affirm all three views but think the resemblance view is the foundation for the other two. For example, it seems that the resemblance view makes the relational and representative views possible. In other words, because we’re like God, we can both relate to him and represent him.
Because the biblical religions exclusively affirm humans as image bearers, it makes sense that Judaism and Christianity have led the way in promoting the sanctity of human life. Because human beings bear the image of God, they possess inherent dignity and moral worth. For Jews and Christians, a theology of creation stands behind their most important moral perspective.
Reflections: Your Turn
How does the imago Dei impact your view and treatment of human beings?
For more about the image of God, see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (chapters 11 and 12).