There are some who say humans are simply another creature among animals. They say we’ve evolved and risen to the top of the evolutionary pyramid. We aren’t the strongest, fastest, or the most powerful. What is it about humanity that makes us stand out as unique and different from the rest of creation?
According to the Scriptures, we were created “in God’s image,” and that sets us apart. Many Christians “know” that. It’s something that Christians all affirm: humans are the crown of creation, the only ones in creation with the honor of being created in God’s image. But what’s it mean? How would you describe it to a child who asks?
What I’ve written below is presented as an overview of the general topic to point you in the right direction, not clarify every issue in play. Still, I’m convinced it will be useful enough that you’ll be able to explain what it means to be created in the image of God.
Genesis 1:26-27, ESV
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Men and Women are Mirrors
Who we are reflects who God is. In this sense, our very being is at the core of being created in the image of God. Our ability for reason, love, creativity, etc. are at the heart of bearing God’s image. Anthony Hoekema beautifully expresses it this way,
“Man’s rational powers, for example, reflect God’s reason, and enable man now, in a sense, to think God’s thoughts after him. Man’s moral sensitivity reflects something of the moral nature of God, who is the supreme determiner of right and wrong. Our capacity for fellowshipping with God in worship reflects the fellowship that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have with each other. Our ability to respond to God and to fellow human beings imitates God’s ability and willingness to respond to us when we pray to him. Our ability to make decisions reflects in a small way the supreme directing power of him ‘who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will’ (Eph. 1:11). Our sense of beauty is a feeble reflection of the God who scatters beauty profusely over snow-crowned peaks, lake-jeweled valleys, and awe inspiring sunsets. Our gift of speech is an imitation of him who constantly speaks to us, both in his works and in his word. And our gift of song echoes the God who rejoices over us with singings (Zech. 3:17).” (Created in God’s Image, p.71)
Men and Women are Ambassadors
In this sense, what we do flows from our identity as God’s image-bearers. Being created in the Image of God also means that humanity was created to serve as God’s ambassadors and representatives. In this sense, our actions are an expression of our being. The calling to reflect God’s image (above) cannot be separated from this second aspect, acting as his representative among all creation.
At this point, it’s helpful to consider the three relationships in which we find ourselves:
- Human & God – All creation was intended to proclaim the glory of God. If we are to be faithful mirrors and ambassadors, then we must be faithful worshippers. As image-bearers, worship is an unquenchable aspect of what it means to be human. Living for the glory of God makes people whole.
- Human & Human – All people were created in the image of God and thus should be treated accordingly. By our compassion, we express God’s love. By our humility and patience, we model God’s mercy. By our generosity, we demonstrate God’s grace. Through our parenting and leadership and a host of other relationships, we have the honor of showing others what God is like.
- Human & Creation – Among fellow Evangelical Christians, this is probably the least recognized relationship in creation. Adam and Eve were given the task to care for creation. As God is the sustainer and provider of life, so we ought to reflect the sovereignty of God over creation (remembering that he rules in order to bring fullness of life).
Human action affects the world. People can give life and healing, or we can bring death. We can preserve and care for creation, or we can destroy it. Our behavior should reflect the heart of God, who created the world and gave life. By these relationships, we serve as ambassadors of God – whether for good or ill.
The Gospel Restores the Image of God
It doesn’t take long to look around and realize that something went seriously wrong. We cannot pick up the newspaper and see examples of God’s character portrayed in the headlines. Instead, we tend to see violence, corruption, and fear. What went wrong?
Sin marred, tarnished, and broke the image of God within humanity, but did not destroy it. We continue to serve as mirrors and ambassadors, but because of our sinful nature we reflect and represent a twisted version of him. Rather than living to serve as his ambassadors, we strive to set up our own kingdoms where we are lords. Much of the Old Testament was written to demonstrate this corruption, and then to point towards the one who would come to restore the image of God within us.
The Gospel does not simply give us eternal life. It gives us a new heart. God replaces our heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). We are given a new identity in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Simply put, because we are in Christ, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, the image of God within us is renewed. This is often referred to as “Sanctification,” the ongoing process by which we are made more like Christ.
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Colossians 3:9-10, ESV
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Ephesians 4:20-24, ESV
Being created in the image of God means that humanity serves as a Mirror of who God is and as Ambassadors of what kind of God he is. As mirrors, our very being and abilities show the nature of God (love, compassion, justice, creativity, etc.). As ambassadors, our actions represent God’s rule over creation by providing rulers to care for the earth. Sin has broken the image of God within humanity, but it has not be completely destroyed or lost. Instead, we now rule in a way that promotes ourselves as gods instead of rightfully pointing to the One whom we reflect and represent. Through faith in Jesus Christ (the gospel) we receive a new heart and are united with Christ, which causes the image of God within us to be renewed.
Anthony Hoekema’s book, Created in God’s Image is by far the best book I’ve read on this topic. He goes deep into crafting a biblical anthropology, asking “What does it mean to be human?” It’s rare to find a good theologian who is so easy to read.