Eric Bolger: Created in God’s Image

Key questions this paper addresses: [1]

  • What does it mean to be created in God’s image?
  • What happened to God’s image in humans when they “fell?”
  • What does God’s image have to do with my life in Christ?

What is an “Image?”

One of the most foundational and significant teachings of Scripture is that we are created in the image of God. This teaching comes early on in the biblical story in Genesis 1, when God creates the first humans:

26 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.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [2]

A good place to start in understanding this important passage is with the word “image.” The original readers of Genesis were Israelites who had just spent 40 years wandering in a bleak desert, looking forward to entering the beautiful land God had promised to them. The meaning of the word image was already quite familiar to them. Images were physical objects used by people in the ancient Near East to represent either a king or a god, or both (since kings were often considered to be divine). These images were carved out of stone or wood and set in various places to remind people that the king or god was sovereign over that place. Such images were even seen to manifest the very presence of the king or god they represented, so that to pay homage to the image was to pay homage to the king or god. In the same way, to desecrate the image was to malign the king or god and to risk retribution.

Numbers 33 shows how God wanted his people to respond to the images used by the people living in the promised land:

50 On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho the LORD said to Moses, 51 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 52 drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. 53 Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess… 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. 56 And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.'”

God here commands the Israelites to destroy the images they would find in the promised land, because these images signified the sovereignty and presence of the gods of the Canaanites. Failure to remove these images would result in great spiritual suffering for Israel.

This concern about worshiping images representing other gods and powers is found throughout Scripture. In Romans 1:23, Paul writes that the human race has foolishly “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Even in the last book of the New Testament, the Apostle John warns his readers about an image:

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years (Revelation 20:4).

The beast and his image are equally dangerous for humans to worship, for the image represents the presence and power of the thing for which it stands.

Humans and the Image of God

With this in mind, we can see that when the author of Genesis wrote that we were created in God’s image, he was saying that we were created to be God’s physical representatives. Humans would represent God wherever they lived, and the way people treated humans would show how they were treating God. This was quite an honor that God was giving to the human race. God created humans uniquely to be God’s envoys in the world.

But how exactly would humans represent God? A partial answer to this question can be found in Genesis 1:26: humans would rule over the other things God had created. Instead of God ruling directly over the created world, he gave humans the incredible responsibility and privilege of doing so. In this way, they would represent God’s own reign and character to the living creatures and even to the whole of the created order.

However, when we look at our relationship to creation it is clear that we have not done a good job of representing God’s loving, compassionate, and gracious character. Rather, we have often exploited the rest of creation, including other humans, for selfish purposes. The explanation for this is simple but profound, and has to do with the fact that God created us with the ability to make willful choices. Humans are unique among the creatures God placed on earth in that they are not driven solely by instincts, but can actually make plans and be creative. In the same way, we are unique in our ability to respond to our Creator with trust, love, and obedience.

The biblical story makes clear, however, that we have consistently chosen against God. We see this first in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve willfully disobey God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge. Their action is paradigmatic for the rest of the biblical story, as humans consistently choose to trust themselves rather than God, whose ways are expressed through his commands. We learn through the biblical story that, without intervention from the outside, we humans are doomed to a constant pattern of actions that work against God’s good intentions for us. We are, in other words, desperately dependent on God’s help to fulfill our God-given purpose.

We live today with the terrible consequences of the first humans’ (and our own) choice to turn away from God. Our relationships with God, ourselves, other people, and creation are distorted by sin. Nonetheless, the opportunity to choose for or against God is a vital part of what it means to be human, and will figure prominently in God’s plan to save us from the devastating effects of sin. He is continually wooing us through Jesus Christ to choose to turn away from the things that keep us from loving him. Our hope is ultimately in him, not in ourselves, for as Paul writes in Romans 8:29, “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he (Jesus) might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

Now we may return to the concept of God’s image. We’ve already seen that God’s image entails humans representing God as they “rule over” the created order. And we’ve seen that humans can’t fulfill this purpose apart from some additional help from God. But we can say more. As Christians through the centuries have discussed the significance of God’s image, they have asked questions such as these: Is the image of God something all humans possess or only some? Was the image affected by the fall of Adam and Eve? And what does the rest of the Bible teach about the image of God?

Historically, there have been three basic ways of answering these questions. We may call these three views the image of God as an endowment, as an activity, and as a purpose. [3] The view of the image of God as an endowment argues the image is something that God has put into the very structure of what it means to be human. Thus all humans bear the image of God, even after the fall. Typically this endowment is identified as something that sets humans apart from other creatures, such as conscience, the ability to reason, and/or the ability to make willful choices. In the endowment view, therefore, all humans possess something called the image of God which sets them apart from all other creatures.

Another popular understanding of the image of God is that it is an activity: we “image” God. According to this view, humans were created to show creation what God is like; however, this ability to present a picture of God to creation was tainted or even lost at the fall in Genesis 3. The great reformer John Calvin explained this using the analogy of a mirror. When a mirror is directed towards the object it is meant to reflect, the reflection appears clearly and accurately. However, when it is turned away from the object, the mirror fails to reflect its object. At the fall, human hearts were turned away from God and so they have been unable to image God since that time.

The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 uses a similar analogy, that of “reflecting” God’s glory. Referring to Jews who have not put their trust in Jesus Christ, he writes:

15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

In this second view of the image, humans image or represent God only insofar as they are in proper relationship with him.

The third understanding of the image of God is what we may call the image of God as purpose. According to this view, all humans are created in God’s image, and retain the image after the fall. However, the image is not so much something we possess (an endowment) or something we do (an activity) but something God designed us to be and which we will ultimately become. In other words, God created us for a purpose, and this purpose will be fulfilled in the end in those who trust in and depend on God. In this view, God is at work even now accomplishing this purpose in us, that is, he is shaping us into the image of God.

It is the third view, the image of God as the purpose for which we were created by God, which makes the most sense of the overall biblical teaching on the image of God. We can see this clearly when we turn to examine what the New Testament authors said about the image of God. Before we do this, however, we must return to Genesis 1 to see what else it tells us about the purpose for which we were created.

God as a Community

Looking again at Genesis 1:26-27, we can make a few more observations about the image of God:

  1. In verse 26, when God speaks about himself he refers to himself in the plural: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.”
  2. In the same way, both God himself (verse 26 is a direct quotation) and the author (verse 27 is the author’s summary) sometimes refer to humans in the plural: “let them rule” (verse 26) and “male and female he created them” (verse 27). At other times, the author uses the singular to refer to God and humans (verse 27).

What is the significance of these observations? The plural with reference to God is best understood in the light of Scripture as a whole as a reference to the fact that God himself is a plurality (more than one) or, as we know from the New Testament, a Trinity (one God in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). In some ways this seems like a very abstract way to think of God, but the biblical authors are very consistent in reminding us about this, and during the first few centuries of the Christian church theologians spent endless hours defining and defending the biblical teaching of God’s Trinitarian nature.

Why is the Trinity such an important idea, so important that it’s already alluded to here in the Bible’s first chapter? The answer to this question is foundational to understanding who God is and who we are created to be. Scripture clearly teaches, and Christians throughout the centuries have believed, that God himself is a community. This means that God is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who have lived together in perfect loving relationship throughout eternity. It is accurate therefore to say that God has never been alone, because he has always existed and always will exist as a community of three persons. In the same way, it is accurate to say that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), because God has always existed and always will exist not as an individual but in a loving relationship that involves three distinct persons.

So why did God make humans, if he already lived in an eternal, loving relationship? Obviously and importantly, he did not make us so that he would have someone to love, and someone who would love him in return. These things he already had and always will have. Why then did God make us? This is where our observations on the language used to describe humans in Genesis 1:26-27 become important. As we noted above, both God and the author of Genesis refer to the first humans sometimes in the singular and sometimes in the plural. The significance of this is that God, who is a community of persons, created humans to reflect his nature by being a community of persons as well.

To help us understand this important idea, we may put it another way. For God to make humans in his image, he had to represent one of the most central aspects of his being, that is, that he is a community of persons in loving relationship, each unique, and each essential to what it means to be God. So how does he reflect this in his creation of humans? He makes them a community as well. Humans are, at the most fundamental level, created for relationships that reflect God’s own community. We are either male or female, and each is equally essential to what it means to be human. Take one or the other away, and not only do you not have humanity as God intended, but you also lose humanity’s ability to image God fully.

The story gets much bigger than this, however. This is because Scripture does not limit the imaging of God by humans to the male-female relationship (i.e., marriage). In fact, both men and women have four significant relationships they were created to participate in and enjoy, and thereby to represent God’s own Trinitarian character. First, God invites men and women into relationship with himself, that is, the relationship shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the community of the Trinity is open for others like you and me to enjoy. Second, God invites men and women into a right understanding of and relationship with themselves. When we come to understand and relate to ourselves as God intends, our other relationships will be most fulfilling. Third, God invites men and women into relationship with one another. As we enter into the fellowship of God’s own community, he asks us to extend to all (and all kinds of) others the same gracious invitation he extends to us: come join our community. Finally, God invites us into fellowship with creation itself. Just as he created us to have dominion over the created order in a way that reflects his glory, so he also restores our strained relationship with creation.

The key thing to notice here is that God uses the creation of humans male and female as an analogy of his own plurality, but the community for which God creates humans extends far beyond the male-female relationship. God wants to bring all people into restored fellowship with himself, with themselves, with one another, and with creation itself. Though sin disrupts the community God intends for us, we still can be certain that we are in fact created to enjoy such community.

How can we summarize this teaching on God as a community? First, God’s Word reveals that God himself is a relational community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, God’s Word reveals that God created us plural (male and female) to reflect this central aspect of God’s character (i.e., relationship). We, both male and female, represent God as we live together in a way that displays God’s own relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, we are created for community. [4] Third, as we saw earlier, the fall disrupted our ability to live in community, and therefore our ability to image God.

Jesus Christ as the Image of God

Not surprisingly, there is much more to this story of God’s image. When we turn to the New Testament, a significant new element appears. Whereas the emphasis of Genesis is on humans created in the image of God, the emphasis in the New Testament is on the image of God in one person: Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to do what we have failed to do, that is, to represent God’s character to creation. In fact, just as this imaging is the purpose for which God created us, so Jesus, the true human, comes to fulfill this same purpose.

Consider these passages:

  • The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).
  • He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15).

In God’s grace, the purpose for which he created humans (to represent him to creation) has been fulfilled in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the perfect imager of God, the physical representation of God’s sovereignty and character to all of creation. In his relationship with the Father, described for us in Scripture, he shows us how to relate to the Father. And in his relationship with himself, others, and the entire created order, he demonstrates the self-sacrificing humility that is characteristic of relationships within the Trinity.

So what then becomes of us? Do we still have any role as God’s representatives? The New Testament teaches that we do still have a role, and our role can be fulfilled through our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are God’s representatives only as we draw our life from Jesus Christ, who is himself the image of God. And Paul makes clear that our representing of God is not simply an individual activity. Those who trust in Christ become part of a new family of which Christ is the firstborn, and our representing of God is tied very closely to our identity as part of this family, or community, that Christ is establishing. Paul puts it this way in Romans 8:

28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

There are a number of important things to note in this passage. First, Paul is speaking of a specific subset of people, namely those “who love (God), who have been called according to his purpose.” Second, Paul describes this purpose, which is to be conformed to the likeness (or image) of his Son. Third, Christ, who is the image of God, will be the firstborn among many brothers, that is, he is the leader of a community of people who will, like him, represent God to the rest of creation.

We can look at these points in a little more detail. God, in his wisdom, is making a way for humans to fulfill their divinely given purpose of being his representatives to the rest of creation. Those who know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are part of a people God is establishing to be his representatives, that is, his image to creation. What this image looks like is Jesus Christ, who is the very image of God. Those who love Christ are being changed by God into Christ’s likeness so that they too can represent God as Jesus does. It is important to note that Paul does not say they are being changed into Jesus Christ, but rather into his likeness or image. There is only one who truly and perfectly images God, and this is Jesus Christ. He is the true and perfect representative of God. But it is not enough that he alone represents God, because God is a community, not an individual. For this reason, Paul tells us that Christ is the firstborn among many brothers. In other words, God is creating a family, a community, led and made possible by Jesus Christ, which will represent God as its members live together in the kind of relationships that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share.

Lest all this seem too lofty and abstract, consider now Paul’s practical application of this principle in Colossians 3:9:

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

For Paul, teaching about how we are to act is always rooted in truth about who we are created to be (our purpose). Notice how Paul links our treatment of one another (do not lie to one another) with our renewal in God’s image. This is where the proverbial rubber hits the road: our actions towards one another represent God’s very character. Since God lives in loving, self-sacrificing community, we represent God most fully and accurately when we do the same. In this way we fulfill the purpose for which we were created: we were “created for community.”

Summary and Conclusion

Having looked at some of the key biblical passages regarding the image of God, we may now summarize the biblical teaching in this way:

  1. Our creation in the image of God means that we are to represent God to the rest of the created order.
  2. Since God is a community of persons, he created us to represent him not simply as individuals but also, and even especially, through our relationships.
  3. Though the fall negatively affected our ability to live in community, God sent Jesus Christ as his perfect representative. Jesus is the image of God.
  4. We now image God as we abide in Christ, who brings us into God’s family and transforms us to love one another as God intended. As we do so, we image God more and more fully.
  5. The end of the story is that believers in Christ will be fully conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ. He is the image of God, and God has predestined (i.e., determined in advance that it will certainly take place) that those who love God will indeed reach the goal of becoming like Christ.

With these things in mind, it is possible to state what is meant by the creation of humans in the image of God: the image of God is the purpose God has given to all humanity. Those who love God through Christ are on the way to fulfilling this purpose, as he conforms them to the likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ, who is the image of God. This conforming process involves becoming a community that exemplifies the love found within God himself, that is, the love among the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.


[1] This paper is dedicated to the memory of Stanley J. Grenz, whose writings, conversations, and suggestions have deeply impacted the author’s understanding of God and, even more importantly, relationship with God, self, others, and creation. Return

[2] All Scripture citations are taken from the NIV. Return

[3] Adapted from Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001). Return

[4] The phrase “created for community” is borrowed from the book of the same title by Stanley J. Grenz (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). Return

Posted July 2005

About the author

MWS 501 Professor and former Academic Dean. Eric is a staff elder of Harvest Evangelical Free Church in Branson, MO and is the Dean of a nearby college.