What 'Made in the Image of God' Really Means

Taking a second look at a very misunderstood part of our faith.

All our lives we've heard that we're "made in the image of God." It's a nice thought, and probably one we've clung to when we need a reminder of our own value. But have you ever stopped to think about what it really means? "Made in the image of God" is an audacious claim—and one that probably carries some responsibility with it. We all know we are not gods—though if we're honest, we know we often think we are the god of our own lives, even if we'd never admit it. The truth is, you are not God. But you are godlike.

Our confusion about whether or not we are God arises from our godlikeness. It's described in the first chapter of the Bible. Genesis 1:26-27 reveals, "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness' ... So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

To be fully human is to fully reflect God's creative, spiritual, intelligent, communicative, relational, moral and purposeful capacities.

So, what does it mean to be created in God's image? The Hebrew root of the Latin phrase for image of God—imago Dei—means image, shadow or likeness of God. You are a snapshot or facsimile of God. At the very least this means humans occupy a higher place in the created order because we alone are imprinted with godlike characteristics. Your godlikeness is the path to your greatest fulfillment. You will feel the greatest pleasure and wholeness when who God made you to be is fully developed and expressed.

Your godlikeness can also be a pitfall, because in our hubris we often confuse being like God with being God. Mystery writer Nevada Barr learned this after returning to faith from her long sojourn on the wild side, and concluded: "It was a number of years of crashing and burning before I made the discovery that I was not God. Finally I realized that though I was not God, I was of God." 

About You and Your Godlike Aptitudes

But in what way are you an image of God? How are you godlike? Theologians have long debated this question, but the answer becomes clear when we read the description of God in Genesis 1 and then ask: If we could take a snapshot of God, what would we see and what would it reveal about humans created in God's image?

First, the truth about you is that you are creative because God is creative: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). We know that God is creative. Every human makes things. Artists make things with paint. Poets, writers, philosophers and lawyers make things with ideas and the compelling use of words. Doctors make people healthier; consultants make organizations better. Manufacturers make things with raw materials; chefs make things with fruits, vegetables, meats and spices. Every human has the capacity to make things, to create, because we are all made in the image of a creative God.

The second truth about you is that you are spiritual because God is Spirit: "The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:2). Every human possesses spiritual aptitudes and capacities. We are more than the sum of our physical parts. Our spiritual nature, though unseen, is as real as our physical nature. Nurturing our spirit is as important as eating, drinking and exercising are to our physical body. 

The very essence of God is relational, and that essential quality has been imprinted on humans.

A third truth about you is that you communicate because God communicates: "God said, 'Let there be light'" (Genesis 1:3). Anthropologists agree that the emergence of symbolic language—first spoken, then written—represents the sharpest break between animals and humans. The human ability to think and reason, to use language, symbols and art, far surpasses the abilities of any animals. This gift was bestowed when the communicative God's image was imprinted on us.

A fourth truth about you is that you are intelligent because God is intelligent: "In the beginning was the Word [logos, a Greek word meaning reason, or logic] and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Logical sequential thought flows from the orderliness of God's mind. As a result, though we are not all intellectuals, we each possess a mind and a way of thinking and learning, so Jesus commanded us to love God with our minds (as well as our hearts and all our strength). Because of God's intelligent image imprinted on our lives, though we possess different kinds of intelligence, each of us is to develop our mental capacities to their fullest.

A fifth truth about you is that you are relational because God is relational: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness. ... It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 1:26, Genesis 2:18). The phrase, "Let us make man in our image" reveals an "us-ness" in the very nature of God. The very essence of God is relational, and that essential quality has been imprinted on humans. This capacity for a relationship with God extends to humans, which is why the Genesis story declares that God created Eve for Adam because "it is not good for man to be alone."

A sixth truth about you is that you are morally responsible because God is a moral being. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’" (Genesis 2:16-17). Just as there are natural laws that govern the universe, universal moral laws govern human behavior. The Bible teaches that these laws are written on human hearts and are universal.

When we fully grasp what it means to bear God's image, we are at once struck with the grandeur of our possibilities and the tragedy of our unrealized potential. To be fully human is to fully reflect God's creative, spiritual, intelligent, communicative, relational, moral and purposeful capacities, and to do so holistically and synergistically. Furthermore, though all humans possess these godlike capacities, each of us has the potential to express them distinctively, because God's image has been imprinted uniquely on each of us. In God's infinite creativity there are no duplicates; you are the only you there has ever been or ever will be.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from About You, by Dick Staub. This article was adapted from pages 29-37. Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

52 Comments

DiscerningXianBlog

4

DiscerningXianBlog commented…

This is a terribly imprecise piece of theological work. You admit that theologians have debated over this for centuries -- if not millennia -- but now you have the answer. Call up the academy and hand out the honorary doctorate!

There is a little bit of truth here and there to what you're saying, but it seems disingenuous to say "the answer becomes clear when we ... [insert anything]." If there were a single thing that magically unlocked the concept, scholars would have picked up on it by now.

We should instead use the idea of being made in God's image as a platform for meditating on our own character as well as God's. Many of the things you've said here would've been fine stated less assertively, as areas for contemplation. As it is, this style of writing caters to the sort of Christianity which needs to know the correct interpretation of any given passage. We don't often get that in clear terms.

Kris Grooms

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Kris Grooms commented…

I'm not a theologian, although I do have extensive ministerial training. My opinion, for what it's worth is that many of the comments on here reflect the very reason secular society believes there's no more credibility to the gospel than a Dr. Seuss book.

Jesus simple command was to love one another. Rather than read an article, catch the spirit behind what is being said and walk away a better person, we begin to critique his theological points and split hairs over ideas that for the most part, will not keep people out of Heaven.

Why don't we try using that creative characteristic that the author of this article was talking about and choose to build each other up instead of tearing each other down? It takes guts to write an article that reflects who you are and put it out there for the world to see. I think he should be commended, not criticized.

Johnny Weichel

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Johnny Weichel commented…

Could I get verses that talk about moral code being written on every human heart?

Branden Earp

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Branden Earp commented…

Thank you for writing this. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of negative comments about this article, but you provided a lot of clarity to a subject that many have no clue about. Great work.

Reid Ashbaucher

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Reid Ashbaucher commented…

The facts presented here are true, but how we should understand them may be something different. Gen. 1:26, 27 state that we are made not only in God's image but also in God's likeness. The real debate in theology is whether there is a difference between image and likeness. It is my view that there is. Yes, mankind was created in the image of God, but since the fall or sin of mankind this image has been lost; on the other hand our likeness was not.

Likeness is a metaphysical issue and is where we get the attributes of God - like: communications, reasoning, emotions, will, intellect, and conscience. But image is a question of morality or spiritual character. Therefore, mankind was created to be holy and righteous in attitude and behavior. But since the fall or sin, mankind can no longer reflect God's true image of holiness as mankind is commanded to be (1 Peter 1:16). Can this image be restored again? Yes! For more information on this topic my book is available worldwide. “Made in the Image of God: Understanding the Nature of God and Mankind in a Changing World.”

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