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The Uniqueness of Human Beings: "In the Image of God"

In this article, an evangelical theologian describes what it means for humans to have been created "in the image of God."

All quotations are from Wayne Grudem. 1994. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. Pp 442-450. Bold print indicates emphasis added.

[page 442] 1. The Meaning of "Image of God." Out of all the creatures God made, only one creature, man, is said to be made "in the image of God." What does that mean? We may use the following definition: The fact that man is in the image of God means that man is like God and represents God.
     When God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen. 1:26), the meaning is that God plans to make a creature similar to himself. Both the Hebrew word for "image" (tselem) and the Hebrew word for "likeness" (demût) refer to something that is similar but not identical to the thing it represents or is an "image" of. The word image can also be used of something that represents something else.

[footnote] [pages 442, 443] The word image (tselem) means an object similar to something else and often representative of it. The word is used to speak of statues or replicas of tumors and of mice (1 Sam. 6:5, 11), of paintings of soldiers on the wall (Ezek. 23: 14), and of pagan idols or statues representing deities (Num. 33:42; 2 Kings 11:18; Ezek. 7:20; 16:17; et al.).
     The word likeness (demût) also means an object similar to something else, but it tends to be used more frequently in contexts where the idea of similarity is emphasized more than the idea of being a representative or substitute (of a god, for example). King Ahaz's model or drawing of the altar he saw in Damascus is called a "likeness" (2 Kings 16:10), as are the figures of bulls beneath the bronze altar (2 Chron. 4:3–4), and the wall paintings of Babylonian chariot officers (Ezek. 23:15). In Ps. 58:4 (Heb. v. 5) the venom of the wicked is a "likeness" of the venom of a snake: here the idea is that they are very similar in their characteristics, but there is no thought of actual representation or substitution.
     All of this evidence indicates that the English words image and likeness are very accurate equivalents for the Hebrew terms they translate.

[page 443] Theologians have spent much time attempting to specify one characteristic of man, or a very few, in which the image of God is primarily seen. Some have thought that the image of God consists in man's intellectual ability, others in his power to make moral decisions and willing choices. Others have thought that the image of God referred to man's original moral purity, or his creation as male and female (see Gen. 1:27), or his dominion over the earth.

[footnote] [page 443] A brief survey of various views is found in D. J. A. Clines, "The Image of God in Man," TB (1968), pp. 54-61. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 498-510, also gives a helpful summary of three major views of the image of God in man that have been held throughout the history of the church: (1) the substantive view, which identifies some particular quality of man (such as reason or spirituality) as being the image of God in man (Luther, Calvin, many early church writers); (2) relational views, which held that the image of God had to do with our interpersonal relationships (Emil Brunner; also Karl Barth, who saw the image of God specifically in our being created as male and female); and (3) the functional view, which holds that the image of God has to do with a function we carry out, usually our exercise of dominion over the creation (a Socinian view that is also held by some modern writers such as Norman Snaith and Leonard Verduin).

     In this discussion it would be best to focus attention primarily on the meanings of the words "image" and "likeness." As we have seen, these terms had quite clear meanings to the original readers. When we realize that the Hebrew words for "image" and "likeness" simply informed the original readers that man was like God, and would in many ways represent God, much of the controversy over the meaning of "image of God" is seen to be a search for too narrow and too specific a meaning. When Scripture reports that God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen. 1:26), it simply would have meant to the original readers, "Let us make man to be like us and to represent us."
     Because "image" and "likeness" had these meanings, Scripture does not need to say something like,

The fact that man is in the image of God means that man is like God in the following ways: intellectual ability, moral purity, spiritual nature, dominion over the earth, creativity, ability to make ethical choices, and immortality [or some similar statement].

Such an explanation is unnecessary, not only because the terms had clear meanings, but also because no such list could do justice to the subject: the text only needs to affirm that man is like God, and the rest of Scripture fills in more details to explain this. In fact, as we read the rest of Scripture, we realize that a full understanding of man's likeness to God would require a full understanding of who God is in his being and in his actions and a full understanding of who man is and what he does. The more we know about God and man the more similarities we will recognize, and the more fully we will understand what Scripture means when it says that man is in the image of God. The expression refers to every way in which man is like God.
     This understanding of what it means that man is created in the image of God is reinforced by the similarity between Genesis 1:26, where God declares

[page 444] his intention to create man in his image and likeness, and Genesis 5:3: "When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness [demût], after his image [tselem], and named him Seth." Seth was not identical to Adam, but he was like him in many ways, as a son is like his father. The text simply means that Seth was like Adam. It does not specify any specific number of ways that Seth was like Adam, and it would be overly restrictive for us to assert that one or another characteristic determined the way in which Seth was in Adam's image and likeness. Was it his brown eyes? Or his curly hair? Perhaps it was his athletic prowess, or his serious disposition or even his quick temper? Of course, such speculation would be useless. It is evident that every way in which Seth was like Adam would be a part of his likeness to Adam and thus part of his being "in the image" of Adam. Similarly, every way in which man is like God is part of his being in the image and likeness of God. . . .

[page 445] 5. Specific Aspects of Our Likeness to God. Though we have argued above that it would be difficult to define all the ways in which we are like God, we can nevertheless mention several aspects of our existence that show us to be more like God than all the rest of creation.

a. Moral Aspects: (1) We are creatures who are morally accountable before God for our actions. Corresponding to that accountability, we have (2) an inner sense of right and wrong that sets us apart from animals (who have little if any innate sense of morality or justice but simply respond from fear of punishment or hope of

[page 446] reward). When we act according to God's moral standards, our likeness to God is reflected in (3) behavior that is holy and righteous before him, but, by contrast, our unlikeness to God is reflected whenever we sin.

b. Spiritual Aspects: (4) We have not only physical bodies but also immaterial spirits, and we can therefore act in ways that are significant in the immaterial, spiritual realm of existence. This means that we have (5) a spiritual life that enables us to relate to God as persons, to pray and praise him, and to hear him speaking his words to us. No animal will ever spend an hour in intercessory prayer for the salvation of a relative or a friend! Connected with this spiritual life is the fact that we have (6) immortality; we will not cease to exist but will live forever.

c. Mental Aspects: (7) We have an ability to reason and think logically and learn that sets us apart from the animal world. Animals sometimes exhibit remarkable behavior in solving mazes or working out problems in the physical world, but they certainly do not engage in abstract reasoning—there is no such thing as the "history of canine philosophy," for example, nor have any animals since creation developed at all in their understanding of ethical problems or use of philosophical concepts, etc. No group of chimpanzees will ever sit around the table arguing about the doctrine of the Trinity or the relative merits of Calvinism or Arminianism! In fact, even in developing physical and technical skills we are far different from animals: beavers still build the same kind of dams they have built for a thousand generations, birds still build the same kind of nests, and bees still build the same kinds of hives. But we continue to develop greater skill and complexity in technology, in agriculture, in science, and in nearly every field of endeavor.
     (8) Our use of complex, abstract language sets us far apart from the animals. I could tell my son, when he was four years old, to go and get the big, red screwdriver from my workbench in the basement. Even if he had never seen it before, he could easily perform the task because he knew meanings of "go," "get," "big," "red," "screwdriver," "workbench," and "basement." He could have done the same for a small, brown hammer or a black bucket beside the workbench or any of dozens of other items that he perhaps had never seen before but could visualize when I described them in a few brief words. No chimpanzee in all history has been able to perform such a task—a task that has not been learned through repetition with reward, but is simply described in words that refer to an item that the hearer has never seen before. Yet four-year-old human beings can do this routinely, and we think nothing of it. Most eight-year-olds can write an understandable letter to their grandparents describing a trip to the zoo, or can move to a foreign country and learn any other language in the world, and we think it entirely normal. But no animal will ever write such a letter to its grandparents, or give the past, present, and future of even one French verb, or

[page 447] read a detective story and understand it, or understand the meaning of even one verse from the Bible. Human children do all these things quite readily, and in so doing they show themselves so far superior to the whole animal kingdom that we wonder why people have sometimes thought that we are merely another kind of animal.
     (9) Another mental difference between humans and animals is that we have an awareness of the distant future, even an inward sense that we will live beyond the time of our physical death, a sense that gives many people a desire to attempt to be right with God before they die (God "has put eternity into man's mind," Eccl. 3:11).
     (10) Our likeness to God is also seen in our human creativity in areas such as art, music, and literature, and in scientific and technological inventiveness. We should not think of such creativity as restricted to world-famous musicians or artists—it is also reflected in a delightful way in the play acting or skits put on by children, in the skill reflected in the cooking of a meal or the decorating of a home or the planting of a garden, and in the inventiveness shown by every human being who "fixes" something that just wasn't working correctly.
     The foregoing aspects of likeness to God have been ways in which we differ from animals absolutely, not merely in degree. But there are other areas where we differ from animals in significant degree, and these also can show our likeness to God.
     (11) In the area of emotions, our likeness to God is seen in a large difference in degree and complexity of emotions. Of course, animals do show some emotions (anyone who has owned a dog can remember evident expressions of joy, sadness, fear of punishment when it has done wrong, anger if another animal invades its "turf," contentment, and affection, for example). But in the complexity of emotions that we experience, once again we are far different than the rest of creation. After watching my son's baseball game, I can simultaneously feel sad that his team lost, happy that he played well, proud that he was a good sport, thankful to God for giving me a son and giving me the joy of watching him grow up, joyful because of the song of praise that has been echoing in my mind all afternoon, and anxious because we are going to be late for dinner! It is very doubtful that an animal experiences anything approaching this complexity of emotional feeling.

d. Relational Aspects: In addition to our unique ability to relate to God (discussed above), there are other relational aspects of being in God's image. (12) Although animals no doubt have some sense of community with each other, the depth of interpersonal harmony experienced in human marriage, in a human family when it functions according to God's principles, and in a church when a community of believers is walking in fellowship with the Lord and with each other, is much greater than the interpersonal harmony experienced by any animals. In our family relationships and in the church, we are also superior to angels, who do not marry or bear children or live in the company of God's redeemed sons and daughters.
     (13) In marriage itself we reflect the nature of God in the fact that as men and women we have equality in importance but difference in roles from the time that God created us (see discussion in chapter 22).
     [page 448] (14) Man is like God also in his relationship to the rest of creation. Specifically, man has been given the right to rule over the creation and when Christ returns will even be given authority to sit in judgment over angels (1 Cor. 6:3; Gen. 1:26, 28; Ps. 8:6-8). . . .

[page 449] 6. Our Great Dignity as Bearers of God's Image. It would be good for us to reflect on our likeness to God more often. It will probably amaze us to realize that when the Creator of the universe wanted to create something "in his image," something more like himself than all the rest of creation, he made us. This realization will give us a profound sense of dignity and significance as we reflect on the excellence of all the rest of God's creation: the starry universe, the abundant earth, the world of plants and animals, and the angelic kingdoms are remarkable, even magnificent. But we are more like our Creator than any of these things. We are the culmination of God's infinitely wise and skillful work of creation. Even though sin has greatly marred that likeness, we nonetheless now reflect much of it and shall even more as we grow in likeness to Christ. Yet we must remember that even fallen, sinful man has the status of being in

[page 450] God's image (see discussion of Gen. 9:6, above). Every single human being, no matter how much the image of God is marred by sin, or illness, or weakness, or age, or any other disability, still has the status of being in God's image and therefore must be treated with the dignity and respect that is due to God's image- bearer. This has profound implications for our conduct toward others. It means that people of every race deserve equal dignity and rights. It means that elderly people, those seriously ill, the mentally retarded, and children yet unborn, deserve full protection and honor as human beings. If we ever deny our unique status in creation as God's only image-bearers, we will soon begin to depreciate the value of human life, will tend to see humans as merely a higher form of animal, and will begin to treat others as such. We will also lose much of our sense of meaning in life.

For further reading:

"How Darwinism Contributed to Modern Views on Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia" <http://www.creationbc.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=128&Itemid=54>

Andrew Lansdown, "Differences between humans and animals" [pointed humour]. Creation, Vol. 17 No. 4 (Sep 1995), p. 45 <http://creation.com/differences-between-humans-and-animals>