Image of God

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"Imago Dei" redirects here. For the liberal arts college, see Imago Dei College.

The Image of God (Hebrew: צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים; tzelem elohim, lit. "image of God", "image of the Holy Spirit", often appearing in Latin as Imago Dei) is a real image, concept and theological doctrine in Christianity, Judaism[1] and Sufi Islam,[2][3] which asserts that human beings are created in God's image and therefore have inherent value independent of their utility or function.

Biblical sources[edit]

Hebrew Bible[edit]

The phrase "image of God" is found in three passages in the Hebrew Bible, all in the Book of Genesis (1-11):

Gen 1:26–28

And God said: Let Us make mankind in our image/b’tsalmeinu, as our likeness/kid’muteinu. And they will have dominion over [the animals]…․And God created humankind in His image/b’tsalmo, in God's image/tselem He created him, male and female He created them. And God blessed them and God said to them: Be fruitfull and multiply, and fill the land and occupy it, and have dominion over the sea’s fish and the skies’ bird and every animal crawling over the land.

Gen 5:1–3

This is the book of Adam’s generations: On the day God created Mankind, in God's likeness/d’mut He created him; male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and called their name Adam in the day of their being created. And Adam (Man) lived a hundred and thirty years and bore in his likeness/bid’muto like his image/k’tsalmo and called his name Seth.

Gen 9:6

One who spills the blood of man, through/by man, his blood will be spilled, for in God's image/tselem He made man.

Post-biblical sources[edit]

The phrase appears in a few post-Biblical Jewish sources dating from the 4th to 1st centuries BCE (the Wisdom of Solomon 2:23, Ben Sirach 17:3, and 2 Esdras 8:24), and then in various New Testament texts of the 1st and early 2nd centuries CE. Among these, only two, 1 Corinthians 11:7 and Epistle of James 3:9, speak of human creation in God's image, while the rest speak either of Christ as the image of God or of the salvific renewal of the image of God in the Church.


There have been many interpretations of the idea of God's image from ancient times until today, and Biblical scholars still have no consensus about the meaning of the term. The remainder of this article focuses on Christian interpretations of the term.

To assert that humans are created in the image of God may mean to recognize some special qualities of human nature which allow God to be made manifest in humans. For humans to have a conscious recognition of having been made in the image of God may mean that they are aware of being that part of the creation through whom God's plans and purposes best can be expressed and actualized; humans, in this way, can interact creatively with the rest of creation. The moral implications of the doctrine of Imago Dei are apparent in the fact that, if humans are to love God, then humans must love other humans whom God has created (cf. John 13:35), as each is an expression of God. The human likeness to God can also be understood by contrasting it with that which does not image God, i.e., beings who, as far as we know, are without this spiritual self-awareness and the capacity for spiritual / moral reflection and growth. We may say that humans differ from all other creatures because of the self-reflective, rational nature of their thought processes - their capacity for abstract, symbolic as well as concrete deliberation and decision-making. This capacity gives the human a centeredness and completeness which allows the possibility for self-actualization and participation in a sacred reality (cf. Acts 17:28). However, despite the fact that according to this concept the human is created in God's image, the Creator granted the first true humans a freedom to reject a relationship with the Creator that manifested itself in estrangement from God, as the narrative of the Fall (Adam and Eve) exemplifies, thereby rejecting or repressing their spiritual and moral likeness to God. The ability and desire to love one's self and others, and therefore God, can become neglected and even opposed. The desire to repair the Imago Dei in one's life can be seen as a quest for a wholeness, or one's "essential" self, as described and exemplified in Christ's life and teachings. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus acted to repair the relationship with the Creator and freely offers the resulting reconciliation as a gift.[4]

New Testament and Christian insights into the image of God[edit]

The Bible states that Jesus Christ is the visible image of God in Hebrews 1:3

  • "God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds. 3 His Son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance"

Also in Colossians 1:13-15:

  • "and translated us into the Kingdom of the Son of his love; 14 in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins; 15 who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation."

Also in 1 Corinthians 11:7

  • 7 "For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is God's image and glory; but the woman is the glory of the man."

Also in Romans 8:29

  • 29 "Because those whom He foreknew, He also predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the Firstborn among many brothers";

Also in 2 Corinthians 3:18

  • 18 "But we all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit".

And also in 2 Corinthians 4:4-7:

  • "that the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn on them. 5 For we don’t preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake; 6 seeing it is God who said, “Light will shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."

For the past 2,000 years, theologians have examined the difference between the concepts of the "image of God" and the "likeness of God" in human nature. Origen viewed the image of God as something given at creation, while the likeness of God as something bestowed upon a person at a later time. The theologian Irenaeus made a distinction between God’s image and his likeness by pointing to Adam’s supernatural endowment bestowed upon him by the Spirit. As Irenaeus’ view progressed, what eventually arose was:

The image was the human’s natural resemblance to God, the power of reason and will. The likeness was a donum superadditum—a divine gift added to basic human nature. This likeness consisted of the moral qualities of God, whereas the image involved the natural attributes of God. When Adam fell, he lost the likeness, but the image remained fully intact. Humanity as humanity was still complete, but the good and holy being was spoiled.[5]

The image of God and the likeness are similar, but at the same time they are different. The image is just that, mankind is made in the image of God, whereas the likeness is a spiritual attribute of the moral qualities of God.[5]

Medieval theologians made a distinction between the image and likeness of God. The former referred to a natural, innate resemblance to God and the latter referred to the moral attributes (God’s attributes) that were lost in the fall.[6]

However, the medieval distinction between the "image" and "likeness" of God has largely been abandoned by modern interpreters. According to C. John Collins:

Since about the time of the Reformation, scholars have recognized that this [image/likeness distinction] does not suit the text itself. First, there is no "and" joining "in our image" with "after our likeness." Second, in Genesis 1:27 we find simply "in God's image"; and finally, in Genesis 5:1 God made man "in the likeness of God." The best explanation for these data is to say that "in the image" and "after the likeness" refer to the same thing, with each clarifying the other.[7]

Clarification: 'Image and likeness' is a 'Hebrewism'. It is common in speech and writing to repeat an idea using two different words to give reinforcement to the given idea. In this case the author did not intend to distract us from the idea but rather to insert a focal point. Ancient Hebrew texts are all capital letters with no punctuation, the understanding of common speech was extremely important. Many 'Hebrewisms' were not recognized by translators, so the idea they portray in their translation is often skewed or wrong. (For instance, notice the way Christ speaks to Mary at the wedding of Cana in John 2:4. Christ used a 'Hebrewism' in response to his mother that would have been better translated "yes, I know", instead the translator does the best he can and comes away with... "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" which of course paints a picture of Christ's "displeasure concerning HIS mother" that truly is not there.)

Three ways of understanding Imago Dei[edit]

In Christian theology there are three common ways of understanding the manner in which humans exist in Imago Dei: Substantive, Relational and Functional.[8][9]


The substantive view holds to the idea that there are some similar characteristics between the human race and God. Some may argue that we are a mirror image of God's essential nature. Other substantive views suggest a spiritual commonality with God, God being a spirit and not having a physical body. Throughout the ages there have been different interpretations of substantive likeness to God. Irenaeus put forward a distinctive difference between image and likeness. Humankind before the fall (the moral and spiritual failure of its original progenitors) was in the image of God through the ability to exercise free will and reason. And we were in the likeness of God through an original spiritual endowment. Medieval scholars suggested that this was the holiness (or "wholeness") of humankind which was lost after the fall, though free will and reason remained. Calvin and Luther agreed that something of the Imago Dei was lost at the fall but that fragments of it remained in some form or another, although Luther's Large Catechism article 114 states, "Man lost the image of God when he fell into sin."


The relational view argues that one must be in a relationship with God in order to possess the ‘image’ of God. Those who hold to the relational image agree that humankind possess the ability to reason as a substantive trait, but they argue that it is in a relationship with God that the true image is made evident. Later theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner argue that it is our ability to establish and maintain complex and intricate relationships that make us like God. For example, in humans the created order of male and female is intended to culminate in spiritual as well as physical unions Genesis 5:1-2, reflecting the nature and image of God. Since other creatures do not form such explicitly referential spiritual relationships, these theologians see this ability as uniquely representing the imago dei in humans.


This third view differs from the previous two in that it argues that the image of God imprinted on us resides in function rather than in form or relationship, this function being primarily our task of ruling over earth. Genesis 1:26 speaks of humankind being made in the image of God and given the function of naming and ruling over the fish of the sea and the animals on land, reflecting God’s rule over all the universe, ourselves included. This view sees this ruling function of dominion as best expressing the imago dei, or our likeness to God.

Imago Dei and human rights[edit]

The Imago Dei concept had a very strong influence on the creation of human rights. English philosopher John Locke derived the principle of human equality, including the equality of the genders ("Adam and Eve"), from Genesis 1,26-28, the starting-point of the Imago Dei doctrine. According to Locke, one of the consequences of basic human equality is that, as all humans are created equally free, governments need the consent of the governed.[10] Both Lockean concepts became central to the United States Declaration of Independence, which also deduced its human rights - equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, among others - from the biblical belief in creation: "All men are created equal, ... they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ..." The human rights of the Declaration of Independence were theonomous ideas.[11] This important document, together with the United States Constitution and the (American) Bill of Rights, became the model for the political constitutions of numerous countries throughout the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also echoes the human-rights principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence and in the political thought of John Locke.[12][13][14]

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ An article by Michael Novak[1]
  2. ^ Bukhari, Isti’zan, 1; Muslim, Birr, 115, Muslim, Jannah, 28.
  3. ^ Yahya Michot: "The image of God in humanity from a Muslim perspective" in Norman Solomon, Richard Harries and Tim Winte (ed.): Abraham’s Children: Jews, Christians and Muslims in conversation p. 163-74. New York 2005, T&T Clark.
  4. ^ General Term: Imago Dei ("image of God")
  5. ^ a b Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 522.
  6. ^ Gerhard Wehemeier, "Deliverance and Blessing in the Old and New Testament," Indian Journal of Theology 20 (1971): 30-42.
  7. ^ Collins, C. John, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 62.
  8. ^ Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1994), 498-510.
  9. ^ Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001), 172-175.
  10. ^ Jeremy Waldron (2002), God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-89057-1, pp. 21-43, 136
  11. ^ W. Wertenbruch, Menschenrechte, in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3. Auflage, Band IV (1960), Tübingen (Germany), col. 869-870
  12. ^ D. K. Stevenson (1987), American Life and Institutions, Stuttgart (Germany), p. 34
  13. ^ Ulrich Scheuner, Menschenrechte, in Evangelisches Soziallexikon, 3. Auflage (1958), Stuttgart (Germany), col. 717-718
  14. ^ W. Wertenbruch, Menschenrechte, in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3. Auflage, Band IV, col. 870-872
  15. ^ Library Thing: The Personhood of God