All The King’s Men (and Women!): Humans as the Image of God

Excerpt from The Kingdom for the Kingless (buy at Amazon)

Coletta and I first met through Campus Crusade for Christ at Kent State University.  One of the things that drew us together was a love for music and we first served together on the worship team for the weekly meetings.

We both played guitar, but we had learned it in very different ways.  After a few years of teaching myself guitar, I had studied with a professional teacher for a while.  He had been very helpful, particularly in getting me to break me some bad habits I had picked up.  Coletta learned guitar from a friend who hadn’t been playing for all that long herself.  Unfortunately, while this friend taught her the basics, she also passed along some bad habits. 

By the time Coletta and I started playing together, these habits were deeply ingrained in her playing style. They proved very hard to unlearn and this has always deeply hampered her technical development.

In the same way that bad technical habits impede the development of skills, misunderstandings are often a significant obstacle to real learning.  Learning is never just the acquisition of new information.  We are not blank slates.  Everything we learn either adds to what we already know and believe or it replaces it.  Sometimes, genuine truth is rejected simply because it doesn’t fit with our already-established ways of thinking.

Consequently, sometimes developing a correct understanding of something can only be achieved after first demolishing our misunderstandings of it.

This is certainly the case when it comes to what it means to be made in the Image of God.   The idea of humans having been made in God’s Image looms large on the average Christian’s mental landscape, but it is often a façade, a massive but ultimately paper-thin edifice resting on an insignificant foundation.  We have heard it often enough, but what do these words from the very first chapter of Genesis mean?

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

(Genesis 1:26-28)

The first chapter of Genesis has been the source of a great deal of debate in evangelical Christianity.  Most of the debate centers around questions of how long ago the Creation took place and how long each of the “days” lasted.  These are important questions, but I believe such debates have overshadowed the more central purpose of Genesis.  There are actually two truths that Genesis 1 was composed to communicate to us.  First, God is the sovereign King of all.  Second, human beings are His representatives. 

The ways in which God’s sovereignty is described in Genesis 1 will be discussed in a moment, but for now it is sufficient to notice that God speaks things into existence.  What clearer sign of his sovereign power do we need.  However, the fact that we are intended to be His representatives is just as clear, implied by our having been made in the Image of God.  Unfortunately, this second truth is more easily overlooked by modern readers than it was to the original audience, because modern readers often hold to a distorted view of the Imago Dei.  We must first rid ourselves of our misunderstandings so that we can see what Scripture really says quite plainly.

What does it mean to have been made in the Image of God?  Most Christians hold to one of two views.[1]  Some say that the Image is something we have while others say that the Image is something we do.  The first is sometimes called the structural or the substantive view and the latter is often referred to as the functional view. 

Something We Have:  The Structural View


  Most Christians today understand the Image of God in a structural sense.  Those who hold to the structural view believe that the Image of God is something that human beings possess; in other words, the Image is something we have, usually identified as a particular human attribute or with a set of attributes. 

The structural view says that being made in the Image of God means that we are rational, relational, moral, emotional or have free will.  The structural view holds that it is one of these characteristics, or a combined set of such characteristics, which make us in the Image of God.  The structural view depends heavily on the idea that being the Image of God means that we are similar to God.  In other words, it is because we have these attributes that we are like God in certain respects and therefore have the Imago Dei. 

This is the most popular view of the Image of God in the Church today.  However, there are significant weaknesses to this view. 

Practically, this view struggles with what to make of human beings who do not seem to possess one or more of these attributes.  Consider the genuine sociopath who seems to possess no innate sense of morality.  Or, think about the unfortunate individual who was either born into, or has descended later in life into, a vegetative state in which rational thought, willpower or relational capacity seem to be nonexistent. 

If we hold to the view that being made in the Image of God means that we possess certain attributes, there can be only one of two valid responses to such individuals.  One option is to say that they only appear to be missing the attribute in question.  In other words, the person in the vegetative state is rational, but we are unable to observe this, and the sociopath does have an innate moral capacity but simply refuses to acknowledge it. 

Now, that may be true in some cases, but that doesn’t really solve the problem.  The severely retarded individual may, in fact, be rational, but we have no way really of knowing this.  The sociopath may be genuinely moral, struggling with a deeply repressed sense of guilt and anguish for their behavior, but there is no way to confirm or deny this fact. 

In light of this difficulty, some people choose the second option:  declaring that the Image of God is either not present in such handicapped individuals or is present, but to a lesser degree.  Following this reasoning to its logical conclusion, then, we would have to believe smarter people are more in the Image of God than others. 

Surely I do not need to waste any ink on the inherent danger of this idea.  This lays the groundwork for all sorts of horrors; from indiscriminate euthanasia to wide-scale genocide.

Besides, the Bible says that all human beings have been created in God’s Image.  There is no hint of degrees, either before the Fall, or after.

There is another difficulty with the structural view.  If being made in the Image of God means that we have a particular attribute or set of attributes, then what would we do if we found some non-human creature that had that same attribute or even the whole set of them?

Many behavioral scientists are quite confident that certain animals – dolphins, or chimpanzees, for instance – possess not only basic linguistic skills, but also the capacity for rational thought and abstract reasoning skills.  These matters are highly debated, of course, but the very existence of the debate is worth noting.

Let’s assume for a moment that some animals do possess one or more of these traits.  What does this mean for the structural view of the Image of God? 

Talking Apes?


When I am speaking on this topic to different audiences, I often begin the session by reading a fake newspaper article.  I don’t tell anyone it’s a fake, of course.  I just mention that I’ve found an interesting article and want to share it with everyone.  The gist of the article is that primatologists (scientists who study apes) have finally proven that chimpanzees have the capacity for abstract thought and can express it in language.  This is something that they’ve been studying for years, of course, but the evidence so far has been fairly ambivalent.  In the fake article, however, I indicate that they’ve finally made a real breakthrough and that the chimp’s capacity for rational thought and language usage is now a proven fact.

It is always interesting to see the reactions to this article.  Most Christians are immediately hostile skeptics.  They don’t believe it.  They have all sorts of reasons why the study was probably flawed.  Even those who aren’t obviously hostile to the idea are generally uncomfortable.

Why these reactions?  Because most people hold to the structuralist view which is threatened by the possibility of other creatures possessing these abilities.  The idea that animals may possess the same abilities that we do threatens our view of our own uniqueness.  Only human beings are made in the Image of God and the Image of God consists of these abilities, therefore only human beings can possess these attributes. 

Of course, we can always argue either that only humans possess the entire set of attributes or, that only humans have them to the extent that we do.  But do we really want to suggest that humans are made in the Image of God only by virtue of the greater degree to which we possess a particular set of attributes?  Doing so takes us right back to saying that some people must be more the Image of God than others.

Now, this is may appear to be only a theoretical difficulty, since it is difficult to settle the question of whether or not certain animals really possess any or all of these abilities. 

However, let me suggest one word that will clearly show that the structural view isn’t out of the woods yet:  angels.  One has only to look to angels to find that the difficulty we’re talking about here is not entirely theoretical.  To the best of my knowledge, angels – and presumably demons as well – possess each and every attribute that is thought by the structuralist view, to constitute the Image of God in humans.  It might even be argued that they not only possess them all, but, in some instances, possess them to a greater degree than we do.  And yet, angels are never described as having been made in the Image of God.  In Scripture, this designation is reserved exclusively for human beings.

Something We Do:  The Functional View


Recognizing these difficulties with the structural understanding of the Image of God, some people have opted for a functional view.  In this view, the Image of God is not something that humans have, but something that human beings do

What is it we do that makes us the Image of God?  Several options have been suggested,[2] but the most common is the task of ruling and subduing the earth, since this is directly referred to in Genesis 1:26-28.

The functional view of the Image of God has at least two things in its favor. 

First, if the Image of God is ever clearly explained in Scripture, we would expect it to be here in Genesis.   The only apparent candidate for such an explanation is this notion of ruling, subduing, multiplying and filling. 

Second, the functional view also avoids the potential difficulty of discovering that other creatures, either natural or supernatural, possess the traits discussed above. According to the functional view it is not the traits themselves which constitute the Image, but rather the task for which these capacities are to be used.  Two different people can have the ability to kick a field goal, but only one player is designated as the kicker.

Unfortunately, the functional view ultimately suffers many of the same sorts of difficulties faced by the structural view.   If we identify the Image of God as an action such as ruling, then what happens to the Image of God when we are not performing that action?  What of individuals who, for various reasons are simply incapable of performing that action?  Shall we say that those who rule and subdue the earth with great vigor are more the Image of God than those who, for a variety of reasons, do so with less vigor or not at all? 

Again, the Bible does not seem to allow this option.  According to the Scriptures, every human being has been made in God’s Image and there is no talk of degrees.

So where does that leave us?  As is so often the case, I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between the extremes.  Both the structural and the functional views are at least partially correct in their basic arguments, but they do not seem to have captured the whole picture.

The Representation View


To be made in the Image of God is partly something that we have and partly something that we do.  These two pieces are inextricably intertwined.  God has given us certain capacities because of what we have been made to do and we are able to do what we do because of those capacities that we have been given.  In that sense, both the structural and the functional views are correct.  However, rather than thinking of the Image of God as either something we have or something we do, I think we are much closer to the biblical concept when we speak of the Image of God as something that we are.

None of our various attributes constitute the Image of God.  Neither does any particular task we have been assigned by God to do.  These are all secondary considerations.  I believe that the Image of God is something more basic and fundamental:  The Image of God is what we have been made to be.

Individuals who lack certain attributes may be handicapped in their ability to perform their duties, so to speak, but this inability does not in any way change their innate status as the Image of God.  At the same time, it is not all that troubling to find other creatures, be they chimpanzees or archangels, who possess some or even all of these basic capacities.  It is not the capacities themselves which constitute the Image. The capacities are simply the attributes which are necessary for us to fulfill our purpose.

And what is this purpose?  Simply put, it is this:  we have been made to serve as God’s representatives in creation.

The Intentions of the Artist


Imagine that a sculptor sets himself to the task of making sculptures of Abraham Lincoln.  For one he uses wax and creates the most life-like sculpture that he can produce, painting the wax with realistic flesh-tones.  For another he uses marble.  This sculpture is also life-like, but the artist doesn’t paint it, so the sculpture remains basically white, though mottled by darker grains.  For the third, the artist chooses to do a porcelain bust of Lincoln and artificially accentuates certain of Lincoln’s facial features.  Perhaps most of Lincoln’s facial features are only vaguely represented, but the eyes are sculpted in full relief and rendered with a downward, humble look.  The fourth work is an abstract piece:  a big block of sandstone with the classic Lincoln top hat.

Now, which of these is a sculpture of Lincoln? 

The answer, of course, is all four.  The more life-like wax sculpture is not more of a sculpture of Lincoln than the marble statue sandstone cube.  These are all sculptures of Lincoln. 

Why?  How can four works with such different appearances all be sculptures of Abraham Lincoln?  Because a sculpture is a representation of something and it is the artist’s purpose in creating such sculptures which determines what they are.  In other words, it is the artist’s intention which imparts to the objects their status as sculpture.  The medium is irrelevant, as is the particular design.  When my daughters were very young and drew pictures of me I didn’t look at them and say “that’s not me!”  I might have thought to myself “that doesn’t look much like me!” (though I would never have said this), but at no point did I think “that is not a representation of me.”  Those drawings were representations of me regardless of what they looked like.  Why? Because the little artists intended them to be representations of me.

Now, returning to our Abraham Lincoln-obsessed sculptor, suppose all of his statues are on display in a museum and a fire breaks out.  None of the sculptures is destroyed, but all are seriously damaged by the blaze.  The marble statue breaks, losing an arm.  The wax sculpture gets too hot and partially melts.  The porcelain bust becomes charred and discolored. The sandstone blackens, cracks and distorts a bit.

Now which of these objects is a representation of Lincoln? 

The answer, of course, is that they are all still representations of Lincoln.  The fire may have distorted the degree to which they manifest their creator’s original vision.  The damage may even have undermined their ability to be recognized for what they are by observers.  None of this, however, changes what they are.  They were, and remain, sculptures, representations, of Lincoln.  Damaged or intact, that is what they will always be.

Of course, it would be perfectly fair to ask how we would recognize these objects as sculptures of Lincoln.  At this point, the various ways in which the statue represents their subject become important.  Perhaps they depict the ubiquitous top hat.  Maybe they all sport the scraggly beard.  Perhaps they pay particular attention to the structure of his facial features.  All of these are characteristics were given to the sculptures so that they could serve their basic purpose.  However, these characteristics are not what make these objects representations of Lincoln.  Other sculptures may have a top hat or scraggly beard without having anything to do with Lincoln. 

Again, the key issue is not the attributes of his work or even the degree to which his work accomplishes the artist’s goals.  The defining issue…that which makes the sculpture’s representations of Abraham Lincoln…is the artist’s intention for them. 

We Are The Image


In much the same way, we are the Image of God regardless of the characteristics we possess, the degree to which we possess them or the extent to which we fulfill the particular purpose for which God has made us and endowed us with certain attributes.  We are the Image of God because that is what we were made to be.  Nothing can change the basic fact that we have been made to be the Image of God. 

This may seem surprising, but that is only because we have learned some bad habits of thinking about this subject.  This is illustrated, in part, by the fact that we often use inappropriate verbs in talking about the Image of God.  We often say that human beings “reflect” the Image or that we “bear” the Image, but you will never find such notions in the Bible.  Rather, what you will find are verbs of being:


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

(1 Corinthians 11:7)

This is also true in those verses where we find Jesus described as the perfect Image of God:


He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

(Colossians 1:15)

The closest that the Bible comes to speaking of human beings bearing or reflecting the Image in some way is when it says that we were made “in the Image” (Gen. 1:26-27, 9:6).  However, the word “in” in these cases is derived from two different Hebrew prepositions, neither of which must be translated in this particular way.  A perfectly acceptable, and I believe better, translation of this Hebrew preposition is “as”:  Let us make man as our Image/For man has been made as the Image of God.

Again, I realize that this may sound presumptuous.  Somehow, it seems less arrogant to think of having, bearing or reflecting the Image than to speak of being the Image.  However, that is precisely how God’s Word describes us.

Part of the problem is that the English word “image” implies something that is not necessarily intended by the original Hebrew and Greek words.  The English word “image” implies similarity…something that looks quite a bit like the original, but that is not necessarily the case with the Hebrew and Greek terms.  The original words were less concerned with ideas of reproduction and more concerned with ideas of representation

The Importance of Our Bodies


Let me ask you this:  what is the one thing that humans possess which no other creatures do?  Think about it for a moment.

Chances are good that you have thought of the soul or spirit.  In fact, this is often one of the candidates put forth by structuralist view as being the critical attribute which makes us the Image of God.  It is true that human beings possess a soul/spirit[3] and other animals do not, but of course angels have spirits as well.  In fact, they are spirits!  So, it cannot be that our role as the Image of God depends on our having souls.

Actually, there is no one thing which the human being possesses but which no other creature has.  However, there is one particular combination of things which makes us unique from all other creatures:  we are embodied spirits.  We have an immaterial spirit that is contained within a physical body.  Animals apparently do not have souls and angels do not have bodies.[4]  Only human beings occupy this particular niche in Creation.

Our bodies are an integral part of our role as the Image of God. To be made in the Image of God is intimately connected to our physical nature

Now, I am aware that many people will have an immediate negative reaction to this statement.  However, this is a thoroughly biblical concept. In fact, I believe this is really the only way to understand the notion of the Image of God.  To do otherwise is to do severe injustice to the basic interpretive principles of reading in context, and understanding words according to their common meaning within the rest of Scripture.

The Hebrew words for “image” and “likeness” in Genesis 1:26-28 are used frequently throughout the Bible.  They are not rare, though their use in relationship to human beings is somewhat limited.  These words always have one basic meaning: a physical representation of someone/something, often of something or someone with power or authority. 

In fact, the Hebrew words translated as “image” and “likeness”  (ts’lem and de’mot, if you’re interested) are often used in the Bible to designate idols.  Now, what could that possibly have to do with us?  Idols are statues that people worship in stead of worshipping the true God, right?

Well, not exactly.  We often suffer from a serious case of what I call temporal snobbery; that is, we often think, because we live later in history, that we are the intellectual superiors of the “primitives” that lived in ancient times.  The notion of idol worship seems to cement our opinion of them.  What could be more primitive than worshipping statues and figurines?  How could anyone think that a statue made by human hands was worthy of worship?

The answer to that question is:  they didn’t; didn’t think that the statues themselves were worthy of worship, that is.  Rather, what they thought was that the statues were physical representations of gods or spirit beings who demanded worship.

  From the human vantage point, idols were a means of representing the gods, of providing a focal point for the worship of them.  From the vantage point of the gods and goddesses, idols were a means of manifesting[5] their presence in the physical world.  In other words, the idols served as an intermediary between the spirits and the physical world.  As physical objects imbued with spiritual significance (and sometimes power) the idols were thought to be a juxtaposition between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Now whenever I teach this, one of the immediate questions that arises is this:  are you telling me that people didn’t worship idols? 

The answer to that question is both yes and no.  Keep in mind that the most important Biblical words for worship, both in Greek and Hebrew, refer to the literal act of bowing in submission. So, yes, they built shrines around the idols and bowed down before them.  In this respect, they certainly did worship the idols.[6]  However, these acts of worship were not directed to the statues themselves, but to the spirits who were thought to stand behind them, so to speak, and manifest their presence in the world through them.   So, no, they did not worship the idols so much as the gods and goddesses that the various idols represented.

They didn’t think the statues were gods themselves. 

It would also be inaccurate to suggest that the shape of the idols was thought to reflect the literal appearance of the gods they represented.  Rather, an idol was fashioned in such a way as to symbolically represent some aspect or aspects of a deity’s character.  The Hindu goddess Vishnu, for instance, is usually depicted with at least four arms, not because the Hindis believe she has four literal arms, but because the arms represent Vishnu’s supposed influence over multiple realms.[7] 

The shape of the idol was of secondary importance.  In fact, the very idol itself was of only limited importance.  It was the unseen spirits themselves that were thought to be worthy of worship.  But, ancient people believed that these gods used these idols to manifest their presence to the world.  They were a focus of worship, but the figures themselves were not intrinsically worthy of worship.  They were valuable because they were a means by which the gods supposedly mediated or manifested their presence in the world.

So, some of the Hebrew and Greek words for “idol” are the also used to describe human beings as being God’s Image.


Because God made for the same purpose:  to represent God in creation and manifest His presence here.  We are the physical representatives of God in creation.  We were made to be this and we remain this.  We will always be this…in fact, that’s why the separation of soul and body at death must be a temporary thing.  We exist as disembodied spirits only for a time until our souls are reunited with our glorified and resurrected bodies:

In this way also is the resurrection of the dead;  sown in weakness, raised in imperishability; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power, sown an unspiritual body, raised a spiritual body.  If there is an unspiritual body, there is also a spiritual one.

(1 Corinthians 15:42-44)


Blessed and holy is the one who has a place in the first resurrection.  Over them the second death will have no authority, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

(Revelation 20:6)

One of the common misconceptions that I encounter about heaven is that we will be some sort of disembodied spirits, floating around in the presence of God.  This is not what the Bible teaches.  Scripture is very clear that at Jesus’ return we will be given new physical bodies.  Why?  Because without them, we cannot do what we were made to do.


Kingdom Assignments

And what, exactly, is it that we were made to do?  We see hints of it in Revelation 20:6 quoted above.  Do you see the two things there that we’re told we will do with Christ at his return?  We will be “priests of God and of Christ” and we will “reign with him for a thousand years.”

These two functions may be described as mediation/manifestation and representation.

As priests, we will be mediators.  Mediation means that we will serve as a means by which God manifests His presence in the world.  During the Millennium, God will demonstrate His presence, His character and His will to the rest of the world, in part, through believers.  That we will be priests also implies that we will serve as go-betweens for the unbelievers and for God.  This was the basic role of a priest in the Old Testament.  At that time, priests made the sacrifices and interceded before God for the people.  They were the go-betweens.  During the Millennium, all believers will serve in this role, although, of course, there will be no need of sacrifices.

However, we will not be simple priests.  We will be royal priests, for we will also reign with Him.  Now this presents an interesting question, for I take it to be self-evident that God does not, indeed cannot, actually share His throne with anyone.  So in what sense can we reign with Him? 

I take this to mean that we serve as representatives of God, royal ambassadors[8] who carry out the will of their King, and who also have been delegated some of His authority and power for that purpose.  The term “ambassador” is perhaps not quite strong enough since this passage and others like it seem to imply something more similar to regency.  An ambassador simply represents the interest of another.  A regent, on the other hand, is one who actually rules an area in the name of a greater authority.

In Genesis 1, God’s absolute sovereignty is expressed in two ways. 

First, God speaks and His word is carried out:

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

(Genesis 1:1)


This pattern is repeated ten times in the first chapter of Genesis and is a clear portrayal of God’s role as the ultimate sovereign.  When most people want something to happen, what do they have to do?  They have to work hard to get it done.  Who gets things done just by commanding that they be done?  Only those with great power and authority.  That all of creation sprang into existence at God’s spoken command is an indication of His absolute sovereignty.  

Second, God’s sovereignty is expressed in His right to name things, or in some cases, to re-name things, as we see Him doing throughout Scripture:

“No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations.”

(Genesis 17:5)

And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

(Matthew 16:17-18)

  In the Ancient Near East, names were extremely important.  Names were believed to have power.  That is one of the reasons that the Hebrew people didn’t speak God’s name aloud.  To do could easily have been understood as an attempt to exercise control over God.  At the very least, it would have been seen as extremely disrespectful, like a teenager meeting the president of the United States and calling him “Georgie.” 

Even modern American culture retains a hint of this respect for names.  Children are generally expected to address adults as “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Swanson” rather than use their first names.  Unless given permission to do otherwise, college students address the faculty by their titles, like Professor or Doctor.  So, even in our extremely casual culture, we have some remnant of this belief that the way we use peoples’ names has something to do with their rank in society relative to our own.  In the same way, but to a much higher degree, in the Hebrew culture, names were closely associated with rank and power.

Consequently, the greatest sign of rank was the ability to determine names.  Children don’t give names to parents.  Parents, who have authority over children, determine what their names will be.  The ability to name something is indicative of our authority over it.  And so it is that in Genesis 1, God’s right to name everything in creation is an intentional portrayal of His sovereignty over everything.

Now, here’s where things get interesting.  Having made Adam to be His representative in creation, God gave Adam a specific task.  Do you remember what it was?

Adam’s first act as the Imago Dei was to name the animals:

Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.

(Genesis 2:19)

God’s willingness to allow Adam the right to name His creation is an expression of the fact that God has delegated His royal authority to him.  Not all of it, of course, for we are not  co-equal with God by any stretch of the imagination.  What Adam was, however, was a regent:  one appointed to rule via the delegated power and authority of the higher sovereign.

Of course, this should come as no surprise, since this is precisely what God Himself expressed as His purpose for human beings:

“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

(Genesis 1:26)

We rule not by our own authority, of course, but on the basis of delegated authority.

This is the purpose of human existence.  This is what we were made to be: God’s representatives in creation, delegated whatever power, ability, authority and characteristics are necessary to function in this capacity.

This does not necessarily mean that we are the only beings God has made to represent Him.  In fact, angels are frequently depicted in Scripture as functioning in this capacity.  So we are not necessarily God’s only representatives.  However, we are the only physical representatives.

Think about it for a moment.  If the United States needed to send an ambassador to China, what qualifications would we look for?  Loyalty and trustworthiness would certainly be important.  Having a sound grasp of U.S. policy and interests would be critical as well.  Other qualities such as intelligence, wisdom and charisma would probably be important considerations also.  But say we had two candidates who were virtually equal in all these respects.  How would we choose between them?  It might be difficult, but say one of them spoke fluent Chinese and the other did not.  Furthermore, what if that one was of Chinese ancestry?  Leaving aside any possible loyalty issues, is the choice so difficult anymore? 

Of course not.  The best ambassadors are the ones who are most able to relate to their constituents.  And we are always able to relate best to those who are like us in important ways.  So, when God created the physical universe, what better representatives could He fashion than those who were like Him in some respects but who also like the creation?  Simply put, a physical world needs physical ambassadors.  Of course, God didn’t “select” us to be His ambassadors, as though He had to choose between several candidates.  He made us uniquely for this purpose.

To be made in God’s Image, then, is inherently connected to being physical.  That is why the very words God chose to use in describing us are terms typically found describing other kinds of physical representations.   I believe this is also part of why we are forbidden to make physical images of God…because we are the physical representations of God[9].  Not, of course, in the sense that we actually look like God, but in the sense that we are embodied spirits intended to represent Him, to mediate His presence, in the creation. 

As such, we have been delegated capacities and assigned duties by which to represent Him.  We cannot fulfill our purpose without rational thought, emotional ability, relational capacity, etc… nor can we fulfill our purpose without ruling and subduing the creation over which we were made stewards.  The Fall, with all its accompanying dysfunctions, has kept us from fulfilling our purpose, in part because it has radically impacted both our capacities and the uses to which we put them.  To return to our sculpture analogy, however, these are simply the means by which our status as the Image of God is recognizable, The extent to which we possess such capacities and things we use them for do not affect our innate status as God’s Image.

The Image & The Fall


Though the word “Kingdom” does not occur in the first chapter of Genesis, the concept is actually a central feature.  For in the opening scene of the great drama of God’s eternal plan for humanity, we learn that we were made to function in His Image, as His physical representatives in creation.  In order to do this, we were made both like God and like the world in which we are to be His ambassadors.

The great tragedy, of course, is that we have “gone native.”  Abandoning our intended role as God’s representatives in the world, we have chosen to live for the creation, rather than for  the Creator.  Is it any wonder, then, that God sees sin in such a harsh light?  Sin is not just rebellion, it is high treason against the very King in whose Image we were made!

How exactly did the Fall affect the Image of God?  We have already seen that our status as the Image of God rests entirely on God’s intention for us.  As such, the Image was not lost at the Fall.  The fact that God continues to refer to post-Fall human beings as His Image clearly illustrates this fact:

“Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.”

(Genesis 9:6)

For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God;

(1 Corinthians 11:7)

The Fall did not cause us to cease to be the Image of God.  However, it has certainly affected the way we function as God’s ambassadors.  Simply put, we do not represent God well.  Our lives no longer clearly reflect our King’s character and will.

In part, this is due to the fact that sin has broken our relationship with God.  When Adam and Eve sinned, they were banished from the Garden and from the intimate fellowship they had enjoyed with their Creator.  With broken relationships come broken lines of communication.  We are like ambassadors who can no longer call home.  We don’t know how to function as representatives because we don’t know what our King is like and we can’t find out.

In Christ, of course, this all changes.  Jesus said:

“You are My friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.”

(John 15:14-15)

Obviously, if we are Jesus’ friends only so long as we obey his commands, then Jesus does not have in mind the same kind of friendship that we might immediately think of.  In what sense are we his friends?  In the sense that we are no longer slaves.  Slaves are expected to do what their master commands.  The master has absolutely no obligation to explain his commands or let the slaves know how their work fits into the big picture.  But here, Jesus calls us friends because he is making the Father’s plans known to us.  We have been brought into God’s circle of confidence.

As we come to understand the King and His plans for the Kingdom, we grow more and more able to function effectively as His Image.  This is, at least partially, what is meant when Paul speaks of Christians being transformed into the Image of Christ:

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image…

(2 Corinthians 3:18)

Jesus is said to be the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) because he is the perfect illustration of what God is like.  He is God incarnate.  At the same time, though, he is fully human and, as such, he is the perfect role model of what were made to be.  As we grow in Christlikeness, we become more effective in fulfilling our God-ordained purpose.  Call it transformational restoration.  Like an old portrait restored to its former glory by the careful attention of an expert, in Christ, we are transformed from what we have become to what we once were.  And who better to restore a work of art than the original Artist.

The Fall tarnished every aspect of our ability to represent God.  Our intellect, our relationships, our emotions, and everything else have been tainted by sin.  Our bodies as well, that aspect of our makeup that allows us to represent God in creation, have been radically affected by the Fall.  The ultimate consequence of our sin is death (Gen. 2:17).  Death is both physical and spiritual.  Spiritually, we are separated from God who is the source of all life.  Physically, our bodies break down and our souls are left homeless…until the resurrection.

The Fall has also affected the world over which we were given regency.  From this understanding about human nature we begin to see why there is such evil rampant in the world today.  We are not mere citizens in rebellion, we are apostate ambassadors, renegade regents.  Think of it this way:  an American tourist wandering around Beijing can do some damage.  Insensitivity and arrogance on the part of such an individual can give some Chinese a negative impression of the United States.  That’s not good, of course, but the damage is limited.  But what if that same insensitivity and arrogance came from the U.S. ambassador to China?  Now the damage is far worse.  In the same way, the abilities and even the authority delegated to us by the King have put us in a position to do tremendous harm, to one another and to our world.  Why God has not chosen to strip us of our rank and divest us of the privileges of that position is an enduring mystery to me, but He has not.  In many ways we are like small children with power tools; we have great potential, but the uses to which we put it usually precipitate disaster.



We were made to represent the King and His Kingdom.  As we have seen in this chapter, such a notion is to be found in the very first words of Holy Scripture.  And, it remains a central theme right up to the last words of John’s Revelation.  If anything, this theme is intensified in the New Testament.

[1]  For a review of all of the major interpretive options, see D.J.A. Clines, “The Image of God,” Tyndale Bulletin (1968), 19:53-103.

[2]  Most recently, Stanley Grenz has popularized the idea that we are the Image of God because we form relationships with God and one another (Theology For the Community of God [Nashville:  Broadman & Holman, 1994]).  Grenz actually classifies this as a view distinct from the structural and the functional view, but I think it can fairly be understood as a sub-set of the functional view.

[3] I consider the words “soul” and “spirit” to be technically synonymous.  It is true that 1Th. 5:23 and Heb. 4:12 seem to speak of body, soul and spirit as three distinct elements, but they appear to do so in a non-technical sense; that is, these appear to be statements couched in the common vernacular. In every other case where “spirit” and “soul” occur together, speaking of the human constitution, they are clearly synonymous terms used for stylistic variation (Cf. 1Sa. 1:15, Job 7:11, Isa. 26:9).

[4] True, angels may manifest themselves on occasion in physical form, but they do not possess bodies in their natural state.   In the same way, human spirits live on after death, awaiting the resurrection, but again this is not their natural state.

[5]  That is, a means by which the gods and goddesses made their presence known and felt in the physical world.

[6] And the physical idols themselves were often greatly revered, much like the ancient Hebrews sometimes revered the Ark of the Covenant, even going so far as to think that God could be manipulated into acting so as to save His holy object from capture by the Philistines (cf. 1 Samuel 4).

[7]   The precise identification of these four realms varies considerably.  Sometimes they are thought to be the four realms of space.  Sometimes they are thought to be the four stages of human life (Ashrams) or the four aims of life (Purusharthas).  Other interpreters speak of two of the arms symbolizing her control over the physical world and the other two symbolizing her control over the spiritual world.  In some cases, Vishnu is depicted with even more arms in order to symbolize her even wider sphere of influence.

[8]  For a thorough treatment of Christians as ambassadors of God and Christ, see Anthony Bash,  Ambassadors for Christ (Tubingen:  J.C.B. Mohr, 1997).

[9] Another important reason for the prohibition seems to be the fact that casting “graven images” of God would lead naturally to conceiving of God in similar terms to other, pagan deities.  One of the constant struggles the Israelites faced was the temptation to think of God as one among many, rather than as the only, absolutely unique God.