That’s a great question — and one that’s impossible to cover completely in our limited space here. We’d have to get into the original Hebrew and take a deep look at how the image of God (imago Dei, in Latin) is handled in the Old and New Testaments.
Instead, we’ll point you to someone who’s done just that: pastor John Piper. Take some time to read his article The Image of God: An Approach From Biblical and Systematic Theology for a comprehensive study of what it means for humans to be created in God’s image.
In the meantime, we’re glad to offer a succinct overview.
What is the imago Dei?
We believe the image of God is not so much something that man has as something that man is. Humankind was created to be a graphic image of the Creator — a formal, visible, and understandable representation of who God is and what He’s really like. Piper writes,
The imago Dei is not a quality possessed by man; it is a condition in which man lives, a condition of confrontation established and maintained by the Creator. … The imago Dei is that in man which constitutes him as him-whom-God-loves.
Did sin remove the image of God?
No. Man’s fall into sin didn’t destroy or remove the image of God. It disfigured it.
The New Testament confirms that God’s image isn’t lost by pointing out that all people, not just Christians, “are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9, ESV).
So, what was the effect of sin when it comes to the image of God in man? As theologian Wayne Grudem explains,
Since man has sinned, he is certainly not as fully like God as he was before. His moral purity has been lost and his sinful character certainly does not reflect God’s holiness. His intellect is corrupted by falsehood and misunderstanding; his speech no longer continually glorifies God; his relationships are often governed by selfishness rather than love, and so forth. Though man is still in the image of God, in every aspect of life some parts of that image have been distorted or lost (Systematic Theology, p. 444, emphasis added).
The image of God is what makes man human; man could not lose the image without ceasing to be what he is. Moreover, it’s only because man keeps his image of God — even in a broken or distorted form — that man is redeemable and worth redeeming. Without it, God would have had no reason to send His Son to die on our behalf.
The practical side of having God’s image
As believers in Christ, we have a “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10, ESV). And as we grow in faith, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV).
Knowing that we are made in God’s image affects not only our understanding of our Creator and our relationship with Him. It also sets the stage for understanding and defending the sanctity of all human life:
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 … and children yet unborn deserve full protection and honor as human beings.” (Systematic Theology, p. 450, emphasis added).
Want to talk about it?
We realize this is a deep subject. If you have more questions, call us for a free over-the-phone consultation. Our licensed and pastoral counselors would be glad to help in any way they can.
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Tim Keller on the Image of God
Christian Research Institute