Holman Bible Dictionary
Image of God
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26 ). This passage contains a key to the understanding of humans and their nature. Scholars through the ages have sought to unravel the mystery of that statement. The psalmist asked, “What is man?” (Psalm 8:4 ). Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and anthropologists have constantly explored that topic. All have realized that the human being “is fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14 ).
A Special Creation According to the Scriptures, humans are not an evolutionary accident but a special creation. Human beings were purposefully produced by God to fulfill a preordained role in His world. They have peculiar qualities that somehow reflect the nature of God Himself and set them apart and above all other created beings.
Image and Likeness Some Bible students have tried to make a distinction in the meaning of “image” and “likeness.” Image has been considered the essential nature of humans as God's special creation, and likeness as reflecting this image in such qualities as goodness, grace, and love. They maintain that humankind in the Fall retained the image but lost the likeness. The two words, however, seem to identify the same divine act. The repetition represents the Hebrew literary style of parallelism used for emphasis. The Hebrew selem or image refers to a hewn or carved image ( 1 Samuel 6:5; 2 Kings 11:18 ) like a statue, which bears a strong physical resemblance to the person or thing it represents. The word likeness , demuth , means a facsimile. Compare 2 Kings 16:10 , “fashion” or “pattern” (NAS), “sketch” (NIV, REB), “exact model” (TEV). Neither of the words imply that persons are divine. They were endowed with some of the characteristics of God. There is a likeness but not a sameness.
Persons as Body-Soul Many different views seek to explain the nature of the likeness. Genesis 2:7 says, “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” In creation God endowed persons with a spiritual aspect of life. This passage says that man became a soul, not that he had a soul. A person is both body and soul, or more accurately, body-soul. The Old Testament supports this holistic view of persons who are not segmented into parts known as body, soul, and spirit. Genesis 1:20 uses the Hebrew expression, nephesh chayah , “living soul” for “moving creature that has life,” that is the animals. Compare Genesis 1:24; Genesis 9:10 ,Genesis 9:10,9:16; Leviticus 11:10 .
Early theologians were greatly influenced by Greek philosophy in their interpretation of the image of God. The Greeks separated between the material and the spiritual. They saw an individual as a spirit being living in a physical body. This Greek dualism was the background out of which the early Christian theologians drew their understanding. The church fathers believed that the image of God resided in the soul or the spirit of each person.
Humankind as Persons Who are humans? The Bible portrays them as self-conscious, willful, innovative entities who, under God, preside over their environment. In other words, they are persons. God made each male and female a person in the likeness of His own personhood. Nothing else in all creation can be called a person. Personhood encompasses individuals in their entirety, body and spirit, as rational, loving, responsible, moral creatures.
Reflections of Personhood A man or woman is a person, as God is a Person. Such personal uniqueness is reflected in self-awareness and God-awareness. Human individuality is implied in personhood. God said “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14 ). Persons also are separate entities with individual personalities, sets of values, inclinations, and responsibilities. Every human being is an original.
Humans created in God's image share His rational nature. People have the power to think, analyze, and reflect even upon abstract matters. They cannot be defined by or confined to material attributes. As God is spiritual (John 4:24 ), persons are spiritual. This spiritual kinship makes possible communication with God.
The Bible teaches that human beings have purpose. They have an instinctive need to be something and to do something. They have a responsible intuition and an inner call to duty. The human race has a unique sense of “oughtness.” Humans are moral creatures. They can and do make moral judgments (Genesis 2:16-27 ). Persons have a censoring conscience which they may defy. They are choice makers; they can obey their highest instincts or follow their most morbid urges. A human is the only creature who can say no to God. Humans are autonomous persons. God endowed them with the freedom to govern their own lives.
This same autonomy makes possible fellowship with God. No person could have a meaningful relationship with a robot. Real fellowship can take place only between two authentic persons. God created “man” in His own image because He wanted a relationship with another sovereign person. See Body; Creation; Flesh; Humanity; Soul;
Vernon O. Elmore
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Image of God'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/i/image-of-god.html. 1991.