What Does Man Being “Created in God’s Image” Even Mean?

Ryan Warnock

The meaning of being made in God’s image is so important because it is tied to our creation.

It is the key description God gives to humanity as he makes us.

Central to our purpose and meaning in life is the answer to this question - what does it mean to be created in the image of God?

It is essential that we understand this properly, so first I need to address a common misconception:

Is there a difference between "image" and "likeness"?

The “image” and “likeness” of God have sometimes been considered two distinct things.

Though we were created with both qualities, some theologians throughout church history have taught that we lost the likeness of God after the Fall yet retained the image. And we would only regain the likeness in our glorified, re-created state.

This general idea was held by church fathers like Tertullian and Origen.

However, I believe nothing in the text of scripture warrants such a distinction.

For example, Genesis 5:1 and James 3:9 use the word likeness in a completely interchangeable way to image.

With that said, let's get to the real question:

What does it mean to be made in the image and likeness of God?

The phrase first appears in the creation passages of Genesis 1:26 and 27

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.
Though strange to us, early readers of this text would be much more familiar with this concept.

As The Bible Project puts it,

“If, though, you lived in Biblical times, you were probably used to people claiming to be the ‘image of god’. Most everyone in those times lived under the rule of a king, and these kings proclaimed themselves to be god's image on earth, having the authority to carry out the will of the gods. These kings would also create idols - statues of wood, stone, or precious metal that were also said to be the physical embodiment of gods on earth or, ‘images of god’.”

While the term has a cultural context, is that all God intended it to mean?

Are we physical embodiments of the one true God?

Many scholars have placed the definition of this image of God into three categories:


This is the view theologians after the Reformation commonly took.

Our human nature resembles aspects of God’s nature, namely our ability to reason, our will, and our moral capacity.

This ontological definition is the one I hear used most often. However, I find little biblical evidence for this being at least the sole understanding.

Passages that could support this view would be found in the New Testament and refer to Jesus or our becoming like him, which I will address later. (Romans 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:24).

In his commentary on Genesis 1-4, Professor John Collins offers this excellent explanation of the representational view,

“Man was made to represent God in his activity of ruling the world on God’s behalf. This position appeals to the second sentence in Genesis 1:26: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ According to this position, the dominion defines the image.”

This view sees humanity as being image-bearers by engaging in community and our relationship with our creator.

The relational perspective finds support in the repetition found in Gen. 1:27,

“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

The repeated emphasis on the male/female dynamic adds to the relational purpose.

Also remember that God himself is a community within the Trinity.

When Genesis 1:26 says “Let Us make man in Our image” there is a direct tie from the Trinity to the image-bearing man. 

So which option is right?

All of these options carry some validity and because of that I think it is wrong for us to think that only one is true.

While I personally find the most evidence for the Representational view, I think all three options ought to be part of how we understand what it means to be made in the image and likeness of our creator.

Limiting ourselves to one is an unnecessary restraint.

In regard to the Resemblance view, I think we should be careful how we view these passages.

Just because they use the same terms doesn’t mean they are pointing to the same end.

Our creation in the image of God is a separate (though still vital) issue from who Jesus is and how we become like him.

I believe Paul is appropriating creation language to speak about our sanctification, our being re-created in Christ (the second Adam) and becoming more like him.

Genesis deals with who we are from the beginning. Paul’s use of image and likeness deals with what we will become when we are in Christ.

Both are important but somewhat separate subjects.

Being made in the image of God describes who we are, what we are capable of, why we have value, and gives us insight into our purpose here on earth.

With so many people asking “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” I think the imago dei (“image of God” in Latin) gives them their answer.

They are the image of God and their purpose is to bear His image.

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright offers a helpful summation of what the image of God is.

He uses the analogy of an angled mirror.

Rather than a normal mirror reflecting directly the person standing before it, the angled mirror reflects towards something else, and we are that angled mirror.

God’s glory, beauty, holiness, justice, and love shine down on us and we are meant to reflect that into the world.

We are the angled mirrors meant to show the world the greatness of the Creator.

Having this distinction above the rest of creation should always remind us of the value God has given to humanity.

God has given us something that no other created thing was given.

This should fill us with humility, gratitude, and a sense of purpose.

I’m reminded of Psalm 8 which says:

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

For further information, check out these short videos from The Bible Project and N. T. Wright on the image of God.