Made in the image of God

In part 6 of This We Believe, Neils-Erik Andreasen takes us back to Creation week in an attempt to understand the nature of man.

"Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole Man was holy; but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts, and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in all his affections. Man after the fall begat children in his own likeness. A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring. Hence all the posterity of Adam, Christ only excepted, have derived corruption from their original parent, not by imitation, as the Pelagians of old asserted, but by the propagation of a vicious nature in consequence of a just judgment of God."—The Canons of the Synod of Dort ( 1619).


We believe that man and woman were made in the image of God (see Gen. 1:26). Though taken from the common dust of the ground and shaped as a potter shapes clay, mankind reflects the image of God and exhibits His likeness. This simple belief does not solve every problem asso ciated with human nature and life. On the contrary, as theologian Emil Brunner wrote, "Not only is the world full of riddles; he himself, who asks the riddles, has become a riddle." (Man in Revolt, Philadelphia, 1947, p. 1.7). Yet our fundamental belief regarding human nature has enabled us to turn the problem of mankind into the riddle of mankind, and thereby Christianity has made an important gain, for a problem is a disturbing disorder in life, whereas a riddle is an invitation to explore a fascinating subject. What, then, do we say about the image and likeness of God?

The Image made of clay

On the one hand, the riddle of mankind tempts us to exaggerate our perception of ourselves, and with some justification. The achievements of human culture, thought, engineering, and creativity are impressive. What splendid creatures we are, strutting about the earth on two legs, powerful, clever, godlike! The psalmist asked "What is man?" and he answered: "Thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown  him with glory and honor" (Ps. 8:4)*

But there is also another picture of mankind that emerges. It is wrinkled, sordid, and sad. It portrays human degradation, sin, illness, weakness, and death. What frail, fleeting beings we are, lasting but a moment before returning to earth and leaving hardly a trace! "What is man?" asked the psalmist a second time, and this time he answered: "Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow" (Ps. 144:3, 4).

Both pictures belong in our doctrine of man. We believe man and woman to be God's splendid creation: free, noble, thinking, individualistic, gregarious beings. But there is no cause for pride, for we are all taken from the ground—frail earthlings whose life is derived totally from God (see Acts 17:28). Therefore, man and woman remain creatures, even during the most splendid moments of their life, at times of great power, prestige, and achievement. Yet they reveal the image of God even in the most lowly stations of their existence, in moments of weakness, failure, and humiliation (see Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, New York, 1948, p. 150).

Body, soul, and, spirit

Many Christians think of man and woman as three-part beings consisting of body, soul, and spirit. This understanding has even become proverbial, as in the expression "to keep body and soul together." We do so, of course, as long as we are alive, but what happens at death? The body, some Christians believe, returns to the earth at death, whereas the soul escapes to a new life in the hereafter. The roots of this division of man reach into Greek thought, according to which a sharp distinction is drawn between the material life of the body and the spiritual life of the soul. The former was thought to be temporary; the latter, eternal.

We take exception of this popular view of man by returning to the Bible and to its explanation of human nature formulated in Genesis 2:7. According to the Scripture account, "the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." "Living being" rather than "living soul" (K.J.V.) is the proper translation of the words nephesh hayyah in this verse, for man is a unit, a single, integrated human being. When this formula of man's creation is reversed, as in death, the gift of life returns to the Giver, and the body returns to the earth (see Gen. 3:19; Eccl. 12:7). There is therefore no life after death for an "immortal" soul.

Interpreters of Scripture have recognized this unique understanding of human nature for a long time. Best known is the judgment of H. Wheeler Robinson: "The Hebrew conceived of man as an animated body and not as an incarnate soul" (Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament. Oxford, 1946, p. 70). In short, man is not a combination of separate parts, but a unit consisting of distinguishable qualities. For example, the Bible recognizes that man has both strengths and weaknesses— he is spiritual, but he is also fleshly (see 1 Cor. 3:1-4). As pointed out in Psalm 103:1 and Job 12:3, he is a vibrant, living being (he is a soul) and is able to reason (he has a heart). But none of these characteristics constitutes a part of man; all of them are characterizations of the whole. In short, man and woman are not one-dimensional beings, but multifaceted creatures with enormous potentials and, alas, also with many liabilities. Yet, whatever characteristics mankind expresses, all are manifestations of an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit. There is no divine spark within human beings upon which they can rely for eternal life. On the contrary, their life depends entirely upon God's creative power. This understanding of human nature also implies a close interrelation ship between body and mind, something which recent studies in health, medicine, and psychology have confirmed.

The fall

The Bible teaches that mankind fell (see Gen. 3). Although the account reports that the man blamed the woman for it, and she in turn blamed the serpent, the pejorative concept that the female sex brought the Fall upon mankind is not Biblical. The Fall is a human problem, not one of gender. But what really happened to mankind at the Fall? The answer to this question has both a theoretical and a practical side. Theoretically speaking, the image of God was marred in man. But how badly? Theologians have vigorously argued the point for years. Some say that the image of God is completely lost and must be restored by a new revelation of God. Others contend that the image of God is not totally destroyed for, after all, man has the intellectual capability of recognizing God's revelation and responding to it (see J. Baillie, Our Knowledge of God, New York, 1959, pp. 3-43). Which view is right?

There is evidence in Scripture, corroborated by our own human experience, that in spite of a marred divine image, mankind, through the aid of the Holy Spirit, is intellectually capable of knowing its sin, feeling sorry for it, imploring divine forgiveness, and being assured of receiving it (see Ps. 51).

Practically speaking, the story of the Fall illustrates the human experience with sin. First, there is "knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). This expression is a merism, meaning it encompasses everything in the way that the expression "from east to west" includes everything in between. To know everything in the sense of experiencing everything (for that is what "know" really means) is an indication of spiritual arrogance, of man presuming to be God (see verse 5). This is the first cause of sin.

Second, separation between man and woman follows. They saw that they were naked and suddenly realized that they were capable of exploiting each other, as well as loving each other. Therefore, they felt guilty and ashamed and sought to mend their relationship by covering themselves in leaves (see verse 7).

Third, they were afraid of God and hid from Him, ostensibly because they were naked (though they already wore aprons of leaves). In reality they were ashamed of their nakedness before God because it revealed their true selves—people who pretended to be God, and whose relation ship to Him had become disharmonious.

Fourth, they were expelled from the presence of God to die in loneliness (see verses 22-24). This account of the Fall is a piece of early human history, but it is much more than that; it is an expression of common human experience, for we have all sinned (see Rom. 3:23).

Original sin

How did the sin of the first human pair extend to all mankind? Is it an inherited affliction or an acquired trait? What is original sin? The Bible skirts these theoretical questions, but it does affirm on the practical level that all have sinned in such a way that no person can claim to be without sin at any time (see Rom. 5:12; 1 John 1:8). This is the point of the familiar expression, "in sin did my mother con ceive me" (Ps. 51:5). Not the act of conception, but the very beginning of life is included under sin. Hence no human being can escape sin at any time.

This pervasiveness of sin is portrayed powerfully in Genesis 4-6. No sooner had sin appeared in the parents than it emerged in the family. In Genesis 3, sin reveals itself as a personal problem well illustrated by the question, "'Where are you?'" (chap. 3:8), but in Genesis 4 it has already become a social problem, as indicated by the question, " 'Where is Abel your brother?'" (chap. 4:9). From that point it spread to the larger community and to the whole world, (see Gen. 4:23, 24; 6:1-4). Whether this condition is inherited or acquired, original or particular to each individual, is a theoretical question not explicitly discussed in the Bible. Contemporary psychology may well characterize the human frailty we call sin in all these ways and may draw some comfort from so doing. But the Bible only affirms sin's pervasiveness in the human family.

Of course the Bible is very sensitive to the fact that we are born in sin and cannot escape it. It expresses sympathetic under standing toward mankind caught in this dilemma (see Ps. 103:15-18) and considers man's condition as a mitigating circumstance in the judgment (see Zech. 3:2). However, nowhere does it excuse or ignore sin.

Not only sin itself but also its consequences are shared by all mankind. All commit arrogance before God; all experience the guilt and shame that lead to separation. Everyone will eventually feel the fear and loneliness of being separated from his Creator, if not before, at least at the inevitable end of life, for death has passed to all mankind (see Rom. 5:12). How can this terror be stopped?

The second man

"Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men" (Rom. 5:18). This startling verse of Scripture introduces a second man, Jesus Christ, who will produce a new human family without the stigma of sin. He will, as it were, undo what the first man did. But can sin really be undone? If so, how can the Bible claim that all have sinned and that there is no possible way to escape this fate?

The answer of the Bible is truly remark able, for it explains that release from sin is simply given as a free and gracious gift of righteousness (see chap. 5:17). Scripture characterizes this gift in many ways, for it is both a remarkable and a difficult concept, but two terms are especially powerful and penetrating. One is justification of the sinner (see Rom. 5:1) and the other is reconciliation between God and the sinner (see Rom. 5:10, 11; I Cor. 5:19-21). By means of justification and reconciliation the sin introduced by the first man, Adam, is cancelled by the second man, Jesus Christ. In spite of its importance, this topic cannot detain us here, but it does lead to a new question: What kind of people are the descendants of the second man?

Image of God restored

Can the free gift of grace that brings justification and reconciliation restore the image of God in man? This has been a troublesome question for Christians to resolve. If one answers, No, then the free gift of grace appears to lose some of, its value. If that which was marred at the Fall is not really restored, how can the second man be said to have undone that which the first man did? On the other hand, if one answers, Yes, then more may be claimed for this free gift of grace than it seems able to deliver. Some Christians have attempted to shore up the gift of grace by presuming to be fully restored to the image of God already. They claim perfection for themselves now or expect to be able to do so at some point in the future. But our senses tell us that so co-called perfectionists, though they may live circumspect lives, are still subject to sin. How, then, shall we describe human nature after the gift of grace?

Regarding the image of God in which man was created, we must recall that it is not God Himself, but only a resemblance of Him that is in man. That which once was in man maybe restored through the gift of grace. There can be no talk of perfection, then, but only of a restoration of the image, the resemblance, of God in man. But this is no small event. Nor is it merely a natural development or general improvement of human conditions, for it requires an act of creation. The psalmist wrote, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10). Therefore, to restore the image of God in man is the work of our Creator and Redeemer.

How can a person know whether he has been re-created in this way so that the image of God is being restored within him? Once again the Bible is practical rather than theoretical in its answer. Scripture says, "He who does not love does not know God; for God is love" (1 John 4:8). Or put differently, the image of God is restored in us to the degree that we do Godlike things, the first of which is love. However, even with this insight it is difficult to know how well God's image is restored in us, for the love in question is always directed towards others. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (verse 11). If, then, the evidence of the restored image of God in us is directed toward others, how can we ourselves be sure of it? As a general rule of thumb we can conclude that the degree to which the image of God is restored in a person is perceived only by others. The one who bears the semblance of God is not aware of it; indeed, there is a sense in which the more one's character becomes like God's, the more aware that individual is of the great gulf still existing. But he will enjoy a certain confidence and assurance that springs naturally from bearing the image of God in one's person. This confidence and assurance we call faith.

Sons and daughters of God

The new human family, descendants of the second man, are called to become children of God and to fulfill the original roles assigned to mankind. These are three.

First, man and woman were created for the glory of God. This distinguishes them from all other creatures. They are given power and dominion in the earth and are a kind of divine representative. Psalm 8 describes it dramatically when portraying man as the one under whose feet are placed all the things that God made with His hands. God seems to give more honor to man and woman than He reserves for Himself. They are invited to bask in this honor and splendor, and to praise God for it, somewhat in the way a child honors his parents by noble achievements and beauty of character. The more brilliantly man and woman rule this earth, the more glory and praise they bring to God.

Second, mankind is given a community in which to live. The family provides the inner circle of this community; clans, tribes, cities, churches, nations, indeed the whole human race, constitute additional outer circles. The community provides fellowship, partnership, and requires commitment and care. Man and woman are called to seek such fellowship and partnership and to provide care and commitment in return. Within it the human race will prosper. Children will be born; character will be developed; help will be offered; comfort provided; and even death can be faced and integrated into the life that must go on.

Third, man and woman are placed in the physical world of God's good earth, "to till it and keep it" (Gen. 2:15). The dominion over it, which they received from God, is that of a benevolent ruler (see Gen. 1:26). It does not permit them to exploit the world and its resources. On the other hand, the world is not animated, nor imbued with divinity, and there is no danger of touching a divine nerve when tilling the ground and mining the hills. In fact, the world is both material and secular, made for the use, benefit, and sustenance of mankind. It is our home, and therein lies our responsibility toward it. As God's gift, designed to sustain life and make it fruitful, the earth must be cared for and treasured. We must not destroy, deplete, pollute, or waste the gift of God's good earth, for when He created it, He made it well, and He asks the ones who bear His image to do well to the earth.

To bear the image of God, therefore, means to be a child of God, implying dependence, privilege, and obligation. To believe that we are made in the image of God and according to His likeness means to acknowledge our dependence upon Him for life, to relish the privilege of belonging to His family, and to take upon ourselves the obligations that follow.

* "All texts, unless specified otherwise, are from the Revised Standard Version.



Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

January 1982

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

It's time to do less for your church members

The idea certainly sounds appealing, but you ought to be warned that it will wipe out one of our favorite pastoral activities——making plans for other people. The result could be a radical revision of your, concept of what it means to be a pastor.

What Jesus said about sanctification

Both Jesus' words and His actions demonstrated that the natural, spontaneous fruit of faith is genuine obedience and victory in the Christian life. But this is a work that we can no more do for ourselves than we can save ourselves.

After the funeral

The needs of those who have lost someone close in death do not come to an end at the cemetery. Indeed, the days and weeks immediately following the funeral may be the most precious opportunities for ministry to these grieving members of our flocks. If we would truly be shepherds to them, we cannot let these moments slip through our fingers.

Is the secret rapture the blessed hope?

Dividing Christ's second coming into two events—a secret rapture followed seven years later by His glorious appearing to destroy the antichrist—is a concept that seems to have no Biblical support.

A more exalted ministry

Ellen G. White points out the importance of talking Christ, praying Christ, preaching Christ.

Divine rest for human restlessness

The Sabbath expresses God's best news to the human family: the news that He has created us perfectly, that He has redeemed us completely, that He loves us immensely, and that He will restore us ultimately.

Annual Council—excitement & boredom

Crossing t's and dotting i's alternate at the church's yearly planning session with bold commitments to a comprehensive program of continuing education for ministers and absolute priority for evangelism.

Update on Ebla

The clay tablets in Ebla's archives have been hailed as "one of this century's most important archeological discoveries." Now two recent publications give the English-speaking world its first detailed look.

Shepherdess: Reading for winter evenings

Start the new year with a good book! Whether you've been wanting to learn some new vegetarian recipes, find a gift book for a special friend, or delve into Romans, there's something here for everyone.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All