Read Psalm 8. What does this passage tell us about man? What are the things that are alike about every person in the world?
Let’s think about what gives us our identity. What does it really mean to be a human being? The starting place is Genesis 1:26. There we read: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.’” There is obviously something special about being part of the human family.
There is something about our nature that is like God. We are not God, but there is something that separates us from the rest of the animal world and makes us unique. In Psalm 8:5, the writer rejoices that we have been made “a little lower than the angels” and have been “crowned with glory and honor.”
God gave humans special responsibility to manage the earth and the creatures that live on it (Genesis 1:26, Psalm 8:5-6). People are supposed to manage the earth carefully to avoid the loss of living species, use resources wisely, and leave the earth in good condition for future generations.
This high view of mankind is certainly better for our self-respect than is the doctrine of evolution! In evolution there is no special significance to human life, no purpose, no meaning, nothing special about being a human.
According to some of the ancient myths, people were made by accident, with no purpose, and not loved by any creator. But scripture teaches that we are a special creation in the “image of God.” What does that mean?
How do we know that the image of God in man does not mean physical likeness?
The image of God in man does not mean physical likeness. (1) God is a spirit. Solomon realized that all of heaven and earth could not contain God (1 Kings 8:27). God could show himself with whatever appearance he would choose, but there is not one appearance that we can say looks like God. That’s one reason we are not supposed to make images of God to worship. Even (2) to make images of him looking like a man is called idolatry in the Bible (Romans 1:23).
(3) Man is physically designed for life on the earth, with legs for walking, hands to move things, and senses of sight and hearing for perception. God created us with a design that equips us for life on the earth. But God lives in the whole universe, can create and move things by his Word, and does not have any of our limitations. There is no reason to think that he has a human physical form.
The Son of God took on the complete likeness of man in the incarnation, which is the greatest honor of humanity that can be imagined.
Theologians have thought much about what it means that man is in the image of God, and most agree about the following qualities.
Elements of the Image of God Given to Humanity
What are some of the characteristics of man that reflect the image of God?
We have a creative instinct that grows out of God’s image within us. Our Creator has made us to be creative! Sometimes animals have been trained to make marks that people called art. But that is very different from art produced by a person who is expressing an idea. Ancient drawings have been found on caves. We don’t know much about the people who drew them, but nobody doubts that they were made by people and not by animals.
Creativity is also revealed in music. Music has a marvelous capacity to express our thoughts and feelings. The ability to communicate ideas through music comes from this image of God within us.
ABILITY TO THINK
The ability to think is yet another “God-like” capacity. Of course animals also have brains, but from all we are able to tell, animals’ “brain activity” does not rise above the level of basic instinct and intuition. Only human beings are capable of analyzing, evaluating, conjecturing, and reflecting, then communicating persuasively.
Not only can we think, we can even think about thinking. We can analyze thought processes. Not only can we think logically, we can think about logic.
Humans have communication ability. It is demonstrated by the use of language, where ideas are put into sounds or symbols that other people understand. Animals such as dogs and birds may “communicate” through sounds, but nothing even close to the complexity of human language is known among the animals. Animals have ways of threatening others, claiming territory, or sharing food, but they do not have discussions about the meaning of life.
Communication ability depends on the ability to think and reason. Animals cannot say words, but even if they could, they would not have much to say.
Man has a social nature. We are designed to be in interaction with other people, making commitments to others and depending on others. We begin life completely dependent on others, and it takes many years for a child to become an adult. That is because relationships are important to God. God has also designed human life so that people have to work together and maintain relationships for their daily needs to be met. Even if a person could get things such as food and shelter without anybody’s help, he would have important needs that are only met in relationship with others. The social nature is a reflection of the nature of God. God is a Trinity, and is eternally in relationship by nature.
Man was made in the image of God, holy as he that created him is holy. As God is love, so man, living in love, lived in God, and God in him. He was pure, as God is pure, from every spot of sin. He knew no evil, but was inwardly and outwardly sinless. He “loved the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his mind, and soul, and strength.” (John Wesley, in the sermon “Justification by Faith”)
Human relationships have many problems. Because of the problems, some people think that they need to be more independent. They want to be able to live without depending on anyone. To live alone really is not the solution and is not the life that God designed for us. Instead, he gave us principles for living in relationship, and the problems come when we don’t follow God’s design.
We have a moral sense that is part of our nature. Something in us tells us that some actions are right and some are wrong (Romans 1:20, 2:15). It tells us when it is right to follow a desire and when we should not. Adam and Eve were created holy and perfectly able to follow God’s will.
Because humanity has fallen into sin and damaged that basic moral perception, it is not completely accurate, but there still remains within each one of us the capacity to understand the concepts of right and wrong.
Because we have a moral sense, we have a sense of duty to do right, and are guilty if we commit sin. We are not like the animals, who follow their natural instincts without a sense of guilt.
Free will, or the ability to choose, is characteristic of human beings. In contrast, the choices of animals are on the level of momentary impulse and instinct. Animals do not make careful, thought-out decisions that consider the ethics or practical results of their actions. Human beings have the ability to make meaningful, life-altering choices (Joshua 24:15).
Why is free will an important aspect of humanity?
Because we make real choices, we are accountable to God. He will judge sin and reward righteousness (Revelation 20:12-13).
Because we are born with a sinful nature, we do not naturally exercise our free will in a way that honors God. A person is by nature a “slave to sin” (Romans 6:16-17, Ephesians 2:1-13) unable to do right, but the grace of God reaches to each person, giving him the desire and ability to respond to the gospel. That is why a person can make the choice to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15).
Immortality is an essential quality of the image of God. There was a time when we did not exist, but each person will exist forever from the time that he is born. We are not only physical beings, but we are also spirits that will live forever, and even our bodies will be resurrected in an eternal form (1 Corinthians 15:16-22, 52-54). God created each of us for an eternal purpose. Immortality makes our choices eternally significant because we will live forever in either heaven or hell.
ABILITY TO LOVE
The ability to love is part of the image of God. The other characteristics are important for this one. Among animals, relationships are very limited, and seem controlled mostly by instinct. Love would not mean much if we did not have the ability to communicate, the ability to choose and make commitments to those that we love, and the ability to respond with understanding when we receive love from others.
Human love is expressed in joy from a relationship, making and keeping promises, sacrificial giving and serving, and forgiveness. All of these are also expressions of the love of God.
CAPACITY FOR WORSHIP
A very important characteristic is our capacity for worship. Think about your favorite hymns or worship choruses. “Our God Is an Awesome God,” we sing. “How Great Thou Art” is a timeless hymn of intense worship. The Psalmist exclaimed, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! And all that is within me, bless His holy name!” (Psalm 103:1). These expressions, and multiplied thousands of others like them, are possible only because something within us called “the image of God” recognizes and responds to the awesome God in whose image we are made!
The Purpose of the Image of God in Humanity
It is good to stop and think about why God made us in his image. Why are we so different from the rest of creation? The answer is that we are specially designed to be in relationship with God and to be able to worship him.
The Bible tells us that creation in general brings glory to God. We see the greatness of God in the things he has made. But other creatures glorify God without understanding. They cannot understand what God is like because they don’t have a nature that can relate to him.
We can admire the infinite creativity of God because we have some creativity. We can worship his holiness and righteousness because we have a sense of right and wrong. We can be awed by his infinite love because we have the capacity to love.
The better we know God, not just in knowledge but in relationship, the more we love and worship him. We find joy and fulfillment in a relationship with God, because it’s what he designed us for.
Other Important Thoughts
All human beings have the image of God. There are people who because of mental limitations cannot reason, express themselves creatively, or exercise free will. The image of God is created in them, but it may not be fulfilled in their earthly lives.
Every human life has eternal and infinite value. Sometimes we notice a person’s practical value, things like his intelligence, education, talents, or strength. But every person has a value that is more important than his practical value, because he is in the image of God. That’s why every person deserves respect as a human being, even if he lacks the things that give people practical value, and even if he is a wicked person. The image of God is also the reason that every child is valuable to God, and abortion is a terrible sin.
Angels are also unique in creation. They have high intelligence, reasoning ability, communication ability, and capacity for worship. They therefore have some aspects of the image of God and are called the “sons of God” in Scripture (Job 1:6). We are presently inferior to angels in power (Psalm 8:5), yet they serve us (Hebrews 1:14). In eternity we will be higher in position than angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), and will rule with Christ, which implies that humans are made more completely in the image of God than angels.
The world is not in its original form. Imagine a beautiful painting, created by a gifted artist. Imagine that the painting has been thrown on the floor, and people have walked on it with muddy shoes. If you pick that painting up and look at it, you can still see the great talent that was put into it, yet the painting is not like it was when the artist first finished it. Creation is like that. It is not exactly like what God intended it to be, but his glory is still seen there.
Sin has distorted the “God-like” capacities in people. Artistic expression can reveal a wicked heart and can be a tool of Satan, even though the gift itself comes from God. But because of the intervention of grace, sin has not completely obliterated the image of God within us. And by grace the image of God in us can be renewed, developed, and expressed for the glory of our Creator! (Colossians 3:10, Ephesians 4:22-24, 2 Corinthians 3:18).
The image of God in us is the most important thing about us. The characteristics of the image of God given to us make it possible for us to respond to the Gospel. Our moral sense makes it possible for grace to awaken our conscience and convict us of sin. Free will restored by grace working in us makes it possible for us to “choose whom we will serve.” Through our creative instincts we can bring glory and honor to our God, and using reason, we can understand something of God and his ways. The search to understand God turns into worship as we become increasingly aware of the absolute awesomeness of our Creator who has so graciously “crowned us with glory and honor!”
Error to Avoid
Sometimes people think that relationship with God has significance only for life after death. They think that if a person lives a good life on earth, it does not make much difference whether he is a Christian or not. But if we understand that the nature of humanity is designed for relationship with God, we realize that a person’s life is mostly wasted if he does not know God. We need the Spirit of God within us, guiding us, fulfilling our potential, and giving the eternal perspective on all that we do.
Statement of Beliefs
Humans are created in the image of God for the purpose of loving and worshipping God. God designed them for their purpose with abilities to think, communicate, and love. A person has a moral sense, a personal will, and an immortal spirit. God’s grace gives a person the power to make free decisions. Every human life has eternal and infinite value.
Passages for Writing Assignment
Read one of the following passages and write a paragraph about it:
James 1:12-15, Romans 6:12-23, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Romans 8:22-26, Joshua 24:14-18, Genesis 3:1-6, Ephesians 2:1-9
Humanity Questions for Study
- How does the Christian view of man differ from others?
- How do we know that the image of God in humanity is not physical likeness? Give three reasons.
- List nine elements of the image of God in humanity.
- For what reason are we created in the image of God?
- What ability comes from the moral sense?
- Why do we need God’s grace to be able to use our free will to please God?
Purkiser, W. T., ed. Exploring Our Christian Faith. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1978. See chapter 10: “What is Man?”
Full course available at Shepherds Global Classroom.