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Image of God

The phrase “image of God” occurs several times in Genesis (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–3; 9:6). A close reading of the passages in which the phrase occurs tells us that the “image of God” applies to both men and women, is never used of any other earthly creature, is never described as something given to humans, and is not incremental in nature (i.e., it is not possessed partially or in stages). In other words, whatever the “image of God” means it is immediately intrinsic to all human beings equally and distinguishes human beings from everything else in creation.

The Image of God: What it Doesn’t Mean

Theologians have offered many explanations for the image of God. The above description, however, rules out practically all of them from the outset. In short, any explanation that links the meaning of the image to some quality or attribute, especially if linked in turn to brain function, fails immediately for a simple, straightforward reason: not all humans—especially in the beginning stages of life—possess the required attribute immediately or equally.

All of the following have been proposed by theologians as identifications of the image of God: intelligence, rationality, emotions, volitional will, consciousness, self-awareness (sentience), and the ability to communicate or pray. These attributes are all dependent on brain function and are therefore not possessed immediately by all humans (the brain must develop in stages). The conceptus or fetus in the womb isn’t exercising any of these abilities. If an infant is born with a brain injury or handicap it cannot be said to not be in possession of the image of God. Loss of these abilities in old age also does not erase the image. There is no biblical precedent for such ideas since there are no exegetical data that have the image of God developing incrementally. Since Gen 9:6 informs us that the image of God is what gives human life its sacred status, if the image were partial, then life would be only partially sacred, which is an incoherent proposition.

In addition, the image of God is also not the possession of a soul or spirit. This view is actually undermined by the biblical text itself. The terms nephesh and ruach (often translated “soul” and “spirit” respectively) are actually not separate things since the biblical text uses both terms interchangeably to describe conscious life, the seat of human emotions, intellect, disposition, and inner life of the mind. One can see this is the case by using a concordance to find both terms in the following passages:

Possessing conscious life:

ruach: Gen 6:17; Gen 7:15; Gen 7:22; Gen 45:27; Zech 12:1; Psa 135:17; Job 7:7; indeed “breath” (Hebrew: nishmat) and ruach are also interchanged in a few passages (note the parallelism): Isa 42:5; Isa 57:16

nephesh: Gen 1:20-21; Gen 1:24; Gen 1:30; Gen 9:4-5; Gen 12:13; Gen 19:19; Gen 35:18; Exod 4:19; Job 11:20; Job 33:22; Job 33:28; Job 33:30

The seat of emotions:

ruach: Numb 5:14; 5:30; Eccl 10:4; 2 Chron 18:22; Isa 54:6; Isa 57:15; Prov 14:29

nephesh: Lev 26:15; Lev 26:30, Lev 26:43; Jer 13:17; Jer 14:19; Lam 3:17; Gen 34:3, 8; Gen 42:21; Exod 15:19; 23:19; Num 21:4; 1 Sam 1:10, 15; 2 Sam 5:8; 17:8; 2 Kings 4:27; Job 14:22; Psa 6:3; 13:2; Psa 23:3; Psa 35:25; Psa 42:1-2

Volitional will / decision-making capacity / attitudes / inner disposition / self awareness

ruach: Isa 19:3; Isa 57:15; Isa 61:3; Jer 51:11; Hagg 1:14; Psa 76:13; Job 32:18; Prov 18:14; Ezra 1:1; Exod 6:9; Num 14:24; Josh 2:11; Josh 5:1; Isa 29:24; Ezek 11:19; 18:31; Ezek 21:12; 36:26; Psa 34:19; 51:19; Prov 15:13; Prov 16:19; Prov 17:22; Prov 17:27; Prov 29:23; Eccl 7:8; Jer 10:14; 51:17 (idols lack this; contrasted with stupidity; see also Hab 2:19); Dan 5:12; 6:4; 1 Chron 28:12

nephesh: Lev 26:16; Judges 16:16; 1 Sam 2:33; Psa 42:6; Psa 107:26; Deut 14.26; Deut 21:14; Deut 23:24; 1 Sam 23:20; Prov 19:2; Deut 4:29; Deut 6:5; Deut 10:12; Deut 11:13; Deut 11:18

In addition, both these terms are found to describe animals (Gen 1:20–21; Eccl 3:21), since animals have conscious life, albeit a lower form of consciousness than humans. The image of God therefore cannot be defined with these terms since it is unique to humanity in biblical theology.

Lastly, the image of God does not refer to physical form or appearance. This view was common in biblical scholarship at one time, but has weaknesses serious enough to cause many biblical scholars to abandon it.

In simplest terms, this view draws on the fact that the Hebrew word for “image” (tselem) is frequently used of idols—which were, naturally, a physical object. This would make humankind “God’s idol” so to speak. While the notion that humankind is a visible representation of God is coherent, this approach loses coherence when it comes to the “form” of the human conceptus, fetus, infant, or even children. Which form does God “look like”? Why choose the adult? Do we only truly have the image if we are adults? What a person has deformities or loses a limb?

In terms of the biblical text, it is not coherent to say that tselem always describes physical objects. In Psa 39:7 and 73:20 it refers to a “shadow” and “phantom” respectively. The word could also be used metaphorically, which undermines the emphasis on physical representation.

The Image of God: What it in Fact Means

One solution avoids all of these difficulties while remaining consistent with how biblical writers speak of the image of God. As I wrote in The Unseen Realm (pp. 42-43):

So how do we understand divine image bearing in a way that does not stumble over these issues and yet aligns with the description in Genesis? Hebrew grammar is the key. The turning point is the meaning of the preposition in with respect to the phrase “in the image of God.” In English we use the preposition in to denote many different ideas. That is, in doesn’t always mean the same thing when we use that word. For example, if I say, “put the dishes in the sink,” I am using the preposition to denote location. If I say, “I broke the mirror in pieces,” I am using in to denote the result of some action. If I say, “I work in education,” I am using the preposition to denote that I work as a teacher or principal, or in some other educational capacity.

This last example directs us to what the Hebrew preposition translated in means in Genesis 1:26. Humankind was created as God’s image. If we think of imaging as a verb or function, that translation makes sense. We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are by definition. The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.

This is why Genesis 1:26–27 is followed by what theologians call the “dominion mandate” in verse 28. The verse informs us that God intends us to be him on this planet. We are to create more imagers (“be fruitful and multiply … fill”) in order to oversee the earth by stewarding its resources and harnessing them for the benefit of all human imagers (“subdue … rule over”).[1]

At times, the Hebrew preposition translated “in” can mean “as,” which denotes function or status: this means that it can be said that humanity was created “as” the image of God. Humans are created as God’s imagers—they function as God’s representatives.

According to this view, the image of God is not a quality within human beings; it is what humans are. Every human, regardless of its stage of development, is an imager of God. This imaging is neither incremental nor partial, nor does it derive from a physical or spiritual ability; rather, it derives from being created as God’s image.

The Image of God: Jesus, the Perfect Image of God

This approach—that the image is not an ability or attribute, but what a human intrinsically is—helps us understand New Testament use of imaging language. It is no coincidence that Jesus is described as God’s imager, and believers are to image (represent) Jesus.

Two passages bring this into focus: 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15. Jesus was the incarnate God of the Old Testament. He was God in the form (the image and likeness) of man. Having been “found in appearance like a man” (Phil 2:7; compare Phil 2:1–11), Jesus imaged God to people. He was the ultimate representation of God in human form.

The concept means more, though. Believers are destined to be conformed to the image of God’s son, Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29). This doesn’t mean that all believers will look like Jesus in heaven. Rather, the meaning is that someday all believers will be like Jesus. Until that day, we are t try and live like Jesus now—to image him, or represent him in this life. Acting like Jesus points to the functional idea of the image of God. God wants us to represent him by representing Jesus. The template of what this means is Jesus himself—the perfect representative of God. This is a gradual, lifelong process. As Paul says, “And we all, with unveiled face, reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory into glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18), and “Just as we have borne the image of the one man who is made of earth, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor 15:49).



  • Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Lexham Press, 2015)
  • Neal H. Walls, Cult image and Divine Representation in the Ancient Near East (American Schools of Oriental Research 10, 2005)
  • D. J. A. Clines, "The Image of God in Man," Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968): 53-103
Listen to Dr. Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast.


  1. Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (First Edition.; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 42–43.

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