The Image and Likeness of God: A Multifaceted Theological Gem

by Stephen K. Moroney

The Hope Diamond is widely considered the world’s most famous gem. This renowned diamond sparkles on display under the gaze of millions of visitors annually at the National Museum of Natural History. Onlookers marvel at the Hope Diamond’s distinctive blue hue, and scientists admire its red phosphorescence when exposed to ultraviolet light. Its many facets capture and reflect light brilliantly to the human eye. 

Similarly, the image and likeness of God is a multifaceted theological gem that we can observe from different angles, each of which helps us to appreciate it more. This introductory article will survey what the Bible and the history of theology can teach us about the many-splendored image and likeness of God. Future articles in this series will examine intriguing ways the image and likeness of God intersect with contemporary issues.

Survey of the Image and Likeness of God in Scripture

The first chapter of the Bible tells us that in distinction from the rest of creation, humans alone were created in the image (Hebrew, tselem) and likeness (Hebrew, demuth) of God. Together, these terms teach us that humans are made to represent God and to be like God. We are not identical to God, but we are in some respect(s) similar to God. As we look more carefully at the context of Genesis 1:27, we see that humans are created male and female as social beings who are intended to exist in relationship—themes echoed later in 2:18-25. As we look carefully at the surrounding verses (1:26 and 1:28), we also see that humans are not merely to be one more part of creation but are also to rule over creation, exercising wise dominion as God’s representatives. A few chapters later in Genesis, even after the fall into sin, humans are said to be created in the likeness of God (5:1) and the image of God (9:6), which is why murder is such a serious offense.

In the New Testament, James 3:9-10 provides further evidence that all people (post-fall) have been made in God’s likeness. James’ point is that it is inconsistent for us to use the same tongue to praise God and to curse people who are made in God’s likeness. If we respect God, we will respect those who have been made in God’s likeness. Due to human sin, however, we need to be renewed into the image (Greek, εικον) of God’s Son (Rom. 8:28-29, Col. 3:9-10). Jesus Christ is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4), the one who reveals the invisible God to us (John 14:9, Col. 1:15), the exact imprint of who God is (Heb. 1:3). Because God’s people are created to be like God in righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:20-24) we must be transformed increasingly into the Lord’s image, by the work of the Spirit who sanctifies us (2 Cor. 3:18). In fact, the final eschatological goal of salvation is that God’s people will bear the image of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:47-49), be like God (1 John 3:2) and partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:3-4). The image and likeness of God is indeed a multifaceted theological gem, showing us the value of all people and the destiny of God’s people.

Survey of the Image and Likeness of God in the History of Theology

The early church leader Irenaeus (AD 130-200) believed that at creation, Adam had perfect form (what he called the image of God) but immature or incomplete function (what he called the likeness of God). Barring sin, Irenaeus was convinced that humanity would have developed more fully into the likeness of God over time. After Adam and Eve sinned, however, Irenaeus said humanity lost the likeness of God, while still retaining the image of God. Irenaeus claimed that, blessedly, when humanity is redeemed in Christ, the likeness of God (sanctity) is recovered.  He further believed that when we are glorified at the resurrection, God’s people will be more like God than Adam and Eve were before their fall. Many contemporary theologians criticize Irenaeus for separating God’s image and likeness since these terms seem to be nearly synonymous in Scripture, but he helps us to appreciate how the image of God appears differently at creation, after the fall into sin, after redemption in this life, and after glorification in the life to come.

In the early medieval period, the famous theologian Augustine (AD 354-430) disagreed with Irenaeus. Augustine taught that at creation, Adam and Eve had perfect form and perfect function.  Augustine further claimed that because God is a Trinity, God’s image in humanity is also likely Trinitarian. After trying out several possible triads, Augustine concluded that the Trinitarian imprint is found supremely in the human mind’s memory, understanding, and will, which are the means by which believers are united with God. When God’s image, defaced by sin, is restored gradually by God’s grace, Augustine said that the mind is empowered to remember, understand, and love God. Many contemporary theologians criticize Augustine for locating the image of God primarily in the human mind, but he helps alert us to the fact that humans are made in the image of a Trinitarian God—a point that will be developed in the twentieth century by Karl Barth, as we will see below.

During the time of the Protestant Reformation, theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) taught that humans were created in God’s image in order that we might dynamically reflect God’s glory by actively responding to God’s will and God’s Word. The problem, Calvin said, is that Adam and Eve sinned, and ever since the fall into sin, the image of God in humanity is “corrupted” or “totally destroyed.” Yet, Calvin insists that because a remnant of God’s image hangs over every human, we must treat all people as human brothers and sisters, not necessarily out of respect for people in their sinfulness, but out of respect for the image of God in which they are made. Many contemporary theologians criticize Calvin for going too far, at times, in speaking of how human sin “totally destroyed” God’s image, but he helps point us to the ethical implications of the image of God. Even if God’s image is corrupted, it remains in all people and teaches us to respect everyone.

In the twentieth-century church, theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) insisted that the love between the Father, Son, and Spirit is similar to the love between God and humanity. Barth taught that human-to-human relationships are intended to reflect and point us to the human destiny of our covenant partnership with God. This is seen most clearly, Barth said, in the male-female relation, which corresponds (imperfectly) to God’s relational existence as Father, Son, and Spirit. Barth noted that the image of God is universal because we are inescapably related to God and to other people. Barth further claimed that the “real human” who most clearly reflects God’s image is the person who imitates Jesus by loving God and loving neighbor. Many contemporary theologians criticize Barth for ignoring humanity’s historical fall into sin and its effects on the image of God, but he helps us focus on the relational aspect of God’s image, found in Genesis 1:27 and in Jesus. 


As we draw our introductory survey to a close, we see that both the Old and New Testaments have much to teach us about the image and likeness of God. We further observe that over the years, theologians have looked at the image and likeness of God from different angles, each of which may assist us in appreciating its many stunning facets. Theologian Anthony Hoekema (1913-1988) notes that at times theologians speak of God’s image as a noun or structure that all people possess. All people are made in God’s image and retain God’s image, even if the image is corrupted by sin. Other times, theologians speak of God’s image as a verb or function to which people are called. We ought to actively image God and be like God in all that we do.  The image and likeness of God is truly a multifaceted theological gem, rich in meaning and significance.

Further Reading: Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986; Owen Strachan, Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind. Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2019.

Stephen K. Moroney is a part-time faculty member at Emmaus Theological Seminary. He earned a Ph.D. in theology from Duke University and served for 25 years as professor of theology at Malone University before taking his current position as Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries at Parkside Church Green.

Photo by Edgar Soto