In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, many pro-life Christians have asserted that human beings – even unborn children – are created in the “image of God,” and are therefore worthy of life and dignity. What does it actually mean to be made in God’s image, though? We often toss that phrase around without defining it.
If you’ve read the book of Genesis, you know that the concept of God’s image first appears in Genesis 1:26-27, when God says, “Let Us make Man in Our image, according to Our likeness…God created Man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Of all God’s creatures, only human beings are said to be made in His image. In fact, being made in the image of God is what gives mankind the authority to “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.” In other words, God told Adam and Eve, and their descendants, to rule the earth as His representatives because they were made in His image. But the image of God isn’t defined by our authority over creation; instead, our authority over creation derives from the fact that we’re made in His image. So once again we need to ask, “What is the image of God? What defines it?”
In the simplest of terms, to be made in somebody else’s image is to look like that person in some way. For example, I have three children, and they all resemble me to one degree or another. But one of my daughters looks more like me than my other two kids. People tell me that her face is the “spitting image” of my own. And when I look at her face, I see a smaller and better-looking image of the face that confronts me in the mirror every morning. My daughter bears my image. So, when the Bible says that we’re made in the image of God, it’s telling us that we look like Him in some very specific ways. God doesn’t have a physical body like we do, of course, so we need to define more specifically what it means to “look like God.”
First, human beings have a unique ability to reflect God’s moral character. God commanded His people to “be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:1; 1 Peter 1:15-16). No other creature on earth was given that command. To be holy is to reflect the moral character of God, to be set apart from sin while being set apart for righteousness. Only human beings have this capacity, and that’s because we bear the image of God. To put it in simple terms, if a dog attacks a child, we don’t hold it morally responsible for its actions. We might euthanize the dog to prevent it from hurting anybody else, but we don’t put dogs on trial or send them to jail. We don’t make them listen to a few good sermons to get sorted out. We understand that dogs don’t have an innate ability to understand right from wrong. On the other hand, if a grown man attacks and injures a child, we do hold that man morally responsible for his actions. The man would likely go to prison; if the child dies, the man might even be executed. We assume that under normal circumstances, human beings have a general awareness that hurting other people (especially smaller or weaker people) is morally wrong. It violates a higher code, even if we disagree on where that code came from. Even irreligious people generally believe that wantonly attacking children is wrong. One of the reasons we find sociopathy – the lack of a conscience – so scary and strange is because it is abnormal. It’s not the way we were designed to function. Some degree of morality seems to be written into our DNA. The Scripture says that that’s evidence of the image of God.
Second, human beings have the unique ability to relate to God spiritually. Jesus said that we can know God, and knowing Him is necessary for us to receive eternal life (John 17:3). In the Scriptures, only human beings are said to have the capacity to relate to God on a personal and spiritual basis. Romans 8:11 tells us that “if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” In other words, our future bodily resurrection is possible because we are spiritual beings. Unlike the animals, the Spirit of God can actually live within us! We have immortal spirits that allow us to receive eternal life, because our spirits can relate to His Spirit. Jesus told the woman at the well that God is a spiritual being (John 4:24). Because we are made in His image, we are also spiritual beings. For that reason, we can know God in ways that no other creature can know Him. For that reason, only human beings have the hope of eternal life.
Third, human beings are uniquely designed to radiate the glory of God. To put it simply, God’s glory is His greatness, or His importance and significance. To glorify God means that to demonstrate how amazing He is, and how worthy of worship. To some extent, all of creation brings glory to God (Psalm 19:1). When we see the beauty of the mountains, the oceans, or the wonderful creatures God has made, we are inspired to worship Him. All of those things bring God glory. But human beings are especially designed to bring God glory in ways that the rest of creation cannot do. Psalm 8:4-5 (NASB) says, “What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty!” In a very real sense, humanity is the crown of God’s creation. Because we are made in His image, we can reflect His greatness and power in a special way. In fact, there are hints throughout the Scripture that even our physical bodies were originally designed to shine with the light of God’s glory. For example, after Moses was in the presence of God, his face literally shone, so brightly that he had to wear a veil over his face (Exodus 34:29-35). Daniel 12:3 says that resurrected saints will “shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven.” One day, those who know Jesus will perfectly reflect God’s glory, spiritually, morally, and even physically. To be made in the image of God means that we have the ability to reflect His glory in every possible way: spiritually, morally, and physically.
You might have noticed by now that all three aspects of the image of God relate to potentialities that exist within every human being. In other words, the image of God isn’t determined by your intelligence, your physical abilities, your attractiveness, your race, or your gender, your age, or your physical location. The unborn child is made in God’s image every bit as much as the grown man. The physically or mentally disabled person shares in God’s image equally, along with the rest of humanity. Every single person is made in God’s image, designed to reflect His character, relate to Him personally, and radiate His glory. Because of sin and the fallenness of our world, our ability to reflect God’s image varies from person to person in the present time. But the day is coming when all those who know Him will perfectly reflect His glory, as He originally intended us to do.
For that reason, the image of God informs how Christians think about other people. Every person is worthy of life and dignity, not because of how strong they are, or how attractive, or how smart, or any other external characteristic. The baby in the womb is made in God’s image every bit as much as the woman on her deathbed. Each person is worthy of life and dignity because he or she is made in the image of the eternal God, with the potential to one day reflect His glory, forever and ever.