What does it mean to be made in God’s image?

May 4, 2016

The Christian faith and worldview is predicated on a set of nonnegotiable truths. One of these is that human life is inherently valuable. Christians have articulated and acted upon this transcendent understanding of human dignity throughout history, whether opposing infanticide and child abandonment, fighting against chattel slavery or engaging in civil disobedience to protest segregation. The powerful idea that every single person has inherent value is rooted in the image of God, a doctrine expressed in the opening chapter of Genesis.

Although “image of God” has become ubiquitous in Christian literature and conversation in recent years, it has not been robustly defined. Perhaps this is due to the lack of agreement throughout church history on what exactly constitutes image of God, which no doubt stems from the fact that Scripture declares but does not elaborate on the axiom in detail.  

But much can and should be said. The fact that human beings are created in God’s image shapes the Christian worldview and affects how we see God, the world and one another. It informs how we understand the rest of the Bible’s story and provides a theological foundation for ethics and engagement. In short, a proper understanding of the image of God should animate everything we do, and as a result, we should endeavor to define it biblically; this will enable us to then survey what issues Christians should care about.

Different understandings of the image of God

Throughout church history, there has been universal agreement that image of God is a significant theological concept. But debate has abounded regarding what the image fundamentally refers to.  

Some have argued in favor of a structural view that believes man’s ontological (the nature of being) qualities, such as rationality and cognitive capacity, constitute the image of God. These qualities distinguish man from the rest of creation. Early church leaders, such as Irenaeus and Augustine, as well as John Calvin, held variants of this view.

Another position is the relational view that stresses the importance of man’s relationships. Emil Brunner and Karl Barth advocated this approach, where being made in God’s image fundamentally entails living in relationship with God and others.

A third view is the functional or “vice-regency” position that posits man’s derivative authority to rule on behalf of God defines the image. Unlike the rest of creation, it is man that functions as God’s chief representative in the world. This view stresses the command to exercise dominion (Gen. 1:26-28).

The image of God and Ancient Near Eastern culture

It is evident in Genesis 1 that the Bible is content with simply asserting that man is somehow like God. Further elaboration is not provided. Why is this? As Bruce Ware has noted, technical terminology in speaking or writing is usually introduced and not explained in contexts where the audience is already familiar with specialized language. It seems fair to assume Moses was operating with this expectation. Therefore, considering Genesis 1 in light of the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) usage of image of God might be helpful.

A seminal study on ANE images is David J.A. Clines' The Image of God in Man. Clines argues that ANE literature contains three commonalities in accounts that utilize image symbolism. First, a deity imputes a substance to an earthly king, enabling him to represent the divine. Second, the empowered king represents the deity by ruling as vice-regent. Third, only the king is ever given this privilege.

Applying this to Genesis, it is reasonable that Moses had this background in mind. First, God breathed into Adam the breath of life. Divine empowerment was requisite to function as God’s image. Second, man is tasked with exercising dominion and ruling as God’s vice-regent. Clines' third characteristic, however, does not apply. The Bible surprises us at this point by affirming that everyone bears God’s image. Clines' reconstruction of the ANE background is helpful and may account for why Moses did not furnish a more precise definition. His original readers would have had a framework to interpret image language and its connotations.  

Through the lens of the ANE background, it is clear that certain aspects of the structural, relational and functional perspectives provide a holistic understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God (i.e., the structural serves the purpose of the functional carried out in relationship).

The image of God, therefore, includes both who man is and what he does. Ontological capacities and functionality are inseparably tied because the human person as a created whole is the image of God.

Man is like a statue erected by an ancient king—as the statue bore the image of the king and signified rulership, man bears God’s image in the cosmic temple of the world, representing his authority and dominion. Man is the visible representation of the invisible God. If one wants to know what God looks like, simply look at man, the crowning jewel of creation and the only creature made in God’s image and likeness.

The image of God and cultural engagement

One of the tragic results of sin is that man no longer properly images God; the remnants of the image have been marred. The relationship with our Creator is broken, and redemptive history bears witness to man’s inability to obey and honor God.

But the glorious truth of the New Testament is that restoration is possible through Christ, the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15), whose redeeming work restores the image to repentant sinners and establishes them as co-heirs with Christ.  

In this light, the Biblical understanding of man’s creation in God’s image has stunning implications for Christian ethics. Not only is everyone created in God’s image, but every human being is a potential future ruler of the universe.

C.S. Lewis poignantly remarked: “It is a serious thing . . . to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

In the new creation, God will once again set up his image bearers. But this time, God’s vice-regents will be perfect because of their union with Christ. Paradoxically, the new creation has already begun. It was inaugurated when Jesus was raised from the dead and will be consummated when he returns.

And as Christians waiting patiently for this day, we will endeavor to treat people made in God’s image with dignity and respect irrespective of gender, race, age, nationality or economic status because we remember our King’s words that as we did for “the least of these my brothers, you did also to me” (Matt. 25:40).

Thus, we will care for those caught in the vice grip of poverty. We will fight against human trafficking. We will uphold the dignity of the elderly and disabled. We will advocate on behalf of immigrants. We will work for religious liberty and conscience freedom. We will stand for marriage. We will promote racial reconciliation. And we will fight the culture of death in all its ugly forms.

We will do all this out of love for God and concern for those that bear his sacred image.

Join us on January 18–20, 2018,  for Evangelicals for Life 2018. Keep an eye out here for more information. 

David Closson

David Closson, M.Div., serves as the Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council where he researches and writes on issues related to religious liberty, human sexuality, and the development of policy from a biblical worldview. Currently, David is completing a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics (with a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24