Meaning and Implications of the Divine Image in Humanity


This essay explores what it means when one states that man is created in the image of God. The doctrine of imago Dei represents humans as the divine image with peculiar quality giving them pre-eminence over all the other creatures. This essay determines whether humans were created as an image of God or are like God. The substantialistic view is that intrinsic traits are present in human nature and in each person. The relational and dynamic view is that the image is what a person does. The functional view is that what people do is to exercise dominion over the earth.


Different perspectives regarding the doctrine arise demonstrating the fluidity in the manner of distinction between humans and other creatures. From the notion of reason and its broader connotation to the question of morality and ability to choose and to seeking salvation and redemption by posing trust in God indicate that humans cannot be equated with the image of God. However, the intrinsic value of humanity reaffirms their faith in dignity and self-worth, which opens the conformity with images of God.

Humans must look inwards to find and see this image and to find a new creation with new knowledge. This is seen in the day-to-day practice of a Christians, such as in the social services that are non-exclusionary in nature or in the equal access to reproductive medicine irrespective of the gender. The ability to reason and the accountability to God shape humans conduct and their fellowship with God in determining justice-based policy measures, such as found in government policies concerning


Gen:1:27 says that God has created man in the image of himself. This verse means that the human person, whether male or female, is made in the image of God, in the imago Dei. This creation of God after the creation of the heaven and earth, water and dry land, day and night, and animals, birds and fish, is the pinnacle of the order of creation. Augustine in his work, titled De Diversis Quaestionibus, elaborated on this by stating that the ability of man to look inward is how they are created ad Imaginem. Thus, men are fully formed by this image that there nothing closer to God other than men. Thus, humanity itself is not the imago (the image of God) but is placed in a close and special relationship with God. This essay will elaborate on the meaning of imago Dei touching upon the relationship between God and men to determine whether or not men use their inward-looking ability to be in the form and manner God created them.

imago Dei – universal or subject to men’s reasoning

imago Dei represents a divine image as expressed by the Bible recognising the peculiar quality of a human person, which gives them pre-eminence over all the other creatures. This is found in Genesis 1:26 f that sets out what God said to make man in ‘our image’ after ‘our likeness’ and to have them dominate over other creatures and the earth. God created man with this resolution rather than a command. This Genesis prominently talks about ‘our image’ after ‘our likeness’, which is the topic under the current discussion.

imago Dei distinguishes humanity from other creations of God. Men reflect and represent God in some way. The image of God distinguishes mankind from the rest of creation. Mankind reflects and represents God. This also means that men are identical with God. They are not divine. Thus, to understand what the image of God means, a substantive view, a relational view and a functional view could be undertaken.

Patristic, medieval and modern interpreters have a speculative question, which is in what way humans are like God and unlike animals. David Cairns says that the image of God is conceived in the form of men’s power of reasoning. This is the substantialistic interpretation of imago Dei. The substantive view, thus, will hold that the imago Dei consists of intrinsic traits present in human nature and in each person. The image is universal to humanity irrespective of whether or not a person has attained redemption through Christ and is living a godly life. The traits may differ, but they are part of the human nature irrespective of whether or not a person acknowledges God.

The substantialistic conception is found in the Latin West in their notions of spirituality, conscience, freedom, immortality and personhood. Such interpretation represents a metaphysical analogy or similarity between the being of God and the human soul. This image is universal in nature that cannot be lost due to sin. The image does not exist in different degrees as it is primarily substantive enabling humans to fulfil their purpose to know God.

As against the substantialistic interpretation, there is a minority reading of imago Dei, which began in the Reformation by supplementing such interpretation with the relational, and dynamic notion of the image involving an ethical conformity to God. Martin Luther supported this minority notion by rejecting the substantialistic interpretation. Luther read the imago Dei as the original righteousness. To elaborate, Adam and humanity as such have lost the righteousness through sin. According to this relational view, the image is what a person does and not what it is. Tfhe image is regarding the experience of a relationship between people or between a person and God. This notion rejects the substantialistic notion that the image of God is universally found in people and raises the question of whether or not a indifferent towards God bear the image.

A middle path to interpreting imago Dei is the functional view. Accordingly, this view holds that imago Dei is something that people do. This is similar to the relational view. However, the interpretation of imago Dei as seen earlier also states that what people do is also to exercise dominion over the earth. The exercise of dominion over the earth and all the creatures represents a sense of sovereignty that God exercises over heaven and earth. Humans as created by God have substantial dominion over the earth and all the creatures. This could be the interpretation attached to Genesis 1:26-27 that states “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” followed immediately with “and let them have dominion.” However, the question is whether or not exercising dominion defines the image given that they could be closely connected but could not define each other.

It could be argued that imago Dei has been subject to a traditional interpretation by describing humans as the only being created in the image and likeness of God. This may not be correct as imago Dei can also describe other elements of the order created by God. imago Dei has frequently been interpreted to present the most important distinction amongst the creations has to be located between humans and all other creations. This is argued to be artificially imposed and the biblical and theological propositions for such interpretation is not adequate. Human beings are assumed to be different from other creations in terms of their look, action and treatment. The same indicators have also been used to distinguish between men and women; between races; and between genders. Such assumptions must be made with caution and the distinction made may not be justified. Because such a distinction is made by men. There is fluidity in the manner of such distinction. For example, there are separate days on which the light was separated from the dark or water from dryland. However, human beings are not considered sufficiently distinct as they were also created on the same day as other animals. Thus, there is a certain level of misunderstanding of the image of God.

It could be stated that there are frequent misconceptions of how the creation and continued existence of humanity is thought to be about the ways humans are like God. Adam and Eve were the image of God having all the attributes of God. However, after the Fall, the attributes were damaged. This meant that sin could damage the attributes or that the attributes are intact to suggest that humans are beings in God’s image. Some attached reason with being in the image of God. This was seen in the influence found in the early formative years of the Church. Augustine also connected reason with the image of God. Others have cited reason as the standard of determining what constitutes being in God’s image. Aquinas supported this view by seeing reason as what makes humans a prime candidate to be in the divine image. However, the association of reason may be illusionary as reason is not a simple element. It has a broader connotation including self-consciousness, self-transcendence, or freedom, which reflects a different dimension of the existence of humans. It could be personhood, soul, spirit or the mind. Thus, reason cannot be the dominant standard to determine image.

Human persons as created by God have certain unique values that separates them from other creatures. It is, thus, argued that if such uniqueness is removed, there cannot be any humanity. The uniqueness is rooted in being in the image of God. Otherwise, humanity does not have any good reason to be special. However, it is stated that the Fall has damaged the attributes of God in human beings. All attributes in mankind were corrupted, including their morality and intellect that made them seek their own ways rather than God’s ways. This did not mean that the image was lost. It was damaged and those who sought salvation through Christ gained a new self with renewed knowledge after the image of God. John Kilner and Brad Mellon argued that Christ is the ideal of God’s image. He is the moral and spiritual standard to which human beings must conform. They, thus, rejected the proposition of equating the image of God in individuals in connection with the question of the presence or absence of particular traits. All humans have the equal status before God.

The above comments may also indicate that humans cannot be like Jesus, but through him humans can be restored with the attributes that God gave to them when they were created. However, this notion can be considered illusionary. To elaborate, reference is made to the ethical care and treatment of persons with disabilities. Such persons are often devalued, which impacts the decisions regarding prematurely withdrawing and withholding life-sustaining treatment. It is to be noted here that the divine image in humans is not by sin and is not defined by traits and capabilities of human beings. It is the misunderstandings regarding this notion that subjects people with disabilities with disadvantages and deprivation of their dignity. It is for this reason that mercy must be shown to such people.

The ability to refrain from misunderstanding and practice all the good attributes in being in the image of God represents morality. Human persons are moral beings with their action defined by morality. Thus, their choices of action has real significance for themselves and the world. As such, humans must be valued for reasons beyond their contributions to the family or society, because they have values intrinsic in them for being in the image of God. There is a communicative value to this interpretation of the intrinsic value of humanity. It creates an experience of self-worth validating the belief of possessing dignity. This experience ignites the resources within people to experience in themselves the image of God. The human persons that do this prove themselves that they represent the images of God. The communicative value cannot be abandoned even when the face of a human is damaged.

The appropriate understanding of image of God has a significant impact on understanding the intrinsic values of human persons, including their dignity, conscience, reasoning, morality and spiritual standard. Validation and awareness that humans are made in the image of God and His likeness make humans understand the sanctity of their lives, whether it is impaired by sin or any kind of disabilities or weaknesses. This understanding shapes the conduct of human beings towards each other and the society.

The communicative value to this interpretation of the intrinsic value of humanity involves human beings’ complete trust in God. According to Simone Weil, possessing this trust will guide them the way if they are worthy so that they could follow the path to a union with God. Thus, a human can become less imperfect only when they are more attentive to God and demonstrate more move for God. Augustine says that when a soul is united with God, it is united with the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is in the mind that the Trinity is seen. Augustine writes: “They, then, who see their own mind, in whatever way is possible, and in it that Trinity of which I have treated, and yet they do not believe or understand it to be an image of God”. He writes that what the soul sees is a mirror. It is through this mirror that the soul can look through and see the image of the Trinity. According to Meister Eckhart, the union between the soul and God requires the soul to be a virgin without any alien images. This means that the soul should be without attachment. This is what Augustine meant by looking beyond the mirror or looking into one’s mind, which one may not be able to do so to understand that the image one sees is that of the God.

The varied interpretation of imago Dei comprises the notion that the attributes intrinsic in human nature because of being created by God in His likeness and in His image cannot be absent; the notion that these attributes can be damaged by sin and choices of actions by humans; and the nation that the ability to reason and seek salvation can conform humans to image of God. These notions validate the view of the core message of God's revelation that through redemption only can a human attain a new creation and through sanctification, the believers grow in godliness. In that manner, which is a continuous spiritual journey, humans can conform to the likeness of God. The new creation will have a renewed knowledge based on the image of God and conforming to such image. This perspective supports the view expressed earlier that human beings are not distinct from other creations of God, in that they also form part of and emerged from nature. Their place is more recent than what is usually acknowledged in theological reflection. Thus, humans are co-created.

Based on the discussion so far, the interpretation that humans are the divine image of God may seem ambiguous. At the same time, it is also empowering humans’ thoughts and emotions to think that humans through belief can unite with God by looking into self and realising that the image they see is the image of God.


This essay has offered different perspectives to the question of what it really means for men to be made in the image of God. The doctrine of imago Dei provides a positive representation of the purpose of why humans were created. By attaching a divine image, it offers a proposition that humans must see and conform to the attributes with which they were created. At the same time, although the intrinsic traits are universal, humans also exercise their ability to choose. For example, they can exercise reason or otherwise the notion of divine image cannot hold true. At the same time, the choice of action also rejects this notion of divine image.

The view that humans are created distinguishably is found is their consciousness, soulfulness or spirituality. Without these values, they are no longer unique. However, other attributes are also found in humans, such as sin that removed this uniqueness. In this situation, humans must seek salvation or redemption to attain a new creation with renewed knowledge in the image of God. Hence, humans are not representatives of God.

To conclude, there is a certain communicative value while interpreting what it means by the image of God. Humans pose trust in God to guide their souls to the union with God. They need to see their own mind to see the mirror and through which seek the image of God. This can be achieved only when done without any distraction or attachment, which will bring an understanding of the image.

In the Christian way of life, the imago Dei could be interpreted to suggest human persons are representative of God. Wayne Grudem presents a combination of the three views discussed above by stating that man in every way is like God in the image and likeness. It includes moral commands intrinsic in man and accountability towards God. Humans have a sense of what is right or wrong with the spiritual elements that are not materialistic. Humans have fellowship with God. They have the ability of reasoning and language with the awareness of destiny. Not only that, but humans also have creativity and emotions. They have the relational elements with the ability to form interpersonal relationships, such as marriage, friendship, church and government. They have dominion over other creations of God.

The doctrine of imago Dei is applied in day-to-day life of a Christian. For example, a Christian does not engage or promote assisted suicide or euthanasia in cases of terminally sick patients. It is only when medical treatment fails that medically induce death could be an appropriate measure. The act of saving a life or reducing suffering is, thus, performed according to a proper Christian orientation. This is found in the practice of evangelical faith that aims to remove the limitation of social services provided by faith-based organisations. Faith can, thus, promote and justify a non-exclusionary social service provision.

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The intrinsic attributes must not occupy a secondary position in government’s policy or social structure. Any kind of oppression or social injustice such as racial prejudice does not find place in the interpretation of the image of God. Thus, the aim of policy measures must be to humanise persons labelled as, in social service context, cases, or service users, clients or consumers by preventing humans from being viewed as objects. The equal social status that humans enjoy is a reflection of imago Dei. This doctrine prohibits devaluing or ignoring the divine attributes. For example, it prohibits Christian to exclude homosexual couples and single women from the benefits of reproductive medicine. Such prohibition is found in civil rights law and court decisions.

To conclude, the doctrine of the image of God indicates that all people are equal, which should define the model of social service. Faith is used to reduce the devaluation of people found in the assumption that their behaviours reflect their values, aspirations, and identities.


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