5 Reasons the “Image of God” Is Ambiguous

If you asked me to describe my wife, the first words out of my mouth are fairly important – and dangerous. If my wife is standing nearby and the first thing I say is “Well, she doesn’t mop the floors much,” I guarantee that I’ll be sleeping on those very same floors later that night. It’s not that this isn’t true (mopping the floors is actually my job), but what you say first says a lot about what you think of the person that you’re trying to describe. What you say first matters.

The first thing that the Bible says about human persons is that we are made “in the image of God.” So it would seem reasonable to conclude that this is a fairly important statement.

But why is it so confusing?

People have argued for centuries about what it means to be made “in the image of God.” If it’s so important, why has there been so much disagreement? I’d like to suggest five reasons.

question mark, mystery, doubt, image of god

1. Biblical Ambiguity

The most obvious problem is that the biblical texts just aren’t all that clear. The Bible simply tells us that we’re made in the image God, and makes no attempt to explain exactly what that means. Go ahead, read Genesis 1:26-27, and look for some explanation of what those words mean. There isn’t one. In later posts, we’ll explore some different options for understanding the phrase, but it’s worth noting right away that the Bible just isn’t all that clear. It doesn’t say.

2. Minimal Data

A similar problem comes from the fact that the image of God just isn’t referred to all that much in the rest of the Bible. After its initial use in the creation account, there are only two other direct references to the image in the OT (Gen. 5.1; 9.6). We do find a few more references in the NT (1 Cor. 11.7; 2 Cor. 3.18; 2 Cor. 4.4; Eph. 4.24; Col. 1.15; Jas. 3.9), and many will add passages like Psalm 8 where there seems to be an allusion to the image of God. But that still amounts to a relatively small number of direct references to a concept that is considered by many to be one of the central biblical assertions about what it means to be human.

3. Cultural Bias

Our cultural baggage is always in play when we read the Bible. But it’s particularly evident when it comes to interpreting the imago Dei. Every culture tends to view the imago through its conception of what it means to be truly human. So, for many of the early Greek theologians, the image referred to our rationality, which fit well the Greek notion that human persons are essentially “rational animals.” In more recent times, theologians have emphasized our capacity for meaningful relationships as the core of the imago, which fits well with the modern idea that all things are defined relationally. This consistent tendency should cause us to question any proposed interpretation of the imago and ask whether it’s not just another attempt to make the Bible teach what we already believe.

4. Differing Contexts

Everyone agrees that you need to read biblical passages “in context.” But sometimes that’s not as easy as it appears. What exactly is the proper context for interpreting these verses? Many OT scholars argue that we need to read them in their cultural context, defining “image” and “likeness” on the basis of how they were used in the surrounding cultures and in their religious literature. Others restrict the context more narrowly to the biblical texts. But even this gets rather complex. Genesis 1 and 2 read like very different narratives, and the image of God is not found in the latter chapter at all. So, like many scholars, should we restrict our study almost exclusively to Genesis 1? Or should we treat both chapters as a complex whole with both chapters informing one another? And what about later passages like Psalm 8? And what about the NT? To what extent is it legitimate to interpret Genesis 1 through the NT emphasis on Jesus as the true image of God? How you answer each of these questions nuances your approach to the text, shaping your conclusion in significant ways. And since each of these is debated, we shouldn’t be surprised at the disparity of the resulting interpretations.

5. Differing “Gods”

As we’ll see in the next post, most people agree that at its most basic, the image of God means that humans “reflect” God in some way. In other words, there’s some sense in which we make God visible in the world. So, as I said in my previous post, humans are supposed to see God when they look at each other. We’re his images. (Trying to figure out precisely what that means is the hard part.) But that means what we think about God significantly shapes what we think about the image. And since there are almost as many different ways of understanding God as there are people to do the understanding, we end up with a fair amount of diversity in understanding the imago.

Is This All a Waste of Time?

All of this leaves some people wondering if there’s any point in trying to figure out what the imago actually means. Some contend that we’re making a big deal out of nothing. Since the concept really doesn’t come up that much in the Bible, it’s not worth all the time and energy. It’s kind of like what lots of people think about the millennium. There probably is a right answer, but it’s not important enough to worry about.

Others have argued that the concept is important, but we’re just not supposed to know what it means. If we were, God would have told us. Instead, the imago is an empty cipher. It’s there to point out the fact that we do reflect God in the world, but God intentionally doesn’t tell us what that means. Indeed, figuring that out is at least partly what the human journey is all about. Being created “in the image of God” is the beginning of a story, one that we’re still working on.

I can’t give a convincing answer to the question until we’ve had the chance to dig into this a bit more. By the time we’re done, I think we’ll find that the first response is clearly inadequate. Just because a concept isn’t explicitly mentioned in scripture very often, doesn’t mean that it’s not important. I think we’ll find that the concept is assumed throughout the Bible and that it really is one of the more important biblical statements about what it means to be human. And, although there’s a lot to appreciate about the second response, it goes a bit too far. I do think there’s an open-ended aspect to the imago, but that doesn’t mean we can’t say anything about what it actually means.




  1. says

    Marc, great lead-in to this question; the first thing we say certainly is important.

    How would you rate the significance of ANE and OT data on image/likeness (tselem and idols/priestly context) and ANE data on image/likeness-as-royalty?

  2. CarolJean says

    If image of God has to do with reflecting and making visible the invisible God in the world then the best way for us to do that is to follow the example of Jesus Christ since he is the image of God and we are changed into his image by the Spirit of God working in us.

    • says

      That’s a great point. In my next post, I’ll identify some thing I think most people agree on regarding the imago, and the christological focus of the NT is one of them. But even with that, I think people often fail to ground what they say about the imago in who Jesus is and what he’s done.

  3. Hoyt Roberson says

    It’s not really that hard.
    God is ______
    Fruit of the Spirit is _______
    The Law and Prophets hang on two commands.
    A new command, to _____
    Even in the Book of the Twelve we’re told what God expects.

    It is one big love fest.

  4. Patrick says

    I think Carol’s response is a good one. The term may mean He gave us some unique ability He didn’t give other creation to re-present His virtues on earth because Jesus is the exact impression of Yahweh or as John 1:14 has it, Jesus exegetes God to humanity.

    Sin has interrupted that process for us, but, God restored it in Christ to the extent we allow Him access to our hearts.

    There’s another word in that Genesis passage. “Likeness”. I don’t know the philology of the Hebrew term, but, in Ezekiel 1:25-28 there is a vision of pre incarnate Yahweh and I wonder if that human form isn’t the “likeness”?


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