What does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God? Theologians have kicked this question around for centuries. Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t explain the image of God in detail.
The two phrases “in Our image” and “in Our likeness” are parallel expressions. The Hebrew word for “image” comes from a root that speaks of carving. It suggests that man is somehow carved into the shape of God. Is this carving physical, biological, emotional, intellectually, relational, spiritual, moral, or what? How are we like God?
John Calvin said, “The image of God extends to everything in which the nature of man surpasses that of all other species of animals. . . . And though the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and the heart, or in the soul and its powers, there was no part even of the body in which some rays of glory did not shine.”
I love Calvin’s phrase “rays of glory.” The rays of God’s glory shine upon us as human beings and clothe us in dignity. Whatever it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, it is high and lofty and sacred. No plant, animal, bird, or fish shares this carving, nor can such creatures evolve into the likeness of God. The divine image is something that God uniquely impresses on humans. It is what defines our identity. It sets us apart from every other aspect of God’s creation.
Anthropology and theology must begin with Genesis to fully understand the nature of man. The image of God explains our moral consciousness, creativity, and capacity for intimate relationships. It explains the higher dimensions of our intellect and emotions. Our language and communication skills are a reflection of our God-likeness. Even the desire for a personal relationship with our Creator says something about us possessing the divine image.
It is because we are created in the image of God that life is sacred and should be treated as such even as we consider public policy. In an article for the Washington Post, Michael Gerson made this important connection. He writes, “If religious belief about the dignity of human life were illegitimate as a basis for public policy, there would have been no abolition or civil rights movements. The idea of a divine image found in every human being is one of the main foundations for the American tradition of liberty, tolerance and pluralism. Religious duty motivates millions to love and serve their neighbors – and thus to respect their neighbor’s rights of conscience.”
Gerson is spot on. When we move away from the idea of a divine image being found in every human being, life becomes cheap and disposable. Then atrocities like abortion on demand, euthanasia and a host of other crimes against humanity become easier for society to accept. When that happens we deface the image of God. It's like spraying graffiti on his likeness.