Losing the Image?
Was the image of God in humanity lost or damaged when Adam and Eve rebelled against God? It seems that many people think it was. Berkhof states, ‘it is unwarranted to say that man has completely lost the image of God’, but also says that ‘the image of God has indeed been vitiated [i.e. spoiled] by sin’.1 Grudem similarly says, ‘After the fall, then, we are still in God’s image … but the image of God in us is distorted; we are less fully like God than we were before the entrance of sin.’2 And it’s not only systematic theologians who take this view; it is also found in popular-level Christian literature.
Despite it’s popularity, I’ve never quite seen how this view can be defended biblically, and I actually think that upholding it is potentially very dangerous. Being a good protestant, I cry ad fontes! What does the Bible actually say? In this post, I’ll give a brief summary of my view on this question,3 and in subsequent posts I’ll outline my understanding of the image and why I think this all matters so much.
The Image in Scripture
Humanity is clearly created in the image of God pre-Fall (Genesis 1:26-27),4 and while humans are certainly affected by our rebellion against God in Genesis 3, there is no indication that the divine image is affected. Likewise, when Genesis 5:1 mentions that humanity was created in God’s image, there is no suggestion that this has been damaged by the Fall.
The few subsequent explicit references to the image in Scripture also give no indication that it has been damaged or lost. Genesis 9:6 clearly implies that the image still applies to all humans as it is given as the reason why human life should not be taken and why capital punishment will be implemented in cases where a human has taken the life of another. Similarly, in James 3:9, being made in the likeness of God is given as the reason why the tongue should not be used to curse people. Again the image is seen to remain, and the function of the image is somewhat parallel to that in Genesis 9:6. The final explicit reference to the image in Scripture, 1 Corinthians 11:7, also implies that the image is still present with no hint that it has been damaged or lost.
The Restoration of the Image?
When attempts are made to root in Scripture the claim that the image has been lost or damaged, these are usually made from passages which are understood to suggest that salvation in Christ includes a restoration to God’s image. Even though the supposed problem is never stated in Scripture, it is reasoned from the solution. Solution follows plight. (A concept which will be familiar to those who know something of 20th century interpretation of Paul!) But a closer look at these texts suggests that such readings are mistaken.
The three texts most often read this way all come from Paul. In Romans 8:29, Paul speaks of our being predestined ‘to be conformed to the image of his [i.e. God’s] Son’. In context, the emphasis is on the son aspect. Romans 8:18-30 are an explanation of how the children of God, who will inevitably suffer (8:17), can be confident of God’s love for them even in the face of suffering. It is a passage about sonship. This explains why the purpose of the conforming is stated to be that Christ would have many brothers (8:29). Also, while Romans is big on humanity’s problem, Paul never identifies that problem as a loss of the image.
In 2 Corinthians 3:18 those beholding the Lord’s glory ‘are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’. What is this image? Well just a few verses later Christ is identified as ‘the image of God’, the focus being on his identity as the divine son of God, rather than the perfect human. In this context, therefore, transformation into the image is about becoming more like Christ in how we live rather than a restoration to the image of God given in the creation of humanity.
A similar thing is happening in Colossians 3:10. The new self is ‘being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’, but Christ has already been identified as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15), clearly with reference to his divine status rather than his humanity and in a context where he is linked with creative activity (Col. 1:16). Again it seems this changing in line with the image is about becoming more like Christ, not a restoration of the Genesis 1 image.
In exploring these passages, Kilner introduces a useful distinction between status and standard.5 The image of God in Genesis 1 is about the status of humanity. It is an unchangeable status given by God in creation. The image of Christ to which believers are conformed is the standard for humanity, the measuring line for how we should live. Because of our status, we should look to be restored to the standard, but the status itself has not been damaged. He gives the illustration of a Stradivarius violin which becomes damaged. Its status as a Stradivarius isn’t affected by the damage, but because of its status it is right that it is restored to its intended standard.
I find it hard to see any scriptural justification for the view that the image has been lost or damaged by sin, despite the popularity of this view. The ideas of loss or damage are never stated in Scripture, they are not implied by the language of being conformed to the image of Christ, and are undermined by the explicit affirmation of the image continuing after the Fall.
How then should we understand the image of God? And does this bit of detail actually really matter? I think there is a better way of understanding the image. And I think this detail really does matter. I’ll explain why in my next few posts.
- 1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (The Banner of Truth, 1958), p.204
- 2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994), p.444
- 3. My position on this question has been confirmed and further developed by two articles in particular: Gerald Bray, ‘The Significance of God’s Image in Man’, Tyndale Bulletin 42.2 (Nov. 1991), 195-225. John F. Kilner, ‘Humanity in God’s Image: Is the Image Really Damaged?’, JETS 53/3 (Sept. 2010), 601-17.
- 4. Obviously, Genesis 1:26-27 actually talk about both the image and likeness, but I don’t think any distinction between the two is implied as they seem to be used interchangeably elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Gen. 5:1, 3; James 3:9), so I will just use ‘image’ to stand for both terms.
- 5.John F. Kilner, ‘Humanity in God’s Image: Is the Image Really Damaged?’, JETS 53/3 (Sept. 2010), 601-17 (p.615)