The Image of God vs. the Likeness of God

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

The trend of late is for contemporary theologians to lump the ideas of “image” and “likeness” together and assume that God was repeating Himself and that He is unnecessarily verbose. I don’t buy that- when the Bible is quoting men they may be so, but not Him. This view was also not the practice of the ancients. The Orthodox Church and the Latin Church both thought there was a difference between being made in the “image” of God and being made in the “likeness” of God. They did not agree with each other on what those differences meant, but they agreed that there was a distinction, as did the famous Jewish sage of the period, Maimonides.

I agree with the ancients who looked for meaning in every shade of difference between terms in scripture, and take umbrage at the trend of recent scholarship to the extent that it attempts to lump different Greek and Hebrew words carelessly together with a single meaning. Christ Himself told us not to be like the heathen who “suppose that they will be heard for their many words”. Christ silenced the Sadducees with an argument which hinged upon the “tense” of a single word (Matt. 22:32) in a statement from God. When God is speaking, every iota of every word bears meaning. This being the attitude of God, it does not seem reasonable to suppose that He repeats Himself without purpose.

I am with the ancients on this subject, though in this instance the Hebrew meanings of the words do appear to be so close that they could be considered synonyms. In determining what scripture is telling us about the difference in word choice let us start out with what is clear. The Hebrew preposition attached to “image” in this verse is a more specific term than that which is attached to “likeness”. Man is to be made “in” the image of God, but only “after” or “according to” His likeness. The former then may be viewed not as a synonym of the latter, but as describing a more precise condition of it. In English we might say “He looks like you” to describe one level of similarity but say “He is the spitting image of you” to express a higher and more exact level of similarity.

The Hebrew term for image is used for graven images- idols of gods (Num. 33:52, 2nd Kings 11:18 et al). It is used where it was thought in the pagan context that the block of metal, wood, or stone was not merely a figure of the god but the actual representation of the god. If you were looking at the idol you were looking at the god. An analogy might be that you cannot see my spirit, but if you are looking at my body then you are looking at the closest thing to an image of my spirit.

In the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, the word used for “image” is eikón from which we get the English word “icon”. The word picture for this term is the image from a reflective surface, such as a mirror or in molten silver when it reaches a high level of purity in refinement.

Thus the resemblance referred to is not just because of similarity in some form, capacity, or property, but a high fidelity representation of an original. So for example, someone who is not closely related to you may look “like” you. But they are not made in your image. You share a similar form, but it is not because of you coming out in them. You just share a similar appearance. But when your child looks like you it is because it is you coming out in them. A mirror image suggests there is an original being reflected. It is a reflection based on an original. A likeness does not imply that.

It also had other meanings, for example it could be used for things that were stand-ins for the original, such as when the Philistines sent a sacrifice to God consisting of golden images of the tumors and mice which plagued them. The term came to mean “vanity” or a “shadow” because the children of Israel were later taught that the idols were merely blocks of wood and stone, and not the visible representation of an actual divine being. In this very early document though, the word can reasonably be supposed to be connected to the former meaning.

One must take the scripture (Genesis 9:6) which says that “God made man in His own image” in light of this larger picture. He did, but that does not mean that men currently born into the world are in the image of God. It is what is in heaven where His will is done and what can happen on earth when God’s intent is fulfilled in our lives.

When we are born in this world, we are not born in the “image” of God. All men are born in the likeness of God, but not the image. We have an earthly image. This is why it is written (John 3:7) “you must be born again.” If you were born in the image of God the first time, you would not need to be born again a second time. When we are born again, we have a heavenly image, and through faith and the renewal of our minds by the Holy Spirit we become conformed to that new image which we have. Here are some scriptures which support this declaration, starting in Romans chapter eight:

29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
And further in Colossians the third chapter…
9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds;
10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:
And then from 1st Corinthians the fifteenth chapter:
47 The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. 48 As is the earthy, such as they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such as they also that are heavenly 49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
And also in 2nd Corinthians the third chapter:
“18 But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”

From these four passages, and from others besides, it should be clear that man is not automatically born “in the image of God”. All men are made “according to the likeness” of God, but this is not the same thing as being created “in the image” of God. Only those in relationship with Him are in His image. Hitler was not created “in His image”, nor was Jack the Ripper, or any other number of notorious monsters in human form. They were according to the likeness of God in the sense that they had the potential for connectedness and moral awareness. They used that god-like capacity to ungodly ends.

We are not made in His image when we are born. An image is an exact representation. We are according to His likeness, but our natural image is more similar to that of Adam after the fall. We who believe are being conformed to God’s image by the renewal of the Holy Spirit. This is what the scripture teaches.

To that you may say “Aha but Adam was made in the image of God.” Well, he started that way. Then the fall happened. By the end of things not even Adam considered himself to be in the image of God, only the likeness. See Genesis 5:1 which is the towledah for “the generations” or account of Adam. He says that God made man “after the likeness” of God, but never mentions “image”. We will explore that passage in more detail later.
When we are born again, and Christ said we must be born again, we are re-born in His image. As we walk with Him in faith we are conformed to that new image which He has given us. This is a view consistent with Romans 8:29 and the rest of these verses.

Now let’s consider the term “likeness.” The term used for “likeness” is a variation on the Hebrew term də·mūṯ. It is often translated as “resembling”. The word is used twice in Ezekiel 1:5 when the four living creatures who had the “likeness” of a man appeared in a firestorm. Although those creatures looked like a man, it was not because they were copying man or inspired by man. It was just what they looked like. In Psalms 58:4 the lies of the wicked are “like” the venom of a poisonous snake. Demut is used to mean that two things or people are alike in some way, and not because they have the same nature in all aspects.

From the way the word is used, and the weaker preposition with which it is paired, it is clear that “according to the likeness” of God is a less exact representation of God than being “in the image” of God. “According to the likeness” of God is a state which applies to all humans. This is confirmed in Genesis 5:1. Being “in the image of God” is a closer state of connectedness which all humans may have the ability to attain but is only manifested in those who have a relationship with the Divine.

So what does it mean to be “according to the likeness” of God? What makes man like God in a way which does not apply to anything else He created or made? I mean what makes us different in kind, not just in degree. For example, you might say that we are more intelligent than animals. OK, but animals can still be intelligent and we are dim bulbs indeed compared to God. If our degree of intelligence makes us different from beasts, it still does not make us “like God.” Our differences in intelligence with the animals are differences in degree, not in kind. The same is true with our use of language, and our use of tools. When we say someone is “inhuman” we don’t mean that they can’t make a decent flint scraper!

No, what separates us from the beasts of the earth in kind is our ability to unite in Spirit with the Divine. The doorway to this unity is embedded in another feature which we possess- an ability to make moral judgements. We have a spiritual aspect or dimension which other living things lack. We can cooperate with one another based not on mere instinct or just mutual advantage for some material need, but because we judge some common cause to be in the right.

Where we are different in kind from the beasts is that humans have the potential to be of one nature with God. Sinful man can only access this potential through membership in the body of Christ, and we sense only the barest glimmer of it in this world, but when we finally become one with Him we will understand how He is one with the Father- one in nature. It is a capacity which beasts completely lack.

I know there has been a debate over to what degree higher animals possess “self-awareness.” Mankind though, goes beyond self-awareness and seeks out true connectedness. We are self-aware, but at our best we are also aware that there is something beyond ourselves, and bigger than ourselves. We can make a choice to connect and serve not out of mere instinct, but by our conscious choice.

We are “religious” by nature. Properly connected, we are capable of accessing a reference point for right and wrong which is beyond ourselves and our interests. This is what truly sets us apart from the higher animals in that here our differences are of kind, not just degree. That man rarely uses this potential does not mean that it is absent.

This is why I am unthreatened by the idea that there may have been hominids, two legged beings, with relatively large brains walking around making some sort of tools back in the dawn of time. I never considered that being “according to the likeness of God” (much less being “in the image of God”) meant having two legs, or a large brain, or even being able to make a flint scraper. That is not what makes us human. If we give up our humanity, I suppose that is what we can degenerate to- apes wearing trousers as C.S. Lewis once put it, but that is not how we were made.

We have a spiritual dimension which permits us to relate to one another and to God in a deeper way than that available to the beasts. If these other creatures did not have that, then they were not made in His image or after His likeness. In Genesis 1:26 God proposed creating something new. That was Man.


@AllenWitmerMiller it is above. I am splitting the thread anew with this one.

Thanks much. I’m going to be tied up a lot in the coming hours but I’m certainly going to work through your explanations. This is an interesting topic which one doesn’t see explored all that often.

Thanks for putting such careful effort into this!

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From my meager understanding of the topic, I’m pretty sure most Hebrew Bible scholars think image and likeness carry the same meaning. Is that what is called “a Hebraism”?

Nevertheless! Recontextualized, seen from the light of the Christ, I want to agree with the Fathers that image refers to our initial created state while likeness refers to what we can become IN CHRIST. Perhaps you think I can have my cake and eat it too. Well, in this case, I think I can. Christ fundamentally transforms the OT, and the original meaning isn’t the text’s primary meaning any longer.

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