Can we see remnants of the image of God in unbelievers? What about in Christians? To what extent is restoration to the image of God actually possible? This article surveys the high origins of man as image-bearer, the depths to which man fell, and what a restored image of God looks like.

Source: De Reformatie, 2001. 7 pages. Translated by Albert H. Oosterhoff.

In the Image of God: Remnant and Restoration

two people

Karen has a full-time position as executive assistant. She has worked for years in the executive offices of a company. Her employers commend her for her exceptional ability. They praise her dedication, her collegiality, and her loyalty to the company. She will not allow herself to be lured away by another business. In her own time she works as a volunteer in a Ronald McDonald house. And she does it with devotion. She is completely engaged with the weal and, especially, the woe of the constantly changing occupants. Karen is not a Christian. She calls herself humane. Can we observe remnants of the image of God in her? Or is that saying too much? What if the same Karen were a Christian? Would she then look like Christ as image of God? To what extent is restoration actually possible?

Separate Status🔗

A divine consultation took place before the creation of human beings (Gen. 1:26). That did not happen for any other living being, even though the three persons of the Trinity were also involved in their creation. But this creation is so extraordinary that it is preceded by a private deliberation. Evidently, it is the zenith of God’s work of creation. This creation affects God himself. He created all other living creatures on the land, in the sea, and in the air, according to their kinds. But he created human beings in his image. The just-created man points upward to God. He was made almost divine (Ps. 8:6). He received a separate status, for there was no one like him.

What makes him so different from other living creatures? He does not lack awareness and does not operate by instinct as the animals do. Rather, he was made alive with a full consciousness. He is an independent being, equipped with a clear intellect, a fine emotion, and a pure will. God created a personality in man, an “opposite,” with whom he can speak face to face. That is what makes him unique and the image of God. He is especially predisposed and attuned to his Creator, with the intention that he should respond to God’s love as a matter of course and with a heart that is directed toward him. Nothing has been imposed on or preconceived for him. For he is not a pre-programmed robot. He is a man with the freedom of choice, not free of obligation, but acting voluntarily.


Much of what is written about man as “image of God” begins with a correction. It does not mean that we are a portrayal of God, as if we look like him in a particular way. Or as if we display an outward resemblance to him. You cannot replace the mighty God with images. What does it mean then? It is not about an external likeness, but about representation. In earlier times an idol represented the influence of the god. Thereby he showed that he was present. But man as image of God was not created to portray the invisible God, but to represent him in his actions. It portrays his preeminent position. It doesn’t matter how you identify him further: as viceroy, governor, or ambassador. Such a person does not at all have to look like the person he represents. What matters is that he is fully committed to his principal and displays that.

A Relationship🔗

The image of God denotes a status, but it also denotes a relationship—in the first place, the relationship of human beings with his Creator. For that is his nature. He is completely attuned to his Creator. Precisely attuned to his Creator. Directed to harmony with him, in order to give ear to him and to follow him. In addition there is the relationship with other human beings. For God has not created unconnected individuals. From the beginning he laid connections between them, irrespective of gender or character. And from that also flows the relationship to yourself. In light of the association with others, you discover who you are yourself. The differences bring the diverse gifts in the open. Finally, there is the relationship with your social environment. For it is difficult to imagine man apart from his environment.

In short, the intention is that man do justice, with heart and soul, to his Creator, his fellow human beings, himself, and his social environment. He must practice righteousness. That indicates the right relationships in which human beings have been placed. Everything has been brought into harmony so sensitively that the least deviation has great consequences.


Creating, Governing, and Preserving🔗

The position has been defined. The relationships have been outlined. But in what way do human beings represent God? A clear example is when Adam names the animals. God brings them to him to see what he should call them (Gen. 2:19). Apparently God values the independence of the man that much. He may act independently, use his power of discernment to classify the various species distinctly, and call in aid his creativity to think of suitable names. Creative governing is characteristic for man. In that way it becomes evident that man is God’s image. His actions are a reflection of his Creator. For he can recognize himself completely—even in advance—in the result: whatever the man called every living being that was his name (Gen. 2:19). Creativity is given all kinds of room. Human beings can engage in challenges, introduce changes, and introduce new combinations.

Creativity is not the be all and the end all of governing creation. The intention is not solely to develop something new. It is even more important to preserve, to manage carefully what creation offers. Human beings have been endowed with an ability to appreciate things for a reason.


Up to this point we’ve spoken mostly about the man. The man, Adam, was created in God’s image. But that includes male and female, even though the woman had not yet been created. Male and female are truly essential for representing God on earth. Both the typically male and the typically female characteristics point upward to him. The aggregate characteristics of a man and a woman must be reflected if human beings are to be considered image of God.

Adam and Eve may reflect their God also in the unity he gave them. That unity extends much further than becoming one physically. It is expressed in working, participating, taking action, building, etc., as a unit. The love that enables this unity must serve as example for all social relationships. And that becomes apparent especially when a man and a woman become father and mother. In their care for their children they represent the image of God as father and as mother.


When you think about all this, you discover how positive the biblical image of human beings is. Note well: it is almost divine! Usually Christians are accused of upholding a negative human image. But God’s Word shows that that is incorrect. This is apparent when you pay attention to the beginning, and even when you consider man’s bad development.

But haven’t human beings been a great disappointment? Haven’t they fallen deeply from their high position? They were not satisfied with their high status and wanted a higher one. How presumptuous! For then they became a caricature of God’s image (Gen. 3:22). All relationships were disrupted. That becomes apparent immediately when the first people broke away from God. When the relationship with God was broken, all other relationships were broken too. Their mutual relationship fell apart in recrimination. They became estranged from each other in shame. They no longer felt safe in their environment and hid themselves. What’s left of the sensitive harmony? Irreparably disrupted. Did human beings perhaps forfeit their position as image of God?

Broken chain

Not Entirely, or Not at All?🔗

This question has been discussed a lot. One person will say: of course, there’s nothing left, or at most there is a memory. The image was shattered into smithereens as it were. Another person takes the view that in one sense the image is gone, but in another sense it is not. Human beings have lost their position when you consider how people fail to represent God in their actions. But the Bible does not say expressly anywhere that human beings have lost the image of God. In fact, two texts point in another direction. In Genesis 9:6 God commands human beings not to shed blood because he made them in his image. And James 3:9 points out the seriousness of cursing people, who have been made in God’s likeness. These passages do not speak of a memory. Instead, they make clear that God still views human beings as they were created. No matter how hideous people have become, how estranged from God and others, and also how affected, twisted, and bruised, God has not lost the image. He continues to see his original creation in them, the creation as he originally intended. He never undid the high position of human beings. No one is ever discharged as image of God. And therefore a human life remains precious and valuable to God. The pinnacle of his creation is so important to him that when someone affects his creature, he affects his Creator. That affects him in his role as Creator. Whoever dishonours a human being, insults his Maker.


Are there, so to speak, any remnants left over of the image of God? Admittedly, it is a metaphor. But it is tempting. For example, when people appear to be incurably religious and keep wondering whether there might be a higher power. They can’t get round their religious consciousness (Rom. 1:20). Similarly, when you see fellow human beings extend exemplary help with all their might. And when they are always ready to lend assistance and to meet others part way. They do this when it becomes apparent that there is a new trend to do volunteer work, even though they already lead busy lives. For it is not satisfying to be focused solely on yourself. This is true also when someone becomes dedicated to environmental protection and is prepared to make great sacrifices for “green” measures.

Can we perhaps see remnants of the image of God in this? In the sense of Art. 14 of the Belgic Confession, which speaks of “small traces,” and of the Canons of Dort III/IV, which mentions “the difference between what is honourable and shameful.” In the Bible you also come across people who set a good example (Gen. 20), or who demonstrate exceptional charity (Acts 28:2). You can’t discover the original image from all these remnants, just as you can’t repair a broken mirror. But there are remnants nonetheless. And you can thank God that he still lets so many beautiful gifts be revealed from his original creation. Even if this or that person doesn’t recognize him. The capable administrator, who promotes good interests; the businessman, with whom you can safely enter into a transaction; the psychiatrist, who provides excellent advice; the medical specialist, who gives you good counsel; the nurse, who takes special care of you; the musician, who plays so beautifully; the conductor, who lets every voice in the choir shine. God can involve unbelievers to demonstrate his might and to let his greatness be shown. He can make people of the light realize how even people of the world operate with greater judgment than people of the light (Luke 16:8).

The Highest Value🔗

Remnants of an image do not allow you to restore the image. That is true. The danger is always there that we overvalue the remnants. That happens when our attention is drawn away from the good God, who still gives so much, even to people who do not acknowledge him. We overvalue the remnants when we undervalue how essential the relationship with God is.

A person can be exemplary when she is involved with her fellow human beings, with the environment, etc. But it becomes ugly and even hideous when God is not acknowledged or represented in any way. It remains true: being image of God stands or falls depending upon whether there is a relationship with him. For how can a person point to God if she points away from him in her everyday work? Is she entitled to be called "image of God" in those circumstances? In that light you are likely to say, no, it has been lost completely. It is completely out of the question. But thank God, it hasn’t been lost completely. He continues to recognise his creature in it and keeps the relationship open.

Perfect Copy🔗

One person represented God fully. Not in part, but totally. Christ, God’s own image. He is the exact representation of the invisible God (Heb. 1:3). Perfect likeness! In all things he gives expression to who God is. He is completely transparent in pointing to his Father. No one has to search for anything else. In all he does he is directed toward God. Nothing beclouds the image. Any deviation is out of the question. He gives a clear image (2 Cor. 4:4). He gives a complete picture (Col. 1:13-15). How could it be otherwise? For in him the fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form (Col. 2:9). In him the exalted position of human beings is given complete justice (Ps. 8; Heb. 2:6). On the cross he shows how hideous human beings have become. But it is precisely there that he restores all relationships: with God, with fellow human beings, and with their environment. And there he reconciles human beings to himself.


Looking Like Christ?🔗

Only Christ is able to restore the image of God. Not just trying to make the bits and pieces of the remnants work. Rather, a complete restoration. He begins with the restoration of the position. He restores the relationship with his Father, the Creator (John 20:17; 2 Cor. 5:17). That is first! And then he works restoration through his Holy Spirit (Gal. 6:15; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). That begins when he dwells in us through his Spirit. In that way he exercises influence from the inside out. That’s where restoration has to start, in the heart. The image must slowly be reformed according to his image (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

But does this mean that his Christians also look like Christ? That depends on how you consider it. Not in the sense that we should imitate him. For his task on earth was unique. At most we should look like him in a reflection of his radiant qualities with which he completed his task, which were summarized as fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). But they only flourish in relation to God and with each other.

Image of the Man of Heaven🔗

But the best is still to come. Here we still have an imperfect view of our position as image of God. It is not really transparent in anyone. We may be happy when there is something pellucid in us that gives a view of God. So long as there is a beginning. It only becomes transparent when we bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:49).

No one ceases to be a human being. Thanks to Christ you become human again. You derive true humanity from him. The multivarious colours of all his people reflect his light as in a prism. In it God can recognize himself again, just he could when Adam named the animals. The characteristics of human beings will become radiant again and will reflect God’s glory. The right relationships will return when righteousness reigns in the world and will have the last word, because everything is directed toward God’s glorification. That will be a radiant vision when all people have become transparent images of God.

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