Contemporary culture has sought to answer the question about human identity through various disciplines, and this has resulted in numerous secular images of humanity. These images include: 1) Humanity as a machine, emphasizing utility and functionality. 2) Humanity as an animal among animals in the animal kingdom. 3) Humanity as a sexual being driven solely by sexual motivation and energy. 4) Humanity as an economic being focused on and striving after economic survival and gain. 5) Humanity as a pawn of the universe, meaning that humanity is at the mercy of universal forces and controlled by destiny. 6) Humanity as a free being with the responsibility of self-determination and decision-making. 7) Humanity as a social being, a cog in the wheel of community.
In contrast to the ideas of contemporary culture, there are scriptural references in both the OT and NT that portray humans as created in the image and likeness of God which informs the Judeo-Christian concept of human identity. In Genesis, there are several mentions of the uniqueness and sanctity of humanity because they were created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27, 5:1, 9:6). The apostle Paul refers to the image and likeness of God in several of his letters. James mentions that humans were “made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9).
When considering the meaning of the image of God, there are three main views: the substantive view, the relational view and the functional view. The focus of the substantive view is the idea that the image of God is a physical or psychological quality or set of qualities in humans. A challenge to the substantive view is that it is often narrowed to one aspect of human nature, mostly the intellectual dimension which implies that the image of God may vary from person to person.
The focus of the relational view is the claim that the image of God is not inherent in people, but is present when they are in relationships and community. A challenge to this view is that it does not account for how it is that humans are able to have relationships. In other words, the view does not delineate how humans are different from other creatures.
The focus of the functional view is the idea that the image of God is something that humans do, specifically in their exercise of dominion over the creation. A challenge to this view is that in Genesis 1 the imagine of God and dominion are distinguishable.
These views can be integrated, and so to that end, I offer some joining remarks. The image of God is universal within the human race, and it is not lost as a result of the fall or sin. Moreover, there is no degrees of the image of God, and it is not correlated with any other variables. The image of God includes aspects of the substantive view, the relational view and the functional view. Nevertheless, in the overall scheme of things, the image of God in human beings corresponds with the relational life of the Triune God and is fulfilled in human community and ultimately in God’s kingdom community. In relationship with the Triune God, people will experience the πλήρωμα (pléróma) “fullness” of the image of God and the new humanity. Stanley Grenz writes,
[B]eing-in-relationship with the triune God not only inherently includes, but is even comprised by being-in-relationship with those who participate together in the Jesus-narrative and thereby are the ecclesial new humanity. As the indwelling Spirit proleptically comprises the new humanity as the imago dei after the pattern of the perichoretic life of the triune God, the Spirit constitutes continually the “self” of the participants in Christ’s ecclesial community and, by extension, the “self” of the world.
This is the joy and hope of the Jesus community and is the life and light to a world that is lost in their depraved humanity and confused about their human identity.
Therefore, the image of God implies that humans belong to God and experience full humanity when they are in a correct relationship with God. Humans created in the image of God means that they are valuable and sacred and must be treated as such with dignity and compassion. Since Jesus is the ultimate revelation of the image of God, humans should pattern their lives after him and perform (live out), as image bearers, their part of the theo-drama of redemption.