What does it mean that we bear the image of God? The “default” answer of many Christians surrounds the difference between human beings and animals. Many Christians almost immediately assume that the “image of God” is what separates us from the animal kingdom, and thus our understanding of the image of God should come from our showing how we are different than animals.
While I do not doubt that “the image of God” is perhaps the most important feature of humanity that distinguishes us from animals, I find it hard to believe that the answer to this question lies in a simple contrasting of humans and animals. After all, Scripture says we are made in God’s image, which means this is more a question of how we mirror God than how we do not mirror animals.
There are three main ways for understanding the “image of God.” Some theologians believe it to be a substantive understanding, in that we mirror God’s attributes. Our nature models God’s nature. The second main understanding is functional. We discover what the “image of God” is by examining what human beings do. The third main understanding is relational. Our relationships with God and with others are a reflection of God’s inter-Trinitarian relationships and His love for humanity.
I believe that many scholars who have written on this subject have set up false antitheses. There is biblical support for each of the above views; therefore, we should seek to understand how the “image of God” in humanity is substantive, functional, and relational. We do not have to choose one to the exclusion of the others.
It is also interesting that many Christian theologians seek to answer this question without ever bringing up Christ. The New Testament is explicit in its affirmation of Jesus Christ as the perfect “image of God.” Instead of looking at fallen humanity in seeking to discover how we model God, we should look at Christ and see how His perfect humanity reflects God.
This inevitably brings us to a difficult question as Christians: Was Jesus’ humanity (sinless and perfect) the same as our humanity? If we say no, we are on shaky theological ground, because we are admitting that to be human means to be tempted and to sin. If we say yes, we are affirming that sin is not an essential part of human nature, the way it was created by God. Yes, we are fallen creatures. We are born in sin and without Christ’s sacrifice, we die in sin. But humanity, in its essence, was not sinful at creation. “God saw that it was good!”
Therefore, the question must change. Instead of judging Christ’s humanity by ours, we should start analyzing our humanity by His. “Was Jesus really as human as us if He didn’t sin?” is the wrong question. It is better to ask, “Are we as human as Jesus?” The answer is clear: no! Jesus is not less human for not sinning. He is more human! He fulfills the original intention that God had for the crown of His creation. Jesus (just like Adam and Eve before they sinned) experienced humanity in its original purity – in its God-intended form.