Doctrinal Matters: Difficult Passages
Was the "Image of God" Destroyed by Sin?
Many theologians through the years have claimed that the “image of God” spoken of in Genesis 1:26-27 refers to a spiritual perfection that was lost in the Fall. Thus, they have concluded that modern man no longer bears the image of God. Reformer Martin Luther believed that the “image of God” was an original righteousness that was lost completely. He thus proclaimed: “I am afraid that since the loss of this image through sin we cannot understand it to any extent.” Oftentimes John Calvin spoke of the image of God as having been destroyed by sin, obliterated by the Fall, and utterly defaced by unrighteousness. More recently, religionist/anthropologist Arthur Custance, in his 1975 book, Man in Adam and in Christ, observed: “Genesis tells us that man was created in a special way, bearing the stamp of God upon him which the animals did not bear. Genesis also tells us that he lost it” (p. 103). Does the language of Genesis 1:26-27 refer only to Adam and Eve, as these writers would have us to believe? Or does it refer to all mankind in general?
The Bible reveals that man still retains the image of God after the Fall. Genesis 9:6 states: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.” According to this passage, fallen man still bears the image of God. The record of Adam and Eve’s fall had been recorded earlier in the book of Genesis; that man had become a rank sinner is stated clearly in the immediate context of the passage (“…every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood”—8:21). Although God’s assessment is correct in regard to mankind, murder is forbidden because man is made in the image of God—that is, he still bears that image. If one argues that this passage speaks only about the past and says nothing about the future, he does violence to the meaning of the passage. Moses, writing about 2,500 years after the Fall, said that the reason murder is wrong is because the victim is someone created in the image of God. If man no longer bears the image of God after the Fall, these words would have been meaningless to the Israelites (and are worthless for man today).
In the New Testament, one can read where James wrote: “But the tongue can no man tame; it is a restless evil, it is full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we the Lord and Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made after the likeness of God” (3:8-9, emp. added). The English verb “are made” (ASV) derives from the Greek gegonotas, which is the perfect participle of the verb ginomai. The perfect tense in Greek is used to describe an action brought to completion in the past, but whose effects are felt in the present. For example, when the Bible says, “It is written,” this is usually in the perfect tense. Scripture was written in the past, but is applicable to the present. The thrust of the Greek expression translated “who are made after the likeness of God,” is that humans in the past have been made according to the likeness of God and they are still bearers of that likeness. For this reason, it is inconsistent to worship God and curse men with the same tongue.
Although sin is destructive to man and repulsive to God, the Bible does not teach that the “image of God” was destroyed by sin’s entrance into the world. Rather, modern man still is created in God’s image. How thrilling and humbling it is to know that all men possess inherent characteristics that liken them to God and differentiate them from the lower creation.