After I wrote “Sharkly on Women“, Sharkly and I got into a discussion at the Spawny’s Space blog. There, Sharkly mentioned that Origen believed that the Image of God was given to Adam and Eve, but was lost at the fall. It was not until Christ restored us that the Image of God returned to men. Sharkly called this a heresy.
Back then the controversy was over Origen’s heretical claim that Adam had lost the image of God for all of us menfolk too, by sinning. — comment by Sharkly @ Spawny’s Space.
So in Berean style, I have decided to “fact-check” this heresy, to see what the Bible has to say. There are eleven passages in the Old Testament, Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals, and the New Testament. Let’s discuss them all.
And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created humankind in his own image. In the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.”
This took place before the fall, establishing that men and women were created in the image of God at the point of creation. It cannot, of course, tell us anything about whether the image of God was lost at a later point. We also are not told what the image of God is, other than that it probably has to do with some aspect of creation or life, but specific to mankind as opposed to the animals who also live. It is not explained.
This is the record of the descendants of Adam. In the day that God created man, he made him in God’s likeness. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called their name “Adam” in the day when they were created. Adam lived 130 years and fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.
Here we also find that God created men, male and female, in the image of God and called them Adam. This all occurred prior to the fall of man. However, at the creation of Seth, something changes. Seth is made—not in the image of God—but in the image of Adam. It is unclear what the consequences of this are, and Paul doesn’t make it much clearer in 1 Corinthians 11:10-11:
Nevertheless in the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman is from the man, so is the man also by the woman, but all things are from God.
Seth was clearly from Adam, just as woman is from man, implying that both women and men are made in the image of God if this image can be inherited by birth, but this is the very thing we are trying to determine. Thus, this is inconclusive.
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood is to be shed, for God made man in his own image.
The Hebrew does not help us here. There is no question that God made—past tense—man in his own image, but we do not know if he continued to be in God’s image or if he ceased to be at the Fall of Man, since the present tense was not used. Without knowing what the image of God is, it is hard to say why this is the reason for the death penalty for murder. As with the previous passage, we don’t yet know if the children of Adam are also in God’s image, because we don’t know if it—whatever the image might be—can be inherited by birth. We get hints here that the image of God might have something to do with life or death, but it is not explained.
This is the explicit last reference to the Image of God in the Old Testament. No other passage mentions any man presently possessing the image of God. Whatever the image of God is or whether or not man had it was not a question that seemingly entered the mind of the ancient Hebrew writer of scripture. So, we will have to look elsewhere for more information, if it exists.
Wisdom of Solomon 2:20-24
Let us condemn him with a shameful death: for by his own saying he shall be respected. Such things they did imagine, and were deceived: for their own wickedness hath blinded them. As for the mysteries of God, they knew them not: neither hoped they for the wages of righteousness, nor discerned a reward for blameless souls. For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity. Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it.
The Wisdom of Solomon is dated by scholars to the first century B.C., well after the events of the entire Old Testament and only a generation or two before Jesus. Some Christians consider it to be canonical, while others do not. For the sake of argument, we are going to accept it (and the other deuterocanonicals) as canonical if at all possible. You may decided differently, and consequently your own conclusions may end up differing from mine.
What becomes immediately obvious from this scripture is that the Image of God is explicitly about immortality and it is contrasted with death coming into the world. As we read earlier, we saw the the Image of God was related to Creation and Life/death, but we were not sure how. This makes it explicit. The image of God is immortality and its opposite is death. Thus, men were created with immortality (the image of God), but upon the fall it was replaced with death. This is a very clear statement that the image of God was lost when Adam and Eve sinned.
If we look backwards, this makes sense. In the first two passages of Genesis, God clearly created Adam and Eve to be immortal. In the third passage, the death penalty is justified because death is the opposite of creation. In creation man was made in the image of God—life eternal. Death is the very antithesis of creation, of life eternal and so murder bears the gravest of penalties. This all makes sense.
The Lord created humans out of earth and makes them return to it again. He gave them a fixed number of days but granted them authority over everything on the earth. He endowed them with strength like his own and made them in his own image. He put the fear of them in all living beings and gave them dominion over beasts and birds.
This is a summary of the opening chapters of Genesis with respect to mankind. It is otherwise unremarkable except that it indicates that the image of God might have something to do with strength, authority, and dominion. Strictly literally, it adds nothing that we don’t already know and isn’t all that helpful.
2 Esdras 8:40-45
Like as I have spoken now, so shall it come to pass. For as the husbandman soweth much seed upon the ground, and planteth many trees, and yet the thing that is sown good in his season cometh not up, neither doth all that is planted take root: even so is it of them that are sown in the world; they shall not all be saved. I answered then and said, If I have found grace, let me speak. Like as the husbandman’s seed perisheth, if it come not up, and receive not thy rain in due season; or if there come too much rain, and corrupt it: Even so perisheth man also, which is formed with thy hands, and is called thine own image, because thou art like unto him, for whose sake thou hast made all things, and likened him unto the husbandman’s seed. Be not wroth with us but spare thy people, and have mercy upon thine own inheritance: for thou art merciful unto thy creature.
As in the passages that we have already examined, the image of God is associated with creation and death/life. Added to this is now inheritance. However, for the first time, there is a fairly clear reference to man being in the image of God now.
2 Esdras is not considered canonical by most traditions. Scholars believe it to be written after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70, so its insistence that men are made in the image of God may be derived from the recent teachings of the Christian church. Indeed, saying men are created now the image of God is likely an anachronism, not being found in any other work after the Fall and before the New Testament.
God, having spoken from old time to the fathers through the prophets in many parts and in many ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he has given form to the ages, who is the reflection of his glory, and the exact representation of his nature, and is upholding all things by his powerful word. After he had accomplished the cleansing for sins, he sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Now that we are in the New Testament, we immediately see that it is Jesus, the Son of God, who is identified as the exact image of God. Like in 2 Esdras, it is also related to inheritance, but as noted above, 2 Esdras probably got its ideas from the New Testament, rather than the other way around. As with Sirach, the image of God in Jesus is associated with strength and authority.
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, because in connection with him all things were created in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible—whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things are held together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he would come to have first place in everything.
Like Hebrews, the image of God is Jesus, not man. It associates the image of God with authority, dominion, creation, life, and death, nearly everything that we have seen associated with the image of God so far, except all collected here in one place. All of these are ascribed to Jesus Christ.
Notably, Jesus is described as the firstborn of all creation, hearkening back to Adam being the firstborn of mankind prior to the Fall of Man. But Jesus is also firstborn from among the dead. This contrast seems quite significant. All of humanity is dead and Jesus, created in the Image of God, is the firstborn, the new Adam of the new creation. This is the strongest evidence so far that Adam lost the image of God when he sinned, having lost immortality, being dead. That Christ is firstborn image of God says that no one else was. This is plain, as we lost immortality but gained it back in Christ, who forgave our sins, literally undoing the Fall.
Jesus became the Image of God, forgiving us and undoing the fall, and restoring us to the image of God and to immortality. Only believers are told that they are in the image of God through Jesus.
Do not lie to one another, since you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self that is being renewed in knowledge, according to the image of the one who created it. Here there is not “Greek and Jew,” “circumcision and uncircumcision,” “non-Greeks,” “Scythian savages,” “slave,” “free;” but Christ is all and in all!
In keeping with the first chapter of Colossians, everyone is finally being addressed, but this time as being a new self in the image of Jesus. We know from Galatians 3:28, that Paul included both men and women in this list. There is no hint that this refers to being created in the image of God as part of Adam’s creation. Only believers—all believers—are told that they are in the image of God through Jesus.
1 Corinthians 11:7
For a man indeed has an obligation not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man.
As Christians are being addressed here, this doesn’t address the question of whether unbelievers are made in the image of God.
Now we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him—for those who are the called ones in accordance with his purpose—because those whom he foreknew, he also decided in advance would be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters, and those whom he decided in advance would be conformed to the image of his Son, he also called, and those whom he called, he also declared righteous, and those whom he declared righteous, he also glorified.
Paul talks about how Christians would be in the image of Christ. Just as the previous verse talks about glory, we find that here the glory is a consequence of being declared righteous, of following Christ. No unbeliever is said to be made in the image of either God or of Christ.
2 Corinthians 3:15-18
Yes, to this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom! And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same appearance, from glory into glory, just as one would expect—from the Lord who is the Spirit.
This is interesting in light of the discussion on veiling, but once again this is talking about believers who are in the image of Christ and his glory. No unbeliever is said to be made in the image of either God or of Christ. Even the discussion on veiling implies that all Christians are unveiled before Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:2–7
On the contrary, we have renounced hidden, shameful things, not walking in craftiness, nor adulterating the word of God, but by the open display of the truth we are commending ourselves in the presence of God to every person’s conscience. (But even if our good news is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe, to keep them from seeing and shining forth the light of the good news of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.) For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake, because it is God who said “Light will shine out of darkness,” who has shined in our hearts, to provide illumination by way of the knowledge of the glory of God, which is on the face of Jesus Christ.
This is also an interesting use of veiling, where the gospel is veiled to unbelievers, and this veiling is a bad thing. But as before, there is no mention of any man (unbeliever or believer) being made in the image of God, only Christ.
But no one is able to subdue the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made according to the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way.
This is the only passage in the entire Bible that describes people as being in the image of God that seems to not refers to the pre-Fall condition, believers, or Christ. But it is also ambiguous. It could mean all people, all believers, just men, or just Christian men. To figure out which it must be, we need to look deeper on the nature of curses.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6:28, Jesus instructed all of those who were listening to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, to bless those who curse you, and to pray for those who mistreat you. So too in Romans 12, Paul reiterates the words of Christ, saying that we should bless those who persecute us instead of cursing them. So we know that Jesus taught, as a general principle, that people should not curse their enemies. It is thus understandable if one thinks that James is saying that Christians should not curse anyone: that everyone is made in the image of God.
This teaching of Jesus is not the only thing the Bible teaches about cursing. The Old Testament taught differently:
People curse the one who hoards grain, but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell.
— Proverbs 11:26
Whoever says to the guilty, “You are innocent,” will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come on them.
Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest.
— Proverbs 26:2
If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.
The Old Testament does not condemn curses, but makes a distinction between cursing people who deserve them and cursing people who do not. This is particularly noteworthy: some people deserve to be cursed, and curses have no effect on those who do not deserve it.
So, what is James trying to say?
- As Jesus said, do not curse anyone—man or woman—because they are created in the image of God.
- Jesus said not to curse anyone, but you are especially not to curse men because only they are created in the image of God.
- Jesus said not to curse anyone, but you should especially not to curse your fellow Christians who are in the image of God.
It’s not obvious which of these it must be. Just because Jesus taught that we are not to curse anyone doesn’t mean we can’t emphasize how bad it is to curse whatever subset might be in the image of God. Let’s look at what James said specifically:
- In James 3:1, we find that he was addressing teachers in particular.
- In James 4:1, we find that there was fighting and quarreling among the brethren.
- Sandwiched between this, in James 3:9, we find a prohibition against cursing those made in the image of God contrasted with blessing and worshiping God.
It seems most likely then that the teachers of the church were fighting and quarreling among each other, hurling curses at each other. Unlike Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and Paul in Romans, James appears to be addressing only Christians and laying the emphasis on the teachers and those quarreling. And so, despite the outward appearance, upon an isolated first read, that the verse includes unbelievers, it does not appear that the verse is making a general prohibition. Even though that is definitely a Christian teaching, that isn’t the point James is making.
So is James talking only about men or is he talking about all Christians? That largely depends on your preconceptions: whether you think only men can teach and whether or not you interpret men in a non-inclusive way. Since those are theological preconceptions, it is impossible for us to make those determinations just by examining this passage. To do otherwise would be circular reasoning.
What we do know is that people shouldn’t be cursed with the same tongue that they use to praise God because Christians are redeemed by the blood of Christ. They are innocent. They have been made in the image of God. This is compatible with everything else the New Testament has said about the image of God residing among Christians.
The key points—assuming the canonicity of all the references—are summarized as follows:
- After the beginning of Genesis, the Old Testament is silent on the image of God.
- The Image of God is immortality and eternity, which was lost in the Fall.
- The Image of God may be related to God’s strength, authority, and dominion.
- All of these attributes of the image of God are found in Jesus, who is the exact image of God.
- Jesus is the first to be born into this image.
- All Christians are heirs to the image of God in Christ.
- Nothing in the Bible ever explicitly says that unbelievers—mortals—are made in the image of God.
After evaluating the evidence, I cannot find any reason to believe that unbelievers are presently in the image of God or have been since the Fall of Man. The most obvious evidence—2 Esdras—was most likely influenced by the New Testament writers that we discussed above, and the other piece of evidence—James 3—appears to be written to an audience of Christians about their fellow Christians.
There is nothing in the Bible that can contest the claim that Adam lost the image of God for all of mankind. These passages do not prove it either, although they make a pretty strong case. Even if you were to pick and choose which passages you wanted to use and which you did not, you still wouldn’t have a strong argument against the claim that Adam lost the image for all.