Hide Menu

I am made in the image of God: What does this mean and what does it involve?


Where do we find the basis for the assertion that “I am created in the image of God (Imago Dei)?”

We find it in the Bible. In fact, in the very first pages we read: “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).



When does man begin to exist in the image of God?

From the first moment of conception. Such a dignity is therefore present in every phase of human life. The Church proclaims this truth not only with the authority of the Gospel, but also with the force of reason; because of this the Church feels able to appeal to every human being of good will in the certainty that the realisation of this truth might benefit each individual and the whole of society.



From where does our being in the image of God come?

  • It comes from God. It is God himself who gives this special gift to man. Man receives it gratuitously. Thus, it is neither a human achievement nor a work of man.
  • It is up to man:
    • to recognise such a gift;
    • to thank the Giver, God;
    • to show forth and make the fruits of this gift grow in his life;
    • to witness courageously, in his own daily life, to being made in the image of God.



What does it mean to say: “God created us in his own image”?

  • “To say that God has created us in his image means that:
    • he wanted each one of us to express an aspect of his infinite splendor;
    • that he has a design for each of us;
    • that each of us is destined to enter by means of a journey which is specific to each person into blessed eternity. That the creature is made in the image of God is thus properly by reason of the fact that it participates in immortality not by its nature, but as a gift of the creator.
      This orientation towards eternal life is what makes man the created being corresponding to God.
  • The dignity of man is not something which presents itself visually it is neither measurable nor quantifiable; it escapes the parameters of scientific or technological reason. But our civilization and our humanism have achieved progress only to the extent to which this dignity has been more universally and more fully bestowed upon ever greater numbers of people” (Card. Joseph Ratzinger, Speech to the Pontifical Council for Healthcare, 28 November 1996).



In what sense is man created in the “Image of God”?

“The human person is created in the image of God in the sense that he or she is capable of knowing and of loving their Creator in freedom. Human beings are the only creatures on earth that God has willed for their own sake and has called to share, through knowledge and love, in his own divine life. All human beings, in as much as they are created in the image of God, have the dignity of a person. A person is not something but someone, capable of self-knowledge and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with God and with other persons” (Compendium of the CCC, 66).



What dimensions of the person are involved in being created in the image of God?

  • The whole man and every man are involved.
  • In particular:
    • his dignity;
    • his unity of body and soul;
    • his or her existence as man or woman;
    • his relationship with God, with himself, with other people, and with the world.
  • Therefore, it is man in the entirety of his existence who is created in the image of God. The Bible presents a vision of the human being in which the spiritual dimension is seen together with the physical, social and historical dimensions of man.



In what way does being in the image of God involve human dignity?

  • It involves his dignity in so far as it constitutes its very foundation. Man, precisely in his being created in the image of God, finds the ultimate basis of his own dignity.
  • The dignity of a person, in fact:
    • is not identified with the genes of his DNA;
    • does not depend on what he has or on what he has the capacity to do, much less on his belonging to any race, culture or nation;
    • is not diminished by reason of the presence of various physical or genetic defects.
  • The basis of authentic and full dignity, found in every man, subsists in his being created in the image of God. “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God. Endowed with a spiritual and immortal soul, intelligence and free will, the human person is ordered to God and called in soul and in body to eternal beatitude” (Compendium of the CCC, 358).
  • So founded, this dignity distinguishes man in essence from every other creature (because of this, we speak of an ontological difference on the level of existence and not only on the level of functionality between human beings and the rest of the world). The Bible makes this difference evident even in its first pages, when it says of God, after having created the various things of the world: “And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:26), but, after having created man, exclaims: “God saw everything he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen 1:31).



What is the relationship between man’s being made in the image of God and his communion with God?

  • Being created in the image of God is the foundation of man’s orientation towards God. It is precisely this radical likeness to God, one and triune, that provides the basis for the possibility of man’s communion with the Holy Trinity.
    This is what God himself willed. The one and triune God willed, in fact, to share his own trinitarian communion with persons created in his image. More precisely, it is by reason of this trinitarian communion that man was created in the image of God. Man’s end is therefore to know, to love and to serve God in this life and then to enjoy him in the next life, and to love his neighbour as God loves him.
  • “Created in the image of God, man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works” (CCC, 2501).



Does the body also form part of this image of God?

  • Yes, the body itself, as an intrinsic part of the person, also shares in being created in the image of God.
  • In the Christian faith:
    • it is the soul which is created in the image of God;
    • but, since the soul is the forma substantialis of the body, the human person in its unity is the bearer of the divine image in a dimension as much spiritual as corporeal; ;
    • man does not just have his body, but also is his body;
    • there is thus excluded any body-soul dualism;
    • man is considered in his entirety, in his unity: he is an incarnate spirit, that is, he is a soul that expresses itself in a body and a body that is informed by an immortal spirit;
    • corporeality is thus essential to personal identity;
    • the affirmation of the bodily resurrection, at the end of the world, causes us to recognise that man will exist, also in eternity, as a complete physical and spiritual person.
  • The Christian faith clearly affirms, therefore, the unity of the human being and understands bodiliness as essential to his personal identity whether in this life or in the next.



Why does the image of God manifest itself also in the difference between the sexes?

  • This is because a human being exists only as either male or female, and because this sexual difference, far from being an incidental or secondary aspect of personhood, is a constituent element of personal identity. Thus, the sexual dimension also belongs to being created in the image of God. Man and woman are equally created in the image of God, although each in their proper and particular way. For this reason Christian faith speaks of the reciprocity between, and complementarity of, the sexes.
  • Created in the image of God, human beings are called to love and to communion. Since this vocation is realised in a particular way in the unitive procreative union between husband and wife, the difference between man and woman is an essential element in the constitution of human beings made in the image of God. “God created man in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27, cf. Gen 5:1-2). According to Scripture, therefore, the imago Dei manifests itself, right from the beginning, also in the difference between the sexes.
  • “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (CCC, 2332).
  • The roles attributed to one or the other of the sexes can vary according to time and place, but the sexual identity of the person is not a cultural or social construct. It belongs to the specific way in which the Imago Dei exists.
  • The incarnation of the Word reinforces this specificity. He assumed the human condition in its totality, taking up one sex, but he became man in both senses of the term: as a member of the human community, and as a male (CTI, 34).
  • Furthermore, the incarnation of the Son of God and the resurrection of the body at the end of time extend even into eternity the original sexual identity of the Imago Dei.



Why does being in the image of God also involve our relationships with other people?

  • Precisely because God is a Trinity, that is, a communion of Three persons in the unique divine nature, the person too, created in the image of God, is thus capable of relationships with others, that is, he is a being who:
    • has a fundamental orientation towards other persons;
    • is called to form a community with them.
  • “The human being is truly human to the extent that he actualizes the essentially social element in his constitution as a person within familial, religious, civil, professional, and other groups that together form the surrounding society to which he belongs” (CTI, 42).
  • Marriage constitutes an elevated form of communion between human persons and is one of the best analogies for the Trinitarian life. In fact, “the prime instance of this communion is the procreative union of man and woman which mirrors the creative communion of Trinitarian love” (CTI, 56). When a man and a woman unite their body and their soul in an act of total openness and giving of themselves, they form a new image of God. Their union in one flesh is not simply a response to a biological necessity, but to the Creator’s intention which leads them to share in the happiness of being made in his image (cf. CCC, 2331).
  • Humanity itself, in its original unity (of which Adam is a symbol), is made in the image of the divine Trinity.
    “All people form the unity of the human race by reason of the common origin which they have from God. God has made «from one ancestor all the nations of men» (Acts 17:26). All have but one Savior and are called to share in the eternal happiness of God” (Compendium of the CCC, 68).



How does being in the image of God also involve our relationship with created things?

  • Being created in the image of God is the foundation for:
    • our relationship with other created things;
    • our superiority over the visible world: man is the summit of the visible creation, in so far as he is the only creature to be made in the image and likeness of God;
    • our sharing in the divine government of the creation.



In what way does man share in God’s sovereignty over the world?

  • To share in God’s sovereignty over the world means that man:
    • exercises this sovereignty over the visible creation only by virtue of a privilege conferred on him by God;
    • recognises God as the creator of all, renders him praise and thanks for the gift of creation, and glorifies the name of God;
    • is not the principal master over the world. God, the creator of the world, is the Lord par excellence over the world. Man is a subordinate master (ministerial and subordinate sovereignty);
    • is appointed by God to be his collaborator and administrator. Man is called by God to exercise, in God’s own name, a responsible stewardship over the created world. Such a stewardship “is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbour, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation” (CCC, 2415).
    • since he is a steward, has to render an account of his stewardship, and God will judge his actions.
  • Such sovereignty is exercised with respect for the creation: man, as an image of God, is not a dominator over the world. The human stewardship of the created world is really a service carried out through a sharing in the divine government. “Human beings exercise this stewardship by gaining scientific understanding of the universe, by caring responsibly for the natural world (including animals and the environment), and by guarding their own biological integrity” (CTI, 61).
  • The same human work “proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another” (CCC, 2427), collaborating with God the Creator.



What is the relationship between being in the image of God and the natural law?

Creating man in his own image, God placed in the depths of human conscience a law, which “the tradition calls the “natural law.” This law is of divine origin, and man’s awareness of it is itself a participation in the divine law” (CTI, 60).
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church also affirms in this regard: “The natural law which is inscribed by the Creator on the heart of every person consists in a participation in the wisdom and the goodness of God. It expresses that original moral sense which enables one to discern by reason the good and the bad. It is universal and immutable and determines the basis of the duties and fundamental rights of the person as well as those of the human community and civil law” (416).



Is this law perceived by everyone?

“Because of sin the natural law is not always perceived nor is it recognized by everyone with equal clarity and immediacy” (op.cit. 417).
For this reason God “wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.” (Saint Augustine).



What consequences for man’s being in the image of God were and are provoked by sin?

  • Sin does not destroy or nullify the image of God in man. Man is the image of God in so far as he is human. And since he is man, he is a human being in the image of God. The divine image is connected with human essence of itself, and therefore it is not in man’s power to destroy it completely.
  • Sin, according to its objective gravity and to the subjective responsibility of man, disfigures the image of God in man, wounds it and obscures it. Precisely because sin is like a wound in the image of God in man, it also wounds and obscures man himself:
    • in his dignity, thereby provoking an internal division between body and spirit, knowledge and will, reason and emotions;
    • in his relationship with God, with himself, with others, and with the creation.
  • Wounded by sin, man is in need of salvation. The infinitely good God offers him such salvation no less than in his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who liberates and heals man’s wound through his Death and Resurrection.
  • The disfigurement of the Imago Dei by sin, with its inevitable negative consequences for personal and interpersonal life, is therefore vanquished by the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.



What model does man have in actualising his being in the image of God?

  • Above all, man fully understands himself and his being in the image of God only in light of Christ. “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 22).
  • The mystery of man is therefore made clear only in the light of Christ, who is the perfect image “of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation” (Col 1:15) and who leads us, through the Holy Spirit, to a sharing in the mystery of the One and Triune God. “Thus, what it means to be created in the imago Dei is only fully revealed to us in the imago Christi” (CTI, 53).
  • “The Father destined us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29), through the work of the Holy Spirit who works mysteriously in all human beings of good will, in societies and in the cosmos to transfigure and divinize human beings. Moreover, the Holy Spirit works through all the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist” (CTI, 54).
  • Thanks to the Holy Spirit, “the saving grace of participation in the paschal mystery reconfigures the Imago Dei according to the pattern of the Imago Christi (...) In this way, man’s everyday existence is defined as an endeavor to be conformed ever more fully to the image of Christ and to dedicate his life to the struggle to bring about the final victory of Christ in the world” (CTI, 56). Thus we become fully the image of God by means of our sharing in the divine life in Christ.



In what way is Christ the model for every man in living in the image of God?

Christ is the model for man in living in the image of God in the sense that:
  • the original image of man which by his will represents the image of God, is Christ, and man is created out of the image of Christ and in his image. The human creature is at the same time a preliminary project in view of Christ, or rather, Christ is the perfect and fundamental image of the Creator, and God makes man really in view of Him, of His Son;
  • the possibilities that Christ opens to man do not mean the suppression of the reality of man as a creature, but his transformation and realisation according to the perfect image of the Son;
  • at the same time there exists a tension between the hiddenness and future manifestation of the image of God: we can apply here the words of the first Letter of John: “we are already God’s children, but what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed” (1 Jn 3:2).
    Every human being is already now in the image of God – in the image of Christ, even if it is not yet clear what they will become above all at the end of time, when the Lord Jesus will come on the clouds of heaven that God “may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). The Imago Dei can thus be considered in a real sense still in development (its dynamic character);
  • Our conformity to the image of Christ is to be fulfilled perfectly only in our resurrection at the end of time, in which Christ has preceded us and associated with himself his Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.


The Primicerio
of the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles Borromeo
Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli

NB:Bibliography:
  • International Theological Commission (abbr. CTI), Communion and Service, , Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005;
  • Card. Joseph Ratzinger, Conference at the Pontifical Council for Healthcare, on the theme «In the image and likeness of God: Always? Illness of the human mind» (28 novembre 1996);
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), nn. 355-420;
  • Compendium of the CCC, nn.66-78