What does it mean for us that we are made in the image of God? Various suggestions have been made, such as rationality or personality. I suspect it is a mistake to focus on one feature; rather we are to look at every relevant detail that this passage mentions about it. Here are four details.
First, an obvious aspect to take into account is that God spoke within himself regarding making humans in his image. This discussion does not only reveal that there is more than one person in God, it also indicates the dignity of humans. This is a reminder that there are no insignificant persons.
Second, the image of God also directs the disposition of humans. Adam when he was created possessed an original righteousness that included an understanding of what God required, a willingness to obey God, and a love towards God and his ways. Yet he was created capable of losing it, which he did when he rebelled against God. But in believers, this image, composed of ‘true righteousness and holiness’ (Eph. 4:24), is being restored.
Third, the image of God is seen in community. Adam and Eve were like God in that they were created to live together. To begin with, there was Adam and Eve, but eventually there would have been millions living together in harmony. Within this human community there would be equality yet distinctions in the roles that each would play. This human community was an image of the divine community, the Trinity, in which there is equality of persons but distinctions in the roles fulfilled by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In a way that would resemble the joy and happiness of the Trinity, the human race was created to live together in harmony and joy under the blessing of God. Of course, they were not to only have fellowship with other humans, they were also to have fellowship with God.
A fourth detail connected to the image of God is revealed in the duty of humans to have dominion over the rest of creation. They were commanded by God to populate the earth, control the environment, and have authority over all the lower creatures. In this, man was reflecting God, who is the supreme sovereign of all things.
In summary, we can say that the image of God in humans is that which made them rational, righteous, relational and regal. These all combined together in Adam’s status as the son of God. This would have been the lot of every human if Adam had not sinned. As we think of what we once were, two responses are appropriate.
First, there should be lamentation regarding the height from which we have fallen. Each of the above features has been affected by our sins. Take our rationality. Our minds have been darkened so that we no longer know what is good for us. We make choices that have long-term negative repercussions. What about our righteousness? We have lost that also. Humans still do ‘righteous’ things in the sense that they do good deeds on behalf of their fellowmen, but they do not do them for God’s glory. Our relationships are no longer marked by harmony. Instead there is conflict, stress and war. Our rule over creation is affected too as we destroy the environment and mistreat the other creatures. Humans, made in the image of God, given the status of sons of God, are rebellious creatures, disinherited from the family inheritance, living under the judgement of God.
Second, there should be longings within us for the world that we have lost. Humans have within them an awareness that there can be a better world than what we have, despite our advanced technologies. They long for a place where the elements that composed the image of God at the beginning can be restored in their fullness. And this is what the gospel promises us.