“in his own image.” God both created and made humankind in His own image, in His likeness (Gen. 1:26, 27; 5:1; 9:6). There has been much discussion, and some disagreement, about what it means to be in the image of God, but a few things are certain. The immediately preceding context of Genesis 1 is God making the animals, which are not in the image of God. So being in the image of God involves things that are unique to mankind and different from the animals.
Furthermore, being in the image of God is not something that we humans “have,” it is something that we humans “are.” We are in the image of God because of the unique way God made us as humans distinct from animals. Thus, our being in the image of God is having many of the same qualities that God has, and this would include things like the desire and self-awareness to love and be loved, the desire to be part of a family, a sense of what is moral or godly, the ability to think abstractly, the desire to create, the ability to communicate at a very advanced and abstract level, and the capacity to worship God. God creating mankind in His image also expresses His intent that mankind would live forever together with him.
It is often said that since God is spirit, man must be a spirit being too. This has led to various false teachings, one of which is that every person is an eternal being and therefore intrinsically has everlasting life and will spend eternity in heaven or in hell. But when the Bible says that mankind is made and created in the image of God, it is not saying that mankind is like God in every way, and one of the ways we seem to be clearly different from God is that we are not “spirit beings.” God made mankind from the dust and then breathed into him the breath of life, making man a living soul. There is not a word in the creation record about mankind being, or even having, God’s nature of Holy Spirit. In that respect, we humans are very different from angels, who were made as spirit beings (Heb. 1:7 KJV, cp. NET, NIV2011, YLT).
There are some solid biblical reasons why mankind does not have to have holy spirit to be in the image of God. One is that after the Flood, which was more than 1600 years after Adam and Eve were created and long after the Fall, mankind was still said to be in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). Thus even in our fallen state, mankind is still in the image of God, and that is the reason why God says murder is wrong and why a murderer must be punished. To get the full impact of what God says about mankind in Genesis 9:6, we must note that in the context God had been talking about killing and eating animals. Animals were killed for their meat and for their skin, and this was acceptable, but God says it is not acceptable to kill a human being because, “in the image of God has God made mankind” (NIV). Thus, humans, in their fallen state without holy spirit, still bear the image of God.
Similarly, 1 Corinthians 11:7 speaks of men being made in the image of God, and although the context is a Christian meeting, not everyone in such a meeting would of necessity be born again and have holy spirit. Even more to the point is James 3:9, which says that with our tongue we curse people, even though they are made in the image of God; but of course not every person we curse is saved and has holy spirit. The point James is making is that even in their fallen state humans deserve respect because they are made in the image of God.
Another reason we know that the image of God does not refer to spirit is that Jesus Christ is specifically said to be the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). But when the Bible says that, it is not saying that Jesus is the image of God because he had holy spirit. If that were the case, Jesus would not have been considered to be the image of God until his baptism, at which point he received the holy spirit (Matt. 3:16). Also, when the Bible says that Jesus is the image of God, it is not saying that since every human is the image of God, Jesus is just like everyone else.
The verses that say Jesus is the image of God are elevating him. So how is Jesus the image of God in a way that other humans, who are also the image of God, are not? The sin of Adam and Eve changed mankind, giving them a sin nature, which results in people sinning. The Apostle Paul described how we humans live due to the Fall: “I do not understand my own actions, for I am not practicing what I want, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).
Like every human, Jesus was the image of God because God created us in His own image. But Jesus was able to take the innate image of God in him and live it out in a way that other humans cannot attain due to their sin nature. Jesus perfectly reflected the image of God by the way he lived. Jesus’ image of God was so clear and complete that he said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). In contrast, humans are not so clearly the image of God. We are still in the image of God, but that image can be hard to see at times. The Fall did not keep people from being the image of God, but the Fall has “blurred” the image. It keeps us from living according to the image of God in which we were created. We struggle to be like Jesus, who always loved, always made the right moral choice, always communicated well, and so forth.
In spite of the fact that we humans do not live up to the image of God inside us, that image is still there, and is clearly a reason why God wants us to be loving toward each other and honor each other. Murder is wrong because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). Cussing out each other is wrong because we are in the likeness of God (James 3:9). We humans don’t “have” the image of God, we “are” the image of God. Now our challenge is to live like it.
“Male and female.” Human sexuality is different from the sexual difference between the animals. When God created the other animals, i.e., the “livestock, and every creature that moves along the ground, and wild animals of the earth” (Gen. 1:24), He never specifically said anything about them being “male and female,” even though they were. Human sexuality is woven into the fabric of life and family life in unique ways that have to do with God’s purpose for men, women, and the family. The two sexes are necessary for reproduction and important for the building of a godly family and godly children. God says He hates divorce because He created the man and woman to become “one” and have “godly offspring” (Mal. 2:15). This explains why the Bible consistently deals so severely with sexual sins that destroy the family that God is trying to maintain and protect, for example, adultery.
Along the same vein, the animals and plants are specifically said to be created, and thus to naturally reproduce, “according to their ‘kind,’” where ‘kind’ is roughly equivalent to genus (Gen 1:11-12, 21, 24-25). Animals and plants can be placed into “groups” (“kinds,” “genera”) that are very similar and can crossbreed. That is why Noah took animals onto the ark “according to their kinds” (Gen. 6:20). Noah did not have to take every species of animal onto the ark. Taking the “kinds” was enough to insure the survival of the “kind,” and they crossbred and divided into different species after the Flood. In contrast to animals and plants, humans are not said to be created “according to their kind,” because there is no other “kind” like us. Human beings are created in the image of God and are unique.