What Does It Mean to Be Created in God’s Image and Likeness?

By Clement Harrold

The opening chapter of the book of Genesis famously records God’s decision to “make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). But what precisely do the words “image and likeness” mean? And are humans the only creatures who fit this description?

Something worth realizing from the outset is that the language of “images” (Hebrew, tzelamim) was common in the Ancient Near Eastern milieu in which the book of Genesis was composed. As the Old Testament biblical scholar John Bergsma points out, rulers in this region would often have their tzelamim placed around the empire as symbols of their authority. Analogously, therefore, we should understand that the human race, beginning with Adam, is stamped with divine authority.

A further clue in the biblical text comes a few chapters later in Genesis 5:3, when we are informed that “[Adam] became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen 5:3). This is striking because it is a repetition of the language already used to describe Adam’s relationship to God. The implication? The language of image and likeness is the language of sonship. As human beings we aren’t the natural children of God, obviously, but we are invited to become children of God through divine adoption, which is what takes place in our souls at baptism.

What more can we say here? Taking a philosophical approach, we should remember that a key part of what it means to be created in God’s image and likeness is that we are persons, i.e., living creatures possessing intellect and will, capable of knowing and worshiping God, and gifted with creative powers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums it up this way:

Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead. (§357)

Traditionally, theologians have also drawn a subtle distinction between “image” (Latin, imago) on the one hand, and “likeness” (Latin, similitudo) on the other.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, image is more closely connected with rationality, personhood, and the ability to know—and therefore love—God in an intentional way. Likeness, by contrast, can be thought of as the perfection of the image; likeness is what is expressed and developed through virtue, whereby we perform good deeds, grow in love, and become ever-greater participants in the divine life of God.

We need to be careful with these distinctions, however, because image and likeness are very much intertwined, and even our “imaging” of God can become stronger or weaker depending on our moral state. As the Catechism notes, “It is in Christ, Redeemer and Savior, that the divine image, disfigured in man by the first sin, has been restored to its original beauty and ennobled by the grace of God” (§1701).

Through our sin, we diminish our likeness to God—meaning we no longer image Him as perfectly as we did at the moment of our Baptism. Here we can think of our souls as being like a mirror. The mirror is always there; no amount of evil can change the fact that we exist as imago Dei, and therefore possess an unparalleled dignity. But the mirror can become dirty and cloudy, meaning we no longer reflect the goodness of God as perfectly as we ought. This is why we need the grace of repentance and sacramental confession.

What about angels and demons? As persons, these spiritual beings are certainly created in the divine image. In the case of the demons, however, the divine likeness has been eradicated; they continue to exist in God’s image insofar as they possess intellect and will, but they totally lack that likeness to God which comes through the pursuit of virtue.

As for the angels, Aquinas notes that there is a sense in which they image the Holy Trinity even more closely than we do, given their superior intellects. On the level of likeness, however, it seems that humans are called to surpass the angels, since it is given to humans alone to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).


Further Reading:

John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (Ignatius Press, 2018)


Dauphinais, Michael A. "Loving the Lord Your God: The Imago Dei in Saint Thomas Aquinas." The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review, vol. 63 no. 2, 1999, p. 241-267.





Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

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