APPLIED THEOLOGY SERIES
What is it?
The image of God is a doctrine that isn’t exactly clear-cut, mainly because it’s never fully described in Scripture. Most theologians, however, define the Imago Dei (the Latin term for “image of God”) as the human capability to reason, have a heightened sense of emotions, understand morality, desire to create, and enjoy aesthetics. For instance, we don’t see dogs visiting art galleries in an attempt to interpret the artistic endeavors of the artist. Likewise, we don’t see a council of animals in Africa putting a lion on trial for killing a gazelle. Whereas all animals rely on nature in order to survive, humans seek to control nature and shape nature to serve humans. This is done because we are rational beings – most orthodox theologians believe this comes from being made in God’s image.
Why is it important as a belief?
Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of atheistic existentialism, famously said, “Existence precedes essence.” What he meant by this is that humans existed and, as a result, we created our own essence (that is, what makes us human). If this is true, then tomorrow we could, collectively, decide that being human includes infanticide of the first born child so that every parent experiences loss. There would be nothing wrong with this because we, as creatures that exist, would be creating a new essence for ourselves.
Belief in the Imago Dei has far-reaching ramifications, the first of which is that human essence precedes human existence. If created by God in His image, this means certain human traits – rationality, emotions, and moral – existed prior to human existence. They were in God’s nature and the way they would play out in humanity was in His mind. This means that our essence was in God’s plan, and that our essence preceded our existence.
This means human beings are significant, more significant than animals. The tactics of PETA of equating human suffering to animal suffering are to be ignored because human suffering far outweighs the suffering of animals – mainly because humans are in the image of God and vastly superior to animals. Taken further, the Image of God has a major impact on the field of anthropological ethics. Humans are significant because they are made in the image of God.
What Scripture supports this idea?
Genesis 1:26-28 state that humans (both male and female) were made in the image of God, which indicates the image doesn’t have to do with physicality, but instead with our essence, what Francis Schaeffer calls our “mannishness.”
Of course, the Fall of humanity occurs post-creation, leaving some to conclude that the image of God no longer exists, such as Martin Luther. Luther, however, must have ignored both Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9. Genesis 9:6 states that murder is the snuffing out of the image of God. James states that when we curse fellow human beings, we are cursing the image of God.
Scripture, though it doesn’t go into detail on what exactly the image of God means, does state that even after the Fall, we are still in God’s image. It also seems to state that humans are significant, regardless of their eternal state, because of this image.
How can this belief be applied?
This one probably has more obvious applications than some of the other doctrines I intend to explore. Though there are multiple applications – such as embryonic stem-cell research, abortion, child labor, slave labor, totalitarian governments, a heightened sense of justice for those who violate the image of God, and so on – I instead want to focus on a grander application of this doctrine, namely in just how we look at and treat other human beings.
Too often Christians befriend non-Christians for the sole reason of trying to lead that person to Christ. The non-Christian is valuable only as long as he remains open to the idea of accepting Christ. The moment he closes off that openness, he loses his value in many Christian’s eyes. Though we can act righteously and say, “No, not I,” put yourself in the following scenario:
You wake up to turn on the news and see that Richard Dawkins, a longtime opponent of Christianity, has killed over from a heart attack. Many Christian leaders come out saying that this is an act of God, God’s wrath has finally poured out, and that He has taken His vengeance. Where do you place yourself on this? Are you happy that Dawkins is finally dead, never to spew out his illogical and hateful thoughts against Christianity (and make no mistake – Dawkins thoughts are illogical and hateful)?
We can come out and say we would act differently, but we are humans, we probably wouldn’t. When a personal enemy or someone who has caused us pain or strife suffers his or her own trials, we celebrate. We rejoice in that person’s suffering. Think of how many Christians said that hurricane Katrina was God’s way of punishing New Orleans.
Though we worship a just God who does judge the nations, we are not to celebrate in the death or suffering of a rival or of a non-Christian. We are to befriend and care for human beings, not because of the evangelistic opportunity they may provide, but because they are human beings. We care for humans because they are human. We care for them because, being human, they are made in the image of God.
When we watch children starve in some far-away land, we’re not watching foreigners suffer, we’re watching the image of God suffer before our eyes. When we hear about the killing fields in Sudan, we are hearing about how fellow image bearers, who have the same essence as us, are being put to death. When we learn of the child prostitutes in Southeast Asia, who have been forced into this lifestyle through slavery, we are learning about little images of God give up their innocence. In all of this, we are watching the image of God be violated.
As Christians, we should want to change these situations – not just for the evangelistic opportunity, but because we don’t want fellow human beings to suffer. If we, as Christians, believe in the image of God, then we must look at all humans as significant and equal and must seek to treat them with dignity.
What other applications to this belief exist? What else should the Imago Dei motivate us to do (or not do)?
This is not to be a justification for the suffering of animals. However, though I am not a big fan of slaughter houses because they ruin the dignity of God’s creation (and the quality of meat – free-range meat, killed in a proper way, is much more preferable), if killing 10,000 cows in such a fashion would save 100 human lives, it would be worth it.
This is not to say evangelism is unimportant. We SHOULD evangelize people and tell them the good news of Christ because this is what completes the image of God. We are fallen, in rebellion against God. Christ came to save us and to restore the image we are made in, thus evangelism is a part of caring for the image of God. However, if people should reject the Gospel, we should still serve them and seek to alleviate their suffering for the simple fact that they are human (though we should never cease sharing the Gospel).