The Imago Dei (And America’s Holocaust from Almost 45 Years of Denying It)

Just under 45 years ago—January of 1973—America’s Supreme Court delivered a ruling that made abortion legal. Not moral or ethical. And surely not biblical. Only legal.

Since that time, it is estimated that over 55 million unborn babies have been killed. As I write this, my heart trembles and my eyes well up with tears. What a horrific tragedy!

I agree with R.C. Sproul when he wrote in 2011, “Abortion in America is, in the judgment of my very wise father, the greatest evil in our history. The American Holocaust dwarves the evil of Nazi Germany in both numbers of the dead, and the numbers of we who know what is happening.”

He’s right.

However, to curse the darkness and not light a candle is of no value in the long run. Thus, in light of the plight of the unborn, and to help FFCers (specifically) understand more deeply the doctrine of man, I’m posting some thoughts today regarding an issue at the core of the pro-life fight: What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

Undoubtedly, to truly understand the ‘imago Dei’ would not only render abortion foundationless, but also the other sins that violate human dignity and personhood, such as racism, classism, and sexism. It is to that end, with a special view to exposing the lie of the abortion industry, that I address this issue.

What Does It Mean to be Created in the Image of God?

Even a brief scan across the cultural landscape reveals two extremes when it comes to what our society thinks about the image of God: either we disdain it completely, and thus take life (i.e., abortion), or we distort it selfishly, and thus idolize life (i.e., hedonism). Both ends of this spectrum violate an accurate understanding of what it means to be created in the image of God, or, as it is referred to in a more succinct, concise manner, the imago Dei.

Just what is the proper, correct understanding of the imago Dei? And what practical implications can we draw from this understanding?

What Imago Dei Means Fundamentally

The concept of imago Dei—being created in the image of God—stems from the account of the creation of man in the book of Genesis, specifically 1:27, where it says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

But there is more to understanding this concept when we see this verse in light of the surrounding context.

A Fundamental Understanding of the Genesis Account

Prior to God creating man, God created every other living thing according to their kinds. This phrase occurs ten times in the creation narrative. But this phrase isn’t used to primarily provide scientific or biological information, although some of that may be drawn from it. Rather, it is used mainly to show contrast, giving us a backdrop for what makes the creation of man fundamentally different than the creation of animals.

This is precisely why the phrase isn’t used when the writer of Genesis describes the creation of man. While one would expect the literary trend to continue, it doesn’t; it plainly stops. In the words of Mark Ross, “When God makes man, He breaks the pattern that He has set…”[1]

The point is clear: Man was not created after any of the kinds of the living creatures, so he does not belong to their kinds. To whom does he belong then? After what “kind” is he created? Ross continues by declaring, “Surprising as it is, man is made according to God’s ‘kind,’ made in the image of God (imago Dei).”[2]

We see from the specific verse and the surrounding context that what is “most important about human persons is their likeness to God. This likeness is so very special that it sets them apart from all other creatures God made.”[3]

A Fundamental Understanding of the Historical View

From this account, the historical understanding—even definition—of imago Dei has developed, what we know as the Substantive View, namely, that what sets us apart as made in God’s image “resides in humans whether or not they recognize God’s existence and his work.”[4]

Admittedly, there are variations within this view. Origen saw “image” and “likeness” as different elements[5], whereas Luther and Calvin believed that the use of “image” and “likeness” was an instance of Hebrew parallelism, and “that there is no distinction between image and likeness either before or after the fall.”[6]

Still, the Substantive View, that the “image of God is some quality or set of qualities, physical or psychological, in the person”[7] is the view consistent with Scripture and most widely held within orthodox Christianity, both now and in previous centuries.

What Imago Dei Means Practically

With a solid understanding of the concept of imago Dei under our feet, it is imperative we grasp what this means practically. How does the fact that all human persons have been created unlike any other living creature and in the image and likeness of their Creator affect the manner in which we live and relate? At least three areas emerge.

The Imago Dei Mentally

Man was created as a volitional human. He reasons, makes choices, thinks, and is cerebral and cognitive. For sure, “the human species is classified biologically as Homo sapiens, the thinking being.”[8] This is assuredly a reflection of God’s intellect and wisdom, no doubt part of his image.

Whenever men or women utilize their creative ability to decide, paint, draw, invent, write, enjoy, calculate—yes, think!—they are showing in splendid beauty how they were made in the image of God.

The Imago Dei Morally

Though the first man and woman turned away from God in the garden through the deceitfulness of sin, the image of God was not totally lost. Yes, defaced, but not completely gone. What remains in our depraved state is still sufficient for a basic understanding of right and wrong, a sense (i.e., our conscience) that there is a universal law that governs all us made in God’s image.

The moral effects of imago Dei are what intuitively tell us that taking an innocent life, cursing others for their color, or embracing class-based societies—to name just three—are all an attack on the image of God seen in people. Is it any wonder, in a culture where people can create their own definition of personhood and dignity and ignore the fundamental and historical understanding of the imago Dei, we have seen the tragic examples of abortion, euthanasia, slavery, and racism? Undoubtedly, “without the biblical understanding of human personhood…as image-bearers of God, society is free to degenerate into violence, oppression, and exploitation of the weak by the strong.”[9] 

The Imago Dei Socially

Before creation, God enjoyed perfect fellowship within Himself. As the Triune God, he was in complete unity, yet also complete individuality. Love and relationship are integral to God.

Likewise, we, as creatures made in His image, are creatures of relationship. God affirmed this in Genesis 2:18 when he said, ““It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Just as the Trinity relates and fellowships, so do we. This is the social aspect of the imago Dei, the element that brings divine meaning to things such as marriage, friendship, family, and other relationships. As Richard of St. Victor wrote, “Behold how human nature and divine nature seem to be related mutually yet as opposites, and the one seems to be oriented to the other in a contrasting way.”[10]

The imago Dei indelibly imprints us with this realization: humans are valuable. It forever stamps upon the universe the undeniable truth that life is sacred, and such should be our view of it and fight for it. In doing so we reflect the very thing which the Creator understood—that we are not made after the kind of any other living thing on the earth, but rather after His image and likeness. We bear his reflection, the deepest and greatest mark there is for humankind.

 

[1] Mark E. Ross, “Imago Dei,” TableTalk, April 2013, 13.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI), 463.

[5] Ibid., 461.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Millard Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Wheaton, IL), 96.

[8] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI), 461.

[9] Justin Holcomb, “Ethics of Personhood,” TableTalk, April 2013, 17.

[10] Grover Zinn, Richard of St. Victor, (Mahwah, NJ), 382.

2 Comments on “The Imago Dei (And America’s Holocaust from Almost 45 Years of Denying It)”

  1. Life is precious from birth to death. As a nurse, I have to ask, “What does pro-life mean when someone is at end of life?”

    This is where I want to make a distinction on the difference between active euthanasia and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia is a willful act to end a life to end pain/suffering (ex: injecting a patient with a lethal dose of medication). Passive euthanasia is death by omission, the decision to withhold or withdraw a life-sustaining measure (ex: tube feeding, breathing machine/ventilator).

    Patients and families, whom are facing the reality of mortality, fight to find peace amidst the anguish of accepting we are not created immortal. Medical/technological advances (where available) now make it possible to sustain life, but substitute living.

    Does Scripture imply we must advocate to choose life at any cost and accept all the medical interventions available (chemo, radiation, pacemaker, LVAD, ventilator, PEG, organ transplant, even hospitalization, etc)? Or can people choose to die the way they were born-with/without hair, without tubes, devices or machines?

    1. Pug—I’d contend Scripture does not imply nor command we have to choose to accept any and all medical interventions. Choosing “natural” death (or, as you say, “to die the way they were born”) seems consistently biblical by both principle and example.

      Thanks for your comment and additional information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *