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The simple but sublime words of Genesis 1:26 that God created mankind in His own image and likeness are some of the most important words in all of Scripture. The teaching that man is the image and likeness of God is absolutely foundational for a Christian understanding of human nature, the dignity and value of the person, and for all of Christian ethics. It is the purpose of this article to explore briefly some of the important practical implications of this crucial, biblical truth for Christian living and for contemporary ethical issues such as capital punishment, human rights, abortion, and stem cell research.
The biblical passages in the Old and New Testaments that relate to the image of God are discussed more fully elsewhere in this issue of Tabletalk. For our purposes, the following definition should be sufficient: The image of God in man is that which gives human beings the capacity for a uniquely personal relationship with God. The image of God encompasses man’s humanity as such and involves the whole person — body, mind, emotions, will, spirit — and man’s humanity cannot be reduced to only one of these aspects. The image of God is not a human achievement, but a gift conferred on all humans by God’s creative act. The purpose of man’s creation as the image of God is that man might enjoy a personal relationship with the Creator, both in time and eternity.
A definition of the image of God that encompassed more explicitly the various strands of biblical revelation could be as follows: Being created in the “image and likeness of God” means being created to share the status of Christ’s royal sonship (see Gen. 5:3; Col. 1:15), reflecting on earth God’s heavenly authority (Gen. 1:26, 28; Ps. 8:6–8), glory (Ps. 8:5; 2 Cor. 4:4), and righteousness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Jesus Christ is the true and perfect image of God, reflecting the Father’s character and enjoying as the eternal Son intimate, loving fellowship with Him; we as redeemed humans are being renewed in the divine image and granted the status and privileges of sonship by adoption. As those who are being renewed in the image of God, we are called to reflect the holiness and righteousness of our Creator in all our thoughts, words, and deeds.
The biblical doctrine of man’s creation as the image of God is foundational for all of Christian ethics because it teaches that the lives of all human beings have intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value. Our lives have value as such, not merely in terms of what we may be able to do for others. Human beings have inestimable value in the sight of God, irrespective of gender, race, state of health, dependency, or social and economic utility, but simply and profoundly because human beings, among all God’s creatures, have been designed and created for the purpose of enjoying a personal relationship through Jesus Christ with the Creator of the universe.
Ethical Implications of the Image in Biblical Revelation
The biblical writers draw ethical implications from the image of God in two important areas, namely, capital punishment and the dignity of the human person. In Genesis 9:6 it is stated that whoever “sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Just as desecration of a nation’s flag is an attack on the values of the nation that the flag represents, so an attack on the life of man is an attack on the majesty of God who created man to be His representative on earth.
It might be asked if the word shall in verse 6 is to be understood merely as a prediction of future retribution and revenge, or as a command to execute the murderer. While either possibility is grammatically possible based on the Hebrew text, the interpretation of the words as a divine command is more likely, given the context. The very fact that a reason is given — the presence of the divine image in man — makes it more plausible that a command is intended. This understanding is also consistent with the fact that other passages in the Mosaic law explicitly require the execution of a murderer (Num. 35:16–21). The fact that this command is given in the context of the covenant with Noah, which renews the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 9:7; see also 1:28), indicates that the command to administer capital punishment justly is not limited to Old Testament Israel, but is valid for all nations and societies.
In the New Testament, James draws important implications from the presence of the divine image in man regarding respect for the dignity of the person. He notes the inconsistency in the way human beings can use the tongue, with blessing and cursing coming from the same mouth: “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (3:9). James points out the absurdity of praising God and cursing men, since to curse men is, in effect, to curse God — since men and women bear the divine image. James’ stricture on cursing can be extended to all forms of verbal (and physical) abuse of the person; such abusive and destructive language is contrary to the inherent dignity of the person created in the divine image. Verbal abuse, domestic violence, and torture are all abhorrent to God.
James’ admonition presupposes that the image of God is still present in man, even after the fall. This is not inconsistent with the New Testament teaching that in another sense the image of God needs to be renewed and restored in the believer through the sanctifying power of the Word and Spirit (see Eph. 4:23–24; Col. 3:9–10). Theologians have made a helpful distinction between the formal image, which is universally present despite the fall, and the material image, which is renewed by grace in the believer. A brand new automobile that has been wrecked in a collision is still an automobile in the formal sense, but in a material sense it now lacks the beauty and functionality that it was originally designed to display.
Earlier in his epistle, James had warned believers against showing favoritism to the rich in the Christian assembly (2:1–7). Such partiality is a violation of the “royal law” to “love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). The command to love your neighbor is in itself inherently related to the image of God, since equal respect for the person, despite differences of social and economic status, is ultimately based on the presence of the divine image in all people.
Ethical Implications of the Image: Some Contemporary Issues
The biblical teaching concerning the image of God has important implications for contemporary issues such as human rights, the sanctity of human life, and bioethics. The concept of the image of God has been foundational in Western civilization for the institutions and practices of human rights and democracy. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” the background of his thought was this fundamental teaching of the first chapter of Genesis. Human beings are not in fact equal in ability, gifts, education, or achievement, but are equal in view of their common creation to be image bearers of God. The political scientist John Hallowell has pointed out that the modern world, having lost sight of this crucial, biblical truth, has in fact “no basis for believing that all men are equal,” no firm basis for “human rights” that are anything more than the creations of human societies.
Likewise, the very concept of democracy finds its true basis in this crucial, biblical truth. The principles of “one person, one vote” and the principles of political equality and self-government are consistent with the equality of all persons as equally bearing the image of God.
It is in the image of God that Christian faith grounds a sanctity-of-life ethic in issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research. As image bearers of God by their fact of being created by God, the lives of human beings, as stated above, have intrinsic and not merely instrumental value. Innocent human life is inviolable and may never be licitly destroyed for someone else’s benefit. If it is asked, “When does the image of God appear in man,” the best biblical answer is, “At the beginning, at the creation: When a living human being is present, the image of God is present.” Human life has transcendent value in the eyes of God from the moment of conception until natural death, and must always be respected as such.
Finally, it will be helpful to remember at this juncture of our nation’s history that the ethical implications of the image of God are not limited either to the political “right” or the “left” but encompass both “sanctity of life” and “social justice” agendas. This foundational, biblical teaching calls all Christians to honor the dignity and value of all persons, at all times and in all circumstances, in our thoughts, words, and deeds.