The Imago Dei

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Wednesday, August 1, 2018 0 comments

by David Odegard

Human beings are made in the image of God, the Bible teaches. This means that the essential identity of humanity is wrapped up with the identity of God. Human beings are not identical to God, but they are made in his likeness or image.

To begin to unravel the mystery of who human beings are, we must begin with God our creator. Those who spelunk the depths of God’s nature are theologians. We should not be surprised that they emerge with the first nuggets of who human beings ought to be based on their discovery of the nature of God’s being.

God is a creative God and we have the same trait. He has a free will and ours, too, is mostly free. He is loving, kind, holy, and just. We have the capacity for all those things, though they are marred by the rebellion which led to the Fall. Yet, the residue of the image of God remains. Everyone wants justice, beauty, love, truth, and goodness, though many different conceptions of these elements are debated. Christians accept the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God and allow it to determine transcendent value.

The Bible asserts that God is a person. In fact, God exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Personhood is inseparable to the nature of God and is essential to the nature of human beings as well. Each human being, from the moment of conception, has personhood and therefore value. Christianity provides a philosophical basis for universal human value.

This underscores the necessity of a comprehensive social ethic based on the truth of the Bible. When a nation mutes the church and strips society of its religious identity, the result is what Richard John Neuhaus described as the naked public square. Secularism cannot provide the necessary philosophical basis, because without God to ground values everything becomes arbitrary. Society is doomed to define humanity from an subjective framework. History is littered with failed attempts to build a universal system on a subjective frame.

Many view this liberation from a prescribed identity as a unique freedom. Nietzsche did. This was the idea behind his famous “God is dead” statement. He meant that when society realizes that there is no God, it has a terrible freedom to create its own identity. Read more about that here. But the result is that ordered society or civilization devolves into a “king of the hill” competition, since everyone must win power in order to ensure her own value against the claims of her neighbor. Obviously, this creates exploitation and a mercenary spirit in society. Have we seen this today?

The Imago Dei means that every human being is absolutely identical in terms of value and rights. The unborn have rights as well as the elderly. Persons living in remote jungles have just as much value as the denizens of Manhattan high rises. As the signers of the Declaration of Independence believed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The founders were wise in that they recognized that the Creator was the necessary foundation of civilization. They did not universally apply this truth, but they did recognize it as the only legitimate foundation of civil society.

Personhood is the measure of value, not utility to the government, not whether the individual is an enemy of the state, not patriotism. Value is measurable not in material wealth or physical or mental ability, but in the intrinsic value of personhood. This truth precludes slavery, abortion, or second-class citizenry. It precludes lying, cheating, stealing, murder, and other dirty doings.

At the founding of the United States, an exemption to the universal and unalienable rights of individuals was sought by slave holding states. They denied that certain persons were actually persons. Some thought slaves were 3/5 of a person, or an animal with no soul at all. These unbiblical ideologies were used as an ad hoc justification of slavery. The civil government was then pressed to codify the non-personhood of slaves, which they did.

But Christians trying to apply the Bible to society held that slavery was intolerable both to the Bible and to the foundation of constitutional personhood. The 3/5ths view was untenable by any standard. Slavery denied the essential humanity and personhood of the individual. Persons unable to be owned by other persons seems a self-evident truth as the founders declared. As we should all be aware, dehumanization leads to exploitation.

Today, we have a similar crisis. Abortion advocates deny the personhood of the unborn and they collude with government to reinforce this notion through law. Roe v. Wade swept aside hundreds of years of common law as it attempted to create a right where no right previously existed. It is ironic that today Supreme Court justices are asked to enshrine Roe as settled law and to not sweep away 45 years of legal thought when they discounted hundreds of years of legal precedent. Hypocrites!

When will Christians stop allowing the notion that the government can decide who is protected as a person and who is not? The public square cannot long remain naked. It will be clothed with meaning and values—if not Christian meaning and values, then those of whomever has the power to enforce their values on the rest of us. Either we adopt the arbitrary values of human construction or we adopt the universal revelation of a good God. Of course, this hinges on whether a person recognizes that God is truly there.

Depose God and society scrambles for an identity and basis of value and meaning. All other elements of a social ethic disintegrate. Therefore, the Imago Dei must hold the first position in an hierarchy of social ethics. Christian values transcend those of human government. There is a higher and nobler court of appeal than fallen humans can create.

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