The Imago Dei in Man

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 10/05/2018

The other day, I lifted a cabinet in my garage and saw two rats scurry for cover. That’s not good. I don’t want rats tunneling through my house, leaving feces in my garage, or dying behind the drywall. So, I did what every homeowner does and laid two traps. After a few hours, I heard a loud SNAP! Just an hour later, I caught the second one. Problem solved. Not one cop came after me.

If I accidentally hit a toddler with my car, though, that would be a big problem. The police would get involved, and depending on the circumstances, I could go to jail.

Why? What makes rats so trivial and toddlers so treasured? It’s a single thing that makes a world of difference: the image of God (the imago Dei). The Judeo-Christian worldview teaches that human beings are different from animals not just in degree, but in kind. Animals are creatures, but humans are a special kind of creature, one that is uniquely created in the image of their Creator.

Genesis 1:27 says it succinctly: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” This short verse set the foundation for human rights in Western civilization for the past 2,000 years. It’s why the United States’ Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

In its attempt to jettison Judeo-Christian values—and, consequently, the idea we’re made in God’s image—society is removing the sole justification for treating humans the way most people demand they be treated: valuable and equal. If there’s no image of God, it follows that people who identify as gay and lesbian aren’t valuable, African Americans don’t deserve to be treated equally, and you can’t claim there’s a right to an abortion.

It’s the ultimate shoot-yourself-in-the-foot move. People haven’t thought through the implications, so let me spell out the significance of Genesis 1:27.

  1. Being made in the image of God makes humans valuable. If there’s no God, there’s no chance we’re made in His image. That means we’re the result of an impersonal process like evolution. The same blind and mechanical forces that led to a swarm of mosquitos led to humans. Nothing makes mankind more valuable than the 8.7 million other species on this planet. Had humans never evolved, it wouldn’t have mattered because no species matters more than the next. In fact, to suggest humans are special because we’re humans is to be guilty of a form of discrimination known as speciesism. Only if we’re made in God’s image can we be something different than every other living thing.
  2. Being made in the image of God makes all humans equally valuable. If there’s no God, then we have no soul and we’re merely material objects. If we’re just physical, though, what one trait does every human share equally that would make sense of the idea that every human is of equal value? Nothing! Some people are taller than others. Some people are better at math than others. Some people have more bone density than others. Different humans have these traits in varying degrees. How can every human—whether African American, Chinese, or Swedish—be equally valuable? Only if we’re made in God’s image is it possible. Notice, that’s not a degreed property. You can’t have more of it or less of it. You either have it or you don’t. It’s the only thing that every human shares equally and that can ground human equality.
  3. Being made in the image of God gives value to those considered “less than” valuable. If humans are not endowed with value by God, then what determines human worth? According to societal standards, human worth is based on what people can do: create art, raise children, work at a job, contribute to society, etc. But the moment humans lose the ability to do those things is the precise moment they lose their value. That’s why in a culture that rejects the concept of being made in God’s image, the strong prevail and the weak are discarded. This is most obviously seen when we dispose of bona fide human beings at the early stages of life (abortion), the late stages of life (physician-assisted suicide), and those who are disabled (euthanasia). Devaluing them is tantamount to the most unjust and heinous discrimination possible. But if human worth is not determined by what they can do, but rather by who they are (image bearers of God), then the unborn, elderly, and disabled are as valuable as everyone else.

Believing and treating everyone as valuable and equal is something our society takes for granted. They’ve forgotten—to their peril—that such beliefs can only exist if they’re grounded in the reality that humans are made in God’s image. The irony is that many of those who demand equality, rights, and fairness are the very ones who reject God and His image-bearing value.

For example, those who identify as gay and lesbian believe they’re valuable and demand to be treated equally. But if they are not made in God’s image, then there’s nothing to ground their value and, consequently, the equal treatment they deserve. In my assessment, though, they are beautifully created, immensely valuable, and deserving of fair and equal treatment. This view can only be grounded by the idea that they are made in God’s image.

African Americans also demand equal treatment. They claim that every person from every ethnic background is equally valuable to every other person. No one should be discriminated against. I agree 100%. How, however, can you make sense of that view if humans are merely the collection of billions of molecules? Hint: You can’t! But if God stamped every person of every ethnicity with His image on their soul, then every person is equally valuable. The only way Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to ground his claim for the equal rights of African Americans was with the idea that all men are endowed by their Creator with equal value. He was a Baptist pastor, after all. He believed in the image of God, and that truth informed his civil rights advocacy.

This is not to suggest that those who reject our biblical claim aren’t valuable or equal. On the contrary, we believe that those who vigorously oppose us or our ideas are still incredibly valuable, of equal value, and are deserving of rights. We simply want them to see the cost of rejecting the one principle that grounds what they already believe to be true.