As race tensions in America continue to boil, we have an opportunity to learn compassion in two different directions: toward the long, painful struggle of African Americans, and toward the heavy criticism and untold dangers of first responders.
Few of us feel compassion in both directions at the same time, but our calling, as Christians, is to keep trying. We need to feel empathy, the power to personally identify with people unlike ourselves. We need to understand the tensions of others’ lives, whether the black man’s history in America or the daily life of an American police officer.
As we learn to speak with empathy into one another’s lives, as we try to understand the reoccurring episodes of racial tension in America, and as we watch video clips of police shootings, angry protests, and athletes on a knee — we need help. Does the church have anything to say?
Imago Dei in the Civil Rights Movement
The church does have something to say. It’s called imago Dei, or “the image of God,” and it originates in Genesis 1:27: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
And it proved essential to the Civil Rights Movement of a previous generation, according to Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr., 69. Ellis is the academic dean of the Makazi Institute in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is also the author of Free at Last? The Gospel in the African-American Experience.
Ellis marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and he remembers the importance of human dignity to King’s cause. “The imago Dei was essential to the Civil Rights participants,” Ellis told me, “even if the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement didn’t have it very well articulated. It was a Romans 1:20 kind of thing. They knew about human dignity, they believed it, and not only did they believe it, they lived it out — treating their oppressors with a great deal of respect. Their actions proved they believed it. But yes, it was absolutely essential. The Civil Rights Movement never could have succeeded without imago Dei.”
In the end, if we fail to celebrate imago Dei — with God at the center of human worth — we will end up celebrating imago White or imago Black, warns Ellis.
Getting Clear on Image-Bearing
If we are going to reclaim and celebrate imago Dei, we must follow the lead of the key biblical texts.
After the recent post-shooting protests in Tulsa and Charlotte, I called Dr. John F. Kilner for his help. Kilner serves as professor of bioethics and contemporary culture and is the director of Trinity International University’s Bioethics Programs. He co-chairs the bioethics section of the Evangelical Theological Society, and he is author of a new award-winning book, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God. It has been the most corrective book I’ve read in 2016, exposing several presumptions in my own theology that needed to be exposed, challenged, and reformed.
It takes a 400-page book like Kilner’s to cut through the common assumptions over imago Dei, to make the glory of the doctrine clearer, and to make the truth of the doctrine simpler.
As Kilner sees it, to be made in God’s image gives us two important personal applications. First, it means that you have a dignity (a special, undiminished connection to the Creator). Second, it means that you have a potential destiny (an intended trajectory to reflect the glory of God in Christ).
Christ Is the Image, Not Us
Christians often speak about how humans are “image-bearers,” but this is a misleading way to say it, Kilner told me. The image of God is not found in the interior of our bodies, and it’s not located in our rational or creative powers. Instead, he said, referencing 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15, “The image of God is Jesus Christ.”
General mankind, the first humans (Adam and Eve), and you and me — we are not the image of God. “Christ is the image, and people are created in his image,” Kilner said. “The preposition ‘in’ more specifically means ‘according to.’ So the idea here is that God created people according to his image, which is Jesus Christ. Christ is the standard, the model for what a human being should be.”
If that sounds historically backwards — the resurrected, glorified Christ was the prototype for humanity, before Adam and Eve were fashioned from dirt — that’s because “according to Romans 8:29, before people were created, God determined that Christ would be the model according to which humanity would ultimately be conformed.”
Theologian Oliver Crisp has more recently labeled this position “the Christological doctrine of the image of God.” It means that “human beings are made in the image of God by being made in the image of Christ” (Crisp, 61; his emphasis).
This means “Christ is the archetype whose human nature is the blueprint for all other human natures,” writes Crisp (63). And it’s driven by the design of the incarnation. We are made according to the nature of Christ, a human nature that was first determined to be “sufficient to be in hypostatic union with a divine person” (64). The primary design of humanity is its capacity to be united to the divine. This Christological, incarnation-centered ordering of human nature is easy to miss in Genesis 1.
So if the glorified Jesus Christ is the original image of God, designed in the blueprints of the cosmos from the beginning of time, then humanity was later created according to the image of Christ. This means that humanity, created in the image of God, does not possess a damaged, warped, twisted, or marred image. The image of God is Christ, and his image remains undistorted. Nothing in Scripture suggests otherwise.
Man was made according to God’s image before the fall (Genesis 1:26–27).
And after the fall, man continued to be made according to God’s image (Genesis 9:6).
Such consistency can only hold true if Christ himself is the image, says Kilner.
Sin Cannot Erase the Image
This insight makes sense of why the Bible never says that sin erase, distorts, warps, or lessens the fact that we are made according to God’s image. Kilner repeats this point over and over so we will not miss it.
“If Christ is God’s image, then God’s image isn’t damaged by sin or the fall. And even people’s status as being created according to that image isn’t damaged since that is about special connection and intended reflection. The special connection was still there soon after the fall. You can see it right there in Genesis 9:6. God says that we may not murder people, because people are with him — they’re his. There is no indication that the connection has been weakened in any way.”
Certainly, we are creative because God is creative. We imagine because God imagines. We are relational because God is relational. But those internal capacities are not at the heart of this discussion. “To be made in God’s image or according to God’s image is not saying that we are like God. Echoing in our minds we should hear, ‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me’ (Isaiah 46:9). Rather, we are increasingly becoming more like God to reflect God’s attributes. Being in God’s image is about a connection to God and the intention of God, both of which are unchanged by sin.”
Christ is the glorious image to whom we look, and as we look to him our personhood is restored.
Language choice is key.
“Just as it is normally important to affirm that we are in the image of God or are according to the image of God — rather than saying we are the image of God — it is also helpful to avoid saying that we ‘have’ or ‘bear’ the image of God. Both of those expressions suggest that there is something in us or about us that makes us like God — some traits, capacities, etc. — things damaged by sin.”
“For that reason, it is probably not accidental that none of the biblical writers would think to use an expression such as ‘we have the image’ or ‘we bear the image.’”
Except for 1 Corinthians 15:49. “There Paul indicates that bearing the image of God ourselves will become a reality post-resurrection, when we actually will have all the traits and capacities that will appropriately reflect Christ, without the limitations of sin.”
Humanity as Royalty
In the meantime, Psalm 8 remains a beautiful coronation song to celebrate the dignity of humanity. But even it is not a celebration of the great capacities and abilities of fallen humanity. Quite the opposite. Psalm 8 is a royal song with a chorus that asks us to consider, in comparison to God himself, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4).
“Our status, our human dignity is not a function of anything,” says Kilner of Psalm 8. “It is an echo of the fact that there is a status there, but it is rooted in something other than our traits, other than what we can observe.”
To be made in God’s image is to be given unspeakable dignity, to be a king or a queen on this earth. But that dignity is freely bestowed on us by God’s free act. We have been given dominion over this earth, which is less like being given the keys to an excavator and more like being handed a scepter as one of God’s vice regents (Psalm 8:6). This dignity is afforded to the born, the unborn, the able, the disabled, and to all the ethnicities of the world.
To be made in God’s image is “a genuine democratization of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology” (Middleton, 121). It is the genesis of democracy. It is the basis of the American Declaration of Independence. It is the foundation of our pro-life priorities.
But this bestowal of royal dominion on us, in our fallen condition, in our feebleness, is “a tragic splendor” — as C.S. Lewis said of the huge crown pressed down on the young head of Queen Elizabeth in 1953.
The splendor of divine dignity does not match our rebellious and fallen humanity. It is a tragic splendor, but a splendor no less. God made us, he owns us, and he has “endowed” us “with certain unalienable Rights.” And Christ is set before us as our great trajectory.
Adam and Eve Were Unfinished
But this also means that Adam and Eve, made according to God’s image, and still living in an unfallen creation, also had a glorious destiny. Even sinless Adam and sinless Eve were not created as the image of God. No, they had a destiny, to move toward a spiritual body that was imperishable according to the archetype of the glorified Christ (to come). Even before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve had a destiny yet unmet. How much more is this true of fallen humanity! And that’s the point of 1 Corinthians 15:35–49.
“After the fall, the difference between people in their sinfulness and the standard of Christ became even greater. And people are trapped by sin,” said Kilner. “They are unable to become who God intends them to be. And it is only through faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ that the power of sin can be broken.”
Christ, as the image of God, is the truest spectacle of the imperial majesty of humankind. Because we are made in his image, our status in Christ brings us immediate dignity. Because Christ is the ultimate target of all human flourishing, he is our ultimate destiny.
Enter the gospel.
Human Destiny Calls for the Gospel
The church must celebrate the nobility of mankind as a settled principle, but we cannot stop there. Speaking of the dignity of mankind does not replace the gospel; it opens the door wide for it. As Paul writes, in calling forth our honesty, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9–10).
The image of Christ orients our personal renewal away from the destructive power of sin. We are made in his image, and our humanity is designed to move toward him.
This is why, Kilner reiterates, “the New Testament doesn’t teach that a damaged image is restored. Rather, it teaches that damaged human beings are restored according to the image of God in Christ. It is important to read the texts carefully here and not to read into them ideas that aren’t there.”
Romans 8:29 is one example, he says. There’s no indication of any sort of image change. “Rather, God is changing people, and the image of Christ, God’s image, is what people are being conformed to. If anything, it is the constancy of that image that provides a sure goal for humanity.” Kilner points to 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Colossians 3:10 to make the same point: “The image is the standard or the goal according to which people are being renewed.”
Confusion and Injustice
Every human being is made according to God’s image. “Human dignity — respect and protection for all people — depends on every person having that status,” he says. “And where this is celebrated, the church’s platform becomes powerful. It’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, ‘There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God’” (“The American Dream”).
“In other words,” says Kilner, “King recognized that God’s image isn’t damaged by sin. But some people mistakenly think of being in God’s image as actually being like God in various ways. And since people are so damaged by sin, then God’s image or being in God’s image is damaged as well. That means that the basis for human dignity is radically weakened.” The faulty position says, “Some people are more like God, so they are more in God’s image. Others are less like God, so the very basis of their God-given dignity is severely diminished.”
These are not simply the musings of a bioethicist, but a strong cultural warning to all Christians. “Where Christians have viewed being in God’s image as something that is true only to the extent that we are actually like God, they have, in fact, been tempted to subject others to both overt abuse and more subtle discrimination.”
Sinful leaders have built evil practices upon their beliefs in the “gradations” in the image of God. Kilner cites Nazi Germany and the massacre of Jews and the disabled; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and his argument for the slaughter of Native Americans; the church’s role in the enslavement of black Africans in America; and the sinful practices of white supremacists today. All these evils were propagated by groups who distorted the biblical description of imago Dei. They attempted to marginalize and exclude a targeted subculture of human beings who were “less Godlike.”
All of these evils are based on the wrong idea that the imago is an interior phenomenon, and each of us possesses more or less of it than others.
“What I found in researching Dignity and Destiny is that in all of those instances, professing Christians were making misguided appeals to the notion of the image of God to marshal those movements forward. History, all the way up to the present day, is filled with examples of that misuse, all rooted in the idea that being ‘in the image’ is to have certain personal traits and abilities that are damaged.”
Our Destiny — Together
To sum it up, Christ is the image. We are not the image. We are made according to the image of God (Christ). The image of God is not damaged or distorted, but our humanity is distorted by sin. In Christ, our humanity is restored by his grace, aimed at his glory, and resurrected by his power. And under this point, we are free to proclaim that every human being, of every gender and every race and every social class — the healthy, the dying, the unborn, and the disabled — every person has been crowned with indisputable dignity from the hand of the Creator. It is a solemn, imperial veneration to have been made according to the incarnate Christ.
And yet it’s all very tragic, when we see what sin has done to our humanity and how it has distorted us into people who misuse and abuse and dismiss others in anger. The dignity of man opens the door for us to preach the good news: Because we have been made in the image of Christ, every human being also has a glorious intended destiny in Christ. To turn away from him is the greatest human tragedy in the chronicles of this creation story. To trust in Christ — to be united to him — is the fulfillment of our human nature.
So we pull together, in faith, to proclaim the true dignity of man. All of us have been graced with the prestige of being made according to God’s image. Into the race-torn fabric of our society, this is the message our culture desperately needs from us as we go forward in proclaiming the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.