The Image of God and Human Dignity
By Dr. Glenn Sunshine | Published Date: May 27, 2010
This is the second article in a series exploring the implications of humanity’s creation in the image of God.
In the first article in this series, we looked at how the term “image of God” was used in the ancient near east, noting that it was a royal term that described humanity as the official representative and regent of God in this world. This leads to the biblical teaching of human dominion over nature, but at the same time limits that dominion to acting as God’s steward in the world and taking care of it appropriately as His possession.
Since in Genesis 1, the description of humanity focuses entirely on the image of God, it follows that this is the most essential element of what it means to be human. But this in turn has implications well beyond dominion and stewardship. In particular, it provides the only real foundation for human dignity and human rights.
Dignified above all else
First of all, the image of God distinguishes us from everything else in creation. Spain may grant “human rights” to great apes and Switzerland may have enshrined plant rights into their constitution, but neither of these alter the fundamental distinction between humans and either animals or plants. In fact, they demonstrate the difference: has any other species given rights to anything else? Has any other species acted to protect other species? Has any other species held itself in check in an effort to prevent another species from extinction?
The very fact that we can talk about rights and that we recognize our responsibilities toward other creatures puts the lie to the claims of animal rights activists that we are just another species on the planet, no different from any other. If that’s the case, why do the animal rights people insist that we must protect and respect other species? If they don’t ask that of termites in a house, which destroy our habitat, or a lion meeting a lone wildebeest, why do they expect it of humans? Or should we put predators in jail?
We do in fact have responsibilities to other creatures, and for that reason the animal and plant rights activists who deny a special place for humans are wrong. It is precisely our creation in the image of God that gives us those responsibilities and that distinguishes us from the rest of Creation.
The claim that this is “speciesism,” a moral failing akin to racism, is self-refuting unless those leveling the charge are also willing to say that all other species have the same responsibilities—not just rights—that we do.
Christians have supported animal rights in one sense for centuries. William Wilberforce, the British evangelical who led the fight in Parliament against the slave trade, also was a founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But equating animal rights to human rights is a different issue altogether, and points to a fundamental deterioration in our culture’s understanding of and commitment to the value of human dignity, and with it, to human life itself.
The image of God and the value of life
In Bblical terms, humanity’s unique dignity flows from our creation in God’s image. Since we are God’s regents on the earth, an attack on any human being is tantamount to an attack on God Himself. Thus God tells Noah after the Flood:
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image. (Gen. 9:6 ESV)
The justification in this instance for capital punishment was the fact that human beings were made in God’s image. Murderers forfeited their right because of their attack on one of God’s image bearers. That is how seriously God takes human life.
Taking this one step further, since the value of human life flows from the image of God, so does human dignity. And since the image of God is shared by all people, all of us have an intrinsic dignity that is distinct from anything else about us. The supreme value of the image of God far outweighs any other consideration in determining our worth.
To put it simply, any time you value something more than the image of God in how you think about yourself or others—whether race, sex, class, appearance, age, mental capacity, ability or disability, anything—you are quite literally insulting God to His face.
This includes valuing people on the basis of their religious beliefs. Christians who think they are better than others because of their faith have forgotten the very first element of the Good News: we are all sinners who can bring nothing good to God that would make us worthy of salvation. But what we could not provide for ourselves, God provided for us. Christians thus have no claim to being better than anyone else, and we must insist that all human beings are equally valuable regardless of faith, lifestyle, vices, criminal background, or anything else, because we all share the image of God.
There is therefore never any excuse for any form of bigotry, whether racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, or any of the other “-isms” in our culture. As a result, Christians should be (and historically have been) on the forefront of fights for civil rights.
The image of God and human equality
Let us start by looking at human equality. The apostle Paul tells us that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” (Gal. 3:28 ESV) All are morally and spiritually equal before God, all equally need salvation, and all share in the same means of salvation. Race, class and gender thus are irrelevant before God.
This emphasis on moral and spiritual equality led Christians to be the first people anywhere in the world to pass laws against slavery, as documented by Rodney Stark. Slavery was condemned as a sin in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, and when the Europeans tapped into the African slave trade, no fewer than four different popes condemned it. And of course, the British abolition campaign in the late 1700s was led by evangelical Christians, among them William Wilberforce.
Martin Luther King’s leadership in the Civil Rights movement was based on a profound understanding of Christian natural law theory going back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas in the early thirteenth century. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is based on just these arguments, anchored in the Christian tradition that recognized both our equality and intrinsic dignity and the importance of an objective moral foundation for law.
Early Christians promoted the rights of children and the unborn as well. In an era in which infanticide was mandated by law for the handicapped and allowed under any circumstances, Christians worked to save babies from death, bringing them into their own households, and petitioned the government to end this legalized murder. Similarly, following the lead of the Jews, they also opposed abortion as murder since it was the taking of a human life made in the image of God.
Christians pioneered rights for women as well. Christianity resulted in a tremendous increase in prestige, opportunity, and freedom for women in ancient Rome, well beyond what had been available to them in the pagan world. We will return to this topic in a later article.
Ultimately, the logic of our creation in the image of God led to the development of the idea of universal human rights. This is a uniquely western concept, built on theories of inalienable rights developed by Medieval Christian theologians from their studies of the Bible. And all of it is founded on the spiritual and moral equality of people in Christ, going back ultimately to our creation in the image of God.
No other culture, religion, or civilization has advanced a comparable idea, because none of them have the worldview foundation for it. Even Jurgen Habermas, the leading public intellectual in Europe and an atheist, points out that modern secular ideas of human rights have their origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition:
Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.
All of this obviously just scratches the surface of this issue. But in an era of easy abortion coupled with ultrasounds and genetic testing to determine if the child is worth keeping alive, of designer babies, of calls for legalized euthanasia, and a host of other challenges to human life and worth in our culture, we as Christians need to rediscover and recommit to the centrality of the image of God for determining human value.