Chuck Colson would often say that the greatest gift Christianity gave the world other than the message of salvation is the idea of the image of God.
It is important for Christians to know and understand the image of God for three distinct reasons. First, the image of God has been among the most consequential ideas in all of human history. Even atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche or the modern-day philosopher Luc Ferry, have acknowledged that our ideas about human dignity, human equality and human value were not present across cultures and civilizations, but were introduced to the world in Christianity. Why? Because of its core belief that humans were made in the image and likeness of God.
Second, the image of God is central to a truly Christian worldview. Scripture has been given to us in a grand, sweeping narrative: the story of creation to new creation, from the heavens and earth to the new heavens and new earth. And one of the central characters in the Christian story is the image of God. We see this right away in Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth; then He creates His image bearers to rule over them in His place and for His glory.
Finally, the image of God is critical if we are going to understand the issues and challenges of our day. The most significant challenges we face in our culture are not fundamentally moral ones. We do face moral challenges but the ones we face are the fruit of the problems, not the root. It’s the effect, not the cause. At the root of the issues of our culture has been a dramatic shift in how we think about the nature and value of the human person.
At the recent Wilberforce Weekend, Rebecca McLaughlin talked about the significance of the image of God. This idea is in all of human history. She referenced the Declaration of Independence, went on to highlight how the image of God directs our hearts to freedom, and how the greatest freedom ever won is the freedom we find in Christ. Here is an edited excerpt of Rebecca’s talk:
I am going to bring us back again to the Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Now, people often talk about the New Testament as if it condones and justifies slavery, and I can understand why they do. Slaves are addressed in the New Testament because they were part of the early Church.
In fact, from very early on, Christianity was mocked as being a religion of slaves and women and little children. Slaves are given instructions about how to live for Jesus in the condition that they find themselves. We look at Paul’s letter to Philemon and think, okay, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter sending an enslaved person back to his master. Of course, that means the Bible condones slavery. Right? Not if you read the letter.
Paul sends Onesimus back and tells Philemon to receive him as a brother. That’s not all. Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is his very heart. He loves him that much. He tells him to receive him back as he would receive Paul himself, his most respected mentor. In the New Testament there are ways that we are called to relate to each other as fellow image bearers of God, which is a radical undermining of the idea of there being masters and slaves. There were those whose lives were valueless and could be exploited by the more powerful. We see that in Jesus’ own life as He takes on the slave role himself and dies a slave’s death for us and for every enslaved person in history.
As Christianity starts to work its way through the West, we see slavery being progressively abolished. One of the earliest explicit arguments against slavery comes from Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. He asks, how much does rationality cost? How many obols (currency at the time) did you pay for the image of God? How many staters did you get for selling the God-formed man? It’s ridiculous. It is absurd for somebody to think that he can own another human being who has been made in the image of God.
We’re celebrating Wilberforce Weekend and it’s right and good that we look back to folks like William Wilberforce, whose Christian faith drove him to fight tooth and nail against the evils of slavery. But we have to recognize as well that if Christians had truly believed that black people were made in the image of God, just as much as white people were, that Africans were made in the image of God, just as much as Europeans were, there wouldn’t have been anything to abolish at that point.
It’s right for us to look back at the heroes of the faith, who fought for biblical values when it comes to human equality and who fought against slavery. But we must also reckon with the sins of our same sort of spiritual ancestors who didn’t. Because the imago Dei had to kill slavery twice. And just as a disproportionate number of folks in the early Church were enslaved, people who are clinging on to Jesus — who died a slave’s death for them — so Jesus has been calling enslaved people to himself through the centuries.
To hear Rebecca’s full talk, and gain access to the entire library of presentations about the image of God, visit wilberforceweekend.org.
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