Regarding The Image

by Helen Barratt

Audrey is unconscious following a stroke. Her doctors have said there is little chance of her recovering and she is unable to communicate with her family. She has lost many of her critical faculties, so to what extent does her life still have value?

Over the past fifty years there has been an explosion of ethical challenges facing doctors and other healthcare professionals. Ranging from abortion to euthanasia, via human enhancement technologies, many of the arguments Christians put forward in debate revolve around the principle of the sanctity of life – the intrinsic value bestowed on each of us simply because we are human. According to the Bible, the image of God stamped on us1 lies at the heart of what it means for us to be human. It not only marks us out from all other living creatures, but also imparts human life with an extraordinary value.

It is important that Christians not only have a grasp of the practicalities of ethical issues, but also what the Bible tells us about personhood – or what it means to be human – as this is so central to many debates. This file will not look in depth at specific issues, many of which are covered by other CMF publications. Instead, by briefly stepping back from the nuances of individual debates, we can gain a deeper understanding of how and why the value of human life underpins so much of Christians ethics. First, we will look at what the Bible tells us about what it means to be human, before going on to explore the concept of the image of God and its relevance to bioethics.

Mankind: The Image of God

In Psalm 8, a hymn of praise to the Creator God, David reflects on ‘the work of [God’s] fingers’:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths pf the seas.2

God created the whole universe, yet still values mankind highly, not because of any action on man’s part, but simply as a gift. Human beings are ‘crowned… with glory and honour’ and established as the ‘ruler over the works of [God’s] hands.’

Creation Narratives
This concept of mankind as the crowning work of creation first arises in the creation narratives at the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1:26-27:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

The text in Genesis 1:26 refers to both ‘image’ (Hebrew: tselem) and ‘likeness’ (Hebrew: demuth). There have been discussions about whether or not the words represent different things, but it seems likely that they can be considered synonymous. The theologian Anthony Hoekema notes that in the original Hebrew text of the Bible there is no conjugation between the two words. The ‘and’ was inserted the Latin translations produced in the fourth century AD, giving the impression that ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ refer to two different things. The words appear to be used interchangeably in the other references to the image in Genesis.3 However, both Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 clearly imply that human beings are more than just highly developed animals and the only God-like creature in all of creation.

Although other Old Testament (OT) references to the image of God are scarce, it seems clear from the restriction of Genesis 9:6 that the importance of the topic is out of proportion with its brief treatment. Intentional killing of another human being is explicitly ruled out because human beings are made in the image of God, affirming the worth of mankind hinted at in Psalm 8.

Genesis 1 goes on to explain that our position in creation involves dominion over the earth – our role as God’s representatives, ruling over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky and every living creature that moves on the ground.4 The image of God is central to this. In OT times it was common for kings and rulers to erect statues, or images, of themselves in a conquered land to signify their presence and rule there.

Aside from the references to the image of God, tselem is used over twenty times in reference to physical replicas of gods, men or things established to represent and resemble the ruler they pictured.5 ‘Likeness’ (demuth) also occurs several times, each referring to physical resemblance or appear.6

Restored by Grace
Following the entrance of sin into the world in Genesis 3, we know that our intellect has been corrupted, our purity lost, and our relationships with both God and each other spoilt. Some have thus questioned whether humans still retain God’s image. However, it seems that we still possess it in some sense as 1 Corinthians 11:7 and James 3:9 still both refer to mankind as ‘made in God’s likeness.’ The image may well have been distorted by our own disobedience, but writers have struggled to put a label on exactly which aspect of the image has been lost.

Most helpful is Jim Packer who argues that after the Fall we still bear the image of God formally – we still have within us the abilities that, if rightly harnessed, enable us to live a God-like life – so the unique value of each human being must still be respected. But we have lost the image substantially, and it takes God’s grace-gift of union with Christ to restore it fully.7

References to God’s image abound in the New Testament (NT), where mankind is described as the ‘image and glory of God’.8 Two particular themes emerge, of Christ as the true image of God, and of the Christian being conformed more and more to that image by God’s grace. We see the awesome reality of the image of the invisible God in Christ,9 the manifestation of God’s glory.10,11,12,13 As ‘the second Adam’, Christ is also the head of a new humanity. As Adam shared the distorted image with his descendants, those believers who are ‘in Christ’. Paul writes in Romans 8:29 that ‘those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers’. The likeness of Jesus is thus the pattern for all those who are his.14

However, this restoration is a work of God, by his grace, not the result of our own endeavour. The process of sanctification – making us more like Christ and restoring the image – is an on-going work in Christians, accomplished by his death on the cross.15,16 However, although we are being changed ‘with ever increasing glory’,17 complete confirmity will not be achieved until Christ’s return ‘when we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’.18

The Incarnation and Resurrection
For many, the human body is dispensable and open to our manipulation. We see this, for example, in debates about human enhancement technologies. However, according to the Bible, our bodies are a crucial aspect of our humanity. This is resoundingly confirmed by both the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. John 1:14 tells us that ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us’. When God breaks into human history to bring redemption to his fallen people, he does so not by bringing about a new creation, but by revealing himself as a ‘Mark 1, original human model’.

Martin Luther believed that mankind had lost the image of God at the Fall, and that its restoration was the goal of salvation

John Wyatt writes, ‘when Christ is raised as a physical human being, God proclaims his vote of confidence in the created order’.19 Jesus’ physica; body after the resurrection not only affirms the general goodness of God’s original creation, but specifically mankind created in his own image as the climax of that creation, with a physical body that is described in Genesis 1:31 as ‘very good’.20

Read more: Regarding The Image (Part 2)

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 46, 2011