The Judeo-Christian worldview is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world in affirming that human beings are made in the image of God. It is the uniqueness of humans that sets these two religions apart from all others.
Humans share a commonality with rocks, trees and animals, in that they are all finite and created, while God is infinite and uncreated. But humans are distinct from the rest of the created order in that they share in God’s likeness and image.
There is much discussion as to how we are to understand image and likeness, but one point can be made here. In the Ancient Near East kings were thought of in at least two ways: as a divine son, and as being in the god’s image. And often a king would erect statues of himself in far-flung parts of his empire. These images of the king were to be very real representations of the king.
But another ANE text – the Hebrew Scriptures – took all this much further. Everyone is seen as an image-bearer of God, not just the king. Every human being is a divine son, and an image and likeness of the living God. All mankind is royal. Thus we have dignity and a unique place in the created realm. We are special.
One way of unpacking all this is to think of how children mirror their parents. We often look at a baby and say, “he’s the spitting image of his old man”. Sharing the same genetic material means we share in the family likeness. As John Walton comments:
“While a baby may be affirmed to be in the image of its father, few can recognise that image. Based on the inherent image and the relationship with the father, the image grows more recognizable as the child matures. This does not essentially take place in a physical way, but rather in the way the child mirrors the attitudes, expressions, and character traits of his or her father. The biblical text, by offering us this explanation, gives us the key that while we are all in the image of God, we likewise have the capacity to become more and more in the image of God, that is, we were created with the potential to mirror divine attributes.”
And just as a prince shares in the king’s honour and glory, so we, as children of the King of Kings, share in that royal uniqueness. All this has ramifications for how we treat one another. Indeed, the idea of the sanctity of human life flows from the concept of being the divine image-bearer. Rikki Watts explains,
“In the ancient world, to deface the image of the king or deity was tantamount to high treason. If one did not want to live in his realm or under his kingship, that could be arranged, either by exile or death. If we take the Genesis 1 account seriously, namely, that every human being is made in God’s image, then we need to know that any act of abuse against another human being is an act of high treason against the God whose image we bear and to whose kingship and sovereignty we therefore inherently bear witness.”
Of course the naturalist version of events cannot ascribe any uniqueness to human beings. We are simply animals, and like the entire natural order, we have no special significance, purpose or meaning. Candid atheists are quite happy to admit as much. Consider just two (of many) admissions:
“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’ This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.” (Francis Crick)
“I am a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label. But is that all? Is there nothing in here but molecules? Some people find this idea somehow demeaning to human dignity. For myself, I find it elevating that our universe permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we. But the essence of life is not so much the atoms and simple molecules that make us up as the way in which they are put together.” (Carl Sagan)
Chuck Colson picks up this theme, and notes how people made in God’s image find it hard to shake the concept, even as they abandon God. He points to the UK, where the Christian faith is in steep decline. There Darwin’s birthday anniversary is being celebrated big time. Yet he sees a rather strange discrepancy: while faith is in decline and Darwin is all the rage, most Brits seem to have trouble embracing Darwinism.
He cites one recent study which found that “only 37 percent of people in the UK believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’ Moreover, 51 percent ‘say that Intelligent Design is either definitely or probably true’.” This is not so hard to understand. Says Colson:
“We really should not be surprised. The truth is that humans bear the imago Dei – we are made in the image of God and are designed to long for Him. By contrast, Darwinism supposes an entirely naturalistic worldview or religion. For many people, Darwinian evolution provides answers to the fundamental worldview questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Does life have any meaning and purpose? Darwinism’s answers are clear: We came from chance collisions of atoms; there is no purpose to life, no life after death, no objective moral law.”
He continues, “This is why the issue of Darwinism versus intelligent design continues to be such a fierce battleground. The debate is not just about fossils or genetic mutations. Our theory of origins determines our identity, our values, our sense of meaning.”
“And this is why – after a century and a half of having Darwinian evolution rammed down their throats by their professors and the media – people still say they believe in God, and that He created heaven and earth. This is one of those cases where intuitive human understanding and reason itself are more reliable than scientific theory. And our non-churchgoing friends in Britain are proof that scientific theory cannot ultimately eradicate what’s written on the human heart. That’s something worth celebrating as we teach our nearer neighbors about the Christian worldview, and how well – unlike Darwinism – it answers the basic questions, not only of our origins, but of life and meaning.”
Quite so. The image of God may have been seriously marred by the Fall, but we still retain it. No amount of atheist fundamentalism will dissuade most people that we are somehow unique, we have a special place in the cosmos, and we are more than a collection of chemicals and DNA.