Sadly, there are all sorts of reasons why people do not matter today. These reasons are laid out in two recent books—Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance (Baker Academic, 2017) and Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015). Being a Christian does not necessarily make a difference—a person’s view of the world may actually undermine the dignity of others around that person. One way this happens is when one adopts a basic life outlook, or way of thinking, that is un-Christian. Even when it comes to a Christian, one’s thinking may be shaped more by one of these influential outlooks than by biblical teaching.
Why People Matter examines five such outlooks in some depth—individualism, collectivism, utilitarianism, naturalism, and transhumanism—but these “isms” need not intimidate. Each of these stands for a way of thinking—an approach to understanding the world, a life outlook—that one will recognize in the daily news, in a next door neighbor, and perhaps even in oneself. The “ism” in each term indicates that the outlook identifies one particular thing as having supreme importance over everything else. That thing may have to do with the importance of the individual person, of a society, or of science. (A word of thanks to Baker Academic to draw on material from Why People Matter. Copyright (c) 2017 by J.F. Kilner and R. DeSilvestro. Used by permission of Baker Publishing Group, 6030 East Fulton Road, Ada, MI 49301. www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.)
For example, individualism is the life outlook that every person has his or her own values and preferences, and these determine what is right for the person. There are no objective truths or standards binding on all. Personal choice is the prevailing standard. When one hears the common refrain “It’s my life and I can do what I want,” individualism has gained the upper hand. When one adopts this outlook, then other people do not really matter, except for those that one happens to value at the time. But later, one may not value them either. A similar group version of this outlook is collectivism. All that matters is your own group. No one outside one’s group really matters; and everyone inside one’s group is readily expendable for the good of the group.
People who find an outlook focused on themselves or their own group to be far too self-centered may instead incline toward utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the outlook that maximizing the greatest possible good for as many people as possible should be the goal of every decision. When one hears the common refrain “The end justifies the means” in a social setting, utilitarianism is at work. It evaluates each thing that people do in terms of its consequences. Each action is a means to achieve some end; and if the end is beneficial enough, then the means are justified. One can justifiably inflict literally any form of oppression or harm (e.g., slavery) on any person or group if the society as a whole sufficiently benefits because no particular person necessarily matters.
For others, the way of looking at the world is not so much shaped by a preoccupation with individuals, groups, or society as it is by the dictates of science. This commonly happens in one of two ways. One is a reliance upon naturalism. According to this outlook, all that exists is the material world alone—in particular, that which can be scientifically, empirically measured, and verified. No ultimate reality exists beyond the physical world. “What one sees is what one gets ” or “seeing is believing” are everyday expressions of this outlook. There is no God. Human beings and all of life on earth are the result of the blind random forces of evolution. When one disregards, disrespects, or even destroys someone, nothing of significance has happened. People simply do not really matter. They simply are, just like dirt is.
A fifth life outlook, also shaped by science, is transhumanism. According to this view, biotechnology can enable people to become better than human—that is, to become “posthuman.” One or more capacities of posthumans would so exceed those of present human beings as to render them something beyond merely human. Uploading one’s consciousness into a computer or robot is just one of the many transhumanist scenarios increasingly appearing in novels and movies today. Those with this outlook ultimately look upon being human as unacceptable and insignificant. Being tethered to technology becomes far more attractive than being connected with Christ.
As noted previously, non-Christians are not the only ones who are susceptible to these five outlooks. Christians also are subject to their influence, which undermines the ability of Christians to recognize, affirm, explain, and otherwise promote the fact that people matter today. To develop and sustain that ability, Christians need a solidly biblical outlook on why people matter, grounded in who people truly are: People are created in the image of God. This is God’s “final vocabulary” (Mark Talbot) for what makes humans human (Millard Erickson).
As chapter 1 of Dignity and Destiny documents in some detail, the concept that every person is made in the image of God has the power to bring about great liberation throughout the world. It has mobilized major initiatives on behalf of people who are weakened by disease or poverty. It inspired the early church to refuse to engage in the widespread practice of infanticide but instead to care even for disabled young ones. Since then it has been a rallying cry for the church’s efforts in support of people with disabilities and others with special need. When societies have oppressed such groups as Native Americans, enslaved Africans and their descendants, and women, this concept has rallied many to resist. It is credited as the driving force behind the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.
Yet this very same image-of-God concept has been invoked to accomplish some of the greatest devastation that the world has known. Adolph Hitler invoked it in support of the Holocaust. U.S. scholars invoked it to rationalize the extermination of Native Americans. Church leaders invoked it to legitimate neglect of people with disabilities and to deprive women of significant roles in the church and society. Northern and Southern U.S. theologians alike invoked it in support of the institution of slavery, a position still voiced today.
To be fair, it is not the same concept that wreaked such devastation alongside of such liberation. Whereas a biblically sound understanding of creation in God’s image has fostered the liberation, it is a misunderstanding of the concept that has fostered the devastation. At the heart of the misunderstanding is the idea that being in the image/likeness of God means that people have certain attributes that are like God’s—for example, the ability to reason, to rule over (manage) creation, to be righteous, or to be in relationship. Since everything about people has been damaged by sin, so have these capabilities. Therefore, some are simply more “in God’s image” than other people are, and the protections of being in God’s image therefore attach to some people more than to others. To see how wrong this misunderstanding is requires us to take a careful look at what the Bible actually says about people being in God’s image.
What It Means to Be in God’s Image
When the Bible talks about something being an “image,” this means it has a connection with something else in a way that may also involve a reflection of it. (Again, see Why People Matter and Dignity and Destiny for detailed biblical support of what follows.) Being the image “of God,” in particular, means having a special connection with God as well as being a substantial reflection of God. Having a special connection is significant, because mistreating the image means one is mistreating the original. Being a substantial reflection is significant, since that means the image displays attributes (capacities, traits, abilities, etc.) of the original to the extent that it is able.
The idea that being an image signifies having a special connection is evident, for example, in Dan 3:1-7, which reports the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar erecting a large image in the province of Babylonia. Kings in the ancient Near East would periodically erect an image to establish their presence as rulers where they were not physically present.
The other element often present in an image is the way that it provides a reflection of certain attributes of the original. In OT times, images often displayed something about a king. In Dan 3, the great height and gold surface of the image reflected the king’s grandeur and wealth.
When the NT refers to Christ as God’s image, both connection and reflection are in view. In Col 1:15, for instance, Paul straightforwardly affirms that Christ is the image of the invisible God. Christ’s special connection with God is so close here as to constitute oneness. Moreover, Jesus is a substantial reflection of God. He is someone who can be seen, in contrast with the “invisible God.” The text surrounding 2 Cor 4:4 similarly communicates that Christ’s image-of-God status involves connection with, and reflection of, God.
Being vs. Being in God’s Image
Whereas Christ “is” God’s image, the Bible states that people are “in” or “according to” God’s image. The insertion of a preposition indicates people stand in some relationship with God’s image. The image-related passages in Genesis (1:26, 1:27, 5:1, 9:6) consistently insert a preposition between people and the image. Image-related passages in the NT directly or indirectly referring to Genesis (e.g., Jas 3:9; Col 3:10) also insert a preposition.
It is not plausible that in each of these passages the author is simply saying that people are God’s image, as if there were no prepositions there, and no need to add them. In fact, prepositions such as “in” or “according to” make quite a difference. Saying that someone is in the water is quite different from saying that someone is the water. Saying that a violin is according to a paper blueprint is quite different from saying that the violin is a paper blueprint.
The Bible’s authors use prepositions to distinguish the rest of humanity from Christ. Because Christ is not explicitly addressed in the OT, the OT simply affirms that people are not yet God’s image but are created “according to” the standard of who God is (in order to reflect God’s attributes to God’s glory). In the NT it becomes clearer that Christ as God’s image is the standard to which people need to conform. James 3:9 is particularly significant on this point since it conveys a NT author’s summary of how the Genesis idea should be understood.
The Impact of Sin
Failing to take seriously the distinction between Christ being God’s image and humanity being in God’s image has contributed to overlooking a second important distinction. Sin has damaged people, not damaged God’s image. If people were God’s image, then by damaging people, sin would plausibly damage God’s image. However, if people are created in (i.e., according to the standard of) God’s image, no damage is done to the standard just because people are later damaged.
There is ample discussion and documentation in the Bible regarding the destructive impact of sin on people. Yet, at the same time, there is every indication people remain “in God’s image” and that no harm has been done to this status or to the image on which it is based (see Gen 5:1; 9:6). People retain a special connection with God (though their relationship with God is badly damaged), and God still intends for people to reflect likenesses to God (though in actuality they largely fail to do so). The image of God is the standard of who people are created to be—embodied in the person of Christ—and that standard is not diminished in any way because of sin. Similarly, in sanctification it is people who are being renewed. God’s unchanging image is the standard for that renewal (see Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18: Col 3:10).
Being created in the image and likeness of God—or in the image of God, for short—is thus about special connection and intended reflection. (There is one concept here, not two; either “image” alone [e.g., in Gen 1:27 and 9:6] or “likeness” alone [e.g., in Gen 5:1 and Jas 3:9] is sufficient to refer to it.) People in God’s image have a special connection with God and God intends them to reflect God’s own attributes to the extent that they are able. Thus the tremendous significance of human beings is completely secure, rooted in God’s unwavering intentions rather than in variable current human capacities.
Although there are many outlooks today that warrant the conclusion that people do not really matter, a biblically sound view of people as created in God’s image is emphatically not one of them! Even the weakest and worst person’s dignity must be respected (Jas 3:9) and life protected (Gen 9:6), because both they and the one (mis)treating them are in God’s image. Moreover, both specific people and humanity as a community are accountable to the standard of being in God’s image. (A plural and singular pronoun in Gen 1:27 both refer to the “humanity” that God decides to create in the divine image in the previous verse.) Both personal and social ethics flow from God’s creation of humanity.