There’s something in each one of us. It’s what stirs when our hearts sink at tragedy. It’s what makes me want to throw up my hands when Manley Pointer gets away at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” and the thing that makes Heath Ledger’s Joker despicable. It’s the thing that makes us cry because others are crying and laugh because others are laughing, even when the punchline wasn’t that funny.
As an evangelical, I call this the imago Dei, or the image of God. I believe that men and women were created by the Triune God, reflecting His image in their attributes, complementarity, and significance. In all of the examples I listed above, the imago Dei is violated or imposed on.
Usually, my non-Christian friends refer to this as “dignity” or “value.” Because God hardwired the imago Dei into our very being, everyone recognizes this, though we use different language. There’s something about human beings that doesn’t exist in cats or robots. Owen Strachan phrases it this way: “We’re created in a special way to display the full-orbed grandeur of our Creator.” Our Creator, in His excellent craftsmanship and divine wisdom, enables people to be bearers of His grandeur. And we must fight to bear it well. We must protect the imago Dei.
There are three moral epidemics on our culture’s radar that are tied to the imago Dei — pornography, abortion, and racial discrimination. If we are unwilling to defend the doctrine of the imago Dei, we will be nothing more than spectators, watching a world lead to its own demise.
Porn: Slighting the imago Dei
Pornography is an imago Dei issue.
I’ve written about the long-term effects of porn for Canon & Culture, but let me rehash a few points in case you don’t want to open a new link (though the synthesis on their site goes deeper than this post). According to a 2014 study, 79% of men ages 18–30 admit to viewing pornography on a monthly basis. 33% of men within the same age range either admitted they were addicted or were unsure if they were addicted to pornography.
C.S. Lewis has a great quote that religious and irreligious people alike must consider (emphasis mine; minor language warning due to subject matter):
“For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides.
And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. . . . And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.”If you missed what Lewis was saying, he’s arguing this: pornography destroys human dignity. Pornography slights the imago Dei. When a man hides himself away behind a screen, he’s locking himself in his own prison, calling roll for his, “harem of imaginary brides.” No longer does he want a woman; he wants his picked-over selection of brides that are at his disposal. He loves himself and destroys his own imagination. Pornography takes our awe off of the Creator and attempts to put it on His creation.
Let me clarify what all of this means in a very real way: the people on the other side of the screen — the women who are emotionally, physically, and mentally manipulated into performance, consenting or not— those women matter. They’re living. They carry with them the image of their Creator, and the porn industry tells them that this image does not matter, that it can be taken advantage of for cheap pleasure, and that they are not worthy to glorify God the way they were created. Pornography creates women in the image that the Tempter wants them to be created in, not the image that the Holy God instilled in them.
Planned Parenthood: Killing the imago Dei
Abortion is an imago Dei issue.
In recent weeks, there have been a series of gut-wrenching videos depicting footage from a 30-month long investigative sting against Planned Parenthood. I’m going to emphasize again that these videos are hard to watch. I’ve cried over these videos. I’ve been kept up at night because of these videos. But I think (almost) everyone should see them because we must be familiar to fight.
These videos show a clear violation of the imago Dei, or the underlying dignity that belongs to each and every individual. Abortion language tries to do away with the imago Dei to begin with. To Planned Parenthood, a fetus is, “nothing but a clump of cells,” yet they can harvest lungs, a brain, legs, and other viable organs to be marketed. To Planned Parenthood, a fetus moving outside the womb — i.e. a baby by any standard — is chilling but worth thousands of dollars. To Planned Parenthood, tapping a heart to hear it beat on its own is not a sign of living, but, “something cool,” that will allow top-level employees to buy a Lamborghini.
The acronym SLED (accredited to Stephen Schwarz, as far as I can tell) is helpful here.
Size — A fetus is smaller than a mature adult. But so are newborns, toddlers, children, and teenagers. I’m kind of overweight, but that doesn’t make me more important than my friend who is 5'2" and probably 110 pounds. Are they any less of a human just because they are not as big as the rest of us?
Level of development — A fetus is less developed than a mature adult. But, again, so are newborns, toddlers, children, and teenagers. Add this to the number of people who live with developmental handicaps. Are they any less of a human just because they are not or cannot be fully developed?
Environment — A fetus is located inside the womb, while a mature adult is not. But where I am does not determine who I am. Since when did environment become criteria for whether or not you are human? If we colonized the moon and lived outside of our atmosphere, wouldn’t we still be living humans? I‘m not convinced that a mother’s womb is more foreign than a place where you need a space suit to sustain human life. Are they any less human just because they live in a different place than us?
Degree of dependency — A fetus is more dependent than a mature adult. But, for the third time, so are newborns, toddlers, children, and teenagers. What about conjoined twins? What about diabetics? People on life support? Are they any less human just because they depend on something more than we do?
Abortion kills the imago Dei. Abortion mangles the imago Dei — rips it apart and sells it for profit.
Before you ever-so-quickly concede that a fetus is a human, arguing that a mother has autonomy over her baby, I beg you, tell me where we draw the line. Echoing atheistic Princeton professor Peter Singer, Scott Sauls writes, “…as soon as we decide that one form of human life is disposable, we have lost all ability to defend human rights for any form of human life.”
If a mother’s autonomy overrules a fetus’s right to life, then it follows that a mother’s autonomy overrules a toddler’s right to life, a child’s right to life, or a teenager’s right to life. Following the logic of the autonomous mother argument, Casey Anthony should have never been tried.
King Jesus is coming back with the sword to tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God, poured out once and for all against infanticide.
Black Lives Matter: Suppressing the imago Dei
Racism is an imago Dei issue.
For the last three hundred years, the narrative has remained largely the same: empowered white humans suppress black humans. We can talk specifics and semantics if you’d like, but whether we’re in Colonial America or Ferguson, MO, discussing drinking fountains or illegal cigarette sales, a sin-sick and deplorable pattern quickly emerges.
There is a two-fold approach to discussing how the gospel shapes our view of ethnic differences.
On the one hand, the imago Dei unites us. We are all part of the human race. We all partake of God’s attributes, God’s created world, and God’s gifts in common grace. We are all human. The imago Dei is reflected in each of us.
On the other hand, the clearer our view of the gospel is, the more we can celebrate the differences God has given us. We are united, according to Ephesians 4, in one body, one Spirit, called to one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is Father of all. Paul goes on to say that God has extended grace in Christ’s gift to each of us. This includes our differences, distinctions, and cultural barriers.
A gospel that ignores racial differences is not the good news of Jesus Christ; a gospel that lets racial differences stand in the way of loving others is not the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel of the Bible, the gospel of our Savior, Jesus Christ, is good news that allows us to stand in unity with our brothers and sisters, respecting the differences in how God created us.
Christians should be tearing down racial boundaries with holy anger. The long-standing oppression of our neighbors can no longer be tolerated. Racism suppresses the imago Dei. Racism yells to the Creator, “You made me better than him,” and defies the design of gospel unity.
A Way Forward
William Wilberforce, presenting the Abolitionist Bill before lawmakers for the first time, spoke these words: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.”
Our Creator has revealed Himself in the personalities and characteristics of the people around us. To look past the ordained and intentional order of creation is blatant ignorance at best and irreverent godlessness at worst. We must speak, seasoned with Truth. We must become, as Russell Moore begs, a “prophetic minority” that cries with conviction and pushes on with both hands on the plow.
We must preserve the imago Dei, for if we lose the image of God, we fail to stand firm on His Word and will certainly forget what He looks like altogether.
Cody Glen Barnhart
Cody Glen Barnhart (@codygbarnhart) lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and is a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Canon & Culture, Gospel Centered Discipleship, and is a contributor at servantsofgrace.org.