Conversations about human dignity often, and rightly, refer to the biblical concept of the image of God. In the creation account in Genesis 1:27 we read that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The third person pronouns are fitting here because the text is providing a narrative depiction of a past event. Those human beings back then were created by God.
When we hear discussions and applications about the image of God in contemporary discourse, it’s often in a similarly external or abstract way. These usages are directed toward the need to recognize the image of God in the other, the person who may be marginalized or oppressed. In the context of helping those in poverty, for instance, John Perkins powerfully reminds us, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.” Those who are materially poor, no less than those who are materially affluent, are imagebearers and possessors of the inalienable dignity that attends to that status. This shared reality is precisely why C.S. Lewis observes, “You have never talked to a mere mortal…. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
As great a challenge and responsibility as it can be to recognize and affirm the image of God in other people, however, it is likewise often difficult to see God’s image in ourselves. But, in fact, each one of us is an imagebearer of God. No less than our forebears are we “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve” born today in the image of the heavenly father, to borrow another phrase from C.S. Lewis. In this way Genesis 1:27 is not just about those human beings back there at the beginning. It is also a text that speaks directly to us today, and to all people throughout the history of the world. You, too, whether male or female, rich or poor, black or white, are created in God’s image.
The implications of this for our lives can hardly be overstated. We must not only recognize, affirm, and honor the dignity of others. We must also live in a way that is worthy of our honored status as God’s imagebearers. For Christians this means understanding our place as God’s adopted children (Ro. 8:14-17). In the Ancient Near East, the symbol of bearing an image included this kind of responsibility, that of a child to a parent, an heir to a monarch, or a steward to a ruler.
Human beings are the crown of God’s creation (Ps. 8:5), and as such each one of us bears the weight of that royal diadem. A wondrous aspect of this glorious reality is that God’s image is reflected and refracted in the various and diverse callings of human beings, a reality seminally present in the creation of human beings in God’s image as male and female. Thus the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck argues, “Not merely one of them, but both, and not the one separate from the other, but man and woman together, in mutual relation, each created in his or her own manner and each in a special dimension created in God’s image and together displaying God’s likeness.”
Each one of us has a unique and unrepeatable place in God’s created order. Each one of us lives, moves, and has our being within the context of a unique set of relationships, talents, dispositions, and opportunities. Each one of us, no matter the differences and diversities that exist, has some service we can render to further God’s glory. As Rudy Carrasco observes, “Every single person on the face of the planet is created in God’s image. Everybody has the same heavenly Father. Everybody has capacity, talent, and ability. Everybody has responsibility. Everybody has stewardship responsibility…. You have a responsibility to be a steward of the resources under your control because you have a heavenly Father who has put great things inside of you and that’s waiting to be called out and developed and extracted.” All this is true, says Carrasco, no matter your economic station or social standing, no matter “what dirt hovel you’re living in, in Brazil or Mexico City or Manila.”
The creation of human beings in the image of God is a grand calling, a royal mandate, and an august responsibility. Let us affirm the dignity of all human beings, others as well as ourselves, and thus fulfill the great commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
[Originally published at Acton Commentary]