There is no denying that as of late, hostilities within the general public have increased. Perhaps more concerning is a growing silence between those with differing views who choose to withdraw together into their own tribes that echo their own sentiments. Those echoes are then mediated to various other tribes through the smoke signals of traditional media and social media communication rather than directly interacting with those who believe differently. The distance that is created as we recede from one another, largely due to exhaustion and/or repulsion, has a chilling result. We forget what we have in common. For Christians in particular, this must not happen.
A key commonality in our Christian faith is our status as image-bearers of God (Gen 1:26–27). A small percentage of theologians have suggested that the imago Dei was lost in the Fall, but most Christians throughout history have held that remnants of the image remain. To assert otherwise begins to question whether humans are still truly human as human dignity has almost always been grounded in the imago Dei. When we deny someone’s status as an image-bearer, we risk denying them dignity, which takes us all down the dangerous paths of slavery, communistic oppression, and genocide as we have seen throughout history.
However, in terms of functioning in a collective microcosm—when we function in discord, we chose those dangerous paths when we disregard the image-bearing statuses of those we engage online, in the general public, church, school, or on our jobs. This can happen for Christians when considering the unbelieving world’s opinions, convictions, and needs. Whether we would come out and say it or not, sometimes we do not see unbelievers as God’s image-bearers because we as the church are that representation. Right?
Image of God vs. Image of Christ?
This question brings us alongside a long-running conversation in Christian theology surrounding the image of God and the image of Christ. Almost at the onset of this historical discussion, Christians have recognized a tension between two scriptural realities:
The first reality—Some passages seem to describe a universality of the imago Dei ascribed to humans, regardless of their sinful or fallen state (Gen 9:6; Jas 3:9; 1 Cor 11:7). This is not to deny humanity’s fall; indeed, the image of God may be marred, but something seems to exist in humanity that remains the imago Dei despite the Fall.
The second reality—Other passages seem to idealistically attach the image of God to the idea of a new humanity / a re-creation of humanity in Christ (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18, 4:4; Col 1:15, 3:10; Eph 4:22–23; Heb 1:3). Humanity is made in the image of God, but Christ is the very image of God. To be truly the image of God, we must be in Christ.
How do we navigate these two realities? One set of solutions focus solely on the second reality. In these interpretations, Christ is the only means by which we may be transformed into God’s image, because the universal image was entirely lost at the Fall. The desire to do justice to both the seriousness of sin and Christ’s distinct redemption work is admirable, but essentially choosing to only recognize the second reality risks the importance of the first. When the universality of the image is forgotten or abandoned, we begin to walk down that dangerous path for dignity discussed above.
Another solution ascribes to two different perspectives of the imago Dei that corresponds to the two aforementioned scriptural realities. One perspective affirms that the imago Dei remains in humanity, despite the Fall—(imago existentialis). The other idea is action-oriented. It requires conformity to Christ—(imago conformitas). This has been a popular interpretation throughout the church’s history, perhaps even the most prominent one. It was introduced by Irenaeus’s distinction between the terms “image” (imago existentialis) and “likeness” in Genesis 1:26 (imago conformitas). Despite its storied past, this interpretation is challenged because it either creates a paradox or leaves concepts unreconciled or establishes two different images, which might not be consistent with the scriptural account.
Another possibility for navigating the two scriptural realities is to recognize that though the image was damaged by the Fall, a “trace” of the image remains. The image is something the Fall mars but does not erase. This “trace” would presumably have to be something within humanity as it was affected by the Fall, making it compatible with an interpretation of the imago Dei that says the image is something in the substance of what it is to be human (the substantialist interpretation). While strong objections are raised because it seems to favor “parts” of humanity over the whole, there are highly respectable theologians who take this approach, and it should be considered a reasonable solution to our dilemma.
A final option to address the apparent contradictions of the image in the Bible is an attempt to ground the image extrinsically to humankind. From this perspective, the image is a reality granted and maintained by God for all humanity yet removed from direct corruption in the Fall. The content or character of the image may differ with various interpretations of what it is to be in the image: to be in relationship with God, to have a specific function/role, or whether the image of God was only ever the person of Christ. However, each approach can claim the image as something granted by God rather than within the ontological fabric of the human being (which they confirm is totally depraved and utterly corrupted by the Fall). From this perspective John Kilner argues, “man is damaged, but not the image.” Man is then able to be restored and re-created in the image of Christ, but those who choose to reject Him maintain their status as being “in the image of God.”
Given the concerns for guarding human dignity and avoiding an unnecessary paradox, it seems the final two options are the most promising to navigate the scriptural realities discussed. Indeed, each major interpretation of the imago Dei discussed (substantialist, relational, functional, or Christological) can accommodate the concept of unbelievers imaging God throughout the redemptive arc. God’s gift of His image is given to all humanity, including those who will ultimately reject Him.
Mirroring God's Engagement with His Image-Bearers
Therefore, we must take care to guard how we as believers think about unbelieving individuals and unbelieving communities (not to mention believing communities that differ from our own). We may disagree on important issues, but care should be taken to maintain everyone’s dignity as images of the God we claim we love and worship. When the dignity of all humanity is disregarded, relegated, or unintentionally overlooked by those in the body of Christ, the name of our God is disparaged. This can look like anything from an anonymous online spat to the way we interact with our unbelieving family members —in addition to how we express our political opinions, all the way to what we as a community choose to endorse. The belief that we are superior in skill or knowledge can easily spring up and lead to an arrogant tone in society and public square discussions. This posture seems to poorly reflect our Savior who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6 ESV).
As we consider how we as Christians should conduct ourselves in the public square, perhaps we should mirror how God currently treats those who reject His truth and His very self. He loves them and calls them into existence, bestowing His image on them. He has a vested interest in who they are as creatures (for we all “are his offspring,” Acts 17:28–29). He grants them dignity. He honors His creation with the gift of free will. His protection for them flows out of His immense love for them, evidenced by His providential care and His provision for their redemption.
If believers are to truly follow His example, being conformed into Christ’s image, we would love unbelievers (and any who reject what we hold dear) as God loves them. We would value their existence and seek to recognize the aspects of their lives that represent God’s image. We would honor their lives. We would respectfully consider their experiences, their expertise, and their right to go a different way than we might. This means we would listen, value what they offer society and creation by employing skill and insight and display a perseverant love amid difference and disagreement. We would serve them. We would seek to provide for people’s needs—particularly the poor, suffering, and marginalized. We would joyfully work alongside them in addressing evils of the day, caring for creation, and cultivating societal flourishing. Finally, we would involve them in God’s providential and salvific work as much as they are willing to be involved. This is how God currently loves all people, even those who reject His salvation. May we endeavor to do the same.
About the Contributors
Kymberli Cook is the Assistant Director of the Hendricks Center, overseeing the workflow of the department, online content creation, Center events, and serving as Giftedness Coach and Table Podcast Host. She is also a doctoral student in Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, pursuing research connected to unique individuality, the image of God, and providence. When she is not reading for work or school, she enjoys coffee, cooking, and spending time outdoors with her husband and daughters.