The Imago Dei

Updated: Feb 22, 2019

The Imago Dei, latin for "image of God", is a term I’ve heard countless times, but never took a pause to really marvel at its significance.

Growing up I was taught that I was made in the image of God and therefore I had intrinsic worth and value. I was also taught everyone else was made in the image of God, and therefore they had intrinsic worth and value. So every person should be treated as such: with reverence and kindness. It’s from this framework that I began to understand the world around me. Everyone, no matter what they’ve done or how low they've stooped, has a rock-solid, objective sense of worth that absolutely no one can take away from them.

It’s from this intrinsic sense of worth that the founding fathers wrote in the Bill of Rights, ”all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” Even Martin Luther King Jr. fueled the civil rights movement under the same principle, "Man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling electrons or a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering. Man is a child of God, made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.”  Infringements on these basic essential human rights make us justifiably angry.

However, when I think about popular culture today I realize many don't believe in the existence of God, and if He does, God wants nothing to do with them. I also realize, for this very reason the Bible does not have the same significance it once did. With all this talk about social injustice and civil rights in our current age, I had to ask the question: Can this idea of human rights be explained without God-- without the Imago Dei? We can all agree that science within a naturalistic worldview simply can not adequately respond to the question. I thought maybe there was something I was missing, something that perhaps the bias of my own Christian worldview kept hidden. So I searched...

The overwhelming response I found was that human rights are grounded in human capacity. Human beings have self-consciousness, a capacity to reason and to make moral choices and have preferences. Since human beings are moral agents, they are worthy of rights that should be protected. Our modern culture has come to define self-worth not only in one's achievements, but in one's ability and freedom to write their own story— to discover oneself to express oneself, and to choose for oneself.

Being exposed to the medical field has already made it vividly clear that there is a problem with this. When it comes to women's health we often talk about the injustice in undermining a women's capacity to make informed decisions about their own bodies and lives. When it comes to abortion, we see how a fetus does not have the capacity to make these informed decisions. In abortion, the rights of a fetus are nullified. I could not reconcile this nullification with the obvious existing rights of my other patients who similarly did not have such capacity: the infant outside the womb, the patient sedated with multiple medications in the ICU, the senile patient who's clinical depression was so severe she no longer could make decisions for herself.

Where do dignity and respect for ALL patients come from? I was stuck and confused. I didn't know how to respond to this one without the Imago Dei.

But even still with all this discussion for the need of the Imago Dei , there are times where my opinion of my own self-worth doesn’t align with what God says about me, and there are times where I don’t treat others like they are image bearers of God.

This is the reality of the world we live in. We've broken the image of God in ourselves, and we've trampled that image in others. The real questions are why is our world like this, and where do we go from here? 

When I think about humanity I see ourselves as broken mirrors. A mirror always reflects light. It doesn’t generate light on its own. As a mirror, the basis of our worth and value comes from something outside of us. It’s never our actions, our possessions, or even our capacities that define our worth. I like to think it's God's light that we reflect. To be made in his image is to reflect His image and to reflect His character. Except we’re broken because of sin, and we don’t shine His light perfectly. This is why although we have intrinsic value, there is so much injustice in our world. It's the reason why we all make mistakes.

The first chapter of Colossians shows us that "Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God". He was the only unbroken mirror, never corrupted by sin. When we see Christ we see God up-close-and-personal. The character of the Father was in him: all grace, all truth, all the time.  Despite being the only unbroken mirror, he was still trampled on and died for us voluntarily. He became broken, for us.

If not for Jesus, what would this image we bear even mean? The love that Christ shows us through His death is what gives the image we bear its meaning. It shows us that as long as we align our mirrors to reflect Him, we too are capable of the same kind of radical love. A love without limits, a love that knows no end, a love that leaves the 99 to save the one, a reckless love. In fact we are commanded to love like this.

Despite our realignment and our belief, our mirror is still broken, and we find ourselves still making mistakes. However, through a personal walk with the living God our mirror begins to repair here and now, day-by-day, slowly, but surely. In this process we begin to reflect more and more God's character and light. A day will come when our mirror will be made totally new and we will be able to experience what only Jesus Christ has made possible: eternal life, eternal love, eternal joy, and eternal meaning. 

Friend, without Jesus the Imago Dei is merely an elusive concept-- the image of an invisible, far away and impersonal God. Without the Imago Dei, we can no longer explain our fundamental intrinsic self worth and human rights. Without intrinsic self worth and human rights… what are we but a random collection of atoms obeying the laws of physics, devoid of meaning, purpose, and a hope. 

The Bible is very clear on answering the question, who am I? Theologian A. W. Tozer states, “The doctrine of Man made in the image of God is one of the basic doctrines in the Bible, and one of the most elevating, enlarging, magnanimous and glorious doctrines that I know.”

No matter who you are, you are loved with an everlasting love. The image you bear is a testament to that. Now love one another, just as He loved.