Human Value & the Image of God

The claim that we’re made in God’s image can sound abstract, and not especially relevant to our everyday lives. But in reality nothing is more important to understanding who we are as human beings, and how God has designed us to live in his world. So, below, we’ll briefly survey what it means to be made in God’s image, and then discuss one major implication of this for our lived experience as human beings.

Made in God’s Image
Genesis 1:26-27 declares that mankind is made in God’s image. Scripture doesn’t explain in what specific ways humans image God, and theologians have proposed various answers, most of which fall under three broad categories—structural, functional, and relational.

The structural view emphasizes particular human attributes that reflect God’s nature, such as rationality or the ability to freely act. Functional views hold that humans reflect God’s likeness by what they do—especially in their exercise of rulership over creation (Gen. 1:28). Finally, relational views see humans imaging God most in our ability to enter into relationships with God and one another.1 God is inherently relational as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who have existed in loving relationships for eternity, and humans likewise seek to relate to God and other people.2

However one understands the nature of God’s image, every human being bears it

In my view, it’s not necessary to adopt any one of these categories to the exclusion of the others. It seems better to see each one as capturing an important aspect of how we reflect God’s nature. The implication that I’ll discuss below holds true, regardless of which view (or combination of views) one adopts. As bioethicist John Kilner points out, it is persons who bear God’s image rather than particular attributes: “There is no suggestion [in Scripture] that being in God’s image is constituted only by particular attributes (e.g., abilities, traits, capacities) that people have or have had. Select attributes (even if Godlike) are not what are in God’s image; persons as a whole are.”3 However one understands the nature of God’s image, every human being bears it.4

With this brief overview in mind, we’ll now consider one vitally important way that being made in God’s image makes a tremendous difference in our everyday lives.

Human Value and Purpose
Billions of people around the world take for granted that humans possess inherent value and intrinsic rights. Yet only biblical theism provides the resources for explaining how this can be the case. In particular, Scripture grounds human value and worth in the fact that humans are made in God’s image. This is especially evident in Genesis 9, where God tells Noah and his sons:

from each human being . . . I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind. (9:5-6)

God indicates that because humans are made in his image, their lives are supremely valuable. The one who takes an innocent human life will be accountable both to God, who gives life, and to human society, which has permission to enact the ultimate punishment to fit the ultimate crime.

This recognition of the exalted value of human life contrasts sharply with contemporary views that lack any objective basis for human dignity. The dominant worldview of the West today is characterized by naturalism, which holds that only material entities, forces, and laws exist. On this story, human beings arose accidentally through unplanned processes and thus have no special origin, destiny, or purpose.

The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, forthrightly stated that “[mankind’s] origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.” Further, all of mankind’s achievements will “inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins” and thus any viable philosophy must recognize these truths and build itself “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair.”5

Similarly, and more recently, the atheist biologist William Provine, who taught at Cornell University, said,

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear— and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.6

Richard Dawkins holds a similar view, claiming that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”7

I don’t mean to claim here that most people who hold to naturalism are, in practice, moral nihilists, or that they’re not generally good people who live upright lives. I do believe, though, that most are unaware that there is an inherent tension between a belief in human value and dignity and a worldview in which everything that happens is the result of the “accidental collocations of atoms”—how could the jostling of atoms create value or meaning? I believe Russell is quite right to describe these beliefs, if thought through, as leading to “unyielding despair.” As Christian philosopher William Lane Craig summarizes,

The dilemma of modern man is thus truly terrible. The atheistic worldview is insufficient to maintain a happy and consistent life. Man cannot live consistently and happily as though life were ultimately without meaning, value, or purpose. If we try to live consistently within the framework of the atheistic worldview, we shall find ourselves profoundly unhappy.8

The fact that a naturalistic universe leads to despair doesn’t entail that Christianity is true.9 But it does make clear what one must accept and be willing to give up if naturalism is true.

In contrast to the bleak view of naturalism is the Christian account, in which we were created by a loving God in his image so that we could share eternal fellowship with him and with other humans. If Christianity is true, the universal human desire for meaning and significance is fulfilled, and we can find ultimate happiness in glorifying God and enjoying him forever.10

Christian philosopher Paul Gould insightfully notes that “We have this intuition that reality itself, and our lives, are coherent and meaningful and so . . . we seek to locate our lives in a good and true story.”11 In contrast to the soul-crushing story of naturalism, in Christianity we find “an inviting story that points us, relentlessly, to the deep and abiding love of a God who creates, pursues, redeems, and restores all that he has made.”12 Hence, whether we are made in God’s image determines whether we are living our lives in a tragedy, or (ultimately) a comedy.13

Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin and cofounder of the Christian Apologetics Alliance.  He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021) and his work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, Beliefnet, and other sites.