What does the image of God have to do with the pro-life movement?

The centrality of human dignity to Christian ethics

January 18, 2022

Years ago, I was talking with a fellow Christian ethicist about various aspects of social ethics (moral reflection on societal, structural, and communal issues) and it struck me that he never spoke much about the doctrine of the imago Dei, or the image of God, as central to the Christian ethic. I pressed in a bit on why he didn’t seem to emphasize it, and he responded that the Bible simply doesn’t really speak of it much and that when it does it mainly focuses on how Christ is the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15-17). To my surprise, he did not see the doctrine as the primary force behind the moral vision of the Church.

I never really heard much about the image of God even though I grew up around the church. I learned about the horrors of abortion and the call of the Church to care for “the least of these” no matter how small (Matt. 25:40), but it was never talked about in light of the image of God. However, from my earliest memories, there was an understanding that there was something unique about humanity, that my neighbors were to be valued above the rest of creation, and that all of our lives had some deeper purpose and meaning. Even without the language of the imago Dei, it was clear to me and my church that every human life was sacred and worthy of respect.

What does it mean to be made in the image of God?

The Dutch Reformed theologian and ethicist, Herman Bavinck, writes in volume one of his Reformed Ethics, “Without the Bible, it is impossible to answer the question of where human beings are from, and thus no answer can be given to the questions of what they are or where they are headed: one can only surmise, suspect, presuppose, and philosophize” (35). As I teach in my worldview analysis courses, this question of what it means to be human and where we are headed takes center stage in ethical formation because these types of questions are on the heart of every human being, whether they are vocalized or even consciously asked.

So what does it mean to be human? Or, to ask it in light of the Christian ethic, what does it mean to be made in the image of God? Genesis 1 tells us that after God created the entire world, including plant and animal life, he created humanity as man and woman. Furthermore, he made them distinct from everything else that he had made because he created them in his image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). This was declared “very good” after the rest of creation was simply called “good.” Acts 17:28 even reminds us that we — not other parts of his creation — are God’s offspring.

One of the theological debates that has garnered much attention throughout Church history is what it actually means to be created in the imago Dei. Is the image simply some trait or substantive aspect of us like our ability to reason? Is it simply our capacity for having a relationship with God and others? Or is there some type of functional or representational aspect to the image of God that humanity bears? While there are countless resources on those questions and emphases, two things are clear from Scripture: God made humans unique and distinct from the rest of creation, and we must seek to understand the One we are made to reflect in order to grasp what the imago Dei means.

The truth that we are made in the image of the Triune God reveals to us that all human life has value and dignity because we are defined in relation to our infinite Creator, not by our abilities or contributions to society, as is the popular belief in the prevailing utilitarian or consequentialist ethic of the day. As Carl F.H. Henry puts it in his Christian Personal Ethics, our “dignity is derived from the Divine purpose in creation and redemption” (149).

The image of God and Christian ethics

Being created in God’s image is something that should drive all of our moral actions due to the dignity and infinite value of every person. Our dignity is not based on our abilities, gifts, or even perceived usefulness to society. Nor is our standard of ethics based simply on what we want but on what God has specifically revealed to us as his unique image bearers. Bavinck describes this in Reformed Ethics by saying, “We can only be truly good at home, in the public square, and everywhere else, when we are the image of God” (42-43). Because without a proper understanding of who we are, we simply cannot grasp God’s design for us nor honor him in the ways we live.

The imago Dei also sheds light on our moral accountability and agency as God’s creatures. Humanity is uniquely designed and accountable to God, even if we try to deny that reality with our beliefs or actions. As much of modern ethics is rooted in the idea of the autonomous man, the Christian ethic reminds us that we exist in a relationship of total dependence upon God. Henry reminds us that as opposed to non-Christian ethics, the Christian ethic “speaks directly to man the moral agent who is lost in sin and accountable to a Holy God” (160). Without a proper understanding of the imago Dei, no one can actually do good regardless of how much one tries because we do not define the standard of what is truly good (Romans 3:10-12). Everything about our lives — including our ethic — must be rooted in this doctrine since it defines our entire existence before God as individuals living in community with others.

As the basis for human dignity in the Christian moral tradition is rooted in the very image of God, we must see that this belief extends well beyond the personal and to every aspect of life. This is the reason that Baptists and many others are so passionately pro-life and march to defend the rights of the pre-born today. We advocate on behalf of the pre-born because of their infinite value as image-bearers. We care for vulnerable women because they too are unique image-bearers of God. We fight for justice because all people are image-bearers. We advocate for the humane treatment of immigrants, refugees, and even people around the world under repressive authoritarian regimes because they too are image-bearers of the almighty God. 

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24