Where does the idea of human dignity come from?

Our inherent worth is grounded in being made in God’s image

November 9, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

In recent years, American culture has been racked with movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and a bitter political division. What do all these issues have in common? Human dignity. Sexual abuse happens when men do not respect the dignity of women. The injustices faced by people of color are a result of not being treated in accordance with human dignity. Even the rhetoric used to speak of political opponents becomes needlessly divisive when we forget that any person of whom we speak is a person with inherent dignity.

The theological rationale for human dignity is the biblical teaching that each person is created in the image and likeness of God. It is something affirmed only for humans, yet for all humans (Gen. 1:27); it is what makes murder an especially heinous crime (Gen. 9:5-6); and it is what makes even cursing a human being something that simply “should not be” (James 3:9-10).

But exactly what it means for humans to be created in God’s image has been a topic of considerable discussion among theologians for centuries. John Kilner addresses that controversy at length and with passion in his recent book, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God. The argument of the book is summarized in an important paragraph in the book’s introduction. It is worth citing in full:

“Ultimately, the image of God is Jesus Christ. People are first created and later renewed according to that image. Image involves connection and reflection. Creation in God’s image entails a special connection with God and an intended reflection of God. Renewal in God’s image entails a more intimate connection with God through Christ and an increasingly actual reflection of God in Christ, to God’s glory. This connection with God is the basis of human dignity. This reflection of God is the beauty of human destiny. All of humanity participates in human dignity. All of humanity is offered human destiny, though only some embrace and will experience it (xi).”

The book then proceeds to make this argument in three main parts. The first part, consisting of chapters one and two, is introductory. The first chapter explains the importance of our creation in the image of God, tracing how it has been a force both “for liberation and devastation” (3). It is easy to see how it could be a force for liberation. In caring for the sick, in relating to indigenous peoples in the planting of colonies in the New World, and in the struggle over slavery, the creation of all in the image of God was a common motivation for treating people in ways consistent with human dignity. But sadly, Kilner also traces how denials or misrepresentations of the image of God have also been a force for devastation, especially of women and African slaves. Both were denied the status of being image-bearers. 

Kilner asks why there have been such diametrically opposed understandings of the image of God. He acknowledges that explicit teaching on the image of God in Scripture is limited to a surprisingly small number of texts, none of which clearly define what it means to be created in God’s image. But he sees the larger problem as the tendency of humans to import their pre-understandings (theological or cultural) into their interpretation of these key texts. Kilner has sought to filter out personal bias in his interpretation by wide reading of commentators on these texts, personal discussions with others, and inviting written critique of his ideas. His goal is to listen as carefully as possible to the texts themselves. All this is chapter one. Chapter two then follows by giving a preview of the chapters to come.

Misunderstandings about the image of God 

Chapters three through five comprise Part II of the book, with the subtitle, “Human Dignity.” It is by far the longest part of the book, and the part about which Kilner seems most passionate. In all three chapters, Kilner goes to great lengths to guard against misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the image of God, believing that such misunderstandings and misinterpretations exclude some people from having the dignity of being recognized with the status of having been created in the image of God. Thus, he devotes nearly 20 pages of chapter three to detailing some of these misunderstandings and misinterpretations. 

A right understanding of our creation in the image of God is the strongest ground for human dignity, and a misunderstanding of it opens the door to devastating devaluations of humans and the diminishing of human dignity. 

More positively, he carefully notes that humans are not described as the image of God, but as being created in or according to the image of God. Only Christ is the image of God. He believes that we will one day be God’s image, but for now we have a special connection with God because of our destiny. He explains, “While they [humans] do not warrant the title of ‘God’s image’ yet, they have dignity grounded in their destiny to become Christ’s image” (123). This dignity and destiny are secure, because our creation in the image of God speaks of God’s intention and is not dependent on anything that people actually now are or do.

Christ is the image of God 

Chapter 4 builds on the claim that Christ is the image of God and draws out the implications of that truth to counter the common idea that in the fall of humanity into sin, the image of God was somehow damaged. Kilner argues that if we understand that Christ is the image, then we should not say the image has been damaged. He realizes that this is a common idea among theologians and includes a lengthy section citing those who say the image is partly or wholly lost. He rejects all such claims, not only because they miss the distinction between Christ being the image and humans being in the image of God, but because he thinks that speaking of the image of being damaged leads to the devaluing of those created in that image. If the image of God, which is the grounding for human dignity, is damaged, then some conclude that the dignity of humans is lessened or compromised, a conclusion Kilner strongly rejects.

What attributes constitute being made in God’s image? 

Chapter 5 addresses another way that Kilner thinks theologians have misunderstood our creation in God’s image; namely, by identifying some common human attribute or attributes “as what constitutes being in God’s image” (177). He goes through some of the attributes or functions often suggested in the history of theology—reason, righteousness, rulership, and relationship—and again rejects them all, as having harmful implications. For example, taking reason as being central to what it means to be created in God’s image raises troubling questions “for those whose reason is badly impaired.” It leaves such people “without the full dignity and protection that people in God’s image warrant” (187). The same is true of all the other suggested attributes. Either they exclude some who do not have the attribute at all, or they differentiate between those who have the attribute to a greater or lesser extent and see those with a lesser degree of the attribute as less fully partaking of the dignity of being created in God’s image. He believes that a better way of seeing such attributes is as “intended consequences of being in God’s image” (227), not the image itself.

Renewal according to God’s image

Part III is the shortest part of the book. It focuses not on humanity’s creation in the image of God but our renewal in or according to the image of God. Kilner is again careful to clarify that the image of God has not been damaged and is in no need of renewal; it is humans who are damaged. Sin has rendered them incapable of fully living out the intentions of God that constitute life in the image of God, but having been created in the image of God is still the human status and still affords them human dignity. 

The renewal of humanity is discussed as it is presented in six biblical texts. The first text, Romans 8:29, focuses on the eschatological destiny of humans; 2 Corinthians 3:18 describes the progressive sanctification of Christians as transformation “into the image of Christ;” Colossians 3:10 looks back to their conversion as the beginning of the process of renewal in the image of the Creator. Kilner calls these three texts “the primary passages;” the remaining three he calls “the primary echoes” (260). 

Ephesians 4:24 is indeed quite similar to Colossians 3:10, but the correlation of the last two texts with earlier primary passages is less clear. First Corinthians 15:49 is distinctive in describing the resurrected body of believers as bearing “the image of the man from heaven.” Even less clear is 1 John 3:2 in that it does not use explicit “image” language, but it too looks to renewal and the time when Christians will “no longer just be in the image of God, they will fully be the image of God, in Christ” (273). The final chapter continues the discussion of humanity’s renewal with what Kilner calls “recurring themes,” but much is material that has already been discussed in previous chapters and adds little new to his argument. 

The book ends with a 20 page concluding chapter, “Living in the Image of God,” an encyclopedic 52-page bibliography of “References Cited,” and two very helpful indexes, one of names and subjects and one of biblical passages. This book is widely and rightly regarded as the most comprehensive study of the image of God. It is fueled by Kilner’s conviction that a right understanding of our creation in the image of God is the strongest ground for human dignity, and a misunderstanding of it opens the door to devastating devaluations of humans and the diminishing of human dignity. 

I would nuance a few points in slightly different ways than Kilner does (see my understanding of our creation in the image of God in the volume Humanity from the series Theology for the People of God, co-authored by Katie McCoy and due to be published in 2021), but I find much to commend and agree with in this book, especially his zealous defense of human dignity, grounded in our creation in the image of God.

John Hammett

John Hammett is Senior Professor of Systematic Theology and John Leadley Dagg Chair of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Read More by this Author

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