By / Nov 9

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.

By / Sep 17

William "Duce" Branch shares why it's important for Christians to understand the image of God. 

By / Oct 27

Nick Nye talks with Dan Darling about his church’s ministry to sex trafficking victims. Nye is the founder and lead pastor of Veritas Community Church in Columbus, Ohio.

By / Aug 21

All people are created in the Image of God and that changes everything. It changes how we view and interact with others, as well as the issues that we care about as believers. Every lives matters because every life is created in the image of God.

By / Jul 7

Trillia Newbell interviews Kristie Anyabwile and Catherine Parks about how fear affects our body image and past impurity.

By / Feb 26

Trillia Newbell, author of United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity, illustrates why Christians should actively engage race relations. 

“Race can be such a difficult thing to talk about, but it shouldn't be,” Newbell said. “We should work to approach race relations–especially as Christians–because there shouldn't be a divide between us.” 

The following excerpt was adapted from Newbell's book:

There possibly isn’t a more complex yet important topic as race as it relates to the Word of God and the church. To understand our differences and why they are good, we must first understand our origin. Because of the sin of partiality and pride, it is problematic for some to truly believe the idea of racial equality. But this equality isn’t a man-made, modern, social justice theory. We aren’t arguing for something unjust. Rather, the equality of people originated from God.

J. Daniel Hays wrote a compelling book, From Every People and Nation, addressing the biblical theology of race. In it he explores the origins of race and ethnicity, looking at current-day definitions, stereotypes, and poor biblical interpretation, reevaluating the concepts, and expounding Scripture. For him, and for us, understanding race begins with understanding Adam, the first man. He writes:

The Bible does not begin with the creation of a special race of people. When the first human is introduced into the story he is simply called `ādām, which means ‘humankind.’ . . . Their “race” is not identifiable; they are neither Negroid nor Caucasian, nor even Semitic. They become the mother and father of all peoples. The division of humankind into peoples and races is not even mentioned until Genesis 10. i

Racially generic Adam represents all of humankind made in the imago Dei (image of God). We are all made in God’s image, but what does that mean? Scholars have debated just what it means to be made in the image of God. According to Hays, it has been widely accepted to mean that humans share God’s mental and spiritual faculties though certainly to a far lesser degree. We are unique in God’s creation, able to rule over animals and the earth; we have souls; and we are able to commune with God. We are made for fellowship, reflecting the triune God.

Psalm 8:1-5 proclaims: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. . . . What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” God has given each of us dominion over the works of his hands, equally. God is mindful of each person He creates, equally. Understanding our equality before the Lord and the origins of creation should be enough to break the barriers of racial strife. But perhaps part of our confusion is derived from a misinterpretation of Genesis 9:1–27 and the so-called curse of Ham.

Hays describes this misinterpretation as one of the “most damaging misinterpretations of Scripture on the subject of race,”ii and understandably so. It’s this interpretation that slave owners and segregationist used to justify slavery.

So what happened? Genesis states that the people of the whole earth were dispersed from Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah. Ham was the father of Canaan; that’s important to state upfront. One night Noah became drunk and lay naked uncovered in his tent. The youngest of the brothers, Ham, saw his father and then grabbed his brothers Japheth and Shem to see. When the other brothers came, they covered Noah. Upon awakening, Noah, humiliated by the series of events, cursed Canaan the son of Ham, stating that Canaan would be “a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (v. 25). The curse fell on Canaan alone and not on all of Ham’s sons. Unfortunately, the curse has been misapplied to all of Ham’s descendants rather than just to Canaan.

The significance of the events comes in Genesis 10 when we learn that Ham’s descendants are the Cushites, who are linked geographically to Africa. Throughout history, Christians have justified slavery by citing the so-called curse of Ham as proof that black Africans were destined and designated for such a station in life. This misinterpretation infiltrated the American South and after the Civil War was used heavily within the church. Hays again writes:

After the Civil War, the “curse of Ham” was used by white clergymen to fight the notion of racial equality and the rights that would accompany such equality (voting, education, etc.). Richard River, for example, editor of the Louisville Central Methodist, argued in an 1889 editorial for the popular view that, so long as the two races must live together on American soil, the black man “must occupy the position of inferiority,” and that “Ham must be subservient to Japheth.”iii

Japheth’s descendants were coastland people, and they settled in Europe and Asia Minor and are thus interpreted as being racially white. The misinterpretation of Genesis, though not widely accepted now, continues to be reprinted in commentaries even today. Again, the curse has been misapplied to all of Ham’s descendants rather than just to Canaan. What is also interesting—and further undermines the modern “curse of Ham” application—is that the Canaanites are ethnically most similar to the Israelites.iv

Does Race Even Exist?

It’s worth noting that for some, the concept of race not only doesn’t appear in the Bible but is actually fabricated. In other words, the origins of race are not rooted in Scripture but in a sociological construct. Author and Senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman Thabiti Anyabwile has taken up the cause to rid the world of the term race and argues that the word race was developed for four reasons: society, the fall of man, psychology, and interaction with people (he would say blacks helped define “whiteness” for whites, and whites helped define “blackness” for blacks).Anyabwile’s basic premise is that because of our origin (all created in the image of God with Adam as our representative), we are one mankind with varying tongues, nations, tribes, families, and skin color, but there is little to nothing genetically or biologically that makes us different races (or species). We are all the same race (i.e., species). In his view it would be more accurate for us to identify one another by our ethnicities, which is in the Bible.

In a recent interview I conducted with Pastor Anyabwile (available in its entirety in the appendix of United), he elaborates on this point:

When we read the Bible, one useful question to ask ourselves is: What story is the Bible telling me about the origin of humanity and its diversity? When we ask that question, we see several things. First, Eve is “the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). Second, several generations later, the human line is narrowed again to one family, that of Noah and his sons (Genesis 6–9). All the families of the earth are descended from Noah’s three sons and their wives (Genesis 10). “From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood” (v. 32 NIV). These “nations” are not national city-states, but “clans and languages, in their territories.” In other words, these are large kinship and language groups. The story the Bible tells is one of continuity, not discontinuity, which “race” at least implies. So you get the pronouncement of Acts 17:26—“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth. . . .” (NIV).

This is the way the Bible speaks of our common ancestry and of the ethnic diversity we seek. It’s a diversity within the same species, if you will. In fact, genetic science has proven that there is no subspecies in mankind. There’s not enough genetic variance to meet the tests of science.

Think of the grief and despair that would have been avoided had we always operated under these convictions. Nonetheless, this is not widely accepted or understood at the moment, and part of that (if not all) is due to the fall of man. As God’s image bearers we are all equal. We are equal in dignity and worth. We are created equally in His image. We are also fallen equally (Romans 3:23). Genesis 1:26 explains that God created man in His image. Of all God’s creation, we are the only ones created in His very image; we have dominion over the rest (Genesis 1:28). It is a profound mystery (God is spirit, so we do not bear his physical image, John 4:24) and yet a great privilege. Understanding our equality as image bearers changes everything we think about our human relationships.

i J. Daniel Hays, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 48. J. Daniel Hays references three books (pp. 52-54) still in print and available at popular sites such as Amazon and Christian Book Distributors (CBD): Arthur W. Pink, Gleaning in Genesis (1922; repr. Chicago: Moody, 1950); C.F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986); The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary, 31 vols. (1892; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980)

ii Hays, From Every People and Nation, 48-49

iii Ibid., 53

iv Ibid., 55

v Thabiti Anyabwile, “Where Does Blackness and Whiteness Come From?” January, 26, 2012,