February 2, 2011 by Gerald Hiestand
Our concept of human worth must necessarily begin in Genesis 1 with the creation of humanity in the imago dei. Athanasius has a fine quote in his On the Incarnation were he states that it would be “unfitting” of God to abandon his handiwork to dissolution, given that humanity bears the image of God. For Athanasius, God’s justice and goodness would have been called into question had he chosen not to save humanity. This is — at least in tone — the opposite of how many evangelicals talk. For many of us, particularly those of us in the Reformed tradition, God’s justice is called into question precisely because he has chosen to save humanity. How could a holy God be justified in extending mercy to worthless sinners (a la Romans 3:25-26)? Of course this more pessimistic line has merit. Sin has indeed devalued us. But sometimes this low view of humanity is pushed so far as to imply that humanity post-fall has lost all value, as though there is nothing left in us worth saving; as though God no longer values humanity and has only decided to redeem us as means of glorifying himself. Such a view has troubling sociological implications, and casts a dark pall over the way Christians interact with the non-Christian world. If not careful, we can tend to view unredeemed humanity as sub-human. But the imago dei, while in a process of dissolution, has not yet been completely undone. Note that in Genesis 9, the prohibition against murder is based upon the fact that humanity (still) exists in the image of God. Thus unredeemed humanity still retains value in the eyes of God, and must in the eyes of the Church as well.
But humanity’s value is contingent, and not intrinsic to who we are as creatures. If we forget this we can fall into a sloppy anthrocentric theology that fails to take seriously the tenuous nature of human dignity. Athanasius (again) helpfully speaks of humanity’s creation as a two-fold movement. We were first created as creatures, and only subsequently were we “given a share in the Image of the Word.” This two-fold distinction is important. The gift of the imago dei bestowed on us as creatures is a gift of grace not inherent to what we are as creatures. What’s more, if we fail to use this gift properly, it will be taken away from us.
Thus Genesis 1 cannot stand in isolation from Genesis 3. Left to run its course, sin is the undoing of the imago dei — the very source of our worth and dignity. Ultimately, the person who insists on rejecting the imprint of imago dei —who refuses to be an eikon that points to Another, and who instead strives to be self-referential—ultimately that person divests himself of the very thing that gives him worth. And it is for precisely this reason that the worth of humanity inherent in our existence in the image of God must not be taken for granted. It was given to us as a gift and can also be taken away. If we reject the imago dei — which is necessarily a rejection of God — we will be reduced to mere creature, of no more worth than a brute beast. It’s in this sense that the apostle, quoting the prophets, can say in Romans 3 that “we have all together become worthless.” (I take Paul to be speaking eschatologically here— referring to what will ultimately be true of humanity if we persist in sin. In this age, the reprobate are no more fully depraved than Christians are fully glorified.)
Thus given the corrupting reality of Gen 3, it is proper and necessary to ultimately ground human dignity not simply in the imago dei of Gen 1 (which has proven itself to be corruptible), but also in the imago christi of 1 Corinthians 15. In other words, in glorification. It’s here the Christian possess a unique worth. It is only through participation in Christ’s resurrection that we possess an impeccable value. Only in Christ do we find an incorruptible worth. We bore the glory of the first Adam and it failed us. But the glory of the Second Adam cannot fail. And herein lies our true worth.
What’s more (as Augustine teaches us) God sees us in the present as we will be at the resurrection. Who we are in our future glorification is more true of who we really are, than who we are in the present. Those whom God foreknew… he glorified. The me that God foreknew is not the me of the present, but the me of my future glorification, the me that has been perfectly conformed to the image of Christ. This new me is the real me. Thus the idea that God has to “look away” from us because of our sin, and that he only sees Christ, is not quite right, even if it’s trying (however poorly) to make an important theological point. God doesn’t look away from us in order to love us, nor does he pretend that we are something other than we are. Rather he looks squarely at who we are in the present, imputing to us the reality of who we will one day be in glory because of Christ’s redemptive work. And it’s in who we will be in glory, when at last the imago christi secures for us a unending participation in the imago dei, that we find our lasting worth.