Sin Cannot Erase the Image
This insight makes sense of why the Bible never says that sin erase, distorts, warps or lessens the fact that we are made according to God’s image. Kilner repeats this point over and over so we will not miss it.
“If Christ is God’s image, then God’s image isn’t damaged by sin or the fall. And even people’s status as being created according to that image isn’t damaged since that is about special connection and intended reflection. The special connection was still there soon after the fall. You can see it right there in Genesis 9:6. God says that we may not murder people, because people are with him—they’re his. There is no indication that the connection has been weakened in any way.”
Certainly, we are creative because God is creative. We imagine because God imagines. We are relational because God is relational. But those internal capacities are not at the heart of this discussion. “To be made in God’s image or according to God’s image is not saying that we are like God. Echoing in our minds we should hear, ‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me’ (Isaiah 46:9). Rather, we are increasingly becoming more like God to reflect God’s attributes. Being in God’s image is about a connection to God and the intention of God, both of which are unchanged by sin.”
Christ is the glorious image to whom we look, and as we look to him our personhood is restored.
Language choice is key.
“Just as it is normally important to affirm that we are in the image of God or are according to the image of God—rather than saying we are the image of God—it is also helpful to avoid saying that we ‘have’ or ‘bear’ the image of God. Both of those expressions suggest that there is something in us or about us that makes us like God—some traits, capacities, etc.—things damaged by sin.”
“For that reason, it is probably not accidental that none of the biblical writers would think to use an expression such as ‘we have the image’ or ‘we bear the image.’”
Except for 1 Corinthians 15:49. “There Paul indicates that bearing the image of God ourselves will become a reality post-resurrection, when we actually will have all the traits and capacities that will appropriately reflect Christ, without the limitations of sin.”
Humanity as Royalty
In the meantime, Psalm 8 remains a beautiful coronation song to celebrate the dignity of humanity. But even it is not a celebration of the great capacities and abilities of fallen humanity. Quite the opposite. Psalm 8 is a royal song with a chorus that asks us to consider, in comparison to God himself, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4).
“Our status, our human dignity is not a function of anything,” says Kilner of Psalm 8. “It is an echo of the fact that there is a status there, but it is rooted in something other than our traits, other than what we can observe.”
To be made in God’s image is to be given unspeakable dignity, to be a king or a queen on this earth. But that dignity is freely bestowed on us by God’s free act. We have been given dominion over this earth, which is less like being given the keys to an excavator and more like being handed a scepter as one of God’s vice regents (Psalm 8:6). This dignity is afforded to the born, the unborn, the able, the disabled and to all the ethnicities of the world.
To be made in God’s image is “a genuine democratization of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology” (Middleton, 121). It is the genesis of democracy. It is the basis of the American Declaration of Independence. It is the foundation of our pro-life priorities.
But this bestowal of royal dominion on us, in our fallen condition, in our feebleness, is “a tragic splendor”—as C.S. Lewis said of the huge crown pressed down on the young head of Queen Elizabeth in 1953.
The splendor of divine dignity does not match our rebellious and fallen humanity. It is a tragic splendor, but a splendor no less. God made us, he owns us, and he has “endowed” us “with certain unalienable Rights.” And Christ is set before us as our great trajectory.