Infinitely more than animals

Made in the image of God

One of my two brothers died at 15. His name was Norman, and he was a thalidomide baby.

Thalidomide was a medication briefly prescribed to pregnant women to help them deal with morning sickness. Unfortunately, the medication had catastrophic teratogenic effects. It caused severe birth defects in infants exposed to the medication during pregnancy.

Among other things, my brother was hydrocephalic. His condition was so severe, he had to be immediately institutionalized.

I don’t remember much about Norman. At some point, I was so disturbed by his appearance, I refused to go see him. Large head. Small body. Useless limbs. He couldn’t stand, sit, or even turn his head. He couldn’t feed himself. He couldn’t talk.

And yet, that boy lived way beyond his life expectancy – 15 years! And I think I know why.

Norman was loved. The hospital where he lived was run by Roman Catholic nuns. They were a group of unassuming, humble women who devoted their lives to loving those who had no hope of being loved. They loved him and took care of him. He lived and thrived.

Those dear nuns loved him because every time they looked at him, they saw a glimpse of the glory of God. It wasn’t obvious to everyone, but it was to them.

A different story

Sadly, there are some who see humanity as an affliction on the earth, a virus, a parasite to be eradicated.

For example, a March 2008 news story reported how a disabled fishing trawler collided with some ice as it was being towed by the coast guard, capsizing in the dark, killing three seal hunters, and leaving one lost at sea and presumed dead. Unfortunately, not everyone thought the loss of human life was the greatest misfortune of this story.

Paul Watson, chief of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, issued a news release saying that “the deaths of four sealers is a tragedy but Sea Shepherd also recognizes that the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of seal pups is an even greater tragedy.”

Two views of human beings

There are basically two ways to look at human beings. There are those who view men and women as having intrinsic worth and dignity, separate from the rest of creation. This view of humanity is unique to the Judeo-Christian faith, which establishes a distinction between God and nature, and between humanity and nature.

The second view is that human beings are a commodity to be used, exploited, and discarded, eliminated when circumstances seem to require it. This position, which reflects a pantheistic outlook, sees no intrinsic difference between humans and animals.

With the gradual eradication of the Judeo-Christian faith, the second perspective is increasingly gaining traction. Without the influence of the Christian worldview on culture, the distinction between humanity and nature slowly disappears. When this process is completed, culture becomes ripe again for the kind of conditions that gave rise to the horrors of Nazi Germany.

And so, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sees little difference between human beings and seals. Environmentalist John Feeney expressed similar beliefs about human beings in an article that appeared in November 2007 on the BBC News website: “We must end world population growth, then reduce population size.”

The least we can say about radical environmentalists such as Paul Watson and John Feeney is they have less than a glorious view of humanity and don’t have much faith that we can find a solution to our problems that doesn’t involve culling the human herd.

Shortcomings of secular humanism

And it’s no wonder. Under the umbrella of secular humanism, people are hard pressed to find a reason to proclaim the intrinsic value and dignity of all human beings, although they try.

Some argue that human beings have unique DNA. However, every living creature, including the despicable cockroach has a unique DNA sequence. Does that impart the insect with intrinsic worth and dignity? Of course not!

Others base their belief in human value on our remarkable accomplishments and attributes, or on a number of identifiable markers such as intelligence, ability to love, creativity, empathy, and speech.

So, what’s the problem with this definition? The problem is my brother Norman. Norman had no identifiable markers. There was no evidence he could love, think, be creative. According to the humanists’ criterion, he had no value.

Thus, secular humanism has no solid basis to declare the intrinsic value and dignity of human beings.

Moving toward a biblical worldview

There’s only one rationale that’s sufficient to resist and overcome the forces of pantheism and human reductionism in our culture, and that’s the declaration of an authoritative statement that affirms the unique value of human beings.

We find this statement in the opening chapter of the Bible: “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

This text establishes the intrinsic worth and dignity of human beings, not through some distinctive DNA structure or in specific attributes, but in the simple fact of our belonging to the human race. It’s a declaration that applies to all those who belong to the human family.

My brother Norman had intrinsic worth by virtue of the fact that he was a member of the human race, formed in the image of God. When the nuns looked at Norman, they didn’t see an animal; they saw the glory of God shining through.

Conclusion

So what are some implications of this biblical truth?

First, each one of us must realize we’re made in the image of God, benefiting from the worth and dignity and infinite potential that’s intrinsic to that reality. Second, we must treat everyone with the utmost respect because the people with whom we live, work, and play are created in God’s image.

Let me offer a final example of what can happen when this Christian worldview is allowed to transform society. On March 25, 1807, at a time when slavery was considered a fact of life – and had been considered so for thousands of years across the entire planet – British backbencher William Wilberforce persuaded Parliament to pass the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

Wilberforce didn’t simply contribute to the eradication of an ugly and immoral institution. He contributed to changing an entire worldview. Millions of men and women have been the beneficiaries of this transformed worldview brought about by a humble British parliamentarian who chose to be faithful to God’s calling in his life.

Wilberforce’s example is a powerful reminder to all Christians about the responsibility we bear. It’s our task to remind men and women that our God is all-powerful, moral, and loving. It’s our task to resist what C. S. Lewis calls “the permanent natural bent of the human mind”: the siren call to embrace pantheism, which today expresses itself through a return to superstition, and the tragic collapse of the distinction between humanity and nature as witnessed, in part, by radical environmentalist circles.

It’s our task to declare the intrinsic value of human beings and to resist the ever-present forces that threaten to reduce humans to the status of animals. Only the church can effectively oppose the forces of human reductionism in our culture.

Pierre Gilbert is associate professor of Old Testament and program coordinator at MB Biblical Seminary’s Winnipeg campus.

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