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Are Unbelievers in God's Image?

Rev. Angus Stewart

 

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Introduction

There is one thing in the Scriptures that the ungodly call an “image” of God but is definitely not: idols (e.g., Ex. 20:4-6; Isa. 44:9-20; Rom. 1:23; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 35)!

There are four parties who are spoken of in Holy Writ as truly being in God's image. Here they are arranged in a sort of “chronological” order:

  1. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity (cf. Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; Belgic Confession 10)

  2. Pre-fall Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1; Belgic Confession 14; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 6; Canons III/IV:1)

  3. The incarnate Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4:4)

  4. All those born again by the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 115)

Two of these four parties in God's image are divine: the eternal Son simpliciter and that same eternal Son when He became incarnate. The other two of these four parties are human beings: Adam and Eve before the fall, and those regenerated after the fall.

All individuals and churches that have any claim to be orthodox gladly acknowledge the truth of the above four identifications (and one non-identification) regarding the image of God or imago dei. But there is disagreement regarding the unregenerate: Is unbelieving man in God's image? This is the most controversial question involved in the whole subject of the imago dei. It is also a very important issue, especially in our day, when the notion that everybody is in God's image is being used to promote common grace, women in church office, homosexuality, the salvation of unconverted pagans, etc.

The thesis of this and subsequent articles is that unregenerate and unbelieving men, women and children are not in the image of God. In this and later instalments, Lord willing, we shall see that this is the teaching of the Holy Scriptures and the doctrine of the Reformed confessions.

 

The Nature of the Image of God

Let us begin by analyzing the nature of the image of God. The Bible clearly describes God's image in His believing people as consisting of three things: knowledge, righteousness and true holiness.

The proof of this comes from two texts in Paul's epistles. Colossians 3:10 states, “[You] have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him [i.e., God] that created him.” Notice, first, that here we have a reference to the “image” of God. Second, these Christians at Colossae (and all believers) have been “created” in God's image in regeneration. Third, this image of God, in which we have been created through the new birth, includes “knowledge,” the knowledge of God.

Our second Scripture is the parallel passage in Ephesians 4:24: “ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” First, since Ephesians 4:24 refers to the “new man” which is “created” in God's “image” and Colossians 3:10 speaks of the “new man” which is “created” “after God,” the phrases God's “image” and “after God” are equivalent. Second, our being “created” “after God” or in His “image” in regeneration includes “righteousness” and “true holiness.”

This use of Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 in defining the content of the image of God in His born again and believing people (and pre-fall Adam and Eve) as consisting of knowledge, righteousness and true holiness (all ethical, moral or spiritual virtues) is clearly biblical and widely recognized. It is also confessional (Belgic Confession 14; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 6, 115; Canons III/IV:1; Westminster Confession 4:2; Westminster Larger Questions, Q. & A. 17, 75; Westminster Shorter Questions, Q. & A. 10, 35).

But what is the imago dei in which unbelievers are supposed to be? Unlike what we have just seen regarding the nature of the image of God in believers, there are no biblical texts which specify the nature of the (alleged) divine image in the ungodly. Nor is there any solid exegesis of any biblical texts that prove the content of the (supposed) imago dei in the wicked.

Instead, the content of this alleged image of God in unbelievers is arbitrary. Typically, some or all of the following are mentioned: morality and rationality; spirituality and personality; possession of the “faculties” of memory and/or intellect and/or will and/or conscience; personhood, freedom, dignity, language, etc.

These things surely characterize man—whether believing or unbelieving—but there is no proof that these things are the content of the image of God. Those who maintain that the unregenerate are in the divine image can point to no scriptural testimony as to its content. On this subject, one searches their books and articles in vain for any cogent exegesis of even a single biblical text.

 

The Number of the Image of God

Moving from the nature of the alleged imago dei in unbelievers, we come to the number of the image (or images) of God in man. According to the theory that absolutely everyone is in the image of God, there are necessarily two images of God in man. First, there is the image of God in the narrow sense, as many of them put it, which consists, as we have seen, in knowledge, righteousness and true holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Second, they posit an image of God in the broader sense, which is the only imago dei in unbelievers.

In short, according to the view that we are here opposing, the number is two, for there are two images of God in man. To express their view more kindly, there are two aspects of the image of God in man.

Reader, which of these two images of God, do you think, is most talked about? Is it the manifestly scriptural truth that believers in Christ crucified and risen are in the imago dei (the image of God in the so-called narrow sense) or the idea that unbelievers are in the imago dei (the so-called image of God in the broader sense)?

What about the teaching of the liberal Protestant churches? Or the Roman Catholic Church? Undoubtedly, they lay great emphasis upon the notion that absolutely everybody is in the image of God. This notion is fundamental in their false doctrine and practice. Indeed, this idea is one of their main theological building blocks!

What about purportedly conservative churches and organizations and people? My experience—and many others I know would say the same thing—is that in their pulpits, periodicals, books and witnessing they speak a lot more about the (alleged) image of God (broader sense) in all men head for head than the very clearly biblical teaching that those are in His image who are in fellowship with the Father through Jesus Christ and by His Holy Spirit.

Let us see know how this applies to unbelievers and believers in this life. According to the theory that we are refuting, the unbeliever is in the imago dei (broader sense), so he has one image of God or one aspect of the image of God. The believer, however, is both in the imago dei in the broader sense and the imago dei in the narrow sense, so he has two divine images or two aspects of the image of God.

But is there any Scripture for this idea of two images of God in His children? Are you aware of anywhere in the Bible that speaks of two divine images in us? Yet the theory that unbelievers are in the image of God necessarily entails two images of God in the regenerate.

We should also consider how this notion applies to the elect before and after their regeneration or conversion. “While we were yet sinners” (to echo Romans 5:8), we possessed one imago dei, the image of God in the so-called broader sense. After the Holy Spirit “quickened us together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5), we possess two images of God, both the divine image in the broader sense and the divine image in the narrow sense, as they speak of them.

But is there any warrant in God's Word for such a thing? A man being born with one image of God and then being born again and so possessing two images of God? Does Christ teach this in the gospel accounts? Is this found in the letters of Paul or Peter or John, or anywhere in Scripture? Yet these notions of two images of God in man, of unbelievers having one image and believers having two images, and of the elect possessing one divine image before their conversion and two divine images after their new birth, are required by the theory that we are opposing.


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Last time, in the light of both the nature and the number of the imago dei, we considered significant problems with the view that unbelievers are in the image of God. In this article, we shall critique this theory further. We will begin with arguments from the idea of the image of God, and then we will point out some of the amazing incongruities and massive equivocations which follow from the erroneous position that absolutely everybody bears the imago dei.

 

The Idea of the Image of God

There are two types of image. First, there is an image with little or no similarity to that which it images. Think of the image of Audi: four interlocking, horizontal circles. This image does not look like an Audi car but you have learned to link it to Audi. Such an image is a symbol, for it represents something else purely by means of association or convention.

Second, there is an image with a significant degree of similarity to that which it images. Think of the image of yourself in the mirror; it sure looks like you!

The image of God is an instance of the latter sort of image. This is evident even from a brief consideration of the four parties that all sides agree are in the image of God. First, the eternal Son of God possesses all the divine attributes and is the perfect image of the Father. Second, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, is the “express image” of God (Heb. 1:3) so that those who have seen Him have seen the Father (John 14:9). Third, Adam and Eve before the fall were in the imago dei as those who spiritually looked like their Creator (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6). Fourth, all those who are elect and regenerate are in the image of God as those who know Him savingly, and are righteous and holy by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:29; II Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

Moreover, those who are in the image of God are also in the likeness of God. The very first reference to the imago dei in the Bible joins these two ideas: “And God said [on day 6], Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). If a party is in the image of God, it is also in the likeness of God (Gen. 1:27; cf. 5:1).

So the question, Are unbelievers in the image of God? is equivalent to the question, Are unbelievers in the likeness of God? Are those willing to answer yes to the former question also willing to embrace the latter?

Let us go further. Someone who is in the image of another is the image of another; someone who is in the likeness of another is the likeness of another (cf. I Cor. 11:7; II Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Do we really want to say this regarding the wicked: the ungodly are the image of God and those who hate Him are the likeness of God?

Scripture not only joins together the image of God and the likeness of God, but it also joins these concepts with the glory of God. Of course! Since God is glorious, those who are His image and likeness are glorious too! Thus Scripture refers to “the image and glory of God” (I Cor 11:7).

Adolf Hitler, the image and glory of God? Osama bin Laden, the image and glory of God! Richard Dawkins, the image, likeness and glory of God? Joseph Stalin, the image, likeness and glory of God!

“Ah,” someone might object, “these are emotive figures, particularly wicked men who hated the holy Triune God with an especially great vehemence.” Yes, but the position we are opposing is that all unbelievers absolutely are God's image and, therefore, are His likeness and are His glory. Clearly, identifying the ungodly as the image of God goes too far! This important biblical concept carries a lot of theological freight.

 

Amazing Incongruities and Massive Equivocations

Identifying unbelievers as the image of God also involves further amazing incongruities and massive equivocations.

How does this notion square with the truth of God Himself? Is ungodly man really in the image of God when he does not even worship the God he is supposed to be like? If the wicked were the glory of God, surely they would glorify the God of glory!

The Lord Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). But unbelievers, who are supposedly in the image of God, do not recognize the Lord Jesus as the image of God! The wicked, who are allegedly God's image-bearers, are “blinded” by Satan with regard to the “light” of Jesus Christ, “the image of God” (II Cor. 4:4). Moreover, 2,000 years ago, those who were, allegedly, the image, likeness and glory of God actually crucified the Messiah, who is the perfect image, likeness and glory of God!

On the plain of Dura outside Babylon in Daniel 3, unbelievers in the image of God, according to the theory which we are opposing, bowed down to and worshipped Nebuchadnezzar's golden image. Those who were the image and glory of God adored and glorified an image of gold!

In Isaiah 46:7, those who are God's image-bearers bear images of Bel and Nebo, Babylonian gods!

In Romans 1:23, those in the image and likeness of God make and worship images in the likeness of men, birds, beasts and creeping things. Those who are the image and glory of God change the glory of the incorruptible God into images of corruptible creatures!

In Revelation 13:17, those who are the image of God, according to the theory we are opposing, worship the image of the beast. Those who supposedly bear the likeness and mark of God actually bear the mark of the beast! Can all all this theory really be true?

Do you remember Christ's response to the Pharisees and Herodians who asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to the Romans (Matt. 22:15-22)? The truth is that these Jewish leaders were more interested in coins with the “image and subscription” of Caesar than the God they were supposed to image or in His great image-bearer, the Lord Jesus. Unbelievers in all ages, though allegedly in the image and glory of God, are gripped by the imaginary glory of money rather than the glory of God (cf. Luke 16:13).

What about Satan? If the image of God (in its alleged “broader sense”) consists of rationality and personality, the possession of intellect and will, and creaturely freedom and language, then it follows necessarily that the devil is in the image of God! Yea, Satan is the image of God, the likeness of God and the glory of God! In fact, having such a good memory, powerful intellect and resolute will, the devil has a much, much greater image of God (in the “broader sense”) than any of us!

So it is not just all of fallen humanity that is in the image of God but also be Beelzebub and all his host! Advocates of the theory that we are opposing may object at this, yet it necessarily follows from their own principles.


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So far, we have presented four arguments against the popular notion that all unbelievers are in the divine image. In the first three, we reasoned from the nature, the number and the idea of the imago dei. Then we pointed out some of the amazing incongruities and massive equivocations which logically follow from the erroneous position that absolutely everybody bears the image of God.

In this article, we shall produce two more arguments. The first proceeds from the relationship between divine sonship and the divine image, and the second traces several, dangerous ethical and theological consequences of the notion that unbelievers are in the image of God.

 

Divine Sonship

Let us return to the four parties whom all sides in this debate agree are in the image of God. First, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is both the image of God and the eternal Son of God the Father. Second, Jesus Christ is both the imago dei and the incarnate Son of God. Third, Adam and Eve were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) as a son and daughter of God (cf. Luke 3:38). Fourth, all believers have been recreated in the image of God (e.g., Rom. 8:29; II Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) and are the sons or daughters of God.

Do you see the pattern here? All four parties (the eternal Son, the incarnate Son, pre-fall Adam and Eve, and all believers) are both the image of God and the Son or sons (or daughters) of God. The connection is obvious: sons (or daughters) look like their fathers!

Even in the earthly sphere, this is obvious. Moreover, the visible realm reflects the spiritual realm. By eternal generation, God the Son is the “express image” of God the Father (cf. Heb. 1:3). By spiritual regeneration, God's sons (and daughters) are the image of God in knowledge, righteousness and true holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

Let us build on an argument made in the last instalment of this series. The claim that unbelievers are in the image of God means that they are not only the likeness of God and the glory of God, but they are also the sons of God and the daughters of God!

However, Scripture declares that unbelieving, impenitent, reprobate humans are the seed of Satan, the old serpent (Gen. 3:15; Rev. 12:9), and the sons and daughters of Satan. The Lord Jesus denied the claims of the ungodly Jews that God was their Father (John 8:38, 41-42). Instead, He told them, “Ye are of your father the devil [and, therefore, you are his sons and daughters], and the lusts of your father ye will do [because you are like your father and in his image]” (v. 44).

Our Lord went on to explain why the ungodly Jews sought to kill Him (vv. 37, 40, 59) and why they could not receive His truth (vv. 40, 43, 45-47, 55): “Ye do the deeds of your father” (v. 41; cf. v. 38). Here Jesus highlighted two sins (those against the sixth and the ninth commandments) in which the ungodly sons imitated their satanic father: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (v. 44). Ethically and spiritually, the wicked sons imaged their diabolical father!

 

Dangerous Consequences

Now we are in a position to outline some of the dangerous consequences which flow from the idea that unbelievers are the image of God.

If sodomites and lesbians really are the image of God (and, therefore, also His likeness and glory), homosexuality is OK. This argument is made repeatedly by various Jews and professed Christians, as it was in connection with the appointment of homosexual Canon Jeffrey John as the Church of England Bishop of Reading in 2003 (though he later withdrew his acceptance). Watch out for more instances of this claim in the days ahead!

This doctrine of the imago dei feeds into the liberal notion of the universal brotherhood of man, for all bear God's image. If everyone is in the image of God, then everyone is a child of God, for all look like God their Father. Thus we have the false gospel of the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity under the universal fatherhood of God. This is the old modernist heresy proclaimed by many, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Logically, the doctrine of man is corrupted through this teaching of the divine image. If all are in the image of God, what about the truth of total depravity? Surely, the image of God is good, morally good, for the God who is imaged is good, morally good! Therefore, man is not totally depraved. This is the argument of many.

Similarly, if everybody is God's image, likeness and glory, then man must have free will. What is the image of the infinitely good God, if it does not entail ethical goodness? And free will (the ability to desire and choose that which is morally good) is crucial for ethical goodness!

Not only the doctrine of man but also the doctrine of God is affected by the notion that everybody bears the imago dei. After all, the Almighty must love His image, likeness and glory in the reprobate! This is called a universal or common grace, according to which the unchangeable Jehovah is merciful to those whom He has passed by and ordained to destruction in the way of their sins (Westminster Confession 3:7). It is instructive that Abraham Kuyper, the father of common grace, builds so much of his case for this false doctrine upon the erroneous idea of the imago dei.

Likewise, the well-meant offer (a passionate desire in the Most High to save the reprobate) fits perfectly with this doctrine of God's image. Surely, Jehovah must desire the salvation of those in whom His image, likeness and glory are manifest?

In the doctrine of eschatology or the last things, it is the truth concerning hell that is most endangered by a universal image of God in man. God's image-bearers in hell? Those who are Jehovah's likeness enduring everlasting burnings? The divine glory in the lake of fire? Could the ever blessed God tolerate such a blasphemous thing as this? If the image of God is in a man, surely there is a spark of His glory in him (the issue is not that of quantity but quality!)? Thus there is no such thing as hell or eternal punishment. Such is the argument of Harry R. Boer, a theologian of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), in his heretical book, An Ember Still Glowing: Humankind as the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990).

I realise that there are some who want to hold that all men are in the image of God (in some sense) within a more orthodox framework of beliefs (regarding homosexuality, man's total depravity, God's sovereign grace, hell, etc.). They argue that the so-called broader sense of the image of God consists solely in the categories of creation or nature and does not concern ethical or moral issues.

Besides the problems with this view pointed out in this and the previous two articles, there is the underlying fact that the term “the image of God” of itself carries great theological and ethical freight. Moreover, the idea that the ungodly are in God's image in some sense has no scriptural support, for the few texts which are brought forward are wrongly interpreted, as we shall see.

to be continued ...