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Transmitting the image of God

January 7, 2020

This is a short follow-up to my work on Interpreting the Genesis creation story, exploring what it means for us to be made in the image of God, and how that image gets transmitted, particularly in relation to any possible "non-Adamic people", and how we are to treat them. I already discussed this at length the above work, but I want to pull in some more examples and applications for it here. It's only a partial exploration of this profound concept, as it relates to the Genesis creation story.

I believe that God imparts some of his image on everything he creates. C.S. Lewis says as much in Mere Christianity, explaining that even empty space is like God in its hugeness. Above and beyond that, I think certain physical things have a certain intrinsic, structural capacity to bear the image of God. So, for instance, empty space is mostly lacking this potential, while a pen and paper have more potential, and a computer program greater potential still. A complete human being has the greatest potential for bearing the image of God: in fact, we know that it’s perfectly sufficient, because it was made specifically for that purpose: to bear not just any image of God, but God himself, in the Incarnation.

Now, as God’s image bearers, we all have a duty to be like him, to the extent that we are able. So like God, we are to emit the image of God to all that we create, influence, or beget, to the fullness of the recipient’s potential.

Of course, this is somewhat speculative, but I think it gives us an excellent guiding principle - not just for the question on non-Adamic people, but for all kinds of questions we may encounter in the future.

So: can we exploit non-Adamic people? Absolutely not. They are fully capable of receiving the image of God, and we have a moral duty to impart it to them. Thereafter they become fully our equals, and we are to treat them as such.

Can we exploit farm animals, for food, materials, or labor? Well, they are not capable of receiving the full image of God - but even to them, we are to impart it to the extent that we are able, to the limits of their capacity. This then prohibits senseless cruelty or needless slaughter of such animals, but it allows for them to be sacrificed for our sustenance, to better maximize something like the ‘total image of God in the system’. Meanwhile, we are to look for ways to better understand and care for the animals under our control, reduce their suffering, and increase their overall capability for the image of God - but of course, such things have to be constantly balanced against other things we can do with our finite capacity, like respecting the image of God in a fellow human who’s going hungry.

How should we treat our pet dogs or cats? Or how about a more intelligent animal, like an elephant or a dolphin? Again, they're not capable of receiving the full image of God, but we are to impart it to them to the extent of their intrinsic capacity. And I think it's pretty clear that we can be quite successful in this endeavor: our dogs can really be good, or really bad. The same mandate which requires us to emit the image of God to other humans demands that we do the same to our pets, that we should try to make our dogs “good boys” or “good girls”.

What happens if we develop ‘true AI’, whatever that means? Or what if we meet space aliens who seem as intelligent as we are? The answer is the same: impart to them the image of God, to the extent that we are able and they are capable of receiving. We then prioritize the total system to maximize this image of God.

In Isaiah’s vision (Isa. 6), the seraphim that stand around God’s throne call out to EACH OTHER, and say, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”. Meaning (I think), they’re constantly revealing and receiving the image of God to and from one another, in a way that each individual is uniquely capable of revealing and receiving.

Now admittedly, in my previous work, I had assumed that the "people outside the garden” were simply not made in the image of God. I realized that this was an oversight upon reading Dr. Swamidass's book. But keeping my above answers in mind, I think it's clear that such "people outside the garden" -

  • have the image of God to some extent,
  • are capable of receiving it to the full extent,
  • are lacking some part of the full image of God, in comparison to Adam,
  • and are also missing Adam's original sin - that particular marring of the image of God that resulted from him eating from the forbidden tree.
But overall, I think that the more work needs to be done to strengthen the answers we can give with respect to how we should treat the "non-Adamic people". In fact, I don’t think there’s a limit to how strong we can make the case to love, respect, and uplift such people, hypothetical though they may be. To me, this is VERY closely related to what Christ did for us, and how we are to preach the Gospel.


You may next want to read:
Interpreting the Genesis creation story
A book review: The Genealogical Adam and Eve
Another post, from the table of contents

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