Tim Keller on the Image of God

People of different races holding hands
Franz Pfluegl

What happens in a society that got its idea of human rights from a belief in the image of God, that all people are created in the image of God? What happens to that society when as a society as a whole it loses the idea of God? You see, what happens when you have a secular society in which most of the cultural elite say “well, we don't believe in God anymore, and therefore we don't believe human beings were made in the image of God, we just evolved, they are very complex organisms?” 

Now, how do you ground human rights in the worth of the individual human being? What does that worth consist of? What makes a human being worthy of rights now that you don't believe in the image of God anymore?

The reason a human being deserves rights, protections, is because they have the capacity, they have the capacity to reason, they have self-consciousness, they have the capacity to make moral choices, they know right from wrong, they have the capacity for what some professors call ‘preferences.’ And because they have reason, and the ability to make choices and they have preferences, they are moral agents and therefore they are capable, or they are worthy of protection; they have rights.

But the Christians came along and they believed in the Imago Dei. And because they believed in the image of God, from the beginning they were champions ... well, first of all, they were totally against abortion, from the beginning. Because if you believe in the Image of God, you have to be. If human life is good, then nascent human life has got to be good.

But they were also against infanticide. They were not one issue people. They cared for the poor. They cared for women, they didn't make widows ... at that time most people said that if you are a widow, you've got to remarry. They were champions of women; they were champions of orphans; they were champions of the weak; they were champions of the poor. And they were against abortion. And they put the rest of the culture to shame because of their belief in the sanctity of life.

So that eventually, the whole Western world adopted the idea of the image of God. Because when you believe in the image of God, the circle of protected life expands. But if you don't believe in the image of God, if you only believe in capacities or some other trumped up approach to why we believe in human rights, the circle will continually contract. It will get smaller and smaller, and fewer and fewer people will be protected. You see how incredible, crucial, important, the image of God teaching is.

What if we took the image of God seriously? First of all, regardless of what the law of the land says, we would know abortion, except to save the life of a mother, is a violation of the image of God. Secondly, the women who have had abortions, and the men who have helped them have abortions, would not feel like scum, because James 3:9 says you don't disdain, you don't demonize, you don't curse, you offer grace to everybody. You see if we believed in the image of God and say abortion is wrong, we wouldn't make women who have had abortions feel terrible, like scum or something. And we wouldn't be single issue people, we would be for all of the poor and all of the weak and all of the marginal. And we would be a very unusual community, wouldn't we? Now let's be that.

Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York.