Posted by: Ken Brown | February 11, 2008

The Image of God

The main reason I reposted yesterday’s piece on naturalism and morality was so that I could post its follow-up. Though it builds on the previous one in various ways, this remains one of my all time favorite posts:

I hope I have not been disingenuous. It occurs to me that I have not yet mentioned that the core of the argument I made in my last post (though not its form) is drawn from C.S. Lewis, particularly his books The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, and Miracles. I did not hide this intentionally, but since this is my own synthesis, the source simply slipped my mind. That said, I was reading Mere Christianity again this weekend, and one particular line caught me off guard. On page 24 Lewis writes: “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house.” Lewis goes on to make the argument I have been making (that it is the “inside” knowledge we have from the moral law that points to such a controlling power), but that is not what caught my attention.

When I read that line, my first reaction was skeptical. I thought: “Well, sure, the architect couldn’t be a wall, but couldn’t he hang his picture on one so that we would all know it was he who built the house? Couldn’t God have hung his portrait somewhere in the universe (somewhere obvious) so that we couldn’t miss him?” Perhaps, I thought, God could have painted his picture across the stars, or written his name across the moon, or something.

Sure, if God’s name really were written across the moon (in what language would it be?), we would probably just conclude that our own alphabet had its origin in that very writing and then dismiss it as a chance occurrence. More problematic would be God’s “portrait” in the stars; for what would God look like, a nice old man? But, obviously, God is not an elderly man; he is not a man at all; he is not even physical but Spirit (if you accept John 4:24). So any such physical likeness would be impossible and misleading. Still, I thought, he could have done something.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: God did hang his picture in the universe; indeed, he hung it in the most obvious place of all, on us. We have been debating whether Naturalism is capable of grounding our moral awareness (I also made the same point with regard to rationality in my comments here), and I have concluded that it is not. Our moral awareness that certain things are unequivocally right and wrong points to something beyond the laws of nature; for by it we judge those laws (more specifically, we judge the different ways that the laws of nature interact in the actions of individual human beings). Our moral compass tells us that ultimate reality is in some sense fully good in a way that physical nature itself is not. Therefore, it is we ourselves, and our awareness of the moral law, that is the primary evidence of a something above and behind nature – the primary evidence of God.

We are the picture God hung in the universe to prove that it was he who built it. Put another way, we are the image of God. But that is a startling conclusion, because neither Lewis nor I had even considered Genesis 1 when making this argument. And yet by this entirely different route, one I am sure that the author of Genesis never considered (Naturalists weren’t exactly his primary concern!), we have found ourselves led back to the very same conclusion that he made: that in humanity, male and female, God created something “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). Our moral and rational awareness are the finishing touches on God’s master project – the universe – and the portrait of himself that God hung to mark it as his own.

Tom Clark and the others at the Center for Naturalism maintain that the acceptance of Naturalism would be good for society because it would remind us that we are not self-made and thus increase our compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves [I address Richard Dawkins’ similar claim here]. But this is backwards – if Naturalism is true, our moral awareness is an illusion, and we have no more reason to feel obligated to help those whom nature has not favored than to dispose of them in favor of natural selection. Our moral awareness would be an illusion that does not represent anything real and thus could be ignored at will. But once we realize that we are the image of God, we see that this argument I’ve been making is really not negative at all: an awareness of our true nature is the real basis for the compassionate ethic that both Tom Clark and I desire.

If we are created in the image of God, then obviously we are not “self-made”; but more than that, each and every one of us, no matter what mistakes we have made, possesses an irrevocable dignity. Just as a great piece of art retains its value even as it cracks and fades, so human beings retain their value even if nature has not been kind to them – they are still a beautiful creation of the master craftsman. But unlike Naturalism, which cannot give any real basis to such a sentiment (since we are all accidents), this creational view is realistic: it does not shrug its shoulders at evil behavior but recognizes that there is a real standard of good and evil that is binding on all of us. But it also recognizes that the dividing line is not between “good” and “evil” people but runs straight through each and every one of us.

All of us (even the worst) retain a moral awareness, even if dimmed by misuse, and none of us fully lives it out. In Biblical language: all of us are created in the image of God, and all of us have sinned and fallen short of that glory (Romans 3:23). Thus, we are all in the same position, and none of us, no matter how good we may appear relative to other humans, has any grounds for arrogance or selfishness. Everything we have is a gift, and those who have more are not any more deserving of it than those who have less. Indeed: “from he who is given much, much will be expected” (Luke 12:48).

The true antidote to a judgmental and vindictive attitude is not Naturalism but the Judeo-Christian claim that we are created in the image of God.



  1. Brilliant analogy,

    If I may borrow a cliche… some of us just don’t see the forest for all the trees.

    I am reminded of Pauls words in Romans 1:19-20. The beauty of the author of life is that his signature is hidden in plain sight, but we believers assume that great wisdom requires a hidden mystery to solve.

    In the same way, the naturalist assumes that since there is no mystery to what is so natural, that there cannot be an author behind it.

    It occurs to me that faith is as much about believing in something you can see as what you can’t.

  2. “It occurs to me that faith is as much about believing in something you can see as what you can’t.”

    That’s excellent! Yes, naturalists like to claim that theists believe in things without evidence (and it’s true), but just as often it is the naturalists who choose not to believe in those things of which we have the most evidence (e.g. consciousness, free will, objective morality). They deny the existence of these things, not because they lack evidence for them (though they would deny that we do), but only becuase their worldview is inconsistent with them. They would rather deny their own consciousness than their naturalistic presuppositions!

  3. […] in the comments. This is by no means my favorite post (I include it mainly for the sake of its follow-up), but it does make some important points about Christianity, Naturalism, and the possibility of […]

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