The Image of God and Disability, Part I: the Universality of God's Image

The Image of God and Disability, Part I: the Universality of God's Image

If you have been attending church for some time, you probably heard about the phrase, image and likeness of God. Well, it sounds theological and profound even. The writer of Genesis proclaims that God made Eve and Adam in his likeness, but does not that mean that God only made them in his image? How about us? Are we made in God’s likeness? But, what does that mean? Just as we the contemporary are curious about the expression, our predecessors were also interested in it, so that out of the many theological topics, the image and likeness of God has been written the most throughout the history of biblical and theological projects.

Now, then, why should we spend our time reflecting on the topic? More importantly, what does disability have to do with the image of God? For the sake of the clarity of the writing, I will use the image and likeness interchangeably, because my research found no special distinction between them. It is my argument that the theological and biblical understanding of disability must start from the doctrine of imago dei, because people with disabilities are human beings also made in God’s likeness and because the absolute value and dignity of mankind lies in the revelation that we have been made in God’s image. In this post, starting with the biblical usage of the image and likeness of God, the universality of the likeness of God and its significance will be highlighted.

To begin with, let’s examine how the Scriptures employee those phrases. The Hebrew words for image and likeness are צֶלםֶ (tselem) and דּֽמוּת (demuth). Throughout the Old Testament, the image is served to depict the rich revelation that men and women have been made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26, 27; 9:6). Other than that, they denote the figures, forms, appearances, or reflections of false idols that God abhors: describing physical image, e.g., models of tumors (1 Sam. 6:5), pictures of men (Ezek. 16:17), or idols (Num. 33:52); man’s existence to an image or shadow (Ps. 39:7; 73:20). Many commentators and biblical scholars agree that the rare treatment of and the unknown etymology of צלם limits them to interpret the controversial and profound phrase. However, the word likeness seems to have the simple, literal meaning. This word appears twenty-five times in Ezekiel’s vision often representing God’s hatred of molding the likeness of the false gods. The words image and likeness by themselves have no implication unless they are connected to God, Elohim, the powerful and sovereign Deity of Israelites who created the universe through his life-breathing words.

The New Testament employees the image and likeness in three distinctive ways, which are εἰκών (eikōn) and ὁμοίωσις (homoiōsis) in Greek. First, the NT writers treat them to re-emphasize the Genesis-creation vocabulary. In James 3:9, he states “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” In 1 Corinthians 15:49, Paul asserts that we have the dual natures as the earthly and heavenly beings, because we bear the image of God: “And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.” Second, just like the OT, the image and likeness are operated negatively to illustrate God’s manner towards worshipping false idols. In Romans 1:23, Paul talks about the way human beings fell from the righteousness of God by making idols: “… and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Again, in Revelation 14:9, God through John shows his hatred towards praising the images of false gods: “…If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand.” Lastly, the image of God is related to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, incarnated in flesh. Paul instructs us that believers were predestined and chosen to be conformed to the likeness of the Son (Rom. 8:29). Again in 2 Corinthians 3:18, it says that we are being transformed into his likeness. Colossians 1:15 and 2 Corinthians 4:4 equate Jesus as the image of the invisible God.

There is clear continuity of the historical and theological treatment from the OT and to the NT: both testaments underline the universality of the image of God on all human beings. And, James illuminates the point in James 3:9, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” All mankind bears the likeness of God. Whatever the meaning maybe at this point of our journey we must acknowledge that all human beings bear the image regardless of our differences: gender, class, morality, ability, culture, age, intelligence, athleticism, or race. Yes, each human being is distinct from one another as Eve was from Adam in her gender, origin, and physiology; however, the Scriptures affirm that they still bore the divine breath. All women and men have been made in God’s image and still bear the likeness; people with disabilities are human beings; therefore, they likewise bear the divine image.

Then, what is the significance of the universality of God’s image on all human beings? Briefly, whether you are a Christian or not, the doctrine of imago dei provides us with the common ground for all humanity to stand together as equal beings. Sure, people with disabilities are different. Some of us are in electric wheelchair; some use hearing aids or speech devices; some are short and have weak bodies; some love to laugh and dance; some have difficulties with socializing with friends; some are very creative and are often too outside of the box. Those differences do not exclude people with disabilities from other individuals without disabilities. On the common ground of the divine image all people stand together cultivating our differences that often divide us from the north to south, that frustrate our thoughts and minds politically, religiously, and personally, and even create tension and misunderstanding. However, we still stand together on the common ground as equal beings.

By being equal, humanity shares the mutual goal. The doctrine of the imago dei declares that human rights have been given to us by God, not to satisfy our sinful natures, but to reclaim and re-grasp the glorious image that was somewhat tainted by sin. God formed us in his divine and perfect image, but because of our sin, though we still bear it, the degree of the glory of the likeness has been altered, unfortunately. Jesus, the Son of God, being the perfect likeness of the invincible God, became a man to die for us to restore the contaminated image of God, so that we may be like him in his holiness and righteousness. In others words, redemption is God’s commitment of restoration of his image and property. Even though we may notice differences in our friends with disabilities, we must realize the divine likeness that is equally enrooted in them. We may not see it with our eyes and may not comprehend it right away, but through the help of the Holy Spirit, we can realize it in faith and demonstrate the upmost respect that they deserve as image bearers. This is our missions.

In this post, from the Scriptural revelations, we observed that all human beings have been formed in his image and likeness and still retain them regardless of our differences as common factor that binds us as one. Because our churches have been preaching our sinful nature so many times without any balance of teaching the positive side of humanity, sin became the predominant identity marker of human beings. Of course, we are sinners and do sin inevitably. However, the doctrine of imago dei will help us to find the lost meaning of human beings and turn our focus on God and our given identity, shedding light on the positive side of mankind.

DisabilityJ.D. Kim