One of the lessons I learned early on about being outdoors in the cold, especially hiking, is this: you need to have a base layer. When it’s super, super cold out and you’re hiking, you need layers to keep you warm, but if you just drop on layer and layer, it won’t actually work right. Those layers, the outside ones, only keep you warm if the bottom layer, the one closest to your skin, is right. Underneath them all, right next to your skin, you need a layer that wicks moisture out and away from you. With that correct base layer, the outer layers keep you warm. Without a good base layer, in the end they make you colder.

How does that relate to faith, vocation, and culture? Here’s how. Our society rightly values many, many things: equality, generosity, kindness, virtue, to name only a precious few. And it rightly opposes many, many things: racism, sexism, human trafficking, and many more. And that’s right and good—our world should hate racism. It should hate human trafficking. It should hate exploitation. These are those nice, warm layers that make things good and right.

But why should it? Our world has many great instincts (and, we should add, many not so great instincts). When our current society is at its best, it deeply values human dignity. But far too often, these values and layers are missing the why, the base layer. And as a result, instead of leading to a greater, a good world, they leave things instead cold. Our society and world, for all its good intentions, fades into a Nietzschean disaster because it doesn’t have the right foundation for its good instincts about humanity.

Do we want Christianity to be attractive to non-Christians? I hope the answer is a quick yes. It will become so when we tell a true and better story, not when we just sit around and carp at society.  One of the best things we can do apologetically for our world is give the why to the things society does value. What Christianity has is the base layer that makes all the rest of those layers work, a consistent reason for human dignity.

The Christian contention is that dignity comes because we are created, created in the image of God.  Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26–28, ESV)

There are all sorts of implications of these verses, including many beyond dignity, but to focus on just this one—because human beings are made in God’s image, we have an inherent dignity, one that can be marred and defaced, but never truly lost.

And Genesis emphasizes that every human being has that dignity. Even given into an incredibly patriarchal society that tended to elevate men and scorn women, the Bible, right at the start, goes surprisingly out of its way to note that dignity extends to both sexes.

Psalm 8 says the same thing. Speaking to God, the psalm asks, “what is man that you are mindful of him?” And the answer is in God, not us. The psalmist replies, “You made him.” Our dignity, then, comes from our creator, not from us. It comes from our status as created, but not just created—created in his image.

Think about it this way: if I’m out in the woods and there’s a pile of rocks, say from a stream washing down after a rain storm, and I knock them down, there’s no morality to that. But if a child knocks down his or her brother’s Lego creation, there is. Why? It’s because of him, not the Legos. The Lego creation has value because of its creator, not because of what it is. We have no moral obligation to stack of plastic blocks. To scorn and damage the creation is to scorn the one who created it. Even if that pile of rocks isn’t random, but is a creation that a sibling made, maybe a fort or something like that, suddenly it takes on a different importance. Why? Not because of it, but because of the one who made it. After all, there is a reason grandparents have scribbles from a two year old on the fridge—because they know who made it.

This is a vision for a world we WANT to live in. This is a true and better story. This is the base layer that makes equality and goodness and generosity and all the rest work—an understanding of humanity as made in the image of God, therefore with an inherent dignity. This is why it’s worth opposing the slave trade. This is why it’s worth opposing trafficking. This is why it’s worth fighting for public health and education, why it’s worth fostering and adoption, why it’s worth pouring into biological children, why it’s worth building businesses that provide jobs. This is why it’s worth caring for those whose bodies are failing and those who have seen their usefulness to society pass away, and why it’s worth caring for those not yet born. Because these things are in line with the dignity that all people have being made in the image of God. Christianity has a positive vision for the world and for you and for me—one that we want. Think of the old Pinocchio story. It’s the maker’s love that makes us more than a wooden puppet.

It was this kind of vision for humanity that contributed to Christianity spreading like wildfire through the Roman Empire. In a time and a day where society viewed people as things to be exploited, a society that valued power and the use of it to oppress others—socially, sexually, economically, militarily—Christianity stepped in with love and value and dignity.

Julian the Apostate, a famous—and famously anti-Christian—emperor, realized that this was how Christianity had moved from a fringe movement to taking over the Empire. He wrote this to a pagan priest: “When it came to the poor that were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galileans [and by that he means, the Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. [They] support not only their poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

Later he said, “It is their benevolence to strangers, their care for graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that has done the most to increase atheism,” which is what he called Christianity.

And here’s the thing—Julian’s attempt was to get the pagan priests to do the same things, to imitate the Christians. He wanted to bring about a revival of paganism, and he realized that the way to do it was to start treating people the way the Christians did. But it didn’t work. Julian’s revival of paganism couldn’t hold. He tried to ban pagan priests from going to licentious theaters; he tried to encourage charity and hospitality. But in the end, his attempt to force that on paganism failed. Why? Because it was missing the base layer. He could try to force the behavior, but there was no base layer—no fundamental reason why to do that. So, it didn’t catch on.

As Ryan Laughlin wrote last week, where we think we came from determines almost everything we think about ourselves as human beings. The creation stories of the Ancient Near East, all the cultures around Israel, were very different. They said that creation, and humanity, had emerged out of a cosmic fight. Humanity was intentionally created, but to be scum, to be slaves, to serve the gods. And a lucky human, the king, had become the image of the gods, but everyone else, the commoners, were simply servants and slaves, to be worked to the death if desired.

Genesis 1 stands alone in Ancient Near East creation stories because God creates with a word, giving humans dignity in the image of God. And when that was seen and embraced, Christianity spread like wildfire.

Well, the creation story we learn today from modern secular humanism isn’t much better—just different. It’s not a story of intentional creation but a story of a fundamental accident. Humans in our modern creation story aren’t viewed as an intentional creation of the gods to be servants. We’re understood to be cosmic accidents. Incredibly complex cosmic accidents, to be sure, but just the products of an incomprehensibly long sequence of atoms sticking together into ever and ever more complicated organisms.

And here’s the implication of that. If that’s really true, we would have no more moral obligation to other humans than we do to a pile of rocks. So, if you have a pallet of rocks, you can break them into pieces, scatter them across the ground, use them for decoration, whatever. But if you take a human being and do the same thing, that’s truly and terribly horrible. You, I hope, innately recoil at that. And we should.

And here’s what that shows— even if the logic of our modern creation myth, our understanding of where people come from, says we shouldn’t, we all innately know that human beings do have value.

This is why we see people of all faiths doing so much good in the world. That is why mercy and kindness are not restricted to religious people. It’s why people who are atheists and people who are of other faiths unquestionably do great works of mercy, sometimes far better than the Christians. Because that echo of the dignity of God, the image of God, in people—we just can’t fully turn it off.

Maybe we see this nowhere better than the famous existentialist novel The Plague, by Camus. Dr. Rieux is the hero of the book, fighting tirelessly against the plague, caring for those suffering, developing therapies. He does tremendous good. But he doesn’t believe in God. He’s just a practical man, a doctor, doing what must be done.

So he cleans abscesses, he injects serums, he pulls people from their homes to the hospital to try to stop the spread of the disease. But there’s little more he can do, and he has to even distance himself from any pity.

Rieux is a good, but tragic character. Because at the end of it all, when the plague has passed and the gates of the town are finally opening again, he stands and looks at the celebration, but he knows that death will still win. He knows that the plague will return.

And indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what these jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and book-shelves; and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city.

He has done all this, but Camus leaves us at the end asking why. Why all the effort? Because at the end, Camus thinks, it’s gotten us nowhere.

Yet Dr. Rieux gave the effort. Because he knew human beings were worth caring for. Why? This is what Cornelius Van Til, writing a generation back at Westminster Seminary, called “borrowed capital,” a piece of the Christian worldview that the rest of our world has borrowed to make life make sense—not just intellectual sense, but emotional sense. Because logically, if all we are is the product of matter, motion, time, and chance—times billions of years, then there’s no innate value to a human being. We are not anything more than a clump of dirt.

But the Bible says we are worth more than a clump of dirt. And the difference is that the Bible gives us a why for that belief. It has a base layer, and that makes the rest of the layers work.

Do we believe people are created in the image of God? If not, then why do we bother to care about them? But we do. And we should. You see, we want a version of life that gives people meaning and dignity. And Christianity gives us one—and a consistent one.

But here’s the thing: we often forget it. First, what happens when the world forgets human dignity? And here, I should add, we must not be blinded by merely western eyes. Western culture, for all its flaws, sits at the end of a long, often very Christian road. One of the primary drivers to increase the dignity of women in Western culture over the centuries was the gospel of Luke. Part of the drive to oppose the slave trade in the British Empire was the deep Christian faith of the Clapham Sect. Much of the echo that makes human dignity a value in our world, even if much of our world has forgotten it, is an historical Christian influence.

And we should remember, there are many faiths that very much don’t value human dignity. This is how you get fighters who hide under hospitals or day care centers, using people as human shields—because their belief doesn’t value human life. This is how some send waves of impressed prisoners to certain death—because their belief gives no dignity to others.

In the time of Genesis, this is how you had Pharoah enslaving the Israelites, because people were not, in Egyptian religion, something he was to value. They were a problem to be managed. Pharoah was understood to be the image of the gods, his nobles had a place, but the rest of the world—Egyptian or Hebrew people—were just to work, serve, and die.

And there is a dark turn in our world when our world doesn’t accept this. For decades, centuries, we’ve been drumming into ourselves and our children an origin story that says, “You are just that clump of dirt, that cosmic accident. A very complicated clump of dirt, to be sure, but in the end, you are not created; you are just the product of chance.”

But then we expect everyone to live as if they are valuable; societally, we have tried to borrow that capital, to simultaneously teach people that they are just material accidents but ask them to act like everyone has inherent dignity. And a society can live with that for a long time. Dr. Rieux did in Camus. But eventually more and more angry young men have started calling our bluff.

Our society has tried to have human dignity without the base layer of the why. But that inconsistency is showing through more and more—in the lack of civility, in the incredible ill treatment of others, in the violence that breaks through with more and more alarming frequency. We tell people they are one thing but then ask them to act like they are another. And more and more people are rejecting that inconsistency, with frightening implications.

Christianity gives a true and better story than our world’s secular humanist creation myth. It gives a base layer, a why to human dignity.

Here’s my biggest concern, though. It’s not when our world doesn’t believe this truth. It’s when we inside the church don’t believe this. I’m concerned that we, as Christians, often don’t seem to have any base layer either, at least not behaviorally. How do we deal with it when Christians seem to live the opposite of our faith—treating people just as badly, maybe worse, than non-Christians do?

My big concern is not that they out there don’t believe in human dignity. It’s that, seemingly, we don’t. A Christianity that professes human dignity and then doesn’t live it is a Christianity that has the base layer but doesn’t seem ready to put it on. And it leaves the world unimpressed.

God makes demands on Christians first in terms of human dignity, in the fruit of the sprit and in our interpersonal reactions, and in our activities of mercy in the world. A fundamental recognition that we are dealing with men, women, and children made in the image of God must color how we love every human being, the ones whom we love and also the ones whom we are tempted to hate.

We can and must have a lot of charity about different ways to live this truth out—different understandings of how human dignity is and is not to be achieved politically, different individual callings in the marketplace, etc. I have no desire to advocate a partisan political position in this article. Nor do I in any way have a desire to talk any Christian out of being politically engaged. Politics is not bad; in fact, politics is necessary.

But what I do have a desire to emphasize is this: all the elements of dignity are incumbent upon us. It is not optional for us to be generous. It is not optional for us to care for the least of these. It is not optional for us to care about justice. And it is not optional for us to have the fruit of the spirit, for us to treat anyone—and maybe especially those with whom we disagree—with incredible kindness and generosity and patience. Because that person, now, not later, is in the image of God. There is no room for hatred. Or scorn. And that last one, to be honest, seems to characterize how often we all seem to talk about those with whom we disagree politically.

Our society’s current slide into dehumanizing and scorning the other side—something I would say I see both the left and the right guilty of doing—that is simply not allowable to Christians. The Bible simply does not allow us to deny the dignity of the other, any human being, even those with whom we have massive conflict. The utter loss of civility in our society cannot be tolerated in ourselves.

So, before I go on, let me get a bit preachy. Whom do you dehumanize, even if you wouldn’t have used that word? Whom do you, honestly, not treat as if you’re dealing with someone else in God’s image? Is it a group of people? Maybe another race? Maybe another gender? Maybe another political party? Or another social class? Or is it individuals? That person who has hurt me. That person who can be so cruel himself or herself, who hasn’t given me dignity. That person who has been evil.  Remember, if all humans were in the image of God, that included the Israelites, AND it included even their Egyptian oppressors.

You see, here’s my concern. Our world forgets human dignity in that it doesn’t have a base layer, a reason to believe it. And far too often, we Christians forget human dignity, because even though we have a base layer, we seem to forget to put it on.

This means at some level we’re all wanting, both Christians and non-Christians. Neither of us is wearing our base layer, even if for different reasons. And that leads to the question: how do we recover a vision of human dignity? What we need to see is that we recover a sense of the dignity of all when we see Jesus, both how he treated people and what he did for us.

First, consider how Jesus treated people. The thing that amazes about Jesus is the tremendous dignity he gave to others, especially to those that society scorned. In John 4, Jesus sat down by the well to talk to a Samaritan woman. Even she was amazed at this, because Samaritans and Jews hated each other. There was an unbelievable racial divide, and Jesus crossed it.

In Matthew 8, Jesus reached out and touched a leper to heal him. In a society that said of lepers, “unclean” and carefully walled away the sick, lest there be any risk of not even physical illness, but just spiritual uncleanness, Jesus reached across that health divide and touched a hurting man to heal him.

In Luke 7, Jesus was condemned by his society because he did not shun a woman who was a sinner, which probably meant in their parlance that she was a prostitute. In an unbelievably large social divide, Jesus crossed it. In Matthew 14, Jesus fed thousands, and he regularly emphasized and showed his care for the poor, places like Luke 6.

Jesus, in his life on earth, treated all with dignity, including and even especially those we might not have expected. He thought they were worth something. He thinks every one of us is worth something. Here’s how much: if we think something is valuable, we will pay a lot for it. If we think Tesla is a valuable company, we will pay a lot for its stock. And if something suddenly makes it appear less valuable—like last week’s earnings call—we will suddenly only be willing to pay less.

Things of great value command a great price. Okay, fine. But you know what, I’d never die for the chance to own Tesla stock, nor would you. No matter how much we would or wouldn’t think the company worth, we’d never give our life. But in the case of us, Jesus said we were worth everything. Jesus Christ gave his life for us. He willingly hung on a cross and paid an agonizing price to redeem us, to pay for our sin. In a physical, incomprehensively painful way, Jesus Christ hung on the cross to buy us back from sin.  That’s how much Jesus gives us—and all people—dignity. He was willing to die for us. And that means he gives us grace when we have failed to give others dignity.

But the message of the gospel is not just that Jesus died for us. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus rose. And Jesus’ resurrection means that he has power, power to change us and power to change the world. If even death could not keep a hold over Jesus, then the rules of the world have changed. He has claimed victory, which means not only that he can save us, but that he can also change us.

So, here’s what the Bible says happens when we realize the truth of that message, when we receive it, and Jesus starts to change us. First, it calls out that Jesus is the perfect image of God. Colossians 1:15 says, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” But here’s what’s marvelous—when we receive him as Lord and savior, 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.” In other words, when we become Christians, God starts making us more like Christ, making us more and more—even though slowly and with fits and starts—more into the image that we were always supposed to be.

And that lets us leave sin, and image God to the world more clearly. Col. 3 says this, v.8–11: But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:8–11, ESV)

So how do I know if I’m treating others as not in God’s image? Well, that list from Colossians isn’t a bad start: am I angry? Wrathful? Malicious? Slanderous? Full of obscene talk? There’s a start. Or do I find myself degrading someone else in my mind so that I have an excuse not to treat them with dignity? Or do I excuse my own behavior because of what they’ve done to me? After all, we often sin the most when we’ve been sinned against. Or do I care more about defeating the person than loving them?

When have I not treated another with dignity? Think of a time, a specific person and a specific face. Now, why didn’t I treat that person with dignity? Because at the moment, I forgot who they were. And I forgot who I am. And I forgot who Jesus is.

So next time, when we see red, when we want to take a peek, when we envy, when we find ourselves starting to excuse scorn or hatred, or a host of other things the Bible calls evil…let’s try this instead: Remember who they are. Remember who we are. Remember who Jesus is. And then act like it.

Remember what Jesus says: “what you have done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.”

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan where he serves as Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Students, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

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