Is There Empirical Evidence for God's Image?

Hi everyone,

First, a disclaimer: I cannot find a published category into which my question comfortably fits. I think that it could be useful in an evangelism to skeptics, though, so here it goes…

I recently finished a fascinating college-level ethics class in which we studied and applied primarily Utilitarian, Kantian, and Natural Law theories with an excursus into Eastern ethical systems. Our professor challenged us to compare various readings from different points of view on issues like abortion, euthanasia, poverty, and pollution and decide which readings were more rational. Naturally questions of personhood and humanity came up, and as a Christian, I believe that God’s Image is a key component to this issue. I can support this from a theological perspective using the Bible (special revelation), but I could not figure out what empirical evidence (general revelation) I could offer to skeptical materialists in defense of the presence of God’s Image in humankind that differentiates fetuses from blobs of tissue and human beings from animals and robots.

I think that human behavior is evidence of God’s image, like rustling trees evidence wind. For example, even sociopaths know how to move the muscles of their faces to form smiles, because they know that there is something charming in this. I have seen elsewhere pictures of tyrants like Adolf Hitler bending over and accepting flowers from children. I think that this type of “good” behavior by evil people is an example of empirical evidence for God’s image. I do not quite know how I might form a useful argument with it, though; and I think that there are gaps that can be filled with a little help.

So, what other empirical evidence might there be for God’s image, and how might it be formed into a powerful argument?

6 Likes

@blbossard

Great Question! This could go a lot of different ways. Theologically speaking, scholars have struggled for centuries with the question of what exactly is the imago Dei in man. For most of Western history, the idea that man being, or possessing, a “rational soul” was the essential hallmark of his being in God’s image. However, as problems for that view emerged, e.g. what about infants, the severely disabled, etc., other views were posited. Some attributes that have commonly been considered as evidence of the Imago Dei are: relationality, creativity, the capacity for language, freedom of the will, and more recently many have suggested that the image of God relates not so much to some ontological aspect of human persons, but to the calling or the vocation God gives to mankind. Thus, the image is really about the function that man is supposed to perform in the creation.

Most of these views, therefore, can be broken down into two main categories, substantival views, and functional or teleological views. On the first, there is some ontological attribute about human persons that, in virtue of them possessing that attribute, makes them in the image and likeness of God. On the alternative view, it is not an ontological reality about human persons, but their primary function or role in the world that makes them “imagers” of God.

One person I would highly recommend reading on the question of the Imago Dei, and Theological Anthropology more generally, is Dr. Marc Cortez. Here is his most recent book on the topic:

in Christ,
Anthony

4 Likes

@blbossard, I was reading, “Ring of Truth”, a testimony of New testament translator JB Phillips and I stumbled on a short passage that to me seems like empirical evidence for general revelation on God’s image. A few points the author makes are:

  • Human beings face two kinds of truths - an outside truth, a knowledge of ascertained facts which is outside of human personality and the second is an inside truth, which is part intuitive and part experiential that grows out of joy, fear, disappointment, conviction, doubt or faith. ( References ‘The True Wilderness- Rev Harry Williams’ for this point)
  • What is it that lives within a man that enables him to detect truth even when it proves painful. What in us convicts us of the Word of God as such rather than human doctrine? All men are potentially the sons of God with a faculty to respond to God’s word. The recognition of God’s Word as a valid part of human experience is shared by thousands in various parts of the world.
  • There are records of testimonies in the Bible society where a men and women of various nationalities who had no Christian indoctrination in childhood were dramatically changed when the inspired Word of God spoke to them out of its context when they read a verse for the first time in their life.

Evidence from creation
A couple verses that contrast man and beast in creation in terms of wisdom and understanding .

Job 39:17 NKJV
Because God deprived her (the ostrich) of wisdom, And did not endow her with understanding.

Job 38:36 NKJV
Who has put wisdom in the mind? Or who has given understanding to the heart? (Speaking of man)

In summary then, the inner part of man that can potentially respond to God’s voice with a capacity to fully represent Him in this world through inner transformation to reflect more of Christ is an evidence of God’s image. I am also reminded of a quote by Michael Ramsden on Conversational Apologetics, where he says, " In life, you’re not made happy by what you acquire but by what you appreciate ." This again seems like a symptom of being made in God’s image, causing a desire to worship.

I am not sure of the common objections to this kind of evidence but hopefully these thoughts can be further developed for empirical evidence.

4 Likes

@anthony.costello @Lakshmismehta Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I have read them and am reflecting on them. I am formulating a summary of what the two of you have written and expect to post it in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, I still welcome further ideas!

1 Like

@blbossard Hi Brendan, just a quick note: I don’t know how far it is a possibility in your situation (how philosophical the prof actually is, whether he really wants to see you thinking, or just wants you to color inside the lines) but when it comes to philosophy I find we are often backed into a dilemma which is a false dilemma. So my first move is always to question the premises, to question the question / the terms of the assignment.

In this case, I’d probably go after the issue of rationality. I would certainly question if rationality is rational as an exclusive criteria for evaluating ethical systems. And what is the class’s working definition of rational? “Rationality” as a human capacity for ordered and productive thought is one thing, but the content of rational thought is always resting on presuppositions. What is rational depends on what is valuable or good (further philosophical questions) or certainly what one believes to be valuable or good. Doing this or that action to say, save the most people, can only be rational if one first holds a view that people are valuable and ought to be saved.

So in the end, I wouldn’t go after empirical evidence at all, but would try to demonstrate philosophically that everyone’s fundamental / base-level values rest on faith or trust. Then philosophically you’re at a draw. The conversation is then about the evidence for the reliability or quality of your respective objects of faith.

I do not know whether this approach is helpful for you at this juncture, but I just wanted to open another possibility: to interrogate the assumptions undergirding the question / problem / dilemma.

3 Likes

I think the Elephant in the room here, really, is DNA. Science cannot explain this code that we have that dictates a lot of who we are and what we do. Every human is different to some degree, but interestingly enough, there is actually about 3x the variance that chimps have then we do. Why this matters is that chimps are our closest DNA relative.

Along with that, I would say humans propensity to adapt to nearly every situation found on earth is like no other species (I think). Cold climate, hot climate, next to the shore, land locked, humans are increadibly adaptable which separates them from the rest of the animal world.

Likewise, humans have a known language that is deeply rooted in the way we communicated also unlike any other animal. This might be the best emperical evidence for the Imago Dei that I can think of. With that comes our response to the Gospel message. We will naturally react to this unlike other animals since they can’t rightly “know” God the same way we can. For Paul says the Law, or Torah is meant to show us we sin and in that grace abounds even more so that we can be forgiven. With that, animals possibly know of a creator, however, they know of the creator not because they hear, but because they see creation. In this way, humans can have “knowledge” of God by hearing and by reacting and that God judges us based on what we know. Some never hear the name of Jesus, but if they do, they WILL react to it. I know this is a weak point for “emperical evidence” but I think this is apparent and a part of being human unlike other animals in this world.

3 Likes

I like that phrase “the elephant in the room” which you used, Jesse. Based on my personal experience i would offer another “elephant”, the 12 Step Fellowships.

Why? Because in groups like AA, NA, CA, etc., we have people who have been reduced to an immoral animal-like existence by their particular addiction(s).

Yet, by admitting the truth about their powerlessness and unmanageability, and then coming to believe in a “Higher Power”, and then beginning to trust that Power with their lives and wills, they begin to grow in the direction of the “image of God”, which i understand to be Christ.

Not that they are getting “perfect” but rather that they are growing, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, in the characteristics of Jesus, even if they don’t consider themselves Christians [they might still consider themselves “spiritual, not religious”, which is fine – no religion required in this approach.]

There are hundreds of thousands of such people who could not find permanent relief from addiction, in medicine, in standard religion or in psychiatry / psychology. But they did find an answer to their suffering in the Fellowships.

And as they become gradually more truthful, responsible, humbler, kinder, compassionate, self-sacrificing, etc, they are, in my opinion “empirical evidence” for God having an Image, in which He creates and / or re-creates anyone willing to increasingly trust Him instead of their own self-centered wills and desires.

Naturally this won’t convince many devoted atheistic intellectuals, such as i once was, but i can testify that the (living) principles of those 12 Steps of recovery led me into an experience of the existence of God and “His Image” in myself and others.

But then, i might be a bit biased… :wink:

4 Likes

@Lizibeth Thank you for your response. I finished the course last week, so I am not concerned about anything course-wise. I felt that my professor was very fair. He was very careful to remain neutral throughout the class. He did emphasize rationality, but I think that he did it in order to challenge us to test its limits. He typically asked us to read two key writings, decide which one was more rational, and defend our positions in class discussions. I felt very free to state just what you did about the limits of human rationality and its a priori foundations, even using scripture at times in order to clarify what I believe. I particularly noted that the ethical models differ, but share common threads that can be teased out to find a possible Higher Morality.

I am pursuing the question about empirical evidence for the image of God on my own because this is a big issue and I felt unprepared philosophically to defend my belief that God’s image forms the foundation of personhood and human equality. I got people to understand conceptually why I believe in it from a theological perspective–“Oh, I see! You believe in Natural Law!”–but I could not pique their curiosity about investigating the plausibility of the concept. I, therefore, am trying to find concrete handles for curious skeptics to grasp and investigate.

You have given me some good food for thought. I appreciate it very much!

3 Likes

@Jesse_Means_God_Exists Thank you for your post. You have given me some interesting points: DNA, adaptability, and language. I had not considered these before, and I think that you are onto something. Can you give me a source for your information about human versus chimpanzee DNA variance?

1 Like

Yes, a molecular biologist who was an atheist and then became a Christian named Sy Garte. I believe it’s in a video on his YouTube channel. It’s in the series on DNA. It’s worth watching all the videos just for something to chew on.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQXuI1EBHajDPH8YJvePZYA

1 Like

@anthony.costello Thank you for your insight. I listened to Dr. William Lane Craig talk about the ontological versus teleological views of the image of God on another podcast the other day. He was speaking in reference to Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass’s view of the original Adam. I tend toward the ontological view myself, but am open to investigating the matter.

1 Like

@Jesse_Means_God_Exists Thank you!

@Lakshmismehta If I understand you correctly, your point is that the “God-shaped void” inside of us shows itself in how we respond to spiritual truth. This would be a useful evidence I think, if I can cite specific instances where these things happen. I have heard accounts of Moslems being persuaded by dreams, for example. I probably should not be afraid to use things in my own life as evidence. Your point about wisdom is also useful. Thank you!

1 Like

No problem.

I might also interest you in this as I have put a lot of time into this theory (still developing). Feel free to keep reading this thread as it gets into a discussion about what I believe although not being dogmatic about it:

2 Likes

@blbossard, yes, the God shaped void is the point. What is interesting is that both the profoundly intelligent and learned as well as the illiterate can both respond with the same awe and wonder when God speaks to a person’s heart. This image of God is beyond just rational understanding. In terms of examples, Lee Strobel has a book on Case for grace with several such examples. I once posted a testimony (from Khmer Rouge to Christ) from his book on another Connect thread called wearing a cross. Here’s the same link again. Ravi Zacharias testimony of coming to Christ also has the element of hearing the words from scripture out of context in a personal manner.

1 Like

That is a very good question @blbossard - thank you for asking it.

It sounds like what you’re asking is whether humans are demonstrably supernatural beings. I would answer with an emphatic, “Yes” – humans are supernatural, and that’s very demonstrable.

While our bodies are from the dust of this world, our souls were breathed into us by God Himself. This gives us natural bodies that can interact with this natural world, and supernatural souls that can interact with God.

The empirical evidence begins with the human awareness and longing for a spiritual dimension. Animals do not give any evidence of possessing this. But throughout the centuries and around the world, mankind in every culture has been fascinated, even preoccupied, with all things supernatural.

Men have longed for powers of foresight, control over the elements of nature, to travel through time, communicate with the Beyond, to pass unseen through the world, possess deep wisdom, to fly, to live forever – in short, to be supernatural. But the irony is that this very longing is supernatural. It reflects that God has placed eternity in the hearts of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

And every man, even the most hardened atheist, has moments in his life when he gazes at the wonders of creation, and some niggling little whispers in the wells of his soul begin disturbing his confidence in his own skepticism.

What he feels is eternity calling, and something inside him longs to answer.

I would say this was demonstrated very dramatically by Finland’s God-fearing atheists:

C. S. Lewis famously put it this way: “The fact that our heart yearns for something earth cannot supply is proof that heaven must be our home.”

Belief in God cannot be dismissed as a product of social conditioning. It is hard-wired into the human race, and no dictatorship, however oppressive for however long will ever be able to scrub it from the human race – as the 70-year failure of Soviet dictators has also demonstrated:

The empirical evidence continues with human creativity. Genesis says that God created the universe, and only man reflects God’s creative nature. While we may look at spider webs or beaver dams and think, “What creative little animals they are!” – it really isn’t true. And by the time you’ve seen the hundredth beaver dam you begin to realize this.

But museums the world over put mankind’s creativity throughout the ages on display for us all to admire.

And Genesis also says that God pronounced it very good. You could take that in either a moral sense or an aesthetic sense – and either way, you see this recognition of goodness uniquely reflected in our race.

We have a moral conscience that informs us about good and evil in a way that is remarkably common throughout every time and place.

And mankind appreciates beauty in a way that is unique among the creatures of this world.

The empirical evidence also includes our free will – a gift that some people who consider themselves enlightened deny that we have. I would say that they do this precisely because they see the theistic ramifications of it. But those who have not been “educated into a state of complete imbecility” consider our free will to be quite obvious. It is, in fact, the basis upon which God holds men accountable for how they choose to behave.

And, finally, there is our ability to reason, as we are doing in this very discussion. God gave us this unique capacity so that we could reason together with Him.

I hopes these thoughts are the kind of things you were looking for, and that they are a help to you.

5 Likes

@lakshmismehta, I have enjoyed very much your comments, and your list of points. and like them very much.

I have also read the others, and find it fascinating, the attachment to the common references in the Bible.

After I had reflected in the contents of few Bible translations, (including the JWS) one day, I met the text of Romans 1:19-20.

This was a an overwhelming experience in me, that made me realize, that God Himself has provided, the today’s empirical revelation abut himself by the things He created.

Because with the use of so immense number of tools developed by the human rationality, we are able today, to even observe the smallest possible physical molecules, that added to the notion of God’s eternal wisdom, make me wander, How, ( I will ask this question to Him later) he had to form the very first proton and neutron, to form perhaps the first hydrogen atom, and later populate the earth in our case, with so many things, for the benefit of the human being, he finally formed.

All this made me think, that His spirit is the dynamics that moves everything in the universe.

To me that empirical evidence of his eternal being, was what convicted me. and draw what I have became and understand that, we as human beings, should return in acknowledgement, wander and gratitude to HIM, because everything crated is good and beneficial for the human beings.

I need to hear more from you all and keep enjoying them.

Bendicones

3 Likes

@jlyons Yes, these thoughts are what I am looking for. I will be processing them along with the readings over the next few days. Thank you very much!

1 Like

Hi Brendon! I have a story I like to use:
If you go for a walk up a hillside early one morning, the sun is coming up, there’s mist in the valley and the clouds are colorful, you would stop and admire it. A deer nearby would have exactly the same data hitting their senses, but absolutely no interest, no ability, no sense of any kind that there is something beautiful. No other species but humans cares about beauty, art, cuisine, architecture, music, culture. No other species appears to care about origins, meaning, morality, and destiny.

In addition, every other species adapts to the environment or perishes, we adapt the environment to ourselves.

CS Lewis stated, “How could an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are so much stronger, better, subtler than itself?”

I’ll post more if I think of them.

Hope these help!

Marty

3 Likes

Thanks @Genarito1. Appreciate you sharing your testimony. When I have looked at Rom 1:19-20, I have usually thought of the beauty of God’s creation in nature like you did. Now, when I hear your testimony in the context of this thread, I think it includes the work of God in the hearts of men as well! God bless you.

1 Like