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I saw this essay from TIME Magazine pop up on Twitter today: “Dabbling in Exotheology.” The date of the essay was 1978 (unless that’s a typo). The essay opens with this question: “Can the “image of God” survive in extraterrestrial life?”  An understandable one, but an ignorant one, nonetheless. Anyone who has followed my work knows I’ve lectured on this many times. The answer is “yes” (if what is meant is the survival of the doctrine). It’s “no” if what is meant that ET also has this image.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not saying TIME is guilty of theological ignorance. The question really is to be expected. The ignorance is to be found among the many millions of Christians and Jews who would be spooked about the confirmation of ET life because they have fundamentally misunderstood the image of God as some sort of (heretofore) human attribute, like intelligence, sentience, speech, etc. This is the way the image gets talked about all the time, but that notion is not at all coherent.

I won’t take the time or space to rehearse the content of my lectures here. The best I can do is the twelve-page essay on the image of God that I recently wrote for a study Bible published by my employer, Logos Bible Software (the article was for the Lexham Bible Dictionary, also our product, but accessible through the study Bible). Look for the section on the meaning of the image. I could have devoted twelve more pages as to why the “traditional” (attribute-based) view undermines a pro-life ethic and fails because of research in fields like artificial intelligence and animal cognition (and the theoretical study of intelligent ET life), but this will have to do. People who have a high view of Scripture and its teaching about how humans are God’s imagers (to know why I use the verbal phrasing, read my essay), an intelligent ET ought not to be any theological threat. And yet it would be, due to theological ignorance.

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16 Responses to “TIME Magazine and (Exo)Theological Ignorance”

  • Doug says:

    This is such good stuff! Thanks so much!

    I have applied this teaching (Divine Imager) to my church’s youth group and how it relates to our mission, as modeled to us perfectly by Jesus. So many of the teens I work with have serious identity issues… and is it any wonder? It was the first lie the nachash used and it worked spectacularly… God said he wanted to make humans in his likeness, and later the serpent told Eve to be like Him, she should eat the fruit. Her reply should have been, “But we ARE like God. Look! I’m doing the stuff God would do!” and then went to talk to God about what on earth, or I should say, on Eden the nachash was talking about.

    I mention “Diviner Imager” language almost every week to the students, and will be using that language again at a large youth conference in Feb. Keep spreading the word. It’s seeping into the Body! Once we understand our identity, then our behavior flows from that! Everything changes.

  • MSH says:

    Thanks — and your reply is timely. I’ve been thinking a lot about Gnosticism lately (part of the sequel to The Facade); your reply succinctly rebuts the Gnostic lie that casts the serpent/nachash as some sort of hero. Captures it nicely. It’s hard to do that in novel dialogue!

  • Cris Putnam says:

    It was my my tweet :) and yes I am handling this in the book project I am working on and I quote your view. However, while think you are correct, rather than “either or” its “both and” so I ended up going with Wayne Grudem’s take, “The fact that man is in the image of God means that man is like God and represents God.” Recalling that the text reads, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26a), Grudem argues that to the original readers it meant simply, “Let us make man to be like us and to represent us.” Accordingly, rather than maintain that it is exclusively functional, it seems there is room for the likeness aspect to encompass much of what has been classically held true as well.

  • MSH says:

    This is why systematic theologians shouldn’t do OT!

  • Cris Putnam says:

    Is that an argument? How is he wrong exactly? “after our likeness” (demurth) is certainly part of the text that the functional interpretation seems to miss.

  • MSH says:

    God doesn’t have a body or embodiment, so the image isn’t about physical appearance (and that notion certainly doesn’t account for the plural). The physicality of the image as a means of identifying (with the human senses) the presence of God (as though the authority power/figure was present) is part of imaging. Grudem’s language would be useful for Mormonism.

    The functional/representative view does not say that attributes or presence are not part of the image; it relegates those things under the idea of status/representation.

  • Cris Putnam says:

    I didn’t get the impression that Grudem meant anything physical. He says it means we “represent God and are like God.” To me “like God” does not imply physical attributes but it *could* entail things like moral sensibility or the ability to reason – attributes that as far as we know are unique to humans.

    He seems to largely agree with you but your view does not seem to adequately account for how was are like God. He makes similar points to you, from Grudem:

    Because “image” and “likeness” had these meanings, Scripture does not need to say something like,

    The fact that man is in the image of God means that man is like God in the following ways: intellectual ability, moral purity, spiritual nature, dominion over the earth, creativity, ability to make ethical choices, and immortality [or some similar statement].

    Such an explanation is unnecessary, not only because the terms had clear meanings, but also because no such list could do justice to the subject: the text only needs to affirm that man is like God and the rest of Scripture fills in more details to explain this. In fact, as we read the rest of Scripture, we realize that a full understanding of man’s likeness to God would require a full understanding of who God is in his being and in his actions and a full understanding of who man is and what he does. The more we know about God and man the more similarities we will recognize, and the more fully we will understand what Scripture means when it says that man is in the image of God. The expression refers to every way in which man is like God.

    Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 443.

  • MSH says:

    We are like God in all sorts of ways; there is no one “like thing” — and those ways must also include the others who image him. The image cannot BE an attribute, else not all humanity is an imager. It is a status of stewardship rule and responsibility (which God is the ultimate expression). Our attributes are tools by which we image him (carry out that rule and responsibility), but they are not the image. I don’t think Grudem has made the necessary qualifications.

  • Cris Putnam says:

    So on your view is it accurate to say the image is something humans “are” rather than something they do? I think it is important that it is the former. Some articulations of the functional view seem like it is something humans do which seems perilous. Ok now another can of worms… does location matter?

    I suppose it could parsed as “Humans are image bearers” meaning we are God’s material representatives, now the way I recall you phrasing it you include “on the earth.” So we function as God’s image on earth. Yet,is this necessarily limited to the earth? What if we go to Mars? or further? Would we cease to be image bearers in another galaxy?

  • MSH says:

    yes; I hold the former; it’s a status, which is related of course to a “job” to do, which is enabled by attributes. The order of those thoughts is important; evangelicalism mostly begins with the last one, which is really poor thinking and leads me to wonder why anyone who thinks that way embraces a pro-life apologetic, for example. I don’t think they really think about the implications.

    I try to articulate this way: We are God’s imagers (verb, not noun).

    Imaging is bound to sphere-authority (remember, the plurality needs to fit any understanding of the image idea). For humans, this is tied to earth via the dominion mandate. Outside earth in the spiritual realm, other divine beings image God (they have a status assigned by their creator). In theory, the same could be said of an ET (they would have the same creator), though the Bible doesn’t specifically say anything about that; it’s an extrapolation. But since the image isn’t a specific attribute, the idea that an intelligent ET overturns the biblical idea of the image is deeply flawed.

  • Doug says:

    I know you’re not asking me and I’m not a theologian. My thinking is this: being In God’s Image is who we are, and therefore it’s what we’re supposed to do, even if we don’t do it. It doesn’t change what we are.

    For instance, consider this crude example: my daughter once came home with an F in math. I told her, “Overmyers don’t get F’s in math. Ever. Overmyers get A’s or B’s.” But she did get the F. She didn’t understand her identity as an Overmyer, probably because I had not explained it to her. She accepted an identity of someone where getting an F in math was acceptable and acted out that identity, but she acted out on a false sense of self. Once she accepted her identity, she INSTANTLY performed at an A level. It was actually kind of interesting to see that transpire.

    Humans are Divine Imagers. Period. Hitler was a divine imager. He didn’t know it; he understand it; he didn’t act like it. He accepted the deception, that to be like God he had to do something. Humans failed to live up to their identity because they didn’t understand who God was and is, until Jesus came to illustrate it for us (among other things). Even with the Holy Spirit, many Christians don’t understand their idenity as Image Bearers. It’s what we DO because of who we ARE.

    As for the question on Mars, etc, I doubt if the Hebrews had this concept of the universe in mind, but perhaps they understood Earth to be our present physical dimension, which includes the earth, and all planets in the universe; and they understood Heaven to be another dimension, where God lived. This physical dimension is where we live, whether here or on Mars or wherever. While that may be possible, it was probably beyond their conception of the universe, and so God’s revelation only extended to the earth as they understood it. As divine imagers, we should image Him wherever we – or our ancestors go, and since it’s a big, chaotic universe, why not bring order to the far reaches of the universe?

  • Cris Putnam says:

    I agree with what you have said. Faced with a genuine ETI the functional view preserves human exceptionalism where views based on attributes do not. The reason I found Grudem appealing is that he says nearly the same thing but adds that we are “like God” in some fashion which is in the text as well. Maybe I am trying to have my cake and eat it too, but it seemed more charitable to classic formulations while making the important distinctions that you make.

  • MSH says:

    that’s not a bad encapsulation of the image idea.

  • MSH says:

    I wouldn’t say we aren’t like God or are unlike God (and neither would the view of the image I’m defending).

  • Cris Putnam says:

    Funny this just popped while I am watching your talk at the God, Man & ET conference again… I was just thinking that perhaps ambassadorship is also analogous to being an imager: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”(2 Co 5:20)

  • MSH says:

    that’s not a bad word/analogy.

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