The Image of God, Religion, and the Meaning of Life: Toward a Christian Philosophical Anthropology

October 14, 2011


This paper notes the challenge of scientific naturalism to religion and Christianity and briefly denies that naturalism is supported by science.  It then outlines an alternative perspective in two stages.  The first is an account of the biblical doctrine of the image of God as the essence and meaning of human life.  Based on the first, the second stage outlines a Christian philosophical anthropology that challenges scientific naturalism by articulating the essentially religious nature of human life.

A: The Challenge of Scientific Naturalism

The theme of Oxbridge 2008–the image of God, the self, and the search for meaning–is a profound engagement of the perennial philosophy–the universal human quest for wisdom—by the specific claims of Jesus Christ, who is “the very image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and “the wisdom of God” (I Cor.1:24).  The wisdom of Socrates urges us to know ourselves, but Jesus teaches us that we cannot find ourselves without following him (Mt. 16:24ff).

The human search for wisdom is universal, but its results are strikingly diverse.  Dissonant voices in the public square preach competing versions of wisdom apart from Christ.  Traditional religions flourish and new spiritualities proliferate.  Humanist philosophies, political ideologies, and hedonistic life-styles promise happiness and fulfillment.   While billions are persuaded by one or another claim to wisdom, cynics continue to sneer and seekers still search.

In the midst of this spiritual cacophony, Oxbridge 2008 addresses a particularly strident voice—contemporary scientific naturalism.  Naturalism’s most popular preachers, the so-called New Atheists, rant against religion in general and Christianity in particular, alleging that they are not merely irrational and irrelevant but harmful to human flourishing.  Other naturalists are more subtle, allowing that religion has been a useful adaptation in human evolution, at least until recently.  Either way, naturalism tries to explain religion without God, meaning without genuine purpose, perversity without evil, and hope without transcendence.

But none of this is new.  Naturalists since the Greeks have challenged religion in the name of reason and science.  Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and their ilk are the current generation of the modern family of naturalists–heirs of the 18th-century French materialists, Feuerbach, Comte, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, and Russell.  Science-based atheism is nothing new.

The current generation appeals to new evidence, however–developments in genetics, neuroscience, and cybernetics.  Their claim seems to be that if robots can be programmed to pray, or religion can be explained by genetics, or if spiritual experience can be located in the brain, then the religious impulse can be explained in physical-biological terms without God, the soul, or the supernatural.

B: Response to Scientific Naturalism

The counter-challenge to scientific naturalism is not mounted by Christians alone.  Generations of thinkers from many perspectives have argued that science neither establishes nor favors naturalism’s atheism, materialistic anthropology, or reductive view of religion.  I merely summarize the well-known critique.  With respect to God, science cannot justify atheistic naturalism because naturalism is a worldview whose basic claims cannot be empirically tested and are not entailed by established facts.  Furthermore, naturalism seems insufficient to explain the origin and nature of the world as we know it.  In fact the current scientific world-picture provides a basis for forceful theistic arguments.  With respect to human nature, developments in computing, genetics, and neuroscience do not corroborate physicalism, which is likewise not an empirical but a metaphysical thesis.  In fact the results of these sciences are consistent with an array of philosophies of mind, including substance dualism and spiritual monism.  In sum, a broad coalition of philosophers have concluded that current science does not vindicate naturalism or any other position inconsistent with the existence of God or the Christian faith.  Some critics even charge that naturalism’s evolutionistic epistemology undercuts it because, according to its own account, knowledge of truth is not a capacity for which evolution has selected.

Furthermore, scientifically-informed scholars of diverse religious and philosophical persuasions have developed cogent and comprehensive views of religion and anthropology that point to the reality of God, the Transcendent, the Absolute, or the Infinite as a necessary ground.  I mention, for example, William James, Rudolf Otto, A. N. Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, Charles Hartshorne, Paul Tillich, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, John Hick, Cantwell Smith, and Mircea Eliade.  One need not be a Christian to hold a positive, non-reductive view of religion and to regard the quest for meaning as an authentic human response to transcendent reality.  But many Christians have contributed to and benefited from this broad coalition against naturalism.

In this paper I consider religion and the human search for meaning from a distinctly Christian perspective–the biblical doctrine of the image of God and, based on it, a philosophical anthropology and philosophy of religion that challenge scientific naturalism.


A. Introduction: A Comprehensive Summary of the Biblical Doctrine

Although the image and likeness of God are mentioned in only a few texts, their definitive importance for human nature—ours and Christ’s—is clearly taught in Scripture.  The references are strategically located in the biblical narrative and rich with doctrinal implications.

Some definitions of the image that have been offered by commentators and theologians are more limited than the biblical view.  Some relate the image to God but not to creation; or locate it in the soul but not the body; or identify it with a specific human capacity, such as reason, will, love, language, creativity, or community; or insist that it is relational and functional but not ontological; or equate it with spiritual virtues, such as love, righteousness, and holiness, but not with the human capacities for those virtues.  In contrast to these definitions, the biblical doctrine is broad–including all these aspects of human nature and more.

My account is based on the key texts located in the narrative of the biblical worldview–the creation, fall, redemption, and fulfillment of God’s earthly Kingdom.

B. Creation: the Image Relates us to God, Other Humans, and Nature

Humanity as the image of God is a central teaching of Genesis 1 and thus foundational to the rest of Scripture.  The divine image includes all of human life and has several dimensions:  It relates us to God, to other humans, and to the non-human world.  Nothing human is beyond its scope.  Thus it constitutes the generic meaning of life.  We consider each dimension in turn.

Most basically, humanity is defined in relation to God as his image and likeness.  Genesis 1 responds to the cosmic theocracies of the ancient near-eastern religions.  It proclaims that the God of Israel is the Divine King whose spirit and word created and ordered the universe, all creatures, and the whole human race.  God made humans not as slaves but as royal vassals in a covenantal relationship to flourish and serve him by ruling his earthly kingdom.

Thus Genesis 1 defines humanity as the image and likeness of God.  Being related to God constitutes and grounds the nature, place, purposes, and responsibilities of human life.  It denotes our status, vocation, activity, and goal.  Imaging God means that humans are like God both in having ability and responsibility for stewardship of the world and for reflecting the excellences of his rule—wisdom, justice, righteousness, and holiness—in the exercise of that stewardship.  Thus we are inescapably responsible to God for our lives whether we love, hate, ignore, flee, or search for him.  The image of God is the seed of religion and of the need for meaning that sprouts in all humans.

Being God’s image also relates us to other humans.  In Genesis 1 adam is not the proper name of an individual but the generic term for humankind.  The image is communal.  The human race was created male and female and blessed to procreate so that the image of God might increase and fill the earth.  Although God is not gendered or reproductive, the human genders together reflect and multiply his image.  The whole human community–not just the aggregate of individuals–bears the image of God.  Because all humanity images God, sexism, tribalism, and racism are precluded.  In addition, all the forms of human community implicit in creation—marriage, family, friendship, many kinds of organizations, societies, tribes, and nations—are facets of the image and intended to reflect the divine virtues of love, justice, and holiness.  By implication, the scope of the image in Scripture includes all of human society.

The third dimension of the image is our relation to the world or nature.  The Great King made us royal stewards, gave us a home, and blessed us with responsibility to rule the earth on his behalf (not to exploit it).  This covenantal mandate implicitly authorizes the development of means of subsistence, as well as culture and civilization in all their diverse aspects, in service and obedience to the Creator.  Food preparation, clothing, dwellings, learning, technology, music, the arts, and many other aspects of culture are ways of obeying the divine mandate that relates us to the earth and non-human creatures.

Embodiment is a corollary.  Although Genesis 1 does not speak about human composition—soul, spirit, and dust of the earth–as does Genesis 2, it clearly presents humans as earthly creatures like the animals, not as spiritual beings artificially imposed upon the earth.  To be sure, we cannot image God without the mental-spiritual abilities that animals lack–intellect, will, creativity, language, morality, religion, and so forth.  But neither can we do so without being bodily creatures of the earth.

In sum, Genesis 1 defines humans as the image of God, which includes meaningful and responsible relationships with God, the human community, and nature.

C. The Fall into Sin: Refusal, Loss, and the Residual Image of God

Genesis 3 narrates our first parents’ original sin.  They disobeyed God and sought to become like him, determining good and evil for themselves.  In the religious context of Genesis 1 and 2, this is an act of rebellion and insurrection against the Great King.  The just consequences are alienation from God, banishment from Paradise, and loss of ability to image God rightly in any part of life.  In sum, sin resulted in spiritual and physical death.

The question immediately arises whether fallen humans still bear the divine image.  Following Scripture, most church traditions and theologians affirm that fallen humans image God in a limited way.  They distinguish between the image as created and the image diminished by sin.  Let’s call them the integral image and the residual image.  The integral image is our natural capacities for imaging God and their virtuous exercise—likeness to God that Paul calls “true righteousness and holiness” (Eph.4:24).  The residual image is the impaired capacities with their potential for regeneration.

The residual image of God is the universal human essence.  All normally-developed  humans have the needs, capacities, and responsibilities for relationship with God, other humans, and nature even though we lack the desire, will, and ability to exercise them as intended by God.  We still trust and seek to serve something in place of God that promises us a good life in a peaceable kingdom.  We remain social beings and exercise dominion over creation.  But on our own, we cannot discover the meaning of life, much less achieve true love, justice, and holiness.

D. Salvation: Jesus Christ, the Perfect Image of God, Restores the Image in Us

One profoundly biblical way of understanding salvation is that God restores his fallen image-bearers by means of the perfect image of God, Jesus Christ.  For our salvation the Wisdom and Word of God became flesh and assumed our human nature, which images God.  Paul explicitly teaches that Jesus Christ “is the very image of the invisible God” through whom God reconciled all things in heaven and on earth to himself through his blood, shed on the cross (Col. 1:15-20; also 2 Cor.4:4).  Thus the true and perfect image of God is the means of salvation for humans and the whole creation.

What’s more, salvation involves renewal of our likeness to God.  Paul explicitly links salvation with restoration of the image in Ephesians 4:24 where he urges us “to put on the new nature, created in the likeness of God—true righteousness and holiness.”  Joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit, we—the image of God in us–are “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17).  We are regenerated, reformed, and re-enabled to function as designed so that true virtue, joy, and fulfillment can be realized.  During this life we struggle against the lingering effects of our sinful nature.  The renewed image fully blossoms only in the life to come.  Meanwhile, the Spirit empowers us to become more like God in love, wisdom, righteousness, justice, and holiness in relation to him and all our earthly endeavors.

E. The Everlasting Image: Only God?

If the image is truly the essence of humanity, then we cannot lack it in eternity.  But how will we forever image God?  Theologians have proposed different ideas.  The majority position of the Christian tradition has been the beatific vision of God.  According to this doctrine, the whole community of the blessed–resurrected and situated on the new earth—will be focused entirely and exclusively on God alone, eternally full of wonder, praise, and joy.  After all, what more could any creature desire than the infinite God, the overflowing source of all good?  This is the view of Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and many traditional Protestant theologians.

Another vision of the Kingdom is analogous to a blessed life in this world.  It affirms our central focus on God but also includes active relationships with the new earth, the human community, and even with purified remnants of this world.  Although marriage and procreation will be no more, an active, embodied life with God’s people in the new earth will progress endlessly and flawlessly from glory to glory.  All of God’s original gifts to humans will be redeemed, restored, enriched, and fulfilled but never exhausted.  This is the vision of Jonathan Edwards and C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle.

The doctrine of progressive glorification seems more correct because it reflects the fullness of the image of God and because Scripture speaks of more than ceaseless worship in the Kingdom of God.  It envisions fellowship at the Supper of the Lamb, reigning with Christ, ruling cities, and marveling at the treasures of the nations in the New Jerusalem.


A. A Call for Christian Philosophical Anthropology

If the image of God defines human life and its meaning comprehensively, as I have suggested, then it provides a framework for a Christian philosophical anthropology.  Philosophical anthropology is a comprehensive conception of human existence that locates and relates all its parts, dimensions, aspects, capacities, and dynamics in terms of a basic definition of the whole, such as rational animal, symbolic animal, rational-moral agent, or embodied person.  German philosophers since Kant and Hegel have developed philosophical anthropology as a distinct discipline.  But Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Marx, Freud, and many others, including scientific naturalists, have outlined philosophical anthropologies.  Books and articles pour from the presses claiming to explain human sexuality, personality, rationality, language, society, culture, morality, and religion entirely in terms of evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, and/or cybernetics.

Philosophical anthropology should be an important part of the Christian response to scientific naturalism.  Analytic philosophers, understandably wary of tendentious system-building, are inclined to focus on specific issues, such as the body-mind relation, the will and action, and grounds for belief.  These contributions are important.  But I encourage us to engage in the larger project as well—putting these pieces together into a general philosophy of human nature that is shaped by biblical teaching.  Christian philosophers can construct our own theories, and/or we can help theologians refine theirs, just as we do in philosophical theology (i.e. concepts of God).  I have benefitted especially from the anthropologies of John Paul II, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Herman Dooyeweerd, a Dutch Reformed philosopher, as well as Teilhard, Tillich, Rahner, Kung, Macquarrie, and Moltmann.

The rest of this essay outlines a philosophical anthropology based on the image of God.  The first part argues that humans are essentially religious–homo religious–and that scientific naturalism itself is a religion.  The second part sketches an overview of this anthropology, which understands humans as multi-facetted, fundamentally religious beings, and it presents theses on specific issues such as the ontology of the image, the body-soul relation, and the will.

B. The Image of God, Homo Religiosus, and the Religion of Scientific Naturalism

In the debate about human nature, virtually no one denies that humans have an impulse to search for meaning, to ponder the perennial worldview questions, and to wonder about the supernatural.  Even naturalistic atheists such as Russell, Sartre, and Dawkins concede the fact as they lament it.  What we debate are diverse explanations of this impulse, basically whether religion is a natural, essential, positive, significant response to transcendent reality, or it is merely an anxious, pointless, and unnecessary gesture toward the supernatural void.

Christians understand religion and the universal search for meaning as expressing the residual image of God.  The residual image, you recall, implies that all people are unavoidably related to God, to other humans, and to nature as we seek to flourish and live fulfilling lives.  But without divine help, we are unable to understand or to bring about what it takes to flourish and find enduring satisfaction.  In the debate with naturalists, we must make a philosophical case for these dynamics of the residual image.

The residual image of God implies that religion is natural and realistic.  This implication involves two correlative claims—that God exists, and that all normal humans have the capacity for awareness of his existence.

With respect to the existence of God, I concede that there are no compelling proofs.  But critical thinkers with various attitudes toward religion have offered a variety of arguments for God’s existence and nature that many intelligent people find persuasive, if not compelling.  Some philosophers have added that it is reasonable to believe in God even without compelling evidence if that belief is authentic, existentially important, and not rationally defeated.  In addition, denying the existence of God makes it difficult to find an ultimate explanation for the existence of the universe, the moral order, agapic love, and the absolute value of human personhood.  Whichever claim is true, theism has more ultimate explanatory power than atheism.  All things considered, it certainly seems as reasonable to affirm the existence of God as to deny it.  Naturalistic atheism cannot claim to occupy the intellectual high ground.  Philosophically, we are rationally entitled to affirm one proposition in the claim that all humans image God residually–God exists—even if we cannot prove it.

The second element of the image is that all humans have a capacity for awareness of God even if they are not intentionally religious.  It defines human nature as homo religiosus.  Scholars have presented substantive phenomenological and philosophical arguments that the religious impulse is a deep, irreducible, life-shaping aspect of human nature that senses and responds to the supernatural.[1]  Schleiermacher developed Calvin’s idea of a sensus divinitatis (awareness of divinity) as the intuition of our dependence on an absolute.  Hegel likewise argued for implicit awareness of the Absolute that is immanent in human activity in nature and history.  William James explicated a preconscious sense of our participation in the life-giving power of the universe.  Rudolf Otto pointed to an experiential capacity for encountering the holy.  Pannenberg argued for a universal intuition of infinity that bears quasi-personal characteristics. All of these theories appeal broadly to human experience and argue for implicit human awareness of a reality in and beyond the physical universe that is deeply significant for human existence.

These exercises in phenomenology of religion are not proofs that it is natural and essential, but they are substantial and forceful.  They certainly demonstrate that the reductive theories of religion presented by atheistic naturalists do not hold the intellectual high ground and are not the rational default position.  These realistic accounts of religion challenge naturalistic allegations that religion is an accidental evolutionary acquisition, a desperate psychological projection, an immature cultural practice, or a pernicious power-grab.  In fact on close analysis, religion is not reducible to or wholly explicable in terms of physical, biological, social, and/or cultural functions.[2]

A third implication of the residual image of God is that the religious impulse expresses a common basic need that we humans cannot satisfy ourselves.  According to Christian doctrine, if humans reject God, ignore him, or confuse him with something else, a “God-shaped void” is generated, as Pascal and Lewis observed, which is filled by something other than God.  Philosophically, let’s call this potentially unsatisfied basic need the existential void.  It motivates all human questing for grounding, order, meaning, goodness, and hope.  I define the religious impulse philosophically as the desire to satisfy the existential void.  A religious commitment is a human’s trusting something to fill his/her existential void.  A religious object—god or idol—is whatever a person trusts to provide a sense of grounding, order, meaning, goodness, and hope.  By this definition, religion does not necessarily involve spiritual ritual, belief in the supernatural, or hope for an afterlife.  Whether we fill the existential void with spirits, gods, one God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the powers of nature, the powers of humanity, or we are full of ourselves–all of us, like Augustine, seek rest for our restless hearts.  Perhaps some of us remain existentially unsatisfied and spend our lives searching.  In any case, all humans are religious according to this definition, whatever our basic beliefs, values, and commitments.  Secular humanism, scientific naturalism, and individual hedonism are just as religious as Christianity, Islam, and Wicca.

Religion is a matter of fundamental faith.  All humans live by faith simply because no one can fill the void beyond possible doubt, even if they feel certain.  We can no more prove that the Cosmos is all there is than that the God of the Bible is nearer than hands or feet.  We can appeal to religious experience, long-standing tradition, majority consensus, common sense, scientific research, and philosophical reflection, but no combination of these sources can provide objective certainty.  We all live by faith.

Finally, religion shapes the lives of all humans.  The residual image implies that humans strive to subsist, to participate in society and culture, and to understand themselves in terms of whatever fills their existential void.  Philosophically stated, humans live in terms of worldviews that they trust are true.  A worldview is a general notion of the nature and best practice of human life in relation to other things that bear on it, including the natural world, some standard of a good life, and possibly the supernatural and an afterlife.   Worldviews rest on and are shaped by beliefs about what people ultimately trust to support and promote human existence—whether supernatural, natural, or human.  There are supernatural and/or theistic worldviews, naturalistic worldviews, and humanistic worldviews of astonishing variety.  Because worldviews cannot be verified any more than religious commitments can, both are matters of faith that fill the void.  All humans live and order their lives by faith in something that we trust to ground and promote our flourishing.  A religion is a faith-based, understanding of life that is seriously practiced.

When we apply this perspective to scientific naturalism, its religious character is clear.  Scientific naturalists have faith that science is the only reliable way to find out who we are, where we are headed, how best to get on, and how to cope with what impedes the journey.  Science is their authoritative revelation.  With respect to the ultimate ground of existence, scientific naturalists trust an evolving universe and the capacities with which it has endowed humans, and they offer a program for living on that basis.

At bottom, the attack of the New Atheists against religion and Christianity is not the voice of reason against irrational faith.  It is a spiritual battle–the preachers of one religion challenging other religions with the goal of proselytizing those whose faith they can shake.  When their rhetoric is irrational, heated, slanderous, and derisive, they look like religious fundamentalists on a crusade against those whom they regard as benighted and dangerous infidels.  Christians ought not to respond in kind but with the truth in love.  Our reply should be rational even if it is not rationally compelling.  By God’s grace it might become existentially compelling for some scientific naturalists.

In this section we have illustrated how the doctrine of the image of God provides a definition of human nature for a Christian anthropology—homo religiosus, a philosophy of religion, and an apologetics, all of which can meet the challenge of scientific naturalism.

C. Theses about an Anthropology that Articulates the Image of God

1. The Image is Ontological

If Scripture implicitly defines humans as the image of God, then the image is essential and ontological, not merely accidental, functional, or relational.  Although the Bible does not teach a particular philosophy, I find it most helpful to consider the divine image as the human essence in an Aristotelian-Thomistic sense.[3]  The image is substantial, relational, functional, and teleological. It defines who we are; structures our physical-intellectual-spiritual existence accordingly; relates us unavoidably to God, other humans, and the world; empowers us with all the capacities to do what we were created to do; and orders those activities toward the goals that God gave us to achieve.  The image of God implies all of these ontological functions.

The image is generic or essential—pertaining to humanity in general.  Individual persons, like snowflakes, instantiate and actualize the essence in countless particular ways, both residually and redemptively.

Like a Thomist form or soul, the image was operative in our first parents, but it also contained great potential to be actualized in history by activities that properly image God.  The potential of the image can only be realized properly by living in love and obedience to God.  Perhaps it is practically infinite—progressing ever upward and onward but never reaching completion, even in God’s everlasting kingdom.

Strictly speaking, it is the residual image of God that is essential–present in all human beings.  The integral image that God created in our first parents has been lost.  If the created image in its integrity were essential, then fallen humans would not exemplify it.  A sick and deformed oak tree is still an oak tree.  If all humans image God, it is the residual image that they have.  This is a metaphysical point, not an existential-religious claim.  It does not imply that goodness and wholeness are incidental to human integrity, flourishing, and fulfillment.

2.  The Image is Comprehensive and Multi-dimensional: Integral Holism

I have argued that the image of God comprehends all dimensions of human existence–spirituality, morality, society, culture, and physical life.  Integral, multi-dimensional holism is the sort of conceptual scheme that best captures this view ontologically.

This integral religious holism provides a framework for a rich account of the parts, aspects, and dynamics of human nature that we know from experience and the special sciences.  Gender and sexuality, personality and character, language and communication, social, economic, and political processes, learning and technology, culture, the arts, and morality—all of these gifts are mutually enabled, mutually conditioned, mutually affective, and mutually oriented toward a focal point beyond human life.  Christian philosophical anthropology seeks to understand the rich complexity of our lives in relation to God.

A holistic anthropology of this sort has several characteristics.  First, each part, aspect, dimension, and functional capacity of human existence has its own irreducible nature, place, and functions within the whole.  Feelings, obligations, and brain events are ontologically distinct.  Second, each part and aspect is directly or indirectly connected to the others so that they are interdependent and mutually influential.  Some parts provide what is necessary for others to function and are in turn affected by their functioning.  For example, prayer and brain activity are complexly interrelated, as are financial markets, confidence, and fear.  Third, the nature of the whole is religious, which means that all the parts are ordered so that relating to God is a natural capacity, need, and activity that directly or indirectly orients and motivates how the parts are supported and operate.  Our brains are designed for basic beliefs and values that shape life, and our brains in turn are affected by how we live out our basic beliefs and values.

This anthropology is not guilty of religious reductionism.  In claiming that all of life is religious, I am not attempting to explain psychology, sociology, and morality reductively as forms of religion the way naturalists might explain them as brain functions or Freudians as sublimated psychological forces.  Reductionistic theories attempt to explain the whole in terms of a part.  My term religious refers to the whole and part in different senses.  Human nature as a whole is religious in that all of life is open toward and oriented by something that is trusted to sustain and guide it.  But religion—relating to one’s existential ground in trust, wonder, thought, praise, devotion, or some other intentional mode–is a specific kind of human activity, distinct from building a house, analyzing data, or digesting food.  The irreducible distinctness of the parts is not compromised by the religious nature of the whole.

3. The Image of God, Integral Holism, and Body, Soul, Person, and Will

An integral Christian view of human nature should frame our philosophical theories of body, soul, mind, person, and will.  This sort of coherent, comprehensive approach enhances the cogency of philosophical accounts of these topics, and it strengthens their apologetical power to encounter such challenges as scientific naturalism.  The following are general suggestions based on my reading of Scripture’s teaching about other aspects of human nature besides the image of God.  However, an integral Christian anthropology does not require the specific positions recommended here.

Body and Soul.[4]  The image of God and the biblical references to soul, spirit, heart, mind, will, body, and flesh imply a non-reductive holistic anthropology more than substance dualism or physicalism.  However, Scripture also teaches that absence from the body is presence with the Lord between death and bodily resurrection, a doctrine which entails the existence of persons without their bodies.  Thus dualistic holism best describes the cumulative biblical picture of the human constitution.[5]  Substance dualism can account for the intermediate state after death, but it must work to affirm the unity of the whole human being.  Substance monism, especially physicalism and materialism, has difficulty accounting for disembodied existence, and also it must overcome the reductivist tendency to explain the whole in terms of its most basic part.[6]  Emergentism affirms the ontological distinctness of persons from bodies and thus can allow for disembodied existence.  But it is basically physicalist because it claims that immaterial persons are generated by material bodies.  Of the major philosophies in the current dialogue, perhaps Thomism fits dualistic holism best.  It views the soul as a substantive form which structures and empowers matter to be one being or substance, a living human person with a variety of different capacities.  The soul subsists consciously after death but is an incomplete human being.

The Person or Self.  Philosophers rightly criticize views of the human self or person as an autonomous individual mind who is contingently related to his/her body, to other persons, and to the world.  Equally inadequate are views which identify the person with the body, with brain functions, or with self-perception.  A person is a self-conscious agent who is necessarily unique and self-identical in spite of changing in many ways over time, perhaps even changing or losing one’s sense of self-identity.  If there is an afterlife, the person remains unique and self-identical.  It is logically and metaphysically impossible that a person become another person or that there be two instances of a person.

The view of the self implied by the image of God is substantial, relational, changeable, and everlastingly self-identical.  Each human person is an embodied responsible agent who is related to God, to other humans, and to nature.  Each person continually changes and develops through these interactions.  But each one is also self-identical throughout this life and the life to come.[7]  An anthropology based on the image of God stands up well in current discussions of human selfhood.

Agency and the Will.  Scripture and common experience teach us both that human agents are determined, influenced, and limited in many ways and also that in most circumstances we are responsible beings with genuine choices among viable alternatives.  Complete determinism and radical libertarianism are theories of the will that seem exaggerated and one-sided.  Determinism also undercuts moral responsibility.[8]  Compatibilism aims to balance determinism and freedom by holding that our choices and acts are wholly determined by factors within and outside us, and yet they are free and responsible if we not compelled by internal factors or coerced by external factors against our will.  However, determinists and libertarians charge that compatibilism is incoherent, trying to have it both ways.

In Christian theology, libertarianism is typically criticized for overestimating human freedom in relation to God’s sovereignty and fallen humans’ ability to avoid sin.  Determinism (and thus compatibilism) is theologically problematic because it undercuts the genuine responsibility of image-bearing and implies that the fall into sin was unavoidable.  In the body-soul debate, physicalism in particular has the challenge of moving beyond compatibilism and account for genuine human choice.

An integral anthropology based on the image of God suggests conditional voluntarism.  As created by God, the will is enabled, delimited, conditioned, and influenced by many factors in many ways.  It is an irreducible part of the whole.  Thus deliberate acts can be uncaused causes.  This view implies that our first parents’ had genuine moral responsibility.  The choice to sin was significantly up to them and avoidable within the order of creation even though it was foreknown, permitted, and enabled by God.  Conditional voluntarism also recognizes that the residual image of God in humans retains the capacity for deliberation and choice even though humans cannot avoid sin or reconcile themselves to God.  It also allows for God to regenerate a person, healing effects of the fall and restoring desire for God, without eliminating or interfering with his/her capacity for genuine deliberation and choice.  Conditional voluntarism comports well with an integral anthropology and with key positions in theology and philosophy.

In sum, the body-soul problem, the nature of persons, and the freedom of the will are specific philosophical topics that can be addressed and benefited by a philosophical anthropology based on the image of God.


Whether it is persuasive on all the details of the project, this essay has argued that the biblical doctrine of the image of God is as comprehensive as human life.  It has outlined what a philosophical anthropology based on the image could look like, how it could handle perennial philosophical questions about human nature, and how it could respond to scientific naturalism.  I hope that Christian philosophers will increase our efforts along these lines.

[1] Current science is exploring possible genetic and brain-functional bases for religious experience and behavior.  Such studies might eventually conclude that there is a biological basis for religion in human nature.  But science could not conclude anything about God as the source or goal of religion. That conclusion is philosophical and religious.

[2] This thesis is defended using studies of religion by geneticists and neuroscientists in Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).

[3] For Aristotle, each thing is co-constituted by a generic form—e.g. oak tree or rational animal—and the matter of which it consists.  The form defines, actualizes, empowers, and guides the entity to be what it is, to have the capacities that it does, and to use those capacities to achieve the ends that are natural for that kind of thing.  The form of the oak tree is in the acorn and empowers it to grow into a mature oak that lives and reproduces itself in kind.  Aquinas combined this ontology with the Platonic-Augustinian view that the paradigmatic forms of all created things exist in the mind of God, who created the world accordingly.  Thus God eternally knows human nature and actualized  its dynamic essence in our first parents and their progeny, including the humanity of Jesus Christ, the Second Adam.  The dynamic essence is the soul that animates matter as a living human image of God.

[4]The current debate of this topic among Christians is represented in In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem, edited by Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer (InterVarsity Press 2005).  Green’s introduction provides an overview of many reasons for the debate and the issues involved.  Steward Goetz presents substance dualism, William Hasker defends emergentism, Nancey Murphy argues for non-reductive physicalism, and Kevin Corcoran promotes material constitutionism.  A significant omission from the book the Thomist position, which is presented in J. P. Moreland and Stuart Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (IVP 2000).

[5] I argue for holistic dualism or dualistic holism in John W. Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Eerdmans 1989; Eerdmans and Apollos, 2000).

[6] Of all participants in the Christian debate, physicalism is closest to scientific naturalism.  In fact most naturalists are reductive or non-reductive physicalists on the mind-body problem.

[7] More precisely, theories that allow for persons to exist without their earthly bodies meet this criterion: The self-identical person endures through this life, the intermediate state, and after the resurrection.  However, theories such as physicalism which identify the person with some part or function of the earthly body or make the person metaphysically dependent on the earthly body, have trouble with personal identity.  If the person is generated by the body, and if there is no substantial continuity between the earthly body and the resurrection body, then there is no substantial continuity between the earthly person and the resurrection person.  In that case is the resurrected person logically identical with the earthly person?  Would it be logically possible for multiple replication of the earthly person to occur, allowing more than one person with legitimate claim to identity with the earthly person?  Materialist anthropologies have a problem with personal identity.

[8] If an agent is truly unable to do other than what he/she did, e.g. a child wetting a bed, it is wrong to punish.  It may be permissible if he/she could have avoided it.  Thus having the ability to perform or refrain from an action is crucial to moral responsibility.  This ability requires freedom of choice and seems incompatible with determinism.

One Response to The Image of God, Religion, and the Meaning of Life: Toward a Christian Philosophical Anthropology

  1. [...] is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. His article is entitled, “The Image of God, Religion, and the Meaning of Life: Toward a Christian Philosophical Anthrop…Cooper argues that the scientific naturalism of the New Atheists and others is both unfounded and [...]