By Nick Tavani
Do children born with deformities reflect the image of the God who gives them life? Some websites feature disturbing images of such children along with wording that challenges the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. Three minutes is unsettling to watch. Opponents of Christianity use this material to argue against the veracity of the faith, but this provocative approach elicits a gut reaction rather than a reflective response. Nevertheless, how can the image of God be reflected in people with functional needs?
Genetics and Compassion
According to the Department of Human Genetics at Emory University School of Medicine, birth defects are uncommon (3–4% risk per pregnancy) and distributed worldwide. That averages out to 1 person with disability per 25–30 people. They range from mild to severe conditions, from living long to dying young, and result from a mix of environmental and genetic factors. About 30% are caused by chromosome abnormalities, single gene defects, or mishaps during pregnancy. The remaining 70% have unknown causes.1
In a recent speech at the American Scientific Affiliation Annual Meeting, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, told how his scientific pursuits as an atheist led him to believe in Christ.2 His early work to track down chromosomal defects leading to genetic disease culminated in his headship of the Human Genome Project. This herculean effort was lauded globally when Collins’s team determined the sequence of the 3 billion DNA base pairs and identified and mapped the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes of the human genome. Thus, one of the most ambitious and consequential projects in human history began out of a desire to understand and help, rather than exploit, people with disabilities. His clinical initiatives have also resulted in the identification—and in some cases, cure—of several previously unknown genetic diseases, especially in children.
Genetics and God’s Work
Let’s take a closer look at children with disabilities since I have one of my own, whom I love very much. My son was born with an extra chromosome (trisomy 21 or Down syndrome) then, around age 3 or 4 he manifested autistic behavior as well. He used to be able to sing “Jesus Loves Me” but now he just shows it, especially when he smiles as he is tucked into bed at night. A teenager of 16 and basically nonverbal, Jonathan is a pleasant young man, happy most of the time and fun to hike with. Taking care of him provides the challenges my family needs to build in us the character of Christ, so we feel fortunate. Jonathan has even inspired my wife, Donna, to write about our adventures with him.
Does the Bible address this issue? I believe it does.
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1–3, ESV)
This man had a congenital birth defect, yet Jesus, without blaming the man, his parents, or God, says he would display the works of God! How so?
Showing the Image of God in Three Ways
Scholars describe the image of God in three ways: the resemblance view, the relational view, and the representative view. I suggest that God’s works can be seen in this instance (the man’s blindness) to reflect the image of God in all three ways. By interacting with the blind man; hence, affirming his inherent worth, Jesus manifests God’s image in him. Here we see the relational view, which emphasizes “humankind’s ability to engage in complex interpersonal relationships” (echoing the divine community of the triune God).3 We can also observe the representative view, which entails that human beings perform certain functions that represent God on Earth. In this case we see Jesus, the incarnate image of God, using his relationships with his disciples and with the man as a teaching opportunity and, through his actions, manifesting the image of God to those present and to us.
We also might see this man’s congenital physical condition (blindness) as indicative of our congenitally deformed, that is, sinful human nature. We are all, in a spiritual sense, born blind. Yet the blind man, in drawing out Christ’s compassion, instructs us as readers with a call to “display God’s works.” We show the representative view when we care for those in need. In so doing, a Christlikeness is manifest through us, enriching our own needy character even as it demonstrates how we show God’s image. Christ himself is the ultimate cure.
In this biblical encounter and with our own encounters with functionally needy people, I also find the traditional resemblance view at work. This perspective sees human nature bearing certain qualities that make humankind “like God,” though imperfectly. When humans care for others, we “resemble” God in his compassion. Yet, I think we can explore the idea further. The most potent symbol of Christianity is the cross. There, the full scope of Jesus’s life culminated in death. This ghastly yet glorious image lies at the heart of Christian faith. It would seem that even here—especially here—seeing Jesus in his most helpless, humiliated state that we see the image of God most poignantly displayed. He suffered and died on behalf of those he loves and his resurrection confirmed his victory over death.
People who live with disabilities teach us, in some small way, something about God that we have no other way of learning about but through interacting with them. If God sacrificed his only begotten Son as the way to offer salvation for fallen humans, it is reasonable to conclude that children born with deformities and defects enrich all of our lives. They may uniquely resemble our Lord in a way that requires our involvement in their lives to understand and appreciate the divine intention. Thus, our Creator can embed in our character something that can be imparted in no other way. Such people provide the opportunity to know this part of the image of God, which reflects Christ himself among us. And that prospect seems to support the idea of a loving God.
- Emory University School of Medicine, “General Population Risk for Birth Defects,” 2008, https://genetics.emory.edu/documents/resources/Emory_Human_Genetics_General_Population_Risk_for_Birth_Defects.PDF.
- Francis Collins, “The Joyful Complementarity of Science and Faith,” Plenary Lecture at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (August 9, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9xTE3imk84.
- Kenneth R. Samples, “What Does It Mean to Be Made in the Image of God?” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, September 5, 2017, /reflections/read/reflections/2017/09/05/what-does-it-mean-to-be-made-in-the-image-of-god.