t f p g+ YouTube icon

More Than Skin Deep: The Image of God in People with Disabilities

Bookmark and Share

June 29, 2012 Tags: Image of God

Today's entry was written by Kathy McReynolds. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Over the past week, in posts written by John Hammett, Tim O'Connor, and Joshua Moritz , we have been exploring various conceptions of the "image and likeness of God" in humans. One common view is that the Image of God is found in unique physical traits possessed only by humans. However, if this were the case, what about humans born with disabilities? In today's post, Kathy McReynolds addresses the issue of disability and challenges us to think about the Image of God as something far greater than our outward appearance or physical abilities.

For the past twelve years, I have had the privilege to teach in the Bible Department at a prestigious Christian university. Most of my students have been raised in Christian homes and have attended conservative, Bible-believing churches all of their lives. These students believe that they have a pretty solid understanding of what the image of God entails; at least they think they do until they encounter the world of disability. Disability creates a dissonance in their worldview that they are not expecting. All of a sudden, what they thought they understood about the image of God comes crashing down like a house of cards. The image of God and disability just do not seem to go together.

The following quotes from some of my student’s papers are representative of many and their experience with the disabled “strange other.” What is communicated loud and clear is the challenges disabilities raise for their conception of the image of God:1

I believe that those with disabilities are equal to us … but I discovered a hidden evil in my heart. Deep in my heart, hidden from the world, I believed that children born with disabilities that would normally not survive its first few days should be allowed to die.
I think I could have intellectually acknowledged that all men and women are created in the image of God … In this class I was challenged to see the realities of disability and ask if I really did believe that God created these individuals in his image and salvation was for them too.
Though I have always known that these individuals are created in His own image, I often found myself secretly thinking that they were miserable and often a burden on others.
Sometimes I feel pity for disabled individuals because they are not “normal”. I feel that their disability is hindering them from experiencing the best life possible. I think disabled people experience a lesser quality of life because they cannot physically and/or mentally do as many things as a “normal” person could.

Now, these young people are not more spiritually or morally bankrupt than others in contemporary society. In fact, to the contrary, these Christian students are considerably more spiritually and morally sensitive in general because of their commitment as Christ- followers. Still, these views have been nurtured and influenced by two factors, one that is cultural and one that is religious: 1) the pervasiveness of a reductionist view of human being fostered by scientism; 2) a wooden, literal interpretation of Genesis 2:7 which says that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.”

Taken together, these two factors present a skewed view of human being, one that focuses on the physical and material rather than on the spiritual and essential. This is one of the reasons why my students twinge and recoil a bit at the thought that persons with disabilities can be made in God’s image. “They just don’t look like it,” they say, zeroing in on what is physically seen. This view has had enormous consequences for people with disabilities. In fact, Adolf Hitler, as part of developing his approach to the weaker members of society in his book Mein Kampf, identifies the stronger (better looking and functioning) members of society as “images of the Lord” in contrast to the weaker members who are mere “deformities” of that image, and who ought to be cleansed from society. Many have argued that Hitler’s ideas concerning those with disabilities were inspired solely by Darwinian evolution. However, these quotes from Mein Kampf reveal a horrific misuse of Scripture, not evolutionary ideas.

Furthermore, with regard to evolution, a face value exegesis of Genesis 1 & 2 does not dictate that the physical stuff God used to create human beings was special or unique or that the image itself resides in it. It shows, rather, that all matter was formless and void until God, who acted and willed out of his good pleasure and sovereign choice, brought order and harmony to it. This applies as well to the creation of human beings who are uniquely created in God’s image. If this image is not merely physical stuff, what is it? What does the literary and historical context of Genesis 1 & 2 reveal?

There are three views on the image of God: 1) Substantial; 2) Relational; and 3) Functional. The functional view sees the imago Dei as a function or role that humans fulfill--such as being priests or having dominion. The relational view has to do with humans imaging God in their ability to have spiritual relationships—primarily with God, but also expressed in terms of our male and femaleness and other nuances. The substantial view essentially says that God’s image is imprinted on the person’s soul as an image is impressed on a coin, and has much to do with human capacities like our free will and ability to reason. It has been predominant in Christian theology in the West since about 600 AD.

But though we do have specific capacities that bear on our responses to God, as the substantial view says, the human being is an embodied soul who has both relational and functional capacities, as well. The relational implications include the biblical truth that among all God’s creatures, only human beings can know Him and be consciously aware of Him. Most importantly, he knows us and can be in relationship with us even when we do not acknowledge him out of rebellion, or cannot respond to him because of disability. If we consider the Substantial view’s emphasis on conscious awareness, ability to exercise freedom, and decision-making capacities alone, however, some human beings may not qualify as persons, whereas some non-human animals might.

Against this, a more holistic view affirms that all human beings bear God’s image, regardless of capacities. The image of God cannot be lost or compromised in anyway. Even the poorest functioning human being profoundly reflects God’s image.

In an unexpected and peculiar way, my students discovered this truth about the image of God when they began to interact with people with disabilities in my classroom. This truth about the image utterly transformed and they began to see people with disabilities quite differently. The following quotes come from the same students quoted at the beginning:

What I came to realize is that since the disabled are people, they deserve life. As humans made in the image of God, we are to try to preserve our fellow disabled brothers and sisters who are also made in the image of God.
When I went to the day group home, it was an amazing experience. I really enjoyed interacting with everyone there. I was able to paint with them, and one of them sang to me and taught me to dance; it was so much fun. It was great to see how each and every one of them was so unique and made in the image of God.
In this class I was challenged to see the realities of disability and ask if I really did believe that God created these individuals in his image and salvation was for them, too. As a result of what I have learned from this class my answer to these two questions is a resounding yes! God loves individuals with disabilities and knows the depths of their hearts and minds on a level I could never comprehend. Who am I to doubt who God knows, who He loves, and to whom He offers the gift of His Son.
At the beginning of the semester, disability was a foreign world for me. That world was new and uncomfortable. I had no idea how to interact with anyone with a profound disability and had little desire to learn how. Throughout this course, the walls of misconceptions, fears, and insecurities that I have built up to distance myself from disability have slowly been chipped away. As I learned more about disability, my fears and discomfort were replaced with compassion and joy. Exposure to individuals and families with disabilities was the most effective way to break down those walls. Having the opportunity to observe and interact with individuals with disabilities was invaluable. Participating in disability ministry is not burdensome, as I had initially worried, but freeing. I left the night feeling uplifted, loved, and so aware of God’s mysterious presence within broken humanity.

During Jesus’ ministry on earth, often the best way to find him was to seek out those society considered strange, unclean, or undesirable; Jesus often sought them out, himself, in order to show that God’s love for us does not depend on our merits or abilities, much less our outward appearance. Similarly, my students today meet the Lord anew—and discover that same message of God’s unmerited grace and love—when they seek out relationships with those our society finds strange and broken, with those who they could easily avoid seeing at all. Rather than judging with the eyes alone, my students learn to recognize their cultural and theological blind-spots, and see both the disabled and themselves in the light of Christ’s love. Relationships are transforming; and relationships with people with disabilities can transform not only our image of them, but of the God who made in His image, and dwells with us in places deeper than the skin.


1. All student quotes used by permission. Names are left out to protect student privacy.

Kathy McReynolds is a professor in the Biblical Studies Department at Biola University, where she teaches on Theology of Suffering & Disability and Healthcare Ethics, and as an adjunct in Apologetics. She holds a B.A. in Christian Education from Biola University, an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, and a Ph.D in Ethics from USC, specializing in ethical issues in genetic enhancement research. Since 2007, Kathy has also been at the Christian Institute on Disability at Joni and Friends, first as Director of Public Policy, and now as Director of Academic Studies.

Learn More

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
Roger A. Sawtelle - #70733

June 29th 2012

Very interesting.

Pref. McReynolds says that there are three views of the Image of God, the substantial, the relational, and the functional.  She says that the substantial is the best, even though it is not defined and seems contrary to the non-substantial definitions suggested by others.  She lumps relational and functional together while dismissing them.

What is interesting is that the students were blessed by their relationships to differently able persons and this opened their eyes to their prejudments and stereotypes.  Thus it seems clear to me that the relational understanding of the Image of God is best. 

Functional suffers because some differently abled do not function well in some areas while substantial can be confused with normal or intelligent. 

Jesus often pointed to the poor, the sick, and other differently abled persons as superior to the well to do because they do not take life for granted.  This certainly does not mean that all people who fall into these categories appreciate life and love God, just as all who are well off are not selfish.   

God is Love.  People fulfill the Image of God by loving others and by being loved by others. 


Joriss - #70734

June 29th 2012

Fine article. A number of years ago I have known a woman of about 40 years old, who had the mental age of a few weeks old baby, probably born with serious braindamage, and never been able to eat, to sit, to understand something, just lying in bed, looking around with empty eyes and making sounds that were less communicative than the barking of a dog, or whatever sounds are made by animals to communicate with each other or with humans.
Still I believe such a person is in the image of God, but you can not point at it and say: it is this or that. There is nothing relational or functional in such a situation that could be an indication.
You just have to believe that such a person is in the image of God because He says so and He knows who she really is and one day will show this that everybody can see it.

wesseldawn - #70743

June 29th 2012

While I agree that the issue is more than skin deep in people with disabilities, it’s really not a matter of skin/body!

As man/ruddy (Gen. 2:7, animal/mammal) entered the supernatural garden (Paradise) in Gen: 2:8: this mortal creature added a spiritual/immortal component to it’s nature. The immortal nature is perfect because it’s God’s image. A perfect (supernatural/immortal) image would be incapable of imperfection!

Therefore, disabilities cannot be a part of God’s plan, if they were then Jesus wouldn’t have healed everyone that came to him! Too if this reality was God’s plan then Jesus would never have had to die.

The disabilities (in body only) came from being born into a world of imperfection - a world ruled by a cruel entity (Satan) who is the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) where chance has everything to do with it:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Eccl. 9:10-12)

God had nothing to do with it and that’s why the very idea of disabilities is abhorent to us because we instinctively know that it’s not (nor ever could be) God’s idea.

God doesn’t pick certain people to suffer! God does not create a baby born without a brain! It’s not not His nature!

People suffer in this world (and the world itself is completely unfair) because God is not the creator of it. It’s the result of Adam’s forfeiting the right of ownership to Satan, who corrupted the original creation!

The difficulty that most people have with disabilities is that they are unnatural from a certain perspective - not natural to God’s realm. They are however natural in a fallen world - even then however, we recognize there is something wrong with it.

The problem is not really imperfection itself, rather we struggle (though subconsciously) with the ‘lack of perfection’: “if God is so big and powerful then how come these awful things happen?” If we understand that this is not God’s world but Satan’s, we can finally reconcile the question of disablities.

Though we all, disabled or not, have mortal bodies that are subject to the rules of this mortal and harsh reality, we all have God’s image. Some people with disabilities believe that “God is testing them” and it’s often their reason to keep on. Yet to say that God tests humans so cruelly would be completely contrary to His nature!

Whatever God made would be perfect, static and unchanging - but this world is anything but that as Satan is a not a creator but a destroyer!

Disabilities and disease are a mortal flaw, a product of this world only and that’s why we look forward to Paradise: we know that we will one day cast of the mortality with all of its flaws.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70757

June 30th 2012

Wasserman wrote:

Disabilities and disease are a mortal flaw

He is right, but the problem is that we think of them as a MORAL flaw which they are not.  They are physical and mental problems, which is the reason they need to be treated and cured if possible, but they are not spiritual problems or indications that differently abled have spiritual problems.  Please read Job. 

This does not mean that there might not be spiritual problems linked to physical and mental issues.  Each situation needs to be examined individually.  We all have spiritual problems so differently abled are no different in that respect. 

God did NOT make the universe to be perfect, static, and unchanging.  That is a anti-Biblical, Greek colncept. 

If the universe were perfect like God, it would be God.  We do not need two Gods and neither does God. 

The fact that God made the universe out of changing matter/energy, made it in stages (even in 6 “days”) in time with a beginning and presumably an end, and called it good indicates that God never intended the universe to be static.

The fact that God told the original humans that if they ate the fruit, they would die, indicates that death was part of God’s plan from the beginning.  It was spiritual sickness and death that is the real problem, not mortality, which is shared with us by Jesus Christ.  

wesseldawn - #70775

July 1st 2012

Roger, you misquote me. God’s universe would most certainly be static and unchanging because whatever he made would be perfect. Therefore, this cannot be the original creation of Genesis 1 because if it were, it would be perfect. Good = static!

Our earth is beautiful in so many places, but uninhabitable in others and the universe itself is not friendly to human habitation at all. If God made it, it would all be friendly to us.

It was not a six days creation as Gen. 2:4 clarifies that it was ‘generations’!

If death was a part of God’s plan from the beginning then why did God bother to take man (brute animal/ruddy) from the earth and put it in an eternal garden paradise (immortal place). God wanted Adam to stay there forever so he would not experience mortality and death! Death is the cruel enemy of us all that Jesus will one day destroy forever.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70780

July 1st 2012

wesseldawn wrote:

Good = static!

My friend, the Greeks thought “good = static.”  They thought God is Absolute or non-relational.  The Bible teaches that YHWH is not static or absolute.  YHWH cares, Jesus relates, God is LOVE.

Death is not the enemy of humanity.  Sin is the enemy of humanity.  Death separates the dead from the living.  Sin separates people from God and each other. 

Really I would not say that it is that clear what the fate of the original couple would have been if they had not eaten of the fruit.  Certainly they would not have experienced the misery of sin nor death as we know it.

They would have lived in eternal relationship and harmony with God, just as we will if we are saved through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  

wesseldawn - #70794

July 2nd 2012

According to Rev. 20:14, ‘death’ is the enemy:

“And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”

Sin is not mentioned but death (mortality) the result of Satan’s corruption of the original creation.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70797

July 2nd 2012


I am sorry but Huamns cannot blame the Devil.  We have only ourselves to blame for sin.

Death and hell are the result of sin.  In heaven there is no sin, death, or hell.

How is death the enemy if the end of hell and sin is death, the second death?  It seems to me that if hell and sin are consumed by fire, maybe they are obliterated with all the damned.       

wesseldawn - #70805

July 3rd 2012

Roger, Of course the devil must be blamed - this fallen world is his creation (as Adam forfeited the rights to it when he ate the apple) as, again, whatever God made would be perfect/flawless.

As for the topic of death:

“And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb. 2:14-16)

You are right in one respect though:

“The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. (1 Cor. 15:56)

What is sin?

Lexicon Results from BlueLetterBible.org
Strong’s G266 - hamartia




hä-mär-tē’-ä (Key)

Part of Speech

feminine noun

Root Word (Etymology)


Outline of Biblical Usage

1) equivalent to 264

a) to be without a share in

b) to miss the mark

c) to err, be mistaken

d) to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honour, to do or go wrong

e) to wander from the law of God, violate God’s law, sin

2) that which is done wrong, sin, an offence, a violation of the divine law in thought or in act


Therefore, the meaning of ‘sin’ is to wander from God’s law, due to incorrect interpreting divine thought.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70781

July 1st 2012

I have thought of another reason why we are afraid of the differently abled.  In our culture people are expected to be independent, esp. males, therefore we tend to look down on those who reguard as being dependent on others, like the poor, exslaves, and the sick.

However all people are dependent upon God.  Until we acknowledge that we are not the independent and superior persons we pretend to be, we really will not reflect the Image of God Who came as a Slave to serve others, Philip 2.       

wesseldawn - #70795

July 2nd 2012

People with disabilities, have an equal measure of God’s image as all humans. Unfortunately something went wrong with their body in this imperfect reality. God is a Spirit and as such our communication with Him happens on a spiritual level. We all have a spirit and so we all can commune with God because the spirit transcends time and space.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70831

July 5th 2012


Yes, all persons are spiritual and have a spirit, but not all persons have the Holy Spirit.

Natural, unsaved persons are under the power of the spirit of sin or the false god of this world, as you have said.

The NT says that the only way to break the power of sin is through repentance (or turning away from one’s self centered ways), turning toward Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior, and accepting His forgiveness and the Holy Spirit into one’s life. 

We must die with Jesus on the Cross to the selfishness of this world so we can be resurrected with Jesus into eternal life with God through the Holy Spirit. See Romans 6:3-10.

All persons who have the Image of God can respond to God’s love through Jesus Christ and be saved.  There are some whose image is broken, like Temma, so they cannot respond as far as we can tell.  Certainly God will accept them for who they are and restore their Image. 

There of course are some who never knew Jesus Christ in a meaningful way.  Again God will judge them as only God can (we can’t) and I trust in God’s love and judgement.

Page 1 of 1   1