The image of God, salvation, and autism

In his sermon “The New Birth,” John Wesley describes what it means to be created in the image of God.

Wesley writes that we are created with a like nature to God. We are immortal spiritual beings with understanding, free will, and affections. We share with God as well the capacity for dominion over the other creatures of the Earth, what Wesley refers to as the political image of God. And we — most importantly for Wesley — share the moral image of God. That is we were created full of love, justice, mercy, and truth.

In other words, Wesley grounds his conception of who we are in the doctrine of creation. It is important for those who want to understand Wesleyan theology because his doctrine of holiness is rooted in the same conception. To be holy is to be restored to our original creation as fully as possible in a world still tainted by sin. His soteriology forms a circle.

It is easy to criticize Wesley’s description of humanity if you mistake his intention as trying to provide a comprehensive, ontological description of humanity. I take Wesley’s intention to be describing humanity in relation to our salvation.

I am intrigued by these matters because of their importance for sorting through a theological and soteriological understanding of autism and similar conditions. If glorification in the eschaton means a restoration of the full image of God, does that mean a person with autism will no longer have limitations on his ability to communicate or his social interactions or no longer be so directed by compulsive behaviors? Does it mean a person with cognitive challenges thinks differently in the new heaven and new earth? Or does the image of God include autism, down syndrome, and other things we call mental disabilities?

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4, NIV)




5 thoughts on “The image of God, salvation, and autism

  1. I cast my vote with: The image of God include autism, down syndrome, and other things we call mental disabilities…(I also include almost everything else that we describes the ways in which we label people). From my faith perspective…those labels (apart from the “image of God” label) are ones that seek to describe one aspect of our many, many, many faceted selves. Looking at persons, communities and congregations – “only in part” – diminishes our enjoyment (I keep thinking of Jesus saying “I came that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full”) of this creation as God has given it to us. The more facets of the full humanity that I discover of the peoples around me – the richer and more joyous my life is…God has made such wondrous creatures!

  2. Challenging question John. Can we say the image of God include those things we call disabilities while at the same time affirming that in the new creation our ability to communicate and be in community with one another will transcend them?

    I ask as someone without little first-hand experience of mental disabilities. I’m not sure if that’s dodging the question or ignoring the reality of disability.

    1. I don’t know the answer to your question, JB, but I don’t think it is a dodge at all. It raises questions for me about the continuity between here and eternity. It reminds me that my understanding of all this is still pretty dark.

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