Last weekend, a toddler climbed over a barricade at the Cincinnati Zoo, tumbled over a cliff into the moat, and was carried away by a male gorilla. To save the boy, the gorilla was killed. It was a sad turn of events that could have turned out far worse.
The mountain gorilla is an endangered species, as are all gorillas today. According to National Geographic, only 700 mountain gorillas exist on the earth. Now that population has decreased by one. There are millions of little boys on earth today, yet we can rejoice that the life of just this one was saved because the gorilla was sacrificed. In God’s economy, all the gorillas in the world are not worth the life of one child who bears his own image and likeness.
Yet, we cannot, in our armchair reflections, simply vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” for the gorilla or the child and be done with it. Rather, such a harrowing and emotional event should prompt us to think through what it means to be made in God’s image, how that fact shapes our values and views, and how those values and views, in turn, affect our work as stewards of all of God’s creation.
The gorilla’s death is, of course, a great loss, both to the zoo and the world. We should be sad over the premature death of such a magnificent creation of God. We certainly don’t prove our love for human beings through callous disregard for the lesser creatures. As Tom Buck, a Southern Baptist pastor from Texas wrote recently in Leadership Journal, God can use the death of an animal to draw us to him: “Death entered the world because man sinned. We are the moral agents who brought the death that we see all around us. Therefore, death—even the death of an animal—can point us to our need for a savior.” We ought to mourn with those who feel the loss of the animal the most personally. The zookeeper who raised Harambe says that losing the animal was “like losing a family member.”
Of course, the word “like” is key—because no matter how much animals may seem to be like human beings (ask me about my dogs sometime!), they are not human beings. Human value does not come from our affinity (or lack thereof) to one another or to anything except our affinity to our Creator. After all, we know from Scripture that we do share a special affinity with animals, one indicated by God when he assigned Adam the task of naming the animals. But we know, too, from those same Scriptures that only human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Animals are no more equal to human beings in sharing some likeness with us than we are equal to God in being made in his likeness.
To anthropomorphize animals, as many critics of the gorilla’s shooting have done in assigning benign or even benevolent intentions to the animal when such cannot be certainly known, not only dishonors the imperiled child made in God’s image, but it dishonors animals as well. If in our love for animals we find it necessary to distort their nature by giving them human attributes, then we do not love animals for what they actually are. To love animals as they are, as God made them within the order of creation, is the purest kind of love we can have for them. And to love people—every single person, from the oldest nursing home resident, to the President of the United States, to the welfare mom, to the delinquent teenager, to the defiant toddler, to the unborn child—more than animals simply because they are made in God’s image is also to love the God who has so loved us.
We reflect God’s image as we rejoice over the life of this little boy that was saved, just as we reflect God’s image in feeling anguish over the loss of the beautiful animal he made. And we reflect God’s image as we reconsider the risks required whenever we place animals and people together in situations made dangerous because they so counter God’s design. When we view animals merely as lesser creatures that are ours to overpower and dominate, we act like animals ourselves rather than reflecting the image of God. (You can find more of my thoughts on this here and here.)
Weighing all this is a way to reflect, as J. I. Packer puts it, “at our creaturely level, what Genesis 1 shows God is and does.” Packer explains that to reflect the likeness of God,
. . . we should always act with resourceful rationality and wise love, making and executing praiseworthy plans just as God did in creation. He generated value by producing what was truly good; so should we. We should be showing love and goodwill toward all other persons, as God did when he blessed Adam and Eve. And in fellowship with God, we should directly honor and obey him by the way we manage and care for that bit of the created order that he gives us to look after, according to his dominion mandate.
As we think about the value of gorillas, zoos, little children and their imperfect parents, let we who are God’s image bearers reflect his character through the abilities unique to human beings: resourceful rationality, wise love, praiseworthy plans, goodwill toward others and careful stewardship for the created order as God designed it.
Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Fierce Convictions and Booked, and her writing has appeared many places online, including Christianity Today, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Gospel Coalition. She was also our guest on episode 13 of The Village Church Podcast Show. This blog was originally published June 3, 2016, by the ERLC.