by Dalton Adger
Earlier this week at the Cincinnati Zoo, a gorilla named Harambe was shot and killed after a four-year-old boy fell into his exhibit. If you haven’t heard about this yet, I’m going to assume you just crawled out of your fallout shelter and immediately stumbled across this blog post. Welcome to society in 2016! We care more about animals than humans.
All joking aside, the death of Harambe is very sad. As a Christian, I view the animal kingdom as something good that God created, a result of His creative mind. Gorillas are some of the most interesting, intelligent, and majestic creatures on the Earth. For one to be killed as a result of the circumstances that transpired at the Cincinnati Zoo makes any animal lover such as myself sad.
However, our thankfulness for the safety of the child that fell in should outweigh our sadness over the death of Harambe. The reason I am writing this blog post is because that doesn’t seem to be the case with the general public. I have read Facebook comments that go so far as to suggest or even blatantly state that the life of the gorilla was more important than the safety of the child. More than one comment I read was along these lines: “Humans aren’t the endangered species, why did the gorilla have to die for that little brat?” There is an outcry for legal actions to be taken against the mother of the boy, who is also being harassed by thousands of people because of her “neglect.” This sort of response is sickening to me because it demonstrates that so many people have it backwards.
In light of this, it is important for Christians to make sure that we are considering the situation with a Biblical worldview. What does the Bible have to say about humans and animals? What do Harambe and the little boy have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Should we be angry with the zoo personnel or commend them for their actions? Should we direct rage toward the boy’s mother or extend grace?
Most of these questions I believe can be answered with the doctrine called the Imago Dei. This is a theological term that is Latin for “the image of God.” This is a phrase that we derive from the creation story in the Bible where God makes man in His image, according to His likeness. We should note that only man (man meaning mankind, men and women) is said to be created in God’s image, not animals. Harambe wasn’t made in God’s image. With the Imago Dei in mind, there are a few thoughts I would like to point out about the Harambe incident.
As God’s image bearers, we have a responsibility to care for animals.
I want to start with this point because I want to clear up any misconceptions that could possibly arise. I am going to point out that humans inherently have more value than animals. This does not mean that we have the right to abuse animals or needlessly take their lives. When the Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God, according to His likeness, this means two things: we are like God in some ways and we are His representatives on earth.
Genesis 1:26 (HCSB) says: Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.”
God Himself directly links the ideas of man being made in God’s image and man’s dominion over the rest of creation. As God’s representatives, or image bearers, we have a responsibility to rule well. Abusing animals or killing them needlessly is misrepresenting God. It is taking advantage of our authority. It is sinful to do so.
The question then becomes this- Was the death of Harambe needless? I believe that killing an animal for food is not needless. God gives permission for man to do so (Genesis 9:3, Acts 10:13-15). Harambe wasn’t killed for food. I also believe that killing an animal that is a threat to the well being or life of a human is not a needless killing. And for that reason, Harambe’s death was necessary. No, it was not Harambe’s fault. Yes, he had to die because he posed an immediate threat to the four-year-old that bears God’s image.
So why does human life take priority over gorilla life?
As God’s image bearers, our lives are more valuable than animal life.
Once again, I want to stress that this does not mean that we have the right to mistreat animals in any way. However, human life is infinitely more valuable than animal life because humans are like God in ways that animals are not. Being made in the image of God, in His likeness, does mean that we are His representatives, but it also means that we reflect who God is in many ways. He has shared aspects of His character with us.
We are not given a definitive list of everything encompassed in the Imago Dei, but some characteristics are evident. When God creates man and woman in His image, it is clear that humans are made to be relational beings. This is rooted in the Triune nature of God. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have always had a perfect relationship, and for this reason we were created to have relationships with other humans as well as God. Animals do have relationships within their ecosystem, but they are not to the same level as human relationships and animals certainly weren’t created for relationship with God. Our sense of right and wrong is also rooted in God’s image. Animals do not have a moral code, but rather act on instinct. Being made in God’s image means that we are eternal. The little boy that fell into the exhibit will grow up one day and if he puts his faith in Christ and receives God’s grace, he will spend eternity in heaven. If he does not and he dies in his sin, he will spend eternity in hell. Harambe does not have an eternity to spend anywhere because he was not made in God’s image.
Jesus Himself tells us that human life is more valuable than animal life. In Matthew 6, Jesus preaches that we should not worry because God is in control. He gives the example in verse 26 of the sparrows. He says that God takes care of them, so we should trust that God will take care of us. To emphasize this, he asks the rhetorical question, “Aren’t you worth more than they?” The obvious answer is, “Of course we are worth more than birds!” Why is it such an obvious answer? The birds are not made in God’s image. We are.
People have argued and will continue to argue about whether Harambe’s death had to take place. I have heard arguments that the gorilla would not have hurt the boy. Or maybe the gorilla could have been tranquilized. The fact of the matter is we don’t know what would have happened, but the zoo made the right call because that little boy is an image bearer of God, and his life was in real danger. And 100% of the time, the human life trumps the animal life. When we value animal life over human life, we are rejecting the very image of God and placing more importance on a created being, making it an idol. In other words, we are worshiping something created rather than the Creator, as Paul puts it in Romans 1.
There was one other image bearer who has garnered a lot of attention from this situation. The boy’s mother has been under attack since the incident occurred. The Imago Dei teaches us that the right decision was made when Harambe was killed for the boy’s safety. What does it teach us about how we should respond to the mother?
As God’s image bearers, we need grace.
The criticism of the boy’s mother is unfounded in my opinion. She is being called a terrible parent for taking her eyes off of her child for long enough for this to happen. I’m not a parent but I have been around small children. It is impossible to contain them all of the time. We do not know how diligently she was watching her child. The fact of the matter is she was thrust into a highly stressful situation and she needs a little bit of compassion. Her child was put in danger and I can’t imagine the fear that caused her. The last thing she needs is hundreds of thousands of people blaming her.
What she really needs is what we all need- grace. Can she be blamed for this incident? I don’t know because I was not there and the people blaming her should quit pretending that they were. But I do know this- whether the fault lies on her or not, we as Christians have received grace from God, and if we are not willing to extend that to others, we do not understand grace.
We were made in God’s image, but when sin entered the world, that image was distorted. The image is still present in us, so everything I’ve said about human value still applies. We still reflect God and represent Him. But because of sin, we do so imperfectly. That is why, even though we have a sense of right and wrong, we choose to do wrong all the time. This sin that has distorted and perverted God’s image is the same sin that separates every one of us from God, who is holy.
This is the gospel- God the Son came in human flesh and lived as the only image bearer to ever fully and perfectly reflect and represent God the Father by living a sinless life. He then died as our sacrifice on the cross, taking on the wrath of God against sin He never committed, but we did. He was then raised from the dead so that He could grant life to all who receive forgiveness for their sin that was earned on the cross. This was all an act of grace. Grace is simply when God gives us a gift we don’t deserve. His salvation for us is grace. We deserve hell for our sin, He gave us Christ instead. And the same grace that saved us is transforming us, removing all things that are the result of our sinful nature and leaving only the Image of God.
There is a lot of talk about what this mother deserves after this incident. Personally, I think she should be left alone. But I do know this- she deserves hell. Not because she took her eyes off of her child long enough for him to fall into a gorilla exhibit, but because she is a sinner like you and me. Every single person on the face of the earth deserves hell. If we can’t extend grace to this woman in this situation, how can we share the gospel with anyone? How can we receive the grace God has given us?
Did Harambe deserve to die? No, but he had to in order to protect that child. What should outrage and sadden us more than that is our own sin because Jesus Christ did not deserve to die, and yet He did on our behalf. Then we can move on from our outrage and our sadness to live in the grace that God has extended us as His image bearers.