Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei Home Page
There was a great sea before them. The Spirit had led Adam and Eve to the shore, and they stood at the water’s edge. It was a magnificent sight; Adam and Eve had never seen such a thing before. The infinitude of the water was overwhelming—an awe inspiring and terrifying mystery.
The Spirit then stepped forward, wading into the mellow surf. It turned to the couple and said, “I have brought you here to finish the transformation that you started with your disobedience. Innocent and ignorant, you reached out for that which you were unprepared for, and you have suffered for it. But now you have seen much and learned much—though there is still so much more to know. When you ate of the fruit, you were cast into death—rather, into my world—but in your haste you were broken by what you witnessed. I will bathe now and heal you. Afterward, you will rise from the water purified, renewed, and the world will not look the same.” It paused and then held out its hands, “If you are ready, take off your clothes and come to me.”
Adam and Eve exchanged cautious glances.
The Spirit noticed. “You are wise to be apprehensive, for anyone that does not take this rite seriously will find themselves still walking in blindness and much deeper confusion.”
Adam and Eve looked at the Spirit and then back at each other. They offered reassuring smiles to each other and removed the clothing that they had made. Their flesh was exposed to the air, and it was cold. Like long before, they felt vulnerable, having lost the warmth of the garden. Shivering, they each turned to the Spirit again.
“Come to me,” the Spirit repeated.
Adam and Eve moved forward, and they touched the water with their feet. It too was freezing, and they were tempted to recoil. But their eyes were fixed on the Spirit with its outstretched hands, and they were not afraid to walk through the water. They each took one of the Spirit’s hands and stood alongside of it.
It asked them, “Are you ready to commit your lives to following my will? Are you ready to leave behind your old life?”
Both Adam and Eve answered, “I am.”
The Spirit released their hands and gently touched each of their faces. He then moved his hands to the top of their heads and slowly pushed them down. Adam and Eve, under the Spirit’s insistence, lowered themselves into the water. The Spirit kept pushing them down until even their heads were submerged. Then the Spirit held them there…it held them there for a long time.
Adam and Eve were accepting of this at first—they were patient. But they did not understand why the Spirit did not allow them to rise back up. How long was it going keep them under the water? The panic seeped in; their air was running out. Both of them began to struggle against the Spirit’s hands, but the Spirit still did not allow them to rise. He was drowning them!
Neither Adam nor Eve could see anything. The water was dark and murky, and it became even darker when a black substance starting draining from each of their bodies. Suddenly, it was absolutely dark, and their chests were burning. Both of them cried out, but their shouts were muted by the water.
Who knew how much time had passed. Suddenly, they saw a variety of things, flashing before their eyes. They also could see themselves, emaciated and pale. Their skin was on fire, and it was melting away. They persisted in their screams, but all was silent. In the end, there was nothing left of them but bone, and their lifeless skeletons dropped into emptiness.
The Spirit released them, but they remained beneath the water. It then reached down and grabbed their skeletal hands. With a might heave, the Spirit raised both of them up. They rose, and their bones were enfolded in a new, luminescent flesh. The Spirit ascended into the sky but held onto them both. Their bodies were transformed, and Adam and Eve awoke to a new sight.
The Garden of Eden had returned, but it was more beautiful than before. They then looked at each other and saw how they had been changed. They laughed with joy at the revelation. The Spirit glided with them to the shore and set them down there saying, “Welcome home.”
Analysis: Death and Re-Creation
I personally am not a very ritualistic or celebratory person. However, baptism is one of those rituals that I am quite passionate about because of what it represents. Unfortunately, I have felt that, while the various branches of Christianity in general understand what baptism signifies, the true depth of meaning is lost. To discuss this meaning, I will look at three aspects of baptism: initiation, purification, and transformation.
Baptism as an Initiation
This need not be a belabored point. It is quite obvious, as a ritual, that baptism signifies one’s entry into the Church. Of course, the specifics of what baptism represents varies among Christian denominations. That being said, the one universal theme of baptism is that it is indeed a rite of passage.
Rites of passage are interesting as far as rituals are concerned. There are many types of these rites throughout the world, all existing for different reasons. Nonetheless, there is an underlying pattern among all the rituals that anthropologist Arnold van Gennep and later anthropologists identified. Rites of passage transfer a person from one level of social status to another. A boy becomes a man; a girl becomes a woman; a student becomes a graduate. Van Gennep described three stages: preliminality, liminality, and postliminality. Other scholars have labeled these separation, liminality, and return/incorporation/reincorporation. First, an individual is removed or set apart from his/her familiar community. Second, he/she must pass through a liminal state—a boundary state, a place where one is neither what he/she was nor is yet what he/she will be. Often this liminal phase symbolically represents death. Third, he/she is allowed to enter into the new community. Some of these initiations are simple and purely symbolic. Others actually require the individual to be tested in the liminal stage to see whether or not he/she is worthy of the community—to see if he/she will be devoted to the group and its cause. For anyone who is not committed, they are likely to experience cognitive dissonance. One’s values must be clear in proceeding.
Baptism is not all exempt from these stages. Baptism follows the same pattern.
Baptism as a Purification
The ritual of baptism was not original to Christianity. After all, even as far as the New Testament is concerned, it was associated with John the Baptist before the followers of Christ. It appears to have been modeled after Jewish rituals that require tvilah—a full body immersion into either a stream or a prescribed bath called a mikveh. The reasons for a tvilah to take place vary, but they are mentioned in both biblical and rabbinical writings. Generally, it was meant to replace certain forms of uncleanliness with cleanliness. It is also been used when someone converts to Judaism (which makes it an initiation ritual in this case). Now, while Jewish culture had a direct influence on the earliest developments of Christianity, the use of water for purification purposes is rather archetypal. Obviously, water has been used by all people throughout the world as a means for washing.
Having such a powerful place in day-to-day life, washing clean has naturally been used to symbolize the purification of psycho-spiritual dirtiness. Verses throughout the New Testament affirm this:
• Mark 1:4-5 – John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
• 1 Peter 3:21 – And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
• Acts 22:14-16 – Then [Ananias] said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’
• Matthew 3:11 – “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
• Acts 2:38 – Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
• Mark 16:15-16 – And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.
From a biblical perspective, the taint of sin is worthy of punishment. In other words, because sin renders one separated from the glory of God, one cannot technically be in the presence of God’s glory with sin. In the previous post, I discussed how the sacrifice of Christ resembles another purification ritual (for Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement). Through the blood of Christ, people are purified and thus allowed to be in the presence of God’s glory. The ritual of baptism emulates that same idea. Essential to baptism is “repentance,” which is best understood as “turning around”—that is, turning away from the wrong path and returning to the right one. In some of the verses above, baptism also coincides with “being saved.” The Greek word sozo is typically translated as “I save,” which connotes another translation: “I rescue”—in this case, I rescue from death or condemnation. But sozo can also be translated in some contexts as “I cure” or “I heal.” If we look at sin psychologically/symbolically rather than ontologically, this latter translation has more significance, for the purification of baptism symbolically offers healing from the negative effects of sin. In the Jewish world, uncleanliness also has social effects—someone who was labeled as unclean is prohibited from engaging in certain social environments. Once again, purification restores former relationships—rescuing and healing.
Baptism as a Transformation
While purification appears to be the primary purpose of the baptism ritual, Paul in particular described baptism with far deeper imagery. Certainly, he upholds the purifying power of baptism, but he also explains how this purification actually takes place. Consider Colossians 2:9-14:
For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.
A major theme in the New Testament is the creation of a new identity. The Jews were identified as the people of God through the act of male circumcision, but Christ identifies the people of God through the identification with himself. In baptism, not only is one cleansed of a poor record (to use the legal terms), one is symbolically joined with Christ through a ritual act of death and resurrection. Look also at Romans 6:3-11:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
As much as the sacrifice of Christ is treated as that which has “saved” humanity from death (which is the main point of Christus Victor theory), death is honestly that metaphor for laying aside the old self and putting on the new self. It is the liminal phase. By dying, one ceases to be anything; one is no longer the former self. Our old selves were crucified with Christ, and if we have been united with him in death, we will certainly be united with him in resurrection.
Now, it is important to note what resurrection is. It is the removing of an old body and the taking of a new body. Look at 2 Corinthians 5:1-3:
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies.
Paul makes it clear that the new bodies we take on will actually be bodies, not disembodied spirits. Resurrection life is an embodied life; it is the perfected life. It is that which finalizes the transformation into true Imago Dei: “As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:48-49). At a symbolic/psychological level, resurrection is the renewal of the mind (Ephesians 4:23) and the focus on the things of God:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…(Colossians 3:1-5).
I personally do not believe that there is enough stress on the “dying” aspect of baptism—the liminal phase—especially as a symbol for day-to-day life. Here is the seriousness of it: if you think about it, if baptism is an initiation into the Church, and baptism represents death, the Church is essentially the community of the slain—not only the slain but the restored as well. One must ask, what does it mean to be slain? If one is dead, how much of one’s former life matters? Do all the old attachments matter? Do all the old fears matter? Do all the old sorrows matter? No—not as anything other than reminiscence and lessons. To let the old self die is to let one’s psychological history be rendered harmless, to let one’s identity (which was most likely formed by insecurities [see Part 4]) to absorbed into the identity of Christ. That is what is means to be re-created by God. One is effectively and paradoxically re-created by dying; one is healed by death. However, this all easier said than done. The transformation, or conversion, does not appear to be a single occurrence but a lifetime of change. This practical side of this reality will be explored in the next post about sanctification.