It’s considered one of the most moving, shocking, and at the same time wonderful films ever made—The Elephant Man, by David Lynch. The film depicts the plight of Joseph Merrick, branded the “Elephant Man” because of the abnormal growths that deformed his body since childhood.
In 1884 Frederick Treves, surgeon and lecturer on human anatomy, discovered Merrick at a freak show in London; and partly out of curiosity, partly out of pity gave him a bed in his hospital. “The most striking feature about him was his enormous and misshapen head,” Treves said later. “From the brow there projected a huge bony mass like a loaf, while from the back of the head hung a bag of spongy, fungous-looking skin. From the upper jaw there projected another mass of bone. It protruded from the mouth like a pink stump, turning the upper lip inside out and making the mouth a mere slobbering aperture.”
Dr. Treves’ report gives us an idea of the pain and shame that such a disfigured creature had to bear. He was kept like an animal and put on display before gaping crowds. The deformations covered his whole body.
Surprisingly, however, Dr. Treves discovered that the creature behind the grotesque sideshow exhibit was not an apathetic imbecile, but an intelligent, sensitive, and friendly being. That news soon made the “Elephant Man” famous, with even Queen Victoria sending a personal expression of sympathy. One evening—by then it was the year 1890—a theater performance was held in his honor. Upon returning from the play to his room in the attic, the 28-year-old removed from his bed the pillows meant to prop him up while sleeping, and placed himself flat on his bed, so that the weight of his massive skull slowly caused him to suffocate.
What Are We? Who Are We?
The story of the Elephant Man is a poignant example of human suffering and the longing for comfort in a brutal world. Joseph Merrick had no greater wish than to be loved just as he was, and we are no different. Can we discover a Joseph Merrick within ourselves? Who are we anyway? Cultivated animals, lonesome and disfigured creatures? Or maybe more?
Nature of Man
Man and woman were made in the image of God with individuality, the power and freedom to think and to do. Though created free beings, each is an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit, dependent upon God for life and breath and all else. When our first parents disobeyed God, they denied their dependence upon Him and fell from their high position under God. The image of God in them was marred and they became subject to death. Their descendants share this fallen nature and its consequences. They are born with weaknesses and tendencies to evil. But God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself and by His Spirit restores in penitent mortals the image of their Maker. Created for the glory of God, they are called to love Him and one another, and to care for their environment. (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:7; Ps. 8:4-8; Acts 17:24-28; Gen. 3; Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12-17; 2 Cor. 5:19, 20; Ps. 51:10; 1 John 4:7, 8, 11, 20; Gen. 2:15.)
The Bible gives an astonishing answer—sobering and encouraging at the same time. On the one hand, it doesn’t hesitate to point out the cause of our deeply ingrained deformities. But on the other hand, it paints us in a completely different light, a portrait full of beauty and dignity. (This picture is described in Adventist Fundamental Belief, No. 7.)
Nothing illustrates the destiny and dignity of humans more strikingly than the biblical expression “the image of God” (Gen. 1:26, 27). The emphasis here is more on personality than appearance. The ability to think creatively and independently, to understand the feelings of others, to interact with others, to assume responsibility—these are all qualities that identify free and mature personalities. Moreover, they are divine qualities. “For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5).
But what has become of the “image of God”? What about those with exploited bodies and without rights? Or those who have been tortured and murdered by marauding gangs and brutal soldiers? What about the captives, stripped of all clothes and with a leash tied around their neck, reduced to mere pawns in the hands of their captors? Or the 850 million suffering from undernourishment and the 100,000 of them that die every day of starvation? What about the sick, whose bodies are consumed by incurable diseases? Or the countless abused children and mistreated women and all those who have no prospect or hope of a humane existence? What are their lives actually worth? What has happened to their inalienable human dignity, to their high position under God?
What virus could deform the image of God so profoundly? What disease could cause such terrible mutilation? We may not like to hear it, but the Bible bluntly reveals the name of the cause: SIN.
Sin—the Unpardonable Word
Sin is the situation in which we all find ourselves from birth—separated from the God of life and caught in the clutches of evil that brings us death. You may deny this sobering diagnosis, thinking it only applies to others. But we have all been affected. Sin distorts the image of God into the grimace of the devil.
The almost unbelievable message of the Bible is that in Jesus Christ God came down into the midst of this world of sin and identified Himself completely with our fate. In the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, “His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men” (Isa. 52:14). “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…. He was despised, and we did not esteem Him…. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:2-5; cf. 24:25-27).
Paul was referring to this astonishing truth when he said that God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: [and that] He condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Christ “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men…. He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7, 8).
Instead of pointing fingers at us sinners and leaving us to the fate we deserved, Jesus became one of us and took upon Himself what we also must bear.
God’s compassion for our human predicament doesn’t exhaust itself in His personal participation in our suffering (see Heb. 2:17; 4:15). It is God’s will, in addition, that we regain our original dignity lost through sin, the dignity of His sons and daughters. The reason He came all the way down was to lift us all the way up again to Himself. He overcame sin that He might one day eliminate it for eternity. His goal is nothing less than the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). That’s why He has reconciled us to Himself in Christ and is now working to restore His divine image in us.
All those who accept this call to reconciliation may know that they have become a “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17-21) and are predestined to be conformed to His image—that is, to become like Him (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:24; 2 Peter 1:3, 4; 1 John 3:2). To reflect His righteousness and mercy, to love Him back and give His love to our fellow human beings—indeed, to all creatures—is what we were created for. So that we might live “for the praise of his glory,” and honor Him with our whole existence (Eph. 1:12).
*Translated by Brent Blum, this article is a shortened version of the author’s chapter on Fundamental Belief No. 7, taken from a 30-part series on the Adventist faith published in German and scheduled to be released in book form in the latter part of 2007.
Rolf J. Pöhler is theological advisor to the North German Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Hannover, Germany.