Should Depictions of Christ be Forbidden?
Historically, Christians have proven contentious and confrontational concerning depicting Jesus in any form. Even since the flashpoints of iconoclasm (image/symbol breaking) during the early Middle Ages and the Reformation, the issue has never been completely without debate. We must approach this with an open mind and a respectable degree of tolerance.
Let’s begin by discussing the nature of idolatry in the Scriptures, and why it was consistently condemned. Let us examine Exodus 20:3-5.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The LORD does not want us to maintain the presence or worship of idols, because (for) He is a jealous God. He deserves glory from His people, and nothing else should stand in His place. By Exodus 32, Israel was in flagrant disobedience of this command. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God consistently reminded His people of the pervasive evil of idolatry (Leviticus 19:4; Deuteronomy 4:16; Isaiah 42:17; Ezekiel 23:37). We must acknowledge that even objects made in obedience to God (such as the brass serpent) may be misused for the evil of idolatry (2 Kings 18:4).
With the incarnation of Jesus, the relationship of God to the world changed dramatically. While God had occasionally revealed Himself in various forms, Jesus, born of virgin, entered the world fully God and fully man. In fact, Paul describes the person of Christ as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). But Jesus of Nazareth is not merely a physical representation of God; He is God (John 1:1, 8:58). As Christ is still a physical man according to Paul, and the material realm is the creation of God, we should not disregard or malign the physical world (1 Timothy 2:5).
Idolatry is still consistently prohibited by God throughout the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 10:7, 14; 1 Peter 4:3; 1 John 5:21). Paul even links the worship of idols with the worship of demons (1 Corinthians 10:20)! False worship is abhorred in every circumstance, and as Christ says in John 4, we must worship in spirit and truth.
How then are we to respond to depictions of Christ today? First, we must recognize that no particular representation of Christ is completely accurate. While several pictures of Christ are beloved by many Protestants, they offer more sentimental encouragement than historical value. For instance, within Western art, Jesus has been usually depicted as Caucasian. Obviously, as a Jew living in the Holy Land, his complexion would have likely been much darker, and more modern artists are taking this into account.
Second, the Scriptures that God does not prohibit art. In the warning given in Exodus 20, the sin is not art, as such, but false worship. We conclude that art, for the glory of God, should be considered allowable unless we succumb to one of the following three distortions.
(1) The image is worshipped directly or treasured too highly.
(2) The image is contrary to the biblical person of Christ and depicts Him in a poor light.
(3) The image detracts or distracts from worship in spirit and truth.
As for those who are ensnared by one of these corruptive ends, we must not shy away from calling idolatry what it is—sin. However, we believe that a portrait of Christ, such as Holman Hunt’s depiction of Christ at the door of one’s heart, is, in our opinion, not a violation of the commandment against idolatry. Such representations, whether in art or sculpture, if not misused, can help focus our attention to Christ as He was when He was here on Earth and to help us visualize what He will be like someday in glory.