Self-Forgiveness: A Moral Compass Reflected in Prologue of John


Forgiveness helps us to mend the unwanted brokenness in our lives. Many people feel burdened by guilt and grief over what they have done or failed to do, ultimately desiring forgiveness either from themselves or from others. As Anthony Bash observes, “Deeply embedded in the human psyche is the longing for justice. When wronged, human beings yearn for justice even after the passage of many years.”[2] Forgiveness allows the parties involved to feel that justice has been achieved. Furthermore, it helps them to experience healing in psychological and/or theological terms and to achieve reconciliation with others.

Yet, when the injured party is deceased, it becomes a challenge for wrongdoers to seek and meet the conditions for forgiveness. As an example, soldiers in war may suffer guilt over wartime events such as killing or harming others. They may not have actually done anything wrong by the laws of war, but by their own humanity they feel it is wrong. In this case, how can these guilty grievers ask for forgiveness when the victims are not there to forgive them? This essay primarily considers cases in which the griever cannot make amends directly to the injured person due to the victim’s death. Thus, she chooses a path of self-forgiveness making substitutive amends by interaction with someone else to attain self-forgiveness.

Philosopher Nancy Snow defines self-forgiveness as “the process by which we make good to ourselves for our failing.”[3] The wrongdoer’s process of making amends to forgive herself requires the wrongdoer to “identify the sources of the mistakes” she has made.[4] This self-searching work is what Bash describes as “critical moral self-appraisal and realignment to demonstrate that the wrongdoer has returned to the shared moral order and is committed not to repeat the wrongdoing.”[5] However, this repentance itself may not be enough to guarantee the wrongdoer a full sense of self-forgiveness. Therefore, the wrongdoer needs to show through her lifelong transformation she is making amends. She needs to show “responsibility work [that] provides the evidence” of becoming a better, morally improved person.[6]

Yet, my primary question remains: When the wrongdoer yearns to forgive herself by behaving otherwise in other relationship in her life, and does not have access to said relationship, what choice does she have left in order to make amend?  This essay will respond to this question by illuminating an idea of the imago Dei as reflected in Prologue of John.

First, my argument posits that despite the absence of said relationship, the wrongdoer may still build a reconciling relationship with God by repeated acts of service to others. These altruistic services are examples of how the wrongdoers respond to God’s call for love. After all, these services will reconstruct the imago Dei they form with God in a sustainable manner. Second, to elaborate on this implication of the imago Dei in self-forgiveness, I will introduce the ideas of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, who claim that the formation of fellowship and a community of love with other humans is one method to fulfill this imago Dei. Lastly, with a slight calibration and redirection of the ideas of Barth and Brunner, I will conclude that the relational meaning of imago Dei in Prologue of John may be understood even in the absence of fellowship and community of love. To help strangers with God’s love allows the wrongdoers to be in the imago Dei and to fulfill the conditions of forgiveness.

The Imago Dei and Prologue of John

When considering the imago Dei, I believe Prologue of John illuminates one of its main characteristics: relationality.  Here the responsibility to work toward self-forgiveness is actively drawn upon.[7] The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) is modeled after the first chapter of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). As in the Pentateuchal narrative, the Word, the divine word, the only Son of the Father, brought all into being (John 1:3-14). God fashioned them in the divine image and likeness, in order to make human beings both the object of divine address as well as the representative of the divine within the corporal world in a real sense,[8] With respect to the plural reference of the divine voice, which was uniquely created by its “let us” in Christianity, there is a dialogical unity that embraces all the relations among followers of Jesus, a unity between them and the Son of God, and between Jesus and God.

The key to achieving this unity is Jesus Christ, who “shares in the divinity of God,” “continually turns toward the Father,” and so is “the perfection of God’s gifts,” allowing for a humanity full of grace and truth: “From his [Jesus’s] fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (John 1:16).”[9] This grace upon grace—the relational imago Dei as the Son of God and the Father God who sent Him into the world (and intended God’s people to be in the imago Dei)[10]—is fully affirmed with “the story of God’s loving action within the human story.”[11]

I emphasize this language of ‘loving acts of God.’ It tells us the relational imago Dei is not ultimately about ideas (what one thinks) but rather action (what one does). This imago Dei is a particular way of inhabiting reality and interacting with others, including God.[12] Put differently, it is not primarily an ideology, but rather an ethics. As the foundational structure of a virtue, it values understanding only insofar as this knowledge enriches and inspires the enactment of a life that follows the loving acts of God. The three particular loving acts of God that I have characterized as the relational imago Dei in Prologue of John are creation love (the gift of arché which means beginning), Christ’s love (the gift of incarnation, action, and the cross), and resurrection love (the gift of eschaton which means the end of the world).

First, the relational imago Dei reveals itself as a gift of creation since from the beginning of creation itself (arché), it was given as relational (to God, the Son of God, and the world): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3). God’s love is not limited to a being or existence alone; it also includes an active relationship that grants humans the substantial “power (or right) to become children of God (John 1:12).” This also means that God cares for and thus creates those who have no being or existence, no power and no rights, from the very beginning, as creation was in darkness (John 1:5, 12:46). God loves and therefore creates all of these (former) nothings, nobodies, and nonentities—those without need or right of existence, who made no request for existence, and were completely powerless. They were nonexistent, but God loved and loves them anyway. Creation is, therefore, a revelation of the deep-seated and innate initiative of God’s generosity and hospitality, even if there is no one to receive it and no one welcomed by it. Creation as a way to understand the relational imago Dei is an unveiling of God’s initiation of love. God goes out of His way to make time and space for nothings and nobodies, the powerless and worthless, those without being, without world, and without rights of any kind. And God loves them.

Second, the relational imago Dei in Prologue of John emerges as the gift of Jesus Christ’s love, or the gifts of incarnation, action, and cross because God loves everything—not only all the (former) nothings, but even all sinful nothings. Even after the beginning, as humans rejected God, used God for themselves, and harmed God’s creations, God continued to love the humanity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). This shows how to understand the relational imago Dei as emphasized by the nature of God’s love—the very innate nature of God’s love. This means God’s love is not limited by human sin and catastrophe; it means God loves sinful human creatures even in their sin as well as those who have committed crimes against God and God’s world (other human beings and creatures). God forgives even them. In many episodes reflected in the Gospel of John, God initiates and comes, God teaches and heals, and God enters into godforsakenness. When God has every right and reason to abandon, condemn, or kill, God still comes to seek and save human beings lost in pride, greed, lust, and violence. The incarnation of Jesus is the revelation of God’s love for the wrongdoers whose injustices have ravaged God’s creation of the world. Jesus comes to those who have disgraced God’s creation, have polluted and plotted against God’s creation, have taken God’s creation for granted, and have annihilated the gift given in love.

Third, the relational imago Dei is shown as the gift of resurrection since God even loves not only all the (former) nothings and sinful nothings, but also all dead sinful nothings. In the end, once sinful humans are dead and gone, God secures the resurrection of love (eschaton)—God promises to resurrect the dead and “make all things new” (Revelation John 21:5).[13] This meaning of resurrection emphasizes how one may understand the relational imago Dei as the innate nature of God’s love. When we die, we return to our original condition of powerlessness and nothingness. In this sense, we return to ‘the beginning (arché).’ And when we die, we die in sin. This means we die as those who have wronged God, those who have harmed God, those who have had a history of violence against God and God’s world (God’s people and other creatures). After all, our situation is far more severe and vulnerable. In the beginning, we are nothings; unlike the beginning, we are now sinful nothings, hostile and vulnerable. For God to resurrect the dead is an even more radical loving act than the creation of the world: God gives a second life to those who do not need to exist, and to those who violated existence after God gave the existence as a gift the first time. If God so desired, God may have sent God’s Son and offered God’s forgiveness to us. Then, God may have justifiably left us to ourselves, left us for dead, started over, or simply done nothing. However, God does not do this. The promise of resurrection reveals God’s love for the very hostile and vulnerable: for those dead in their bodies and dead in their sins, for those with no rights to existence and with wrongs against existence.[14] God forgives both the dead and the ones who trespassed against them.

Above all, in Prologue of John, all three of these particular loving acts of God as reflected in the relational imago Dei (creation love, Christ’s love, and resurrection love) reveal the present aspect of eternal life made possible through Jesus Christ, the dialogical unity, who embraces all the relations among his followers, between them and the Son of God, and between Jesus and God. Allowing for a humanity full of grace and truth, this already-present eschatology focuses attention on present Christian life and looks toward the future when the expectations and hopes of Christian disciples are already realized in their relationship with Jesus. In other words, for the disciples “eternal life with God through Christ”[15] has begun, while their faith grows in the present—and grows in appreciation of Jesus[16] and the one who sent him (John 3:16) while hoping for such eternal life. This faith happens when they are in God’s love; that is, “love is the response to, the consequence of, and the proof of believing in Jesus.”[17]

From this notion of the imago Dei, forgiveness may be placed in a theological framework. The idea that a human being is the imago Dei may be used for self-forgiveness when the offended person reframes the wrongdoer as someone who is not reducible to the agent of the wrongs done and refuses to identify herself as a victim. In other words, the forgiver may recognize the essential dignity of the wrongdoer and see the potential for the imago Dei in her. She may redefine the wrongdoer as someone who can potentially stand in a loving relationship with God. This same kind of recognition applies to the forgiver herself, so she may stay above or grow out of the temptation to define herself as a victim. For example, in the case of forgiveness, to love is to throw yourself into someone’s turmoil by an illustration of faithfulness to others. She may discover she is in God’s love by showing faithfulness to God. She may understand forgiveness which leads her to forgive the other, and even the offender who wronged her. Similarly, when applied to the case of self-forgiveness, to love is to throw herself into her own turmoil (as an illustration of faithfulness to herself), and discovers she is in God’s love and demonstrates faith to God, others, and herself. She then understands self-forgiveness. This leads her to refrain from definition as a victim, and allows her to see the potential for the imago Dei inside herself—creation love, Christ’s love, and resurrection love.

Karl Barth and Emile Brunner

Now, to incorporate this model of the relational meaning of imago Dei drawn from Prologue of John in this essay, I present the ideas of Karl Barth and Emile Brunner who claim that formation of fellowship and community of love with other humans is a method to fulfill this imago Dei and to reinforce the act of self-forgiveness.

Barth presents a relational view of the image of God similar to that of Prologue of John that one’s imago Dei encompasses her building of relationships with other human beings and with God. According to his interpretation, a human (a man in his words) was created to be the covenant-partner of God whose acts are substantially bound to a covenant-fellowship with God.[18] In his theory, if a human “is ordained to be God’s partner in a covenant,” and if her nature is “a likeness corresponding to this ordination, necessarily it corresponds in this respect to the nature of God Himself.” This is because God has formed her in “this correspondence, as a reflection of Himself.”[19] He develops this idea of imago Dei into the meaning of fellowship by heightening the divine likeness of Jesus being relational to other human beings as well.

Man generally, the man with the fellow-man, has indeed a part in the divine likeness of the man Jesus, the man for the fellow-man. As man generally is modeled on the man Jesus and His being for others, and as the man Jesus is modeled on God, it has to be said of man generally that he is created in the image. […] God created him in His own image in the fact that He did not create him alone but in this connection and fellowship.[20]

Similar to Barth’s idea, Brunner attends to the conception of the divine likeness in his work, Man in Revolt. Yet, he offers a slightly different interpretation of imago Dei: a human is the image of God because she has reason. This reason helps her to perceive the Divine Word and therefore is “the material, the substratum of man’s relation to God.”[21] In Brunner’s theological imagination, God calls “His creatures made in His image” through “a Divine word of love.”[22] This word allows the rational creature to have a communion with God, while she responds to God’s call by means of the same Divine Word. God calls her with the “Primal Word” of “Thou art Mine,” and so, she responds with the words “‘Yes, I am Thine,’ […] in [a] believing, responsive love.”[23] For Brunner, this communication-led relationship of love informed by reason speaks to the meaning of imago Dei. With this emphasis on the very meaning of imago Dei as the relationship between God and humanity, Brunner concludes that the formation of a community of love with other human beings is the indispensable method to realize the imago Dei in a comprehensive manner: “responsibility-in-love first becomes real in man’s relation with his fellow-men. Man cannot be man ‘by himself’; he can only be man in community.”[24]

Above all, Barth and Brunner’s views are similar to how Prologue of John sees ‘loving acts of God’ as crucial to understand the meaning of the relational imago Dei: the creation of living beings has already filled the world with animated communities (already-present eschatology). Now, there is an inter-subjective sociality with the potential for such covenantal solidarity, the potential to share interests between God and image-bearing humanity. This inter-subjective sociality is founded and constructed as the basis of fulfilling the image of God. For Barth, it is fulfilled through fellowship, while for Brunner, community.

The Relational Imago Dei: The Forgiving Self in the Act of Self-forgiveness

In a nutshell, I assume the relational view of the image of God as framed by Barth and Brunner, and integrate it into Prologue of John. This relational concept of imago Dei includes the Christological component in which Jesus—whether it be the divine likeness or the divine word—is employed as a mediator in the love between God and humanity. This Christological vision affirms that the fundamental nature of God as love and the essence of the relationship between God and humanity as love. Here, I agree with Barth and Brunner as well as Prologue of John when they claim that in Christianity, without the Christological element, we are unable to grasp the full meaning of the idea of relational imago Dei. Further, with regard to fulfilling the relational imago Dei, forming a fellowship or community is essential as it intends to heighten one’s love for another and God. According to Barth and Brunner, love that sustains a fellowship or community is a proper response to the wrongdoer, and thereby reinforces loving acts, including the act of forgiveness, even so, self-forgiveness.

However, Barth’s and Brunner’s theories cannot provide an answer when the formation of a fellowship or community is not possible. Instead, I believe interactions with anyone, including acquaintances and strangers, may also help the wrongdoer participate in the relational imago Dei and act as making amends for forgiveness. As seen in Prologue of John, Jesus’s ‘loving acts of God’ are not solely based on the enhancement of fellowship with other people. These ‘loving acts of God’ also help individuals return to and prosper in their original community. Fellowship and community of love with others certainly fulfill the relational imago Dei. At the same time, when a wrongdoer performs services of love for others, there may not be reconciliation. However, she may still form the relational Imago Dei since she participates in the Imago Dei with God by responding to God’s call of love by loving other people.

Finally, forgiveness and the imago Dei may be related through the proposition that the human being against whom the offence has been committed may be understood as the imago Dei, the ideal human being as defined theologically. Accordingly, when the victim forgives the wrongdoer, it implies forgiveness by all of humanity. Both Barth and Brunner imply a view similar to, if not the same as, this understanding. The answer to the question of why wrongdoers seek forgiveness is: they hope for and necessitate a moral community who helps them relieve their own moral burdens.

In this sense, the philosopher Charles L. Griswold’s model of forgiveness may help further this discussion. According to Griswold, the alleviation of guilt is the most universally “internalized voice of moral authority,”[25] since the wrongdoer usually “understands that the injured party has the standing to release her from moral isolation.”[26] This understanding of guilty suggests that the victim’s forgiveness of the wrongdoer includes the forgiveness of the entire human community. The rationale behind this view is that the victim can represent the community as a whole where she and the wrongdoer both belong. This stance posits that harming an individual means harming the very same humanity; and if so, one can also say that forgiveness by the harmed person means forgiveness by humanity itself. Furthermore, we may contextualize this idea in a theological framework such that a human who forgives is the imago Dei. In other words, the forgiving self in the act of self-forgiveness in fact participates in the relational imago Dei while this sense of self-transcendence, which expands beyond forgiveness by the offender herself and encompasses humanity as a moral community, is drawn from the idea of the imago Dei.


The case that I address here is a particular condition of forgiveness where the wrongdoer must make amends. The person seeking self-forgiveness in this situation performs altruistic services for other people within the context of a stable community or relationship, just as Barth and Brunner suggest. Every instance of the altruistic services shows that the griever responds to God’s call of love and reinforces the imago Dei as the relationship she is forming with God. The grievers transform their interactions with others into interactions that include a union and dialogical relationship with God. However, despite this overlapping consensus, I have claimed that even if the griever does not have a special relationship with another person, she may form a personal relationship with God. Even in the absence of such fellowship and community based personal interactions, these grievers who intend to make amends must also include as an intrinsic part of her thought and narrative the relational character of God, the God as depicted in Prologue of John. This love is, both communal and self-transcendent.


David Chiwon Kwon

Assistant Professor of Moral Theology, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota


[1] This is a modified version of my essay, originally titled, “Self-Forgiveness: The Imago Dei and Johannine Literature,” which was presented at AAR several years ago, but before you begin to read it, I want to ensure that this essay presents one way of Christian interpretation of the Scripture. Some monotheistic language I use such as God might be different than some of your approaches. In addition, since John’s Gospel, especially Prologue of John, is extensively used—while Revelation is quoted once—in this short essay, the title is changed upon that focus shift.

[2] Anthony Bash, Forgiveness and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 57.

[3] Nancy Snow, “Self-forgiveness,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 27 (1993): 75.

[4] Beverly Flanigan, Forgiving Yourself (New York: Macmillan Press, 1996), 65.

[5] Bash, Forgiveness and Christian Ethics, 63.

[6] Robin Dillon, “Self-forgiveness and Self-respect,” Ethics 112, no. 1 (October, 2001): 78.

[7] Robert Davidson, Genesis 1-11 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 24. Robert Davidson says, “Each age has tended to read into the phrase [‘in our image, according to our likeness’] its own highest ideas about man.”  In the history of Christian theology, the image of God has been interpreted in at least three ways: substantive, functional, and relational. Here, I emphasize the relational perspective only for sake of understanding the concept of Imago Dei in Prologue of John.

[8] Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina 4, Daniel J. Harrington, ed. (Collegevill: Liturgical Press, 1998), 38-39.

[9] Moloney, The Gospel of John, 40-41.

[10] Also see John 14:11-13. (NRSV)

[11] Moloney, The Gospel of John, 40-41.

[12] Also see John 14:20-21. (NRSV)

[13] As noted in the footnote # 1, this quote is from Revelation; even so, its origin closely ties to Prologue of John.

[14] As noted in the footnote # 1, this essay represents a Christian perspective. Some biblical scholars and moral theologians may challenge this viewpoint, as they see that the resurrection does not always entail blessings and rewards for those who are raised from the dead. The other side of coin is the judgement (See John 5:29).

[15] Daniel J. Harrington, “The Future Is Now: Eternal Life and Hope in John’s Gospel,” forthcoming in a volume from Paulist Press, 1-3.

[16] Daniel J. Harrington, “Growing in Appreciation of Jesus in John’s Gospel,” Following Jesus: What the New Testament Teaches Us (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2012), 37-38.

[17] Harrington, “The Future Is Now: Eternal Life and Hope in John’s Gospel,” 8.

[18] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3, part 2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. by Harold Knight, G.W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid, and R. H. Fuller (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), 323.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 323-324.

[21] Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947), 102.

[22] Ibid., 98.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 105-6.

[25] Charles Griswold, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 52.

[26] Ibid.

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