Recently there have been some debates in the papers [The Straits Times, 28 & 31 Mar, 2001], as to how the Lord Jesus Christ must have looked like, because a team of British scientists had “used advanced forensic techniques and sophisticated computer graphics to produce what they say is the most scientifically-accurate picture of what Christ would have looked like.” According to the image produced by the scientists, Jesus was “a swarthy, coarse-featured man with staring eyes, dark olive skin, a prominent nose, a short beard and wire-wool hair,” rather than the traditional image of being “blue-eyed, fair-haired with flowing locks and fine features.” Someone had written in to object that the Lord “could not have possessed those rugged characteristics which could have equally fitted the two condemned criminals who died by his side.” Should Christians be at all concerned with the debate or with how the Lord must have looked like at all?

No, I do not think we should be very concerned about the debate at all (assuming that what you mean is to be concerned as to who is right), and neither should it be of great concern to us as to how the Lord actually looked like.

In the first place, the Scripture, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit and sufficient for us, does not deem it important for us to know how Christ looked like (in His incarnation), except that He had “no form nor comeliness;… [nor] beauty that we should desire him” (Isa 53:2). That is to say that His appearance would not be majestic, attractive or striking. Or, in other words, we may say, He would be ordinary looking. He would not look very different from any ordinary Jewish carpenter during His days (cf. Mk 6:3; Phil 2:7–8). In this sense, the traditional fine-featured Anglo-Saxon image of Christ is most probably very wrong.

But in the second place, though it is arguable that pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ in His incarnation do not directly violate the Second Commandment, if they are intended only to convey the outward form rather than the natures of the Lord, yet the dangers of having images of Christ are so numerous and menacing that it behoves us to avoid any physical representation of Him altogether. We can think, for example, of the false impressions concerning Christ that images can give. One prominent Charismatic leader once claimed to have met Christ, and when he was asked how he recognised it was Him, his immediate response was that He looked like the man in the movies! We can think also of how pictures of Christ do often stir up devotion in those who look at them, so they do in essence worship Christ by the images, and so violate the Second Commandment. This is why WLC 109 teaches us that the Second Commandment forbids “the making [of] any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever [i.e., including man]… under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any pretence whatsoever.”

But thirdly, let us consider the problem of mental images for a moment. Some of us will have a tendency to make mental images in our minds when we pray or meditate. Is this practice proper? I do not think so. I think it is forbidden in our Catechism for good reasons, for, using mental image of Christ would be tantamount to worshipping Christ according to our imagination (cf. Rom 1:21). Such being the case, it would be prudent for Christians not to fill our minds with any image of Christ, for otherwise, these false images will tend to surface when our soul is in converse with God. Those who are keen to read more about the issue of making mental images of Christ may want to consult Charles Hodge’s critique of the Great Awakening, entitled “The Great Revival of Religion, 1740–45” in The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. This article is posted on the Internet and has been reprinted in the British Reformed Journal (Issues no. 19 [Jul–Sep 1997]:10–22 & no. 20 [Oct–Dec 1997]:1–9).