What does it mean to be human? One way to find out who we are as human beings is to look at where we come from.
There is a dramatic pause in Genesis 1 just before the description of the creation of human beings. In the middle of the sixth day, as God is creating the animals to fill the earth, he suddenly stops and speaks to himself. It is as if God wants to deliberately draw attention to what is going to happen next. The main character in the drama of creation is about to step out upon the stage that has been so painstakingly set for him. So God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Theologian Bernard Ramm, writing a generation ago in his book The Christian View of Science and Scripture offers a fine sense of what this moment meant:
In (God’s) mind the entire plan of creation was formed with man as the climax. Over the millions of years of geological history the earth is prepared for man’s dwelling. . . . The vast forests grew and decayed for his coal . . . The millions of sea life were born and perished for his oil. The surface of the earth was weathered for his forests and valleys. From time to time great creative acts took place anew. The complexity of animal forms increased. Finally, when every river had cut its intended course, when every mountain was in its purposed place, when every animal was on the earth according to blueprint, then he whom all creation anticipated is made, man, in whom alone is the breath of God.
ADAM AND EVE
The Bible doesn’t just say that at a given point, after suitable preparation and with an impressive introduction, God created humanity. It says he created a particular man, and later a particular woman to complement him. When God created the human race he did not make “man” in the abstract; he made Adam and Eve. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Bible portrays Adam and Eve as real, historical people. That is the way we meet them in Genesis.
More significantly, that’s how they are referred to in the New Testament. In the third chapter of his gospel, Luke traces the genealogy of Christ all the way back to Adam, without making any distinction between ancestors like Joseph, David and Abraham and the very first ancestor of all. The New Testament consistently speaks of Adam as being “one man”: “From one man he [God] made every nation of men” (Acts 17:26). In one chapter (Romans 5), the apostle Paul uses the phrase “one man” eleven times, seven of them referring to Adam and four to Jesus Christ.
In the view of Scripture, it seems, Adam is just as real a person as Jesus. And this is important, for this fact establishes the indivisible unity of the human race. Every human being springs from the same stock; we are all descended from a common father and mother, and that makes us one. Despite racial, economic, physical, and intellectual differences, we are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. So we are all part of the same family, equally made in the image of God. Whatever particular things may be true of us wherever we come from, whatever we look like, however we talk this unifying truth transcends everything else: we share a common human nature. Whoever we are, the most important race you and I belong to is the human race.
WHAT WE ARE
More than that, because he is the first father of each of us, Adam’s story is also our story. Just as it’s possible to learn a lot about who you are by studying your family history, so we can all learn some important things about ourselves from the account of how Adam and Eve were made. In the first place, the story of humanity’s creation tells us what we are, that is, it defines human nature. Humans are animals. They were made on the sixth day, along with all the other land animals. They were made, like the animals, from the dust of the earth. “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind . . .’” (Gen. 1:24); “then the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground. . .” (Gen. 2:7).
The actual process of creation, which in the case of the other animals is not defined in chapter one, is described figuratively or pictorially with respect to human beings in chapter two.
But it is significant that the first thing the Bible says about human nature is the same thing science asserts namely, that humans are animals. In fact, Scripture goes further than science. Many modern scientists say that humans came from the hominids; the Bible says we came from the dust, a point which we recall in every funeral service “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” This being so, Christians need not be unsettled by the scientific discoveries of similarities between humans and animals. If research describes shared instincts and natural drives between humans and other animals, we should not be surprised. Indeed, we ought to expect this from what the Bible says about our human nature. People are not some sort of pure spiritual beings. By nature we are animals, with physical bodies, instincts, senses and feelings.
But we are also more than animals, very much more because Genesis says that God not only formed Adam of the dust, he also breathed into him the breath of life (2:7). This too, of course, is picture-language. God doesn’t have a body; in creating Adam he didn’t literally form a man-shaped figure out of the dirt and then breathe into it like a paramedic trying to resuscitate a corpse. We learn elsewhere in Scripture that God’s animating, life-giving power is exercised through his Word. He spoke people into being. The Bible says that God is a God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). The important point conveyed by the figurative account of Genesis 2 is the immediacy of God’s involvement in the creation of humans. People are distinctive, special, different from the rest of creation. God gives them life in a unique way because theirs is a unique kind of life. Adam and Eve become persons; God can speak to them (as he does in 1:28) and they can speak back.
All of this is summarized by what we mean when we say God has given us a soul as well as a body. This sets people apart from all other creatures and reveals that just as there are similarities between them, so there is also a difference in kind between humans and animals. When God determined to provide a companion for Adam, someone who would be his equal, he showed Adam that none of the animals would do. Only another human could fill the need, and so Eve was made out of Adam’s side. We are more than animals. The history of humankind, as someone has remarked, is not just a special chapter of zoology.
Our unique nature gives us a unique place in the divine order. In answer to the question “What are human beings?,” the psalmist replies: “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Psalm 8:5-6, NRSV). Because we are creatures who also have a spiritual nature and the capacity for personal fellowship with God, we humans stand midway between the Creator and the rest of creation. We all give unconscious testimony to this truth when we say of someone who has done something particularly nasty or inhuman that he has “sunk to the level of a beast” or “behaved like an animal.” Think about that phrase. If humans are not by nature more than mere animals, why should we condemn someone for behaving like one? We are unique. Human beings are one of a kind. As far as we know, according to Scripture, humans are the only physical creatures in all the universe with the ability to know God and experience a personal relationship with him.
WHO WE ARE
So we learn from the story of our creation just what we are, what is the basic nature of human beings. But in addition to this, the story of creation tells us who we are, that is, it tells us our basic human identity as well. Unlike many people today, Christians need have no identity crisis because we know who we are. According to the book of Genesis, we are God’s image: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” God said (Gen. 1:26), “so God created humans in his own image” (v. 27). Theologians have discussed at great length just what it means to be made in God’s image. Some have located the image of God in human rationality, or creativity, or spirituality, in humanity’s original moral perfection, or in our capacity for fellowship with other persons. Perhaps the simplest answer is found in the simple statement of Genesis; to be in the image of God is to be like him in all these ways.
It’s true, of course, that we are also very different from God, especially insofar as we are sinful. Nevertheless, each of us is still like God in many and significant ways. All people even fallen, sinful people are still made in the image of God. Though sin has greatly marred our likeness to God, we nevertheless still reflect that likeness.
TRUTH HAS CONSEQUENCES
This truth about what and who we are has consequences for how we live today. Let me suggest two practical implications that follow from our creation in God’s image and our common membership in the human family. First, this determines how we should view other people. Because of his origin as a creature made in the image of God, each human being has intrinsic dignity and ought to be respected for the sake of the God whom he resembles. No one is less human than anyone else, no one less worthy of being accorded the honor of a creature who is in the likeness of God. Christians must fight for the human dignity and status of every person. Each human being, whatever her race, gender, class or ability, is as much the image of God as I am. Bible-believing Christians, of all people, should be most sensitive to the evil of racial, ethnic or other kinds of prejudice, and least willing to harbor it within our hearts or allow it to go unopposed in others.
Secondly, this truth of our creation in God’s image determines how we should treat other people. Because of its origin in the image of God, every human life has intrinsic value and ought to be respected, preserved and protected for the sake of the God whom it reflects. With modern society’s abandonment of biblical authority has come an erosion of belief in this principle of the sanctity of each human life, with all too obvious results. Instead of protecting human life, some people now (speaking, ironically, in the name of “humanism”) promote the concept of the “viability” of life. What they mean, in plain words, is that all people do not have an absolute right to life by virtue simply of being human. Only those whose lives are judged to be of high enough quality or value or desirability will be permitted to live. Thus, if a baby is unwanted by its mother, it is aborted. If a newborn has too many defects, it’s allowed to die. If elderly people are too sick or weak, they will be put to sleep, as if they were dogs or cats. The only sure basis for fighting evils such as abortion, euthanasia, ethnic cleansing, genocide and the like is to embrace the biblical truth that each human life is precious and sacred because it is made in the image of God. We desperately need to return to an ethic of life, of the sanctity of all human life, by virtue of the fact that we are all creatures made by God, like God, and for God.
This is what it means to be truly human.