What Does it Mean to be Human?

Paul Coulter concludes his study by emphasising a choice that we all have to make.

We have ranged into science, philosophy and theology in considering the question of what it means to be human. As I understand the issues there are only two logically coherent conclusions to which we may come, with very different consequences. Either we were created and designed by God, in which case we should submit and listen to Him, or we are the result of blind forces that have no purpose, in which case we should heed John Gray’s advice in the closing words of Straw Dogs:[1]

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?

Although I disagree with Gray about the fundamental nature of human life I must respect His logical consistency in exposing the fallacies of humanism. If naturalism is correct, then there can be no ultimate purpose and morality is merely an illusion – one we can accept or reject as we choose (or rather as our genes dictate). We must accept either a theocentric or a biocentric view of the world. The anthropocentric views of Enlightenment philosophy and humanism are untenable.

Faced with these two possibilities, we may ask the question, “Which makes more sense of our experience and which has the greater power to explain certain phenomena?” Consider, for example, the following:

Human religion – John Gray is highly selective in his description of the history of religion in Straw Dogs. It is far from proven fact that all human beings were originally animistic. The tendency towards religion appears to be a universal trait across human cultures, and in most of these there is at least an idea of a single great god, although often this deity is thought to be too distant and powerful to be interested in human beings. Could human religion contain the echoes of a lost knowledge of a Creator? Could the instinct of religion be because of a constant need to fill a gap created when the first human beings rejected the true God? Could the desire to worship be a sign that we were created to worship the One who gave us life? Or is this instinct merely another illusion, as naturalism requires?

Human history and progress – John Gray argues that progress is an illusion. Does history agree? What happened to people who dedicated themselves, often against all odds, to making a difference in the world? Of course many of them failed to make the difference for which they strived, but other individuals appear to have changed things in ways that are difficult to explain without some room for human will. The progress in human knowledge and skills has not been a straight line – at times knowledge has been lost and at others new discoveries have been made at great pace – but history does seem to testify to people who have bent things to their own will for good or for ill. At the same time, Christians claim that history has ultimately been shaped by a greater will, that of God. The history of Israel is a remarkable story full of strange 'coincidences'. The Bible makes sense of these by giving us insights into why God directed events in that way. Jesus of Nazareth stands out in human history as a man of unique influence, although He does not fit into any of the categories of people who normally made a great impact on history. This anomaly in itself is worthy of examination. The claims made by His earliest followers about His miracles and His resurrection can be tested for veracity by historical enquiry in the same way as any other historical documents. For the naturalist, on the other hand, the whole story of human history is simply an outworking of selfish genes and blind forces of nature.

Science – science is perpetually revealing new wonders in our world, but these must surely raise the “Why?” questions in our minds. Where did information, which is at the basis of life, come from? Why is there such order in the cosmos and in living creatures? Is the appearance of design in nature evidence of a designer? How could random processes give rise to order and intelligence? Is the language of DNA evidence of an author? Christianity offers a logical explanation. In fact, science was based on the premise that because the world was created by God order should pervade it and it should be intelligible. John Gray suggests that if Darwin’s theory had arisen in a context other than the Christian West it would not have been so controversial.[2] He fails to ask the question that seems to follow logically: why is it that Darwin’s theory, and modern science as a whole, arose in the 'Christian West' rather than elsewhere? It was Christian thinking that laid the foundation for science in Europe, and many of the greatest early scientists were committed Christians.

Human longings – within the heart of man there is a programme for morality which is increasingly being revealed by science. We are creatures of contradiction – sensing how we ought to live but feeling powerless to achieve it. Surely we should ask whether the law of morality points to a lawgiver and whether our contradiction points to our need for help? Some desires and fears seem to be universal in the human heart. There is a universal desire to be loved. Could this be an echo of our design for community and for relationship with a loving Creator? There is an endless longing for purpose. Could this reflect design for a purpose? In fact, mankind cannot seem to live without purpose. This was the conclusion of scientist D.L. Rue. He describes the idea of purpose in the cosmos as a lie, but calls it a "Noble Lie” that “deceives us, tricks us, compels us beyond self-interest, beyond ego, beyond family, nation, race”. “Without such lies”, he suggests, “we cannot live.”[3] There is an interesting echo of Francis Schaeffer here, although Rue’s conclusion is radically different. Christians insist that the idea of purpose is not actually a lie. Even John Gray seems to give in to the “lie”. Otherwise why write a book like Straw Dogs? Why bother if you really believe that the response of your readers is outside their own ability to determine and is programmed entirely by their genes? Surely persuasion is pointless if that is true? And what of the universal fear of death and the hope of life beyond it that has been such a significant factor in shaping human cultures? Are we to believe German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), who argued that modern human beings hold on to borrowed beliefs about death and immortality from our religious heritage simply because we cannot face the fact that there is nothing beyond death? He writes:[4]

modern man does not feel the chasm that unceasingly surrounds him and that will certainly engulf him at last. Through these remnants, he saves his sense of self-identity. Through them the impression arises that man is not perishing.

Could Bloch be wrong? Could our fear of death actually be an indicator that it is unnatural and that we need to be released from it? Could the writer of the biblical book of Hebrews be correct when he claims that Christ “shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15)?

These are just some of the questions about human existence that must be explained, and you can ask whether Christianity or naturalism provides a better explanation. William Lane Craig records the following quotation from Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg. His popular book on cosmology, The First Three Minutes, ends with these words, some of which were quoted earlier in this article:[5]

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that somehow we were built in from the beginning… It is very hard to realize that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.

Is this really the best we can do – to elevate a farcical existence to a tragedy by distracting ourselves with scientific enquiry? Or could it be that there is a purpose woven through the tragedy? Could there be hope of a happy ending? Could it be that the story of human existence is in fact an epic story – the story of God and His purpose for His beloved creatures – a grand story stretching back to the first human beings created in God’s image and forward to a new humanity in a new restored creation – a story whose hero is Christ? Which story – the naturalistic tragedy or the Christian epic – best explains the evidence and which is ultimately true? If you have a shadow of a doubt about naturalism (could I rephrase that as a glimmer of light from God?), then I would urge you to make it your life’s goal to ask the question whether the Christian message might actually be true.


[1] Gray, John 2002, Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, Granta, p.199.
[2] Gray, John 2002, Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, Granta, pp.xii, 3.
[3] D.L. Rue, quoted in Craig, William Lane 2008, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd edition), Crossway, p.85.
[4] Ernst Bloch, quoted in Craig, William Lane 2008, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd edition), Crossway, p.82.
[5] Steven Weinberg, quoted in Craig, William Lane 2008, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd edition), Crossway, p.83.

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© 2010 Paul B Coulter
This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author.


Bible references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION © 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society.


Budziszewski, J. 1997, Written on the Heart: the case for natural law, IVP.

Craig, William Lane 2008, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd edition), Crossway.

Dawkins, Richard 1976, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard 2006, The God Delusion, Bantam Books.

Gray, John 2002, Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, Granta.

Johnson, Phillip E. 2000, The Wedge of Truth: splitting the foundations of naturalism, IVP.

Lennox, John 2007, God’s Undertaker: has science buried God?, Lion.

Lovelock, James 1979, Gaia: a new look at life on earth, Oxford University Press.

Moreland, J.P. & Rae, Scott B. 2000, Body and Soul: human nature and the crisis in ethics, IVP.

Pinker, Steven 1997, How the Mind Works, Penguin.

Pinker, Steven 2002, The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature, Penguin.

Schaeffer, Francis 1968, Escape from Reason, Inter-Varsity Fellowship.

Sherlock, Charles 1996, The Doctrine of Humanity in the ‘Contours of Christian Theology’ series, IVP.

Journal Articles

Glazko G et al. 2005, 'Eighty percent of proteins are different between humans and chimpanzees', Gene 346:215-9

Jackson, F. 1982, 'Epiphenomenal Qualia', Philosophical Quarterly 32:127-136.

New Scientist issue 2782, 16 October 2010 (various articles).

Ramachandran V. S. & Hirstein W. 1997, 'Three Laws of Qualia: what neurology tells us about the biological functions of consciousness, qualia and the self', Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 [5-6]:429-58.

Ruse, M. & Wilson, E.O. 1985, 'Evolution and Ethics', New Scientist 108:50-52.

Singer, Peter 1983, 'Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life', Pediatrics, 72[1]:128-129

Soon, C.S. et al. 2008, 'Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain', Nature Neuroscience 11:543-545.

Trevena, J. & Miller, J. 2010, 'Brain preparation before a voluntary action: evidence against unconscious movement initiation', Consciousness and Cognition 19[1]:447-456.

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© 2010 Paul B Coulter
This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author.