What Does it Mean to be Human?

Paul Coulter examines the Scriptural evidence for what a human being is, starting with Genesis.

Correcting Two Misrepresentations

Before attempting to describe a Christian view of mankind, I must first address two fundamental misconceptions of the Christian view that arise in the writings of critics of Christianity. The first is the idea, implied by John Gray, that Christianity is anthropocentric (mankind-centred) in its view of the world. Although some Christians may have been guilty of speaking as if this was true, it is not a fair representation of the biblical material which is actually theocentric (God-centred). Christians do believe that man has a special place in the world but that it is only because we have been given a special purpose by God. He is the true hero of the Christian message, the one because of whom and for whom all things exist.

The second misrepresentation is found in the writing of Steven Pinker, who describes the Christian view of mankind thus: “Humans are made in the image of God and are unrelated to animals.”[1] Pinker is absolutely correct to recognise that the Christian understanding of humanity begins with the idea of creation in God’s image, but absolutely wrong to suggest that this means that Christianity (or the Bible) teaches that we are “unrelated to animals”. In saying this he is setting up a false gulf between science and Christianity. Science, as we have seen, has shown many similarities between human beings and other animals, such as the chimp, and many of the differences that do exist are being shown to be differences of degree rather than of kind. According to Pinker, Christianity claims there is no relationship, therefore Christianity flies in the face of science and must be nonsense. Again we must admit that the way in which some Christians have spoken and written about the nature of mankind has contributed to this confusion. Perhaps they have been so vigorous in their rejection of evolutionary theory and their defence of special creation of mankind that they have suggested that there are no similarities at all between human beings and animals. This is, however a serious distortion of what the Bible says, as we shall see. Again, Pinker writes that: “We know that the human mind has nothing in common with the minds of animals because the Bible says that humans were created separately”.[2] Once again he is setting up a false dichotomy between science and the Bible. He claims that modern science has rendered the Bible unbelievable:[3]

the modern sciences of cosmology, geology, biology, and archaeology have made it impossible for a scientifically literate person to believe that the biblical story of creation actually took place.

Is this a fair accusation? What does the “biblical story of creation” actually say, and is it really incompatible with science? How do Christians understand Genesis 1 and 2?

Interpreting Genesis 1 and 2

We must first acknowledge that there is considerable difference of opinion among Christians over how these chapters should be read. I am speaking of Christians who take a high view of Biblical inspiration and authority. Some want to take them entirely literally and so argue for creation over six twenty-four hour days and a real Garden of Eden somewhere in the Middle East. Others acknowledge that Genesis 1 is written as a carefully constructed poem and see it as a hymn or parable of Creation, celebrating the order and beauty of creation but not the actual order in which it occurred. Whilst Genesis 2 and 3 are written in prose, many see them as figurative or allegorical (in fact they are likely to argue that Genesis remains figurative until chapter 9, or perhaps chapter 11, whilst the call of Abraham in Chapter 12 is the beginning of a true historical account). Those who read these chapters figuratively are not tied to a particular timescale or order of creation, but they still see important truths in these chapters. So we have at least three possible positions – those who take Genesis 1 to 3 in its entirety as figurative, those who see Chapter 1 as figurative and the rest as literal, and those who read the whole section literally. We could spend another article simply considering the relative merits of these positions in light of the evidence of science and the biblical text, but for now I simply want to say that these positions are each held by genuine Christian believers who take the authority of the Bible, including Genesis 1 and 2, seriously. The important thing to realise at this point is that whichever way we understand these chapters the theology of Genesis 1 and 2 is unchanged. The theological principles found in these chapters are not dependent on either a strictly literal or an allegorical reading. We can read these chapters and allow them to inform our understanding of mankind, of God and of God’s purposes for mankind. Pinker’s objection seems to be towards a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. Leaving aside the legitimacy of his criticism of this way of reading these chapters, we can still examine the theological message of the “biblical story of creation” and ask whether it is possible to “believe” it as a “scientifically literate” person. I will argue that “to believe” the “biblical story of creation” must mean to accept the truths that it teaches about God and man. It does not necessarily imply reading every detail literally. To accept the legitimacy of the message of George Orwell’s Animal Farm I do not have to believe in talking pigs. In what follows I will not argue for a particular way of interpreting these chapters, but I will draw out five vital theological truths about mankind that emerge from them:

• Our unity with the physical universe
• Our continuity with the animal world
• Our God given task
• Our identity in God’s image
• Our moral nature

Mankind – Made of the Stuff of the Cosmos

Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

The biblical account of creation makes it entirely clear that physically mankind is derived from the same material as the earth. This may not come as any surprise to us, but it means that the findings of modern physics and chemistry that our bodies consist of the same stuff as the cosmos is entirely consistent with the Bible. We may notice, however, that life is a gift from God and we may wonder what it means to say that God breathed the “breath of life” into the first human being. We will consider this under the next heading.

Mankind – Sharing Life with the Animals

"And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the groundeverything that has the breath of life in itI give every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:30)

Here, just a few verses earlier than the last quotation, we have the same phrase “the breath of life” that was used of mankind in Genesis 2:7 being used of all animals. Although there have been attempts to see 'ensoulment' (the giving of a soul) in Genesis 2:7, we cannot argue that the 'breath of life' represents the 'soul' unless we also accept that all animals have 'souls'. Importantly, Genesis is placing human life in continuity with animal life. Even the fact that the poem of chapter 1 places the creation of mankind on the same day as the creation of animals (day 6) shows that there is continuity. Steven Pinker is simply wrong to argue that Christians see no relationship between mankind and animals. It is true that the wording of chapter 1 emphasises that God was doing something special in creating human beings, but this is very different from suggesting that there are no similarities. In fact we could argue that, based on Genesis, Christians should have expected that science would reveal very significant continuity – that many of the physical and social differences would be of degree rather than kind. Christian theologian Charles Sherlock writes:[4]

It is not easy to be precise about where a boundary is to be drawn between humankind and otherkind. The Scriptures closely associate them as fellow creatures, distinguishing them only in their differing capacities for relationship with God. Human beings are first described in the Scriptures as ‘earthlings’ taken from ‘earth’, hā’ādām from hā’ādāmâ (Gn. 2:7-9). With all creatures, we exist in the first place as material beings. God gives us the gifts of work, hearing and speech (Gn. 2:15-20), shared to some degree with other creatures, but received by humans with an awareness of our ability and accountability in their use. Associated with these is the gift of partnership as male and female (Gn. 2:23-24), a sexual nature shared with other creatures, but exercised distinctively by human beings as those creatures made to live as persons in communion with God and one another.

Mankind – Created to Fill the Earth, Subdue it and Order it

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28)

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15)

So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. (Genesis 2:20)

The first of these three verses is sometimes referred to by theologians as the 'creation mandate'. It describes God’s purpose for mankind – to be fruitful, increase in number and subdue the earth. The success of mankind in spreading across the planet and inhabiting every ecosystem is entirely predictable from the biblical story of creation. The third verse, Genesis 2:20, also provides an explanation for our constant tendency to categorise, name and define things, or at least describes it. This trait began with a God-given task of naming the animals. Mankind was called to define what God had made. The scientific enterprise (questions of “What?”) finds support in the “biblical story of creation”. It is a matter of historical record that the majority of early scientists were inspired in their quest by a belief that the world had been created by God and that they should therefore expect to find order within it. Far from being at enmity with the Bible, 'science' is expected and sanctioned by it.

We have already said that mankind has been highly successful at fulfilling the first command of Genesis 1:28 – we have multiplied, increased in number and filled the earth – but there is a second part to the verse. We are to “subdue” the earth and “rule over” the other living creatures. How have we done on this score? We might argue that in this command we have an explanation for man’s success in shaping his environment and creating order from the physical world as well as in domesticating various animal species. We would, however, have to admit that the way in which we have done this has often been harmful to the world and to these other species. The traditional English translation of this verse included the word “dominion”, leading to a criticism that the Bible licenses mankind to use the world and its resources as we see fit, with little regard to the consequences. At this point we cannot defend the abuses that humanity has perpetrated and the careless attitudes to the environment prevalent among Western countries for so long, including among professing Christians. In fact, the context of Genesis 1 and 2 also has something to say about these abuses. It is true that God calls humanity in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue” and to “rule”, but to understand what this was intended to mean we must look into Genesis 2, where we have a picture of mankind in harmony with nature. In fact, Genesis 2:15 (quoted above) defines man’s role in terms of working and taking care of a Garden. Theologians have suggested that the idea is of mankind extending the Garden across the surface of the earth – the Garden will fill the earth as the gardeners increase in number and spread. Good gardeners do not abuse their gardens. They bring greater order to them, enhance their beauty and increase their productivity by carefully tending the plants and the soil. This is an apt metaphor for the kind of rule God intended mankind to exercise. It was supposed to be a rule after the pattern of God, the King. Just as He delights in and cares for His Creation, so we were intended to enjoy it and care for it.

There is no support in Genesis 1 and 2 for the abusive approach to nature that man has too often followed, rather there is a strong argument for a healthy environmental awareness and concern for the well-being of other animals. After all, in Genesis 9 we have God making a covenant (a relationship based on binding promises) with every living creature! How dare man neglect or abuse species that matter so much to God? Homo rapiens is not explained by Genesis 1 and 2 but by the problems that enter in Genesis 3. It is when mankind seeks only its own pleasure without recognising this duty of care that the world becomes to us nothing more than a resource to be consumed.

Mankind – Created in God’s Image

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind. (Genesis 9:6)

The statement that mankind was created in God’s image is the key point in Genesis 1 that sets mankind apart from the other animal species. The quotation from Genesis 9 is also important because it establishes two facts. Firstly, that the image of God was not destroyed in the 'Fall' (the original sin of mankind described in Genesis 3). God can still speak of human life as being special because mankind is in God’s image even after the downward spiral of the events of Genesis 3 to 8 with all that they reveal about the sinfulness of human beings. Secondly, the fact of creation in God’s image is presented in Genesis 9:6 as the starting point of human ethics. It is this fact that makes human life special and the taking of human life a serious (even capital) offence. To move towards a biblical understanding of what it means to be human, then, we must understand what the “image of God” means. Before considering different interpretations we must clarify one additional point. In Genesis 1:26 God says “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness”. Some people reading this statement have tried to distinguish between the image and the likeness of God, for example suggesting that the image is something that was unaltered by the entrance of sin whereas the likeness was destroyed. This separation of the two terms is, however, difficult to sustain from the text itself. The statement seems to be an example of parallelism, a common literary motif in Hebrew writing, with the two words serving as synonyms or at least as complementary concepts that are inseparable. God made mankind in His image and likeness. What does this mean? There have been numerous suggestions, which can broadly be grouped under five terms:

Physical – the suggestion that God’s image is seen in a physical trait such as the ability to walk upright, the ability to look upwards ('heavenward'), or the complexity of our brains. Whilst the brain of Homo sapiens is indeed remarkable, it seems that any such physical differences are of 'degree' rather than 'kind', whereas the image of God must be a difference of kind if it truly sets mankind apart from other animals. Another major problem with the physical explanation is that it finds no support in the context of Genesis 1.

Intellectual – another line of thinking has been that the image of God describes a unique intellectual capacity, perhaps for rational thought, creativity or communication. Once again, however, these appear to be differences of degree, not kind, between human beings and other animals and once again this suggestion does not find any support in the context.

Social – some theologians have suggested that the 'image of God' is found in our relationships with one another in community. This is the first suggestion that finds support in the context of Genesis 1. In verse 26 we read of God conversing with Himself about the creation of man in 'our image'. Christians will immediately read back into this verse an idea that is not clear in the Old Testament but becomes clear in the New Testament – that God exists as a community of persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three are all described as God in the New Testament, yet Christians continue to believe in one God rather than three gods. Although this concept is a mystery that we appear to be incapable of fully comprehending, it is an important concept in our understanding of God and it sheds light on the idea of God’s image. Perhaps the 'image of God' is found in a unique capacity for true community. Against this idea someone might argue that this is also a difference of degree rather than kind when compared with other species, but the complexity of human communities and our capability of cohering as families and nations may well be unique. Certainly the kind of selfless love we can experience within our relationships appears to be unique. Added to this reasoning from the community within the Godhead is the wording of verse 27, which emphasises the fact that God created mankind both male and female in God’s image. It is only as male and female together in community that humanity can truly reflect God’s image. A male or female human being alone cannot fully reflect God. This lies behind the idea in chapter 2 that it was not good for the man to be alone (verse 18). He needs a helper who is His equal – someone who can complement him. This aspect of Genesis 1 and 2 is a helpful corrective to the abusive nature of male dominance over women throughout much of history in virtually every culture. Genesis 1 and 2 teaches equality in status of men and women with a complementarity of their respective roles.

Spiritual – another popular understanding of the image of God is that it refers to a unique potential for relationship with God. Again this concept finds support in the text, as verse 28 of Genesis 1 describes God blessing mankind and speaking directly to them, something He does not do to any of the other creatures He has made. It also fits with chapter 2, where the nature of the relationship is further elucidated. Mankind is to relate to God as His stewards. The depth of the relationship becomes clearer still in Genesis 5:1-2, where God’s creation of Adam in His likeness is placed at the beginning of a genealogy of Adam’s descendants. Adam’s son is said to be “in his own likeness”. The implication is that God’s relationship with Adam is like a father to his son. In the New Testament this idea becomes explicit, as in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus Adam is called “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). The spiritual understanding of the “image of God” is of a relationship with God as Father. Mankind has a unique potential for this kind of relationship. In the New Testament, the idea of individuals becoming God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ is a central way in which salvation is described (e.g. John 1:12-13).

Regal – this final view of the image of God focuses on the task God gave to human beings to rule over His creation as His stewards (as discussed earlier). Again this idea finds support in the text, as verse 28 describes the giving of this responsibility. Proponents of this view also argue that the phrase can be translated “as God’s image” rather than “in God’s image”. If this translation is correct, then the idea is of mankind representing God to the rest of Creation. We represent in a tangible, visible way the invisible God. He is the King over all Creation, and we are His stewards or vice-regents. Our purpose is to be the agents of God’s rule as it is worked out in His world.

Based on this brief consideration of these five concepts, we can conclude that there are three ideas within the concept of creation in God’s image. The physical and intellectual ideas can be rejected on the basis that they find no support in the text. The other three ideas are all supported from the text and so we can accept that they are all integral to what it means to be (in) God’s image. Interestingly these three ideas are all about relationships – with one another (social), with God (spiritual) and with the rest of Creation (regal). Genesis 2 paints a picture of human life in harmony in all three of these dimensions. Nowhere in the Bible is the image of God defined explicitly, but it is described in the accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. It seems that Christian thinking about the nature of mankind has too often focused on “What?” questions, whereas the Bible speaks much more in terms of “Why?” The true distinguishing characteristic of human beings as distinct from other animals is the purpose for which God has created us rather than a quality intrinsic to what we are.

This is not to say conclusively that there is nothing intrinsically different about mankind but that identifying some intrinsic quality that sets us in a separate class from animals is not necessary for the biblical description of man to be vindicated. There is a danger that the debate amongst Christians between dualistic and monistic understandings of human nature focuses on questions that the Bible is not intended to answer and misses the most important point, which is our purpose in God’s plan. Attempts to explain the image of God that focus on what we are rather than what we are for fall short of the “biblical story of creation” and may reflect an excessively anthropocentric approach to Christian faith. It is a human obsession to think more about our identity than God’s purpose. The image of God, it would appear, is found in relationships, responsibilities and potential. Genesis 1 and 2 may not define to our satisfaction what we are, but they do something much more important, something science can never do – they tell us why we were created! Theologian Charles Sherlock explains the significance of this realisation:[5]

Rather than asking, ‘What is the image of God?’ we are invited to explore the question, ‘What does it mean to be made in the image of God?’ In this way we acknowledge that we live as those who know our status as bearing the divine image. Rather than trying to tie this notion down, perhaps so that we may control both ourselves and God, the Scriptures call us to a pilgrimage of discovering both God and our own selves. And, as Augustine argued, only on such a spiritual journey may the meaning of the classic philosophical advice, ‘Know thyself, and to thyself be true’, take on a deeper, and truly Christian, meaning.

So, then, even if science could prove that all the differences between mankind and animals that are open to scientific investigation are only differences of degree rather than kind, the foundation of the Christian view of humanity would still not be shaken. It is difficult to identify differences of kind between animals and human beings in Scripture other than in terms of our purpose and place in God’s plan. When the writer of Psalm 8 looked at the immensity and majesty of the cosmos he asked the question “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (verse 4). In answering this question the writer does not attempt to define characteristics of human beings that qualify us to be cared for by God. To do so would surely be arrogant in the extreme. Rather, his conclusion is that it is because of the purpose that God made us for, to rule over His creation (verse 6). If there are differences of kind they are there because they fit us for God’s purpose.

Mankind – Moral Creatures Whose Real Choices Have Real Consequences

And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

In the opening chapters of Genesis no limits are set by God on the actions of other animals (Genesis 1:30), but the verses above show that God does limit the activity of mankind. God set a moral standard by which the human beings must live. 'Morality' in other animals, if it does exist, is simply at the level of instinct, but for human beings it is about faith – trusting that God is true in what He says and acting in obedience. Human beings alone are capable of sin since only human beings are given a restriction by God, a rule to obey. Whatever the significance of the name of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, the point of this rule must surely be that it elevates mankind into being a moral creature, capable of choosing whether or not to obey God. This makes the relationship between mankind and God one that must be based on trust and love – we are not simply robots with no choice. Furthermore, the choice presented by God has real consequences. The man and woman are free to choose and their choice really does affect the nature of things. God gives them this freedom. God’s relationship with human beings is never coercive. He desires a willing relationship of love. This sets us apart from the other animals, as does God’s response when human beings failed to trust Him and fell into sin. Although God makes a covenant with all living creatures in Genesis 9, in which He promises to sustain the world and their life in it, all subsequent covenants, which are about God’s restoration of the world broken by sin, are made only with human beings, starting with Abraham in Genesis 11-22 and leading relentlessly to Christ. The restoration of Creation is intimately tied up with the redemption (buying back or rescuing from captivity) of human beings (see Romans 8:18-21). Only mankind needs to be redeemed and only mankind is of such pivotal importance in God’s plan for the cosmos that He would launch a plan to redeem us that would be immensely costly for Him.

Go to 8. The rest of the story


[1] Pinker, Steven 2002, The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature, Penguin, p.1.
[2] Ibid., p.2.
[3] Ibid., p.2.
[4] Sherlock, Charles 1996, The Doctrine of Humanity in the ‘Contours of Christian Theology’ series, IVP, p.115.
[5] Sherlock, Charles 1996, The Doctrine of Humanity in the ‘Contours of Christian Theology’ series, IVP, p.33.

Go to 8. The rest of the story

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