What Does it Mean to be Human?

Paul Coulter examines the rest of the Christian story for further insight into the human condition.

Genesis 1 and 2 are only the beginning of a story that runs throughout the Bible. They describe God’s original purpose for mankind, but this is not the present reality that we experience, nor is our present experience our ultimate destiny. In this section I will consider the rest of the Christian story under three headings:

1) Two problems – what went wrong?
2) One solution – how can it be put right?
3) One response – how should we respond?

Finally I will summarise the Christian story as it relates to an understanding of what it means to be human.

Two Problems

Blaise Pascal wrote about the weakness of philosophy as he perceived it:[1]

Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God, and sensuality, which binds you to the earth. And [philosophers] have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they have given you God for your object, it has been to pander to your pride. They have made you think you were like him and resemble him by your nature. And those who have grasped the vanity of such a pretension have cast you down in the other abyss by making you believe that your nature is like that of the beast of the field and have led you to seek your good in lust, which is the lot of animals.

Pascal identified two problems with mankind, both of which are described in the Bible as manifestations of sin.[2] The first is pride, a tendency to exalt ourselves to the level of God. Genesis 3 describes this clearly in the original temptation and sin of the first human beings. They believed that by eating the forbidden fruit they could be like God (verse 5). By disobeying the one rule God had given them they were rejecting Him as King and staging a coup. They thought they could live in the world and rule over it without having to be accountable to God, deciding for themselves what was right and wrong. The tragedy is that when they did this they discovered that they did not have the power within themselves to do it. They could not shape their own destiny and they remained accountable to God. The harmony in all three dimensions of relationship was shattered – they were ashamed before God and before one another, and God pronounced a curse on the ground that would make their relationship with the rest of Creation a struggle. Pride was the root of the first sin, and it remains a major temptation for mankind today. The Bible is fundamentally opposed to an anthropocentric view of the world because it elevates man to the position of God. We cannot decide our own destiny and we cannot live without God. A related problem is any system of human religion in which God becomes a means to an end for us, a petty deity who we can manipulate and control to achieve what we want. Such a 'god' is not the Creator revealed in Genesis.

The other problem is sensuality, a tendency to live like animals, simply following our own desires. The roots of this problem are described in Romans 1:18-32. According to that passage, our rejection of God led to a progressive neglect of what was known about Him and the replacement of this knowledge with religious systems fashioned after created things (verse 23). God therefore gave mankind over to our own desires – He allowed us to follow them to their full extent without checking or restricting us. We have a vivid description of human morality without God. Naturalist scientists argue that we follow our desires just as all other animals do, and that we only think we exercise a choice. In one sense they are right – that is not too far from how the Bible describes human beings without God, although even then it acknowledges the possibility of doing good through making a good choice. People who do not know God, however, are fundamentally following their desires and passions (Ephesians 2:3). In fact, this is a path that God allows us to follow when we reject Him – He gives us over to our desires. They are still our desires and we still make the choices to act, and hence we remain responsible before God, but we are fundamentally driven by self. It is worth noting at this point that although English translations of the New Testament sometimes speak about “evil desires” generally the Greek simply speaks about “desires”. The problem is not so much that our desires are evil in themselves – they are, in fact, God-given gifts that are necessary for life. We need food to live, so the desire we call 'hunger' is necessary. We need sex to be able to reproduce, so sexual desire is a gift. The problem arises when we simply follow our desires as our sole guide. This creates problems between human beings – when my desires conflict with yours, in the absence of anyone to adjudicate between us or of any motivation to selfless love, I may end up sinning against you. It also creates problems in our relationship with the world we live in – my desires become selfish and I abuse the world’s resources rather than caring for it. Most importantly it leads me to act as if God did not exist – to behave in ways that offend and anger Him. We need the guidance of God to be able to direct our desires to God’s purpose and the power of God to be able to control them. Just because something seems good to me, or even seems right to me, does not mean that it is acceptable to God. Something might come naturally to an individual but may still be morally wrong. We lack the ability to control our desires and they have become distorted because of our neglect of God. If scientific research suggests that some people have brain abnormalities or genetic traits that cause them to have a tendency towards behaviour that Christians understand to be sinful this is no threat to the Christian understanding of man. Christians simply recognise these genetic variations and brain abnormalities as part of the impact of sin on that person. The naturalist will argue that these individuals are not responsible for acting on these impulses, but the Christian will hold out the possibility of forgiveness for past wrongs and power from God to become a person who can overcome this inbuilt temptation. Sin has been active in mankind for many generations and its effects are undoubtedly at least partly mediated through mutations in our genetic make-up. Human desires unchecked by God lead to corruption in the world (2 Peter 1:4). The Bible is opposed to a biocentric view of the world (centred on all living creatures) in which man is no different than the other animals.

One Solution

According to the Bible the world is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric – it is theocentric (God centred). Listen again to Charles Sherlock:[3]

both anthropocentrism and biocentrism find their true meaning only in relation to God, in theocentrism. Likewise, our true place in relation to other people and to the natural world is found only as we, in partnership with otherkind and other people, live in relationship with God, our life-giver, Creator, sustainer, and true home. There is a sense in which humankind and otherkind share this earth as ‘home’, but we do so as co-participants in a fallen creation, in which human sin had the deceptive capacity to convince us that we can make our final home here.

The Christian message tells us that mankind has lost its way – staggering between anthropocentrism and biocentrism like a drunken man grasping for support. All human beings are caught in this problem, and we are incapable of delivering ourselves from it. There is, however, a solution. To borrow John Lennox’s illustration again, the cosmic Aunt Matilda has spoken and we know what the cake is for! God, our Creator has revealed Himself to us.

Revelation is a kind of evidence that lies outside the naturalistic methodology of science as it suggests that a 'supernatural' being exists and has communicated verbally to and through people and in events experienced by people. That is not to suggest that revelation cannot be tested in the same way that any phenomenon can be tested. The Bible, for example, claims to record events of history and these can be tested by historians and archaeologists. They can show how the biblical record compares with what is known from other sources, but what they cannot 'prove' is whether or not the Bible had its origin in a divine author. Christians believe that God has revealed Himself in several ways. We can broadly speak of two types of revelation, within each of which there are two predominant forms:

a) General Revelation

This is revelation from God about Himself that is available to all human beings. J. Budziszewski writes about five different types of general revelation,[4] but we will focus on just two which are most clearly identified in the early chapters of the book of Romans. General revelation is universally accessible to human beings, but it is limited in its scope.

Creationthe evidence of order in the cosmos

God’s revelation in the first place is through the order and majesty of the cosmos. The intricate workings of the universe, the delicate balance of factors that makes life on earth possible and that makes it an ideal place from which to observe the universe, and the diversity and complexity of living organisms are all indicators of design by a powerful and creative person. Paul writes about this in Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

This revelation is available to all, but it can only give us a glimpse of the Creator – we can infer from the appearance of design (which is acknowledged even by atheists) that there is a designer and we can begin to understand something of his qualities. Certainly we can say that if there is a Creator He must be immensely powerful and we can say something about His nature, that He must be highly creative and (presumably) loving. This falls far short of complete knowledge about God, and it does not offer any suggestion of how we may come to know the Creator or what He requires of us. It is simply enough to set us on a quest to discover whether He exists and to seek more revelation from Him. It is possible to deny and reject this revelation, but Paul warns that those who do will not have an excuse before God.

Consciencethe evidence of natural law

I have already written earlier about the idea of natural law in Christian thinking and its basis in Romans 2:14-15. I highlighted at that point the distinction between the natural law itself and the conscience which is our subjective experience of a dimmed awareness of natural law. I also spoke about the limitations of natural law. Conscience is often effective in helping us to realise that we need guidance and even forgiveness, but it cannot tell us who the guide and forgiver is. The tension we discover within ourselves between good and evil and our constant desire for meaning is a gift from God to lead us to Him. In Christian belief, however, God has not left us with simply an echo of His character and will in our hearts, He has revealed Himself in other ways that show a much clearer picture of our moral responsibilities. According to Christians, the conscience must be tested and trained against the standard of the Bible, the revealed word of God. To quote J. Budziszewski:[5]

There is a natural law, and it can be known and philosophically analyzed. But that which is beside the Scripture can be vindicated only with the help of Scripture; that which is revealed before the gospel can be secured against evasion only in light of the gospel.

So, then, conscience is limited in its usefulness but is still a form of general revelation from God. The mention of the Bible prepares us to consider the second type of revelation.

b) Special Revelation

In addition to general revelation, which is available to all people, there are means by which God has revealed Himself more completely. We can describe these as examples of 'special' revelation because they are not available to everyone, only to those who have heard about them. General revelation can show us that there is purpose in the world (Creation especially shows this) and that something has gone wrong (Conscience especially shows this), but we need special revelation to know God more. Christians believe that God can reveal Himself directly to individuals, for example through dreams, visions or inner voices, but that there are two forms of special revelation that are objectively available to all who hear of them and are the standard by which more subjective forms of revelation can be tested.

Covenant – the history of God’s relationship with Israel and the Church as recorded in the Bible

Christians claim that the 66 books of the Bible are the record of God’s interaction with people through events in human history, especially with the nation of Israel and then with the early Christian Church. It is, however, more than simply a record of history – it also contains God’s commentary on that history, His interpretation of the events. We are given an insight into the purposes of God, a grand epic story that runs from Creation to a new Creation. It is not a complete record of God’s interaction with all people or people groups – it focuses on God’s central purpose to call one nation which would receive His words and from which a Saviour for all nations could be born. It is vitally important at this point to realise what the Bible claims for itself. It does not claim simply to be the words of people about God (as if they saw certain events and attempted to explain how God was working through them) but to be God’s words about people and events. It is a collection of books by different people living in different periods of history and cultural contexts and with different personalities, but it tells one united story of God’s love for mankind and His plan to rescue people from their lostness and sin. The idea of covenant is central to this story, a covenant being a binding relationship based on promises. The Creator can be known and has bound Himself to His people. He is faithful to do what He has promised. Sadly, John Gray appears to be ignorant of the Old Testament. He claims that: [6]

Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance… The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.

Yet that idea did not originate with Christianity – it was present in Hebrew thought centuries before Christ.

Christ – the perfect revelation of mankind and God

The ultimate revelation of God, in Christian thought, is in the person of Jesus Christ, a man who lived nearly two thousand years ago and whose life and teaching are recorded in eyewitness accounts contained in the Bible. The message about this man has been transmitted throughout the generations of the Christian church. God did not simply show us what man is like through the history of Israel (graphic though the Old Testament’s depictions of humanity are) or His comment upon it (incisive though the words of prophets in Israel were). He revealed what man was intended to be through the life and words of a perfect man, who was without sin. The idea of the “image of God” finds expression in the New Testament only in the person of Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). It is not that the New Testament denies that all people are created in God’s image, but that it recognises that we all fail to live up to His standard and so fall short of perfectly expressing His image (Romans 3:23). Jesus was the only true human who has ever lived – in perfect harmony in all three dimensions of relationship – and in Him we see mankind fulfilling its God-given purpose (Hebrews 2:6-9). Jesus was fully man. He entered into our darkness and confusion like a shining light illuminating the tension at the heart of every one of us. Yet Jesus’ life was more than a revelation of humanity, it was also a perfect revelation of God. God’s ultimate revelation of Himself to us was by becoming one of us – by being pleased to have His fullness live in a man (Colossians 1:19). Jesus was the Word of God (the revelation of God) incarnate (John 1:14), the exact representation of God’s person and the perfect revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-3). Equality with God was His rightful position, but He chose to become human – to enter our world as a man (Philippians 2:6-8). Christ’s incarnation is key to a biblical understanding of humanity.

The dignity of mankind is found ultimately in the fact that God could become one of us, the purpose of mankind is seen in the perfect life of Christ, and the full extent of the sin of mankind is seen in the fact that God had to become human to die and so to deal with the problem. Jesus did more than set an example and teach people about God. As a perfect human being he was able to become our representative and to stand before God and take responsibility for our rejection of God (Hebrews 2:14-18; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). He could take God’s wrath (His righteous anger at sin), accepting the punishment we deserved, and through His death deal with the problem of sin once and for all. His resurrection from the dead proved that His death accomplished this and through it He became the first of a new human race. He is the first of a new kind of human being who will live in relationship with God forever. His resurrection is the guarantee that those who trust in Him will also be raised in the future to receive a new body in which we can inhabit a new creation where the effects of sin are removed and everything is as God intended it to be. The Christian Church is intended to be a community of this new humanity, expressing the reality of life under God’s rule and living out Christian ethics in genuine community.

One Response

If you are an atheist or agnostic you may be thinking, by now, that this talk of the Christian life sounds a little far-fetched. I realise that it is difficult to understand the power of God if it is not something you have experienced, but Christians will testify to their experience of God’s power in their own lives. You may wonder what would happen if you started to accept the possibility that God may exist and to seek Him. Christians also claim that the Bible makes sense of life and has the ability to transform people who read it with openness. Why not begin to read it and consider its claims? Furthermore, the Christian message is dependent on historic events that can be tested. Did Jesus really exist? Did He die as Christians claim? Did He rise again from the dead? If this Christian message, which claims to be good news ('gospel'), is really true, then there can be only one possible response – to humble ourselves before our Creator, acknowledging our sin and asking for forgiveness, asking Him to guide us from now on and to change us into what He intended us to be. Only He can teach us who we really are and what our life is for, and He alone can be trusted with our lives. We can entrust ourselves to Him. You may be ready to take that step of faith, or you may not be at that stage, but I would encourage you to keep seeking, to be open to the possibility that your life has a purpose and that the One who made you knows and loves you and wants you to know and love Him too.

The Christian Story in Summary

The Christian message as it relates to mankind tells us that:

• Mankind was created by God to be His image – reflecting His nature and living in harmonious relationships with Him, with one another, and with the rest of creation and acting as God’s stewards in tending His creation. Being human means to be born into an unbroken line of humanity tracing its ancestry to God, the Creator.

• We have fallen into the error of rejecting God, believing we can live without Him. As a result, we alternate between anthropocentric and biocentric views of the world – acting as if we were God or as if we were animals. We are blinded in this sin.

• God has revealed Himself, shining His light into our darkness through the order of Creation, the law written on our hearts as testified to by conscience, the biblical record of His covenant relationship with Israel, and ultimately through Christ who was fully God and fully man.

• Christ revealed perfectly who God is and what mankind can be. He died as our representative to deal with the problem of sin, and He rose again as the first in a new restored humanity.

• We must respond in humility, recognising our sin and asking for God’s forgiveness and His guidance through life. We must adopt a theocentric view of the world.

• God accepts those who respond to Him into a new relationship with Him. They become part of the new humanity in Christ and will share eternally in God’s good purpose and in His life.

Go to 9. Christian Ethics


[1] Blaise Pascal
[2] I would define sin as human beings’ rejection of God, whether this takes the form of an open rebellion against Him or a neglect of Him. Sin is living as if God did not exist.
[3] Sherlock, Charles 1996, The Doctrine of Humanity in the ‘Contours of Christian Theology’ series, IVP, pp.127-8.
[4] Budziszewski, p.180.
[5] Ibid., p.183.
[6] Gray, John 2002, Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, Granta, p.47.

Go to 9. Christian Ethics

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