What Are Human Beings?
When we look at the heavens, when we consider the moon and stars, when we consider the enormity of the universe and the stupendous powers involved in each star, we might well wonder why God bothers with us at all. We are so small, so limited—like ants scurrying to and fro inside a terrarium. Why should we think that he even looks at this anthill called earth, and why would he even care about each individual ant?
Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo
Modern science is expanding our awareness of just how large the universe is, and how powerful each star is. In astronomical terms, humans are no more significant than a few randomly moving molecules—but yet it is humans who are asking the questions of significance. It is humans who develop the science of astronomy, who explore the universe without ever leaving home. It is humans who turn the universe into a springboard for spiritual questions. It hearkens back to Psalm 8:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet 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 8:3-6, quotes in in this article are from the NRSV).
So, what are human beings? Why does God care about them? They are in some ways like God himself, yet inferior, yet crowned by God himself with honor and glory. Humans are a paradox, a mystery—tainted with evil, and yet believing that they should behave morally. So corrupt in power, but yet having power over other living things. So far below God, and yet called honorable by God himself.
What are human beings? Scientists call us Homo sapiens, a member of the animal kingdom. Scripture calls us nephesh, a word that is also used for animals. We have spirit in us, just as animals have spirit in them. We are dust, and when we die, we return to the dust, just as animals do. Our anatomy and our physiology is like that of an animal.
But Scripture says that we are much more than animals. There is a spiritual aspect to human beings—and science cannot tell us about this spiritual part of life. Nor can philosophy; we cannot come up with reliable answers just by thinking about it. No, this part of our existence must be explained by revelation. Our Creator needs to tell us who we are, what we are supposed to do, and why he cares. We find answers in Scripture.
Genesis 1 tells us that God created all things: light and darkness, land and sea, sun and moon and stars. Pagans worshipped these things as gods, but the true God is so powerful that he can call them into existence just by speaking a word. They are totally under his control. Whether he did it in one day, six days, or six billion years is not nearly as important as the fact that he did it. He said it, it was done, and it was good.
As part of all creation, God also created humans, and Genesis tells us that we were created on the same day as the animals. The symbolism of this seems to say that we are in some respects like the animals. That much we can see for ourselves.
The image of God
But the creation of humans is not described in the same way as everything else. There is no, "And God said...and it was so." Instead, we read, "Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion’" (Genesis 1:26). Who is this "us"? The text does not explain, but it is clear that humans are a special creation, made in the "image of God." What is this "image"? Again, the text does not explain, but it is clear that humans are special.
Many theories have been suggested for what "the image of God" is. Some say it is intelligence, the power of rational thought or speech. Some say it is our social nature, our ability to have a relationship with God, and male and female reflecting relationships within the Godhead. Others suggest it is morality, the ability to make decisions that are good or evil. Some say the image is our dominion over the earth and its creatures, that we are like God’s agents to them. But dominion itself is godly only if done in a moral way.
Exactly what the first readers understood from this phrase is open to question, but it seems to say that humans are in some way like God himself. There is a supernatural significance to who we are, and our importance lies not in being like animals, but in being like God. Genesis does not tell us much more. We learn in Genesis 9:6 that each human is in God’s image even after humanity sinned, and for that reason murder must not be tolerated.
The Old Testament does not mention "the image of God" again, but the New Testament gives more meaning to the phrase. There we learn that Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God, reveals God to us in terms of his self-sacrificial love. We are to conform to the image of Christ, and by doing so we achieve the full potential that God intended for us when he made us in his image. The more we let Jesus Christ live in us, the closer we are to God’s purpose for our lives.
Let’s go back to Genesis, for it tells us more about why God cares so much about people. After saying, "Let’s do it," he did it: "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27).
Note here that women and men are both made in the image of God; they have equal spiritual potential. Similarly, social roles do not change a person’s spiritual value—a person of high intelligence does not have more value than one with a low intelligence, nor does a ruler have more value than a servant. We are all made in the image and likeness of God, and all humans deserve love, honor and respect.
Genesis then tells us that God blessed the humans, telling them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (v. 28). God’s command is a blessing, which is what we would expect from a gracious God. In love, he gave humans the responsibility to rule the earth and its living things. The humans were his stewards, taking care of his property.
Modern environmentalists sometimes accuse Christianity of being anti-environmental. Does this mandate to "subdue" the earth and to "rule" the animals give humans permission to destroy the ecosystem? Of course not. Humans are to use their God-given power to serve, not to destroy. They are to exercise dominion in the way that God does.
The fact that some humans misuse this power, and misuse this scripture, does not change the fact that God wants us to use it well. If we skip ahead in the story, we will learn that God told Adam to till and keep the garden. He could eat the plants, but he was not to use up or destroy the garden.
Life in the garden
Genesis 1 concludes by noting that everything was "very good." Humanity was the crown, the capstone of creation. This was just the way God wanted it to be—but anyone who lives in the real world realizes that something is now terribly wrong with humanity. What went wrong? Genesis 2 and 3 explain how an originally perfect creation became marred. Some Christians take the account pretty much at face value; others view it more as a parable. Either way, the theological message is the same.
Genesis tells us that the first humans were named Adam (Genesis 5:2), the common Hebrew word for "human." The name Eve is similar to the Hebrew word for living—"The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living" (3:20). The names Adam and Eve, to use modern terms, mean Human and Everyone’s Mother. What they did in Genesis 3—sin—is what humanity as a whole has done; the story illustrates why humanity is in a less-than-perfect situation. Humanity is typified by Adam and Eve—humanity lives in rebellion against its Creator, and that is why sin and death characterize all human societies.
Note the way that Genesis 2 sets the scene: an ideal garden, somewhere that no longer exists, watered by a stream. The picture of God shifts from a cosmic commander, to a nearly physical being who walks in a garden, who plants trees, who shapes a person out of the ground, who breathes into his nostrils to give him life. Adam was given something more than animals had, and he became a living soul, a nephesh. Yahweh, the personal God, "took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (v. 15). He gave Adam instructions about the garden, asked him to name all the animals, and then created a woman to be a human companion for Adam. Again, God became personally involved, physically active in creating the woman.
Eve was a "helper" for Adam, but that word does not imply inferiority. The Hebrew word is most often used for God himself, who is a helper to humans in our needs. Eve was not invented to do the work Adam didn’t want to do—Eve was created to do something that Adam was unable to do on his own. And when Adam saw her, he recognized that she was basically the same as he was, a God-given companion (v. 23).
The narrator concludes chapter 2 on a note of equality: "A man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed" (vv. 24-25). This is the way that God meant it to be, the way it was before sin entered the picture. Sex was a divine gift, nothing to be ashamed of.
Something went wrong
But now the serpent enters the story. Eve was tempted to do something that God had forbidden. She was invited to follow her emotions, to please herself, instead of trusting the instruction of God. "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate" (3:6).
What went through the mind of Adam? Genesis does not say. The point of the story in Genesis is that all humans do what Adam and Eve did—we ignore the word of God and do what we please, making up excuses as we go. We can blame it on the devil if we want to, but the sin is still within us. We want to be wise, but we are foolish. We want to be like God, but we are not willing to be the way he tells us to be.
What did the tree stand for? The text does not tell us anything more than "the knowledge of good and evil." Is it experience? Is it wisdom? It is moral authority? Whatever it represents, the main point seems to be that it was forbidden, and that it was nevertheless eaten. The people had sinned, had rebelled against their Creator, had chosen to go their own way. They were no longer fit for the garden, no longer fit for "the tree of life."
The first result of their sin was a changed way of viewing themselves—they saw something wrong with their nakedness (v. 7). Even after making loincloths, they were afraid of being seen by God (v. 10). And they made their lame excuses.
And God explained the consequences: Eve would bear children, which was part of the original plan, but now it would be with great pain. Adam would till the ground, which was part of the original plan, but now it would be with great toil. And they would die. In fact, they were already dead. "In the day that you eat of it you shall die" (2:17). Their true life in union with God was over. All that was left was mere physical existence, far less than the true life God intended. And yet there was potential, for God still had his plans.
There would be struggle between the woman and the man: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (3:16). People who take matters into their own hands (like Adam and Eve did) instead of following instructions are likely to have conflict, and brute strength usually prevails. This is the way society is, once sin has entered the picture.
So the scene has been set: The problem that humans find themselves in is their own fault, not God’s. He gave them a perfect start, but they blew it, and everyone ever since has been infected with sin. But despite human sinfulness, humanity continues to be in God’s image—tarnished and dented, we might say, but still the same basic image.
This divine potentiality still defines who human beings are, and this brings us to the words of Psalm 8. The cosmic commander still cares about human beings because he made them a little bit like himself, and he gave them authority over his creation—an authority they still have. There is still honor there, there is still glory, even though we are temporarily lower than we were designed to be. If our vision is good enough to see this picture, it should lead us to praise: "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Psalm 8:1, 9). God is to be praised because he has a plan for us.
Christ, the perfect image
Jesus Christ, God made flesh, is the perfect image of God (Colossians 1:15). He was fully human, showing us exactly what a human being ought to be: perfectly obedient, perfectly trusting. Adam was a type of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:14), and Jesus is called "the last Adam" (1 Corinthians 15:45). "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people" (John 1:4). Jesus restored the life that was lost through sin. He is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).
What Adam did for physical humanity, Jesus Christ does for the spiritual revision. He is the starting point of the new humanity, the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). In him, everyone will be made alive again (1 Corinthians 15:22). We are born again. We are starting over, this time on the right foot. Through Jesus Christ, God is creating the new humanity, and sin and death have no power over this re-creation (Romans 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:24-26). The victory has been won; the temptation has been rejected.
Jesus is the one we are to trust and the model we are to follow (Romans 8:29-35); we are being transformed into his image (2 Corinthians 3:18), the image of God. Through faith in Christ, through his work in our lives, our imperfections are being stripped away, and we are being brought closer to what God wants us to be (Ephesians 4:13, 24). We are going from one degree of glory to another—to a much higher glory!
Of course, we do not yet see the image in all its glory, but we are assured that we will. "Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we will also bear the image of the man of heaven [Christ]" (1 Corinthians 15:49). Our resurrected bodies will be like Jesus Christ’s: glorious, powerful, spiritual, heavenly, imperishable, immortal (vv. 42-44).
John put it this way: "Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is" (1 John 3:2-3). We don’t yet see it, but we know it will happen, for we are God’s children, and he will make it happen. We will see Christ in his glory, and that means that we will also have a similar glory, able to see spiritual glory.
And then John adds this pastoral comment: "And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure" (v. 3). Since we will be like him then, we try to be like him now.
So humanity is a multilevel being: physical and spiritual. Even the natural human is made in God’s image. No matter how much a person sins, the image is still there and the person is of tremendous value. God has a purpose and plan that includes every sinner.
Through faith in Christ, a sinner becomes a new creation, modeled after the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In this age, we are just as physical as Jesus was during his earthly ministry, but we are being refashioned into the spiritual image of God. This spiritual change means a change of attitude and behavior, brought about because Christ lives in us and we live by faith in him (Galatians 2:20).
If we are in Christ, we will bear the image of God perfectly in the resurrection. Our minds cannot now fully grasp what that will be like, and we do not know exactly what the "spiritual body" will be, but we know that it will be wonderful. Our gracious and loving God will bless us with as much as we can enjoy, and we will praise him forever!
When you look at others, what do you see? Do you see the image of God, the potential for greatness, the image of Christ being formed? Do you see the beauty of God’s plan at work in giving grace to sinners? Do you rejoice that he redeems a humanity who went astray? Do you rejoice at the majesty of the wonderful plan of God? Do you have the eyes to see?
This is far more wonderful than the stars. It is a far more glorious creation. He has given his word, and it is so, and it is very good.