What Is Human?

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What Is a Human?

You are standing in front of a large tub. It has, say, 6 gallons of water, 37 lbs. of carbon, 6.5 lbs. of nitrogen, 3 lbs. of calcium, 2 lbs. of phosphorus, and about 4 lbs. of some other trace elements. Ethically, you could do anything you wanted to that soup—buy it, sell it, experiment on it. But, if that same material were rearranged very precisely, it would be your neighbor. She would have autonomy and dignity; no one could buy or sell or experiment on her without her consent, even if she had died. Why? What is so special about that particular configuration of matter?

Our instincts on this question are unreliable. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal,” he owned men—and women—whom he did not treat as his equals. History is littered with examples of dehumanization as a pretext for oppression. The examples of Jefferson, or the American eugenics movement of the early 20th century, remind us that even the more “enlightened” members of society are blind to their own prejudices. So where can we find a more robust definition of humanity to guard bioethical reflection against such horrors?

Christianity provides the radical answer that humans are created in the image of God, or the imago Dei (Gen 1:26–27). But what exactly does this mean? Until the mid-twentieth century, Christian thought on the imago Dei focused on uniquely human capacities, usually reason and morality.[1] But if a capacity is absent, or damaged, does this mean that the imago Dei is degraded? A focus on capacities risks dehumanizing the very old, the very young, or those with disabilities.

Recent advances in archeology and history provide scholars a much richer context for understanding how the Bible uses the word “image”—one which goes beyond mere capacity.[2]

First, in many ways, the creation narrative in Genesis 1 resembles a pattern of temple-construction.[3] Now, if you were building a temple in the ancient world, the final step would be to erect an image of the deity. This is exactly what God does when he says, “Let us make man in our image.” The cosmos is the temple in which God is worshipped, and humanity stands in the center to point toward God.[4] This is why God commands us to make no image of Him for use in worship: we are to create no image of God because God has already created his own image—humanity itself.

Second, historians have found that in the ancient Near East (ANE), an image of a god such as a statue was thought to contain the spirit of that god, and could serve as its representative. Ancient cultures referred to kings as “the image of god” for the same reason: a king was considered “a representative of a god . . . ruling on the god’s behalf.”[5]

Finally, in the last century, scholars have gained access to numerous ANE covenant documents, including treaties in which a great king would appoint a lesser king to serve as his representative ruler over some region. Scholars have observed strong structural similarities between these covenants and the Pentateuch.

With these three observations, the intent of the phrase “image of God” in Genesis 1 snaps into focus. When God gives the blessing to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Gen 1:28, ESV), he identifies the imago Dei as a vocation, situated within a covenantal relationship. Not only kings, but every human, without exception, is created for this unimaginably high calling, to be God’s representation, placed in His temple, showing what God is like, and his royal representative, protecting and tending the created world. Uniquely human capacities are given in service to this vocation, but they are not what it means to be human. Crucially, the vocation is established by God’s calling humanity into relationship with Himself, and not by the capacity of humanity to fulfill it.  This means that a person in whom capacities are absent, lost, or undeveloped is no less an image bearer of God, and therefore no less human.

Seen this way, imago Dei has at least two clear implications for bioethics.

First, the imago Dei empowers human biology by providing it with a clear and compelling purpose. Science is one of the most powerful ways that humans fulfill their calling to subdue the earth. As scientists work to cure disease and alleviate suffering of every kind, they bring order where there is chaos, an imitation of the God who calls humanity to represent him on earth. Human biology in particular becomes a means to empower image bearers to flourish in their God-given vocations.

Second, reflection on the imago Dei raises high barriers against dehumanization. Every human being, regardless of appearance, age, circumstance, or capacity, is a sacred image of God, never to be desecrated, always to be treated with great dignity. Scientists, then, must be mindful not only of ways they may directly dehumanize image bearers, but also of ways that their research and technologies may contribute to a culture of dehumanization.

What makes a human a human? Take any single attribute away, from rationality to empathy, and we still recognize the human. What, then, makes a human a human, that can never be taken away? The imago Dei, not an attribute but a divine calling resting on every human, and epitomized in the incarnation of Jesus Christ (John 1:14; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3), provides an answer that grounds our ethical impulses and empowers our ethical endeavors.


[1] For a survey see Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 80.

[2] See Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), esp. chapter 4.

[3] Gregory Beale lists nine different correspondences between the Garden of Eden and the later temple, indicating that “the Garden of Eden was the first sanctuary in sacred history.”  Gregory K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (2005): 5–31.

[4] See Meredith Kline, Images of the Spirit (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 13–34.

[5] I. Hart, “Genesis 1:1–2:3 As a Prologue to the Books of Genesis,” Tyndale Bulletin 46, no. 2 (1995): 318.