It is when it comes to ethical issues that the question becomes most apparent. It sits there hovering in the dark and gloomy corners of debates concerning the nature of gender and sexuality. It looms large in the background on questions regarding abortion and euthanasia. And it is ever present in the boardroom as tech moguls and politicians discuss the emerging conundrum that is artificial intelligence.
The question, of course, is what is a human? Or perhaps, what does it mean to be human?
Rarely is it presented or viewed as starkly as that, but it is there. Consider some of the key matters at hand in these discussions: “Does my biology define who I am?” “What is the purpose of sex?” “When does life begin?” “When does life stop being worth it?” “Can humanity be upgraded?”
At their core, each one of these questions concerns the fundamental nature of humanity, and yet rarely do these debates acknowledge the severity of what is at stake. We settle for debating the fringe issues without ever considering the foundations upon which all our assertions stand or fall: what is a human?
Because if we are honest, how we define humanity lies at the core of all these matters and has vast implications for how we order our society, how we define right and wrong, how we make laws and policies, and even how we deliver healthcare.
One such example of this debate in the UK, is present in discussions concerning the revolutionary impact of the pill on our understanding of sex, and therefore our understanding of male and femaleness, all of which has had significant knock-ons for debates regarding marriage and divorce, culminating in the 2013 decision to legalise same-sex marriage and the 2019 decision to introduce no-fault divorce.
Or consider the discussion about the beginnings and end of life. Although euthanasia has yet to make significant ground in the British Parliament, abortion was introduced in 1967 with radical implications for our understanding of healthcare and human life.
Abortion ends an otherwise healthy pregnancy marking a shift in which the goal of healthcare is no longer to restore the body to a state of health and function but to ending, or overcoming, healthy bodily function – in this case, growing a baby.
Once the focus has shifted healthcare need not stop there, as all sorts of aspects of the human body and human experience can, in theory, be overcome or transcended should the individual concerned will it. As a result, it is only a short walk towards a culture of genetic engineering, plastic surgery, and ultimately gender reassignment surgery in which human biology is something to be overcome in service of the ‘inner self’.
Whilst each of these developments faced opposition prior to their introduction, they are now widely accepted as societally necessary if not good, right, and just by vast swathes of the country.
What is particularly striking about this whole conversation is how quick has been the pace of change. The 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill included explicit protections for religious organisations that did not wish to marry same-sex couples, and yet a mere 10 years later, MPs openly discussed in the House of Commons using legislation to force the Church of England to change its official teaching.
There are a whole host of factors at play from many and varied standpoints, but what is clear is that our country’s understanding of what it means to be human has radically changed.
Although authors such as Tom Holland argue that these developments have come about precisely because of Christian teaching (and there is merit to his thinking), it is hard to disagree that the fundamental tenets of a Christian doctrine of humanity have been thrown by the wayside.
And whilst as Christians who hold that God’s word is a source of life and liberty we will inevitably be saddened by the societal rejection of His teaching; the great tragedy of our current moment is that this revolution is also at work within our churches themselves.
In fact, some have gone so far as to posit that this question is at the heart of the potential next great schism in Christianity: “[T]here have been three great crises in the history of the Church. The first, in its early centuries, revolved around the question ‘What is God?’. That is to say: how many natures were in Jesus Christ, how many persons in the Trinity, and so on. Then, during the Reformation, ‘What is the Church?’. The third crisis… is happening now, over the question of ‘What is man?’. This relates… to ‘an entire alphabet of beliefs and practices: abortion, bisexuality, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, family, gender, homosexuality, infertility treatment…’”
It is an absolute imperative then that as Christians we must respond to these twin debates (both within and without the church) by strengthening our understanding of what it means to be human and upholding the goodness of God’s design to a world (and church) in open rebellion against human nature.
Arguably we have already been far too slow out of the starting blocks, having lost most of the debates in the public square, and now great swathes of the church are also distancing themselves from biblical truth. But as the full consequences of these decisions come to fruition, we can equip ourselves to pick up the broken pieces of shattered societies, fractured families, and hurting people, and point people to the God of grace and truth whose design and law has never existed to squash our fun, but to show us the way to a flourishing life.
Where do we begin?
We are made in the image of God.
We must of course start right back in Genesis with the biblical account of God’s creation of humanity:
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
Right from the opening verses of the Bible we see that humanity is made in God’s image, they are set apart from the rest of God’s creation for no other animal or thing is made in this way. As Christopher Watkins puts it “the message is clear: human beings are different.”
And for all the discussion and debate around precisely what this means it has had a transformative effect on human morality and our perceptions of fellow people. Historian Tom Holland argues that this is true even of the humanist:
“Yet humanists, no less than Jews or Christians, are indelibly stamped by it. In fact, if there is a single wellspring for the reverence they display towards their own species, it is the opening chapter of the Bible.”
Humans are to be considered of value and great worth for they, and they alone, image their creator. The value of human life is then driven home when we consider the one whom they represent, and the value this bestows upon them.
Richard Lints writes: “In contrast to the pagan mythologies of royal dominion, Genesis 1 affirms the royal reflection in all of humankind and not simply the king or other office holder. It is humankind considered as a whole that represents the invisible bodiless God. The entire human race is God’s royal stand-in.”
Perhaps with our secular liberal sensibilities this does not immediately ring true, and yet when we consider some of the other philosophical and theological considerations of humanity, we immediately note the unparalleled dignity bestowed upon humanity by the Christian faith.
Consider the mechanistic worldview of atheistic evolution. Humans are a random accident. A mere animal. There is nothing particularly special or set apart about us and if there is, it is humanity’s ability to survive and adapt – a worrying message for those of us that are not the strongest nor most innovative.
Or ponder the revival of gnostic ideas in which the soul is preferred to human bodies which are devalued and seen as restrictive, dirty, and a source of limitation upon us. Although, the spiritualism of early Gnosticism is not the driving force in this present cultural moment, its fingerprints are clear to see all over the transhumanist and transgender movements.
There is plenty more that could be said here for the image of God is a huge and revolutionary idea, but at its plainest, we learn from it that humans are special, unique, and reflections of God Himself. This should, as Aslan says in Prince Caspian, be “honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar”.
Human life is precious no matter your station in life, no matter your economic value, no matter your cognitive or physical abilities. Humanity has been made in the image of God – it is precious and without rival for it reflects God Himself.
We have been fearfully and wonderfully made.
Intrinsic to the creation account is the idea that God not only made humanity in His image, but that they are made very good. Throughout Genesis 1, God sees that His creation is good, but when we come to the sixth day on which God creates mankind, He deems His creation “very good”.
Humanity is the pinnacle of God’s good creation, and this comes with great honour and dignity. Psalm 8 adds to our understanding:
“When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet”
It is worth contemplating just how radical an idea this is. Compared to the rest of the universe, it really is quite a statement to hold humanity as “very good”. As the Psalmist considers the works of God, there is a palpable sense of awe that it is humans who are God’s focus of attention.
Think about the light of the sun. The depth of the ocean. The power of the lion. The mystery of the bumble bee. The glory of a sunset. And still God cares for mankind. What a wonder!
It is this special and unique concern for humanity that forms the second pillar in our Biblical framework. For God knows intimately those He creates, and for all humanity’s weakness and frailty, one cannot remove the beauty of His creation. Psalm 139 states:
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”
Even at the very start of human life, as a baby grows and forms in the womb, God is at work fashioning and giving life to each and every person. His knowledge of them is intimate and deep: their lives are there before Him, and it is His work that creates the wonder of new life.
It is for this reason that Christians have, since the very start of the church, valued human life from conception to life’s natural end. It is for this reason that early Christians scoured the rubbish dumps of Roman society offering life to the unwanted babies abandoned to die.
It was for this reason that when plague struck the cities, it was Christians who remained behind to care for the sick. And it was for this reason that the world was transformed as Rome was so put to shame by the early Church’s overwhelming concern for the vulnerable and needy, that the Emperor Julian the Apostate lamented that the “Galileans, to our disgrace, support not only their poor but ours.”
It follows that Christians are to be radical proponents of life, fierce champions for the dignity of all people, and sacrificial servants in seeking the wellbeing and good of all.
In a world in which abortion is now the leading cause of human death globally at 73 million per year, in which euthanasia is increasingly seen as a solution to poverty, and where elements of the environmental movement tend towards ecofascist and anti-natalist ideas, this remains a revolutionary idea.
We are not our own.
A further, yet obvious, implication of being created is that we are creature not creator. Or to frame it differently, we belong to another. Just as copyright denotes who created the book that you are reading and to whom credit belongs, so as image bearers of God we bear God’s mark, and it is to Him we belong.
Hoekema puts it like this “one of the basic presuppositions of the Christian view of man is belief in God as the Creator, which leads to the view that the human person does not exist autonomously or independently, but as a creature of God.”
Historically, believers have recognised this as one of the founding principles of the faith. The Heidelberg Catechism picks up on verses such as 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 in its very first statement: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and death”.
I am not my own, rather I belong wholly to another.
There is perhaps no statement more radical than this for a culture which considers the autonomy, authenticity, and self-actualisation of the individual to be the highest good. With ever greater pushes to become less reliant on others, and ever more independent, it is this biblical idea that most threatens our individualistic way of life.
And yet the Bible teaches that to belong to God has always been a key part of Christian discipleship. As might be expected, this has radical implications for the way we are to understand ourselves as well as live our lives.
While such a claim inevitably challenges a worldview in which I am free to pursue whatever lifestyle I wish, humans flourish when they live according to their design.
The freedom of the self is illusory in the goods that it promises. Just like a fish that jumps out of its fish tank in pursuit of freedom, only to find that the very thing it thought was constraining its liberty and joy was actually the source of all that was good and life-giving, so too humans run away from the design and laws of their creator in pursuit of a better life only to find they are like a dog returning to their own vomit.
Indeed, Scripture likens our rebellion against our maker to swapping a fountain for broken and cracked cisterns:
“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
For all that we need to be wary of a judgemental moralism, we need to rediscover a confidence in God’s Law and sing as the Psalmist does of the goodness of God’s word. We will thrive most as humans, when we live according to the purpose and nature for which we were designed, to which our attention now turns.
Our chief end is to glorify God.
So argues the first clause of the Westminster Catechism. For believers, this has radical implications for how we ought to live our lives, with challenges for both our individualistic and narcissistic culture, as well as more traditional cultures in which hierarchies and family relationships play a greater role.
Ultimately our purpose as people created by God, in His image, is that we are to image Him. Hoekema writes “we should not think of the image of God only as a noun but also as a verb: we are to image God by the way we live, and the heart of the image of God is love for God and for others”.
This fits in with Jesus’ teaching in Mark 12. When questioned on which of the commandments is greatest, Jesus replies: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Our very purpose is to bring God glory and to reflect His glory to the world and at the heart of this is love. A love for God, and a love for others.
And indeed, it is for this purpose that humanity was given freedom, and in the gospel is restored to freedom. Hoekema writes: “Not only does true freedom mean the service of God; it also means the service of others.”
Such thoughts are also found scattered throughout the New Testament with Romans 12 calling on believers, in light of the gospel, to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God”. Such thinking is reaffirmed in places like Galatians 5: “do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
And with this in mind, our lives are turned upside down. We belong to another, and our chief aim in life is to glorify Him and to serve others. What a challenge this poses - and yet as the writers we have referenced draw attention to, it is the very means by which true freedom and flourishing is found.
Humanity is fallen.
As we ponder this, our chief task and greatest goal, it immediately becomes apparent that this is something none of us have done nor can do. Psalm 14 makes it abundantly clear:
“The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
They have all turned aside,
They have together become corrupt;
There is none who does good,
No, not one.”
And Romans 1 concurs, for the typical human experience is a failure to glorify God and a failure to give Him thanks, despite our knowledge of Him. But in God’s great mercy, and whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. And as David Shaw puts it, this is good news for “it is clear in Scripture that God will not abandon humanity to its sin.”
Whereas we fall short in our imaging of God, Christ excels for He is the perfect representation of God. Hoekema puts it like this: “As one can tell by looking at a coin exactly what the original die that stamped out the coin looked like, so one can tell by looking at the Son exactly what the Father is like. It is hard to imagine a stronger figure to convey the thought that Christ is a perfect reproduction of the Father. Every trait, every characteristic, every quality found in the Father is also found in the Son, who is the Father’s exact representation”.
Christ offers a means of restoration. “His faithful work brings original humanity to its intended destiny… His earthly life embodied the true calling of humanity, his resurrection represents the destiny of all people, and these are both tightly bound to the restoration of sonship, loving rule, and holiness.”
So, for the Christian, there is hope. And this is a hope that cannot help but overspill, a hope that goes to the very end of the earth transforming all in its wake. It is the hope that all will be made well.
All will be made well.
An underappreciated aspect of this article is that for all the beauty of the doctrine of humanity, the Fall has greatly mired the human condition, and not just the human condition but the wider creation itself.
People get sick. People die. People live in poverty, addictions, and pain.
Sin ruins relationships. Sin destroys communities. Sin impoverishes the environment.
With all this in mind, it is no wonder that as people we are tempted to look down on our embodied humanity as a curse. It is no wonder that we seek to use technology to ease and overcome the pains and burdens we feel in this life. And it is no wonder that people “eat and drink for tomorrow we die”.
And yet the beauty of a biblical understanding of humanity is that for all the pain and misery our sinful rebellion has brought into this world, that is not where the story ends. Rather, the biblical account ends with a scene of unparalleled beauty. Revelation 21 outlines our destiny:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Our relationship with our Creator will be restored and we will image Him perfectly. All the pain and misery of this life will be no more, and what is more, it will all be very real and very physical. Though we do not know fully what our human condition will be like, we know that in the New Creation we will continue to be embodied human beings – only these bodies will be free from death.
“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
The end point of humanity is not disembodied existence floating on a cloud, nor ongoing suffering in a broken creation and in broken bodies, rather the Bible offers hope of a very real and very tangible future.
John Wyatt outlines the future like this: “Our ultimate human destiny is not a Gnostic escape from physicality nor the transcendence of our created human nature through technological enhancement. Rather it is the discovery of the astonishing glory of the physically incarnate Image of God, the Second Adam. This is our true human telos, the ultimate reality for which our humanity was created and redeemed”.
For all that humanity is subject to death and decay in this life, to suffering and strife, the biblical endpoint is neither the destruction of humanity, nor the overcoming of this flawed race. Rather the biblical story is one of redemption in which humanity will be restored and redeemed.
Amidst the pain and brokenness of this life, this account of humanity’s origins, fall, and redemption offers an explanation for the confusion of a world which sees both the honour and the horrors of humanity. Likewise, this is a story of hope: for though we were captured by the forces of sin and darkness, Christ came to set captives free and rose again as proof of the future life to come.
This is hardly an exhaustive article. With all the challenges concerning the nature of humanity in our modern life, one simply cannot cover all the necessary ground and material. Nonetheless, it is important that we begin to reckon with these things.
Christians must come to terms with the nature of our embodied existence, the beauty of our created design, the despair of the Fall, the authority of our creator, and the hope of the resurrection if we are to stand firm amidst the questions of our day.
And yet we cannot stop there, for the doctrine of humanity is good news beyond our four walls. As society becomes ever further detached from a biblical understanding of humanity there will be an increasing sense of confusion about the most foundational questions in life. These are not distant and impractical questions. Rather, they cut to the very heart of everyday life itself with inevitable real consequences.
‘How do I form and maintain healthy relationships?’
‘What does it mean to be myself?’
‘Should I allow my child to…?’
‘Who am I and where do I come from?’
For many of us, the doctrine of humanity can at times feel awkward, outdated, and unnecessarily inflexible, but as our society embarks on a great experiment playing with the very nature of humanity itself, we can be confident that what God has ordained as our blueprint (as well as His roadmap for redemption) is good news for all.
Of course, further work and thinking ought to be done for the challenges are complex and many. They range from questions concerning gender and sexuality, beginning and end of life, beauty and depravity, sickness and health, technology, and the nature of the physical.
Yet despite the scale of the task before us there is much reason for hope. The word of the Lord is a firm foundation, useful for all matters of discipleship, and an anchor to keep us steady throughout the chaos of modernity. His Son offers hope and redemption in even the darkest of situations, for death has been defeated. And His Spirit brings renewal and transformation that we might one day stand before our maker restored.
Let us push further on and further in as we seek understanding. And let us be unwavering in our willingness to hold out the doctrine of humanity as good news for a confused world.
 The impact of the pill is explored in detail by both Mary Harrington and Louise Perry. The details concerning the change to the definition of marriage can be found at: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/lawofmarriage-/. Details regarding no-fault divorce are outlined in HM Government’s press release and can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/blame-game-ends-as-no-fault-divorce-comes-into-force.
 Mary Harrington’s concept of ‘Meat Lego Gnosticism’ might be a helpful idea here. See Carl R. Trueman, ‘Mary Harrington Takes on the Machine’, Fairer Disputations, https://fairerdisputations.org/mary-harrington-takes-on-the-machine/ [last accesses 17/07/23].
 For the bill see: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/lawofmarriage-/. For a flavour of the debate in the House of Commons see https://twitter.com/PBottomleyMP/status/1617935006982352907.
 See Tom Holland’s book Dominion or articles such as ‘Homosexuality’s Christian Roots’: https://unherd.com/2021/04/homosexualitys-christian-roots/ to explore his ideas further.
 Richard Rex as referenced in ‘The Third Great Crisis in Christianity’, Dan Hitchens, The Spectator, 8th April 2023.
 Genesis 1:26-27.
 Christopher Watkins, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, p.84.
 Tom Holland, ‘Humanism is a Heresy’, Unherd, https://unherd.com/2022/12/humanism-is-a-heresy-2/ [last accessed 06/07/23].
 Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and its Inversion, p.70, quoted in ‘A Little Lower Than The Angels’, Primer, Issue 11 – The Doctrine of Humanity, p.37.
 Most notably it should be stated that humans are made male and female, a revolutionary idea for a culture seeking to overcome the binaries of being sexed beings.
 C.S. Lewis, ‘C.S. Lewis Quotes’, Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1069006.C_S_Lewis?page=4 [last accessed 06/07/23].
 “God saw that is was good” can be found in Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, before the crescendo of creation in Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”.
 Psalm 8:3-6.
 Psalm 139:13-16.
 Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, pp.125-126.
 Kenneth Barding, ‘How Did Early Christians Respond to Plagues? Historical Reflections as Coronavirus Spreads’, The Good Book Blog – Biola University, https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2020/how-did-early-christians-respond-to-plagues [last accessed 07/07/23].
 As quoted in David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p.121 cited in Sharon James, How Christianity Transformed the World, p.106.
 See for example World Health Organization statistics on abortion, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/abortion [last accessed 07/07/23]; The CityNews report ‘Ontario man applying for medically-assisted death as alternative to being homeless’, https://toronto.citynews.ca/2022/10/13/medical-assistance-death-maid-canada/ [last accessed 07/07/23]; and ‘Why a generation is choosing to be child-free’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/25/why-a-generation-is-choosing-to-be-child-free [last accessed 07/07/23].
 Antony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, p.5.
 The Heidelberg Catechism, https://students.wts.edu/resources/creeds/heidelberg.html [last accessed 06/07/23].
 See for example Matthew Weaver, ‘‘Moral duty’ to allow family and friends to make big life choices, says Cambridge philosopher’, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/26/advising-others-on-crucial-life-choices-immoral-says-cambridge-philosopher [last accessed 07/07/23].
 See for example Romans 14:7-9 or 1 Corinthians 7:12-20.
 Proverbs 26:11.
 Jeremiah 2:13.
 See Psalm 119 for an example.
 The Westminster Larger Catechism, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/westminster-larger-catechism [last accesses 17/07/23].
 Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, p.52.
 Mark 12:29-31.
 Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, p.242.
 Romans 12:1.
 Galatians 5:13.
 Psalm 14:2-3.
 Romans 1:21.
 Romans 5:6, 8.
 David Shaw, The Doctrine of Humanity in Scripture, in ‘A Little Lower Than The Angels’, Primer, Issue 11 – The Doctrine of Humanity, p.41.
 Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, p.21.
 Shaw, The Doctrine of Humanity in Scripture, pp.42-43.
 Isaiah 22:13 and 1 Corinthians 15:32.
 Revelation 21:3-4.
 1 Corinthians 15:42-44.
 John Wyatt, Ghost of the Machine: Image of God and Technology, in ‘A Little Lower Than The Angels’, Primer, Issue 11 – The Doctrine of Humanity, p.55.