Every person reading this is a human being. But what does that actually mean? “Human dignity” is a term used by Christians (and non-Christians) in policy conversations about a vast array of topics including poverty alleviation, humanitarian aid, abortion, and euthanasia. As Christians, we believe that God creating humankind in his image means that every person possesses an inherent and inalienable dignity. In other words, every human life is precious because every life belongs to a person who bears God’s image. Because of the value and preciousness of each life, it is vital that we develop a clear biblical understanding of what a human is and what the image of God implies.
What is a human?
Our culture has wrongfully placed the responsibility of defining personhood onto individuals instead of our Creator, who, as “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13), has the rightful authority to define our being. Claiming false authority over personhood has led to broken families, distorted views of sexuality, and heinous acts such as abortion in our society. Thankfully, through the creation account, the Bible helps us understand specific ways human beings are set apart from the rest of creation. Though faithful scholars differ in certain respects about exactly what it means to be made in God’s image, below you’ll find three characteristics about humanity that are clearly implied by the opening section of Genesis.
1. Humans are relational
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26)
When God created mankind, he did so as a Trinity of three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God created us to live in community with him and with one another, reflecting his relational nature. As one God in three persons, God is relational by nature. Similarly, humans are made to operate in relationships. This is precisely what God emphasizes when he creates Eve to live in union with Adam and says, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
Through the blood of Jesus, God invites us into fellowship with the divine Trinity. John writes in 1 John 1:3, “Indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” God’s heart for relationships is further revealed in the New Testament when he establishes the familial nature of the church, encouraging believers throughout the New Testament to “devote themselves to fellowship,” to “have one heart and one mind,” to “bear one another’s burdens,” and to “love one another with brotherly affection” (Acts 2:42; 4:32; Gal. 6:2; Rom. 12:10).
2. Humans are distinct/unique
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
In creating us, God not only gave us the ability to love and enjoy companionship with one another and himself, but he also made us distinct in two ways. First, as mentioned above, mankind is made in God’s image. And from Genesis, we learn that human beings are distinct because we are the only part of God’s creation that he specifically made in his image.
Second, God made us distinct in terms of biology. As Genesis 1:27 tells us, God designed us as either male and female. These distinctions in biological sex are apparent in many ways, including our DNA and external features. Each sex is unique, and various aspects of God’s nature are displayed in both men and women. Ultimately, these distinctions are an important part of the mystery of the gospel, particularly when they are on display in a one flesh union between a husband and a wife.
As the New Testament explains, the male and female marriage relationship is a picture of Christ’s love for the church. Paul writes of the mysterious, holy complexity of the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5:32: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.” Long before Christ’s incarnation, God purposefully created humanity as male and female and designed the marriage union to display truths about himself.
Biological sex in every individual is one aspect of God’s design that proclaims his creativity and gives us a clearer picture of his image. The distinct features each human bears remind us that no life is ever interchangeable, replaceable, or worthless.
3. Humans are commissioned
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
Every person has a designated role as a steward and cultivator over the earth. God gave Adam a job: to have children, to subdue the ground, and to rule over the other living creatures. Each of us can subdue, or tame, the earth through all kinds of vocations, but this command reveals that God has designed a place and a purpose for each of us (Eph. 2:10). God has included in our makeup the ability to procreate, desires and determination to care for and protect our families — with specific callings designed for husband and wife — to produce things that are good and useful, and to assert leadership in various settings. In order to preserve ourselves and care for loved ones, we employ different gifts and talents that add value to the world and subsequently seek the good of our neighbors.
God sets his image-bearers above creation and other created beings in giving us vocations. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is widely taught and accepted, observing the phenomenon of trade as an obvious outlier from the way animals relate. Smith is merely observing what has been woven into creation — God has uniquely commissioned his image-bearers to work and care for his good creation, and even the marketplace puts his creative design on display.
The special care God took in setting humans apart from other created beings is why a Christian understanding of human dignity is important when considering issues of justice. Slavery, genocide, abortion, and exploitation of all kinds are tragic displays of treating other humans as utilities. But God’s unmistakable genius in each of our bodies, minds, hearts, and personalities denies any attempt to devalue a human’s worth. These practices are considered “inhumane” because they treat people as a means to an end, more like subordinate animals than respected brothers and sisters.
As Christians, we must defend the vulnerable on the grounds that humans are image-bearers; there is no amount of privilege or power that makes a man or woman more or less valuable. Physical distinctions are often a barrier to relationships and an excuse for sinful and exploitative uses of authority, but the Bible makes no distinction when it comes to a person’s value; every person bears the imago Dei, and every person matters.
When God finished creating heaven, earth, and us, he called his masterpiece “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Long ago, God defined our worth so sinful humans wouldn’t be responsible for determining the value of a life. From conception to death, humans have dignity, eminence, and significance because we are the only creatures God made in his image. We may not understand the full picture of the imago Dei until we are face to face with God in heaven, but we do see God’s image reflected in how humans are relational, distinct, and commissioned.