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"What Does it Mean to Be Human?"

Part Five: A Biblical Assessment of Humanity

In our previous installments we have considered man’s futile search for his true identity and determined that mankind can never know who he is on his own.  Given man’s limited perspective and the pervasive effects of sin, human beings will never be able to ascertain a proper understanding of themselves apart from God’s revelation.  Scripture defines humanity as being in the image of God.  Man’s difficulty in understanding his identity is due to his idolatrous desire to overstep his bounds and declare himself to be something he is not. We are most human when we best reflect the character of God.  Understanding this helps us to properly assess what it means to be human.

Assessing Humanity

Since true humanity is imaging God, and that image has been defaced in the fall, many assessments of humanity are naturally defective. When we make our appraisal from within the boundaries of the fall, we will always have a warped sense of humanity. For example, many people suggest that it is simply human to sin. But this is not quite accurate. There will be a time when redeemed humanity, in Augustine's words, will not be able to sin. There will be no sin in the new heavens and the new earth. Therefore, the old adage, "to err is human, to forgive is divine," could do with some revising. It would be more biblically accurate to say "to err is to be a member of fallen humanity," for it is true that fallen man cannot help but sin. Yet, sinning is not God's plan for redeemed humanity in eternity.

How else might we revise such maxims of assessment? Instead of "to err is human," it would be more accurate to say "to be finite is human" or "to be dependent is human." Such statements are true since man will always be finite and dependent upon God. Because man is a creature designed to image God, he will undoubtedly err when he is not living in dependency upon his Creator. But "erring" is not an essential characteristic of humanity.

Our assessment of true humanity might be easier if we apply a basic litmus test. Whenever we wish to suggest that some characteristic or action is evident in the nature of humanity, would should be able to replace the word "human" with the phrase "the image of God" and the statement remain true. For example, "to err is human" sounds reasonable enough. However, "to err is to be in the image of God" exposes the fallacy of such a statement. With this test, assessments that acknowledge such things as gossip or fickleness as essential to human nature are exposed as false. While all human beings may be subject to such temptations, they are not of the essence of true humanity but fallen humanity.

Despite man's falleness, he does occasionally make correct evaluations of humanity. However, such assessments are accurate only because they are informed by the righteous standard of God's character. For example, when someone behaves in a manner that is cold, calculating, and without conscience, we accuse that person of not being human. But, to have a conscience is human precisely because God is the standard from which the light of conscience comes. The fall has darkened the conscience to the point that, unaided by revelation, it is no longer a reliable guide. But to have a conscience, to be concerned by a sense of right and wrong, is certainly human. We might also consider the definitions of the words humane and inhumane. Humane is defined as "characterized by kindness, mercy, or compassion," while inhumane is defined as "lacking pity or compassion." We generally consider people who have no mercy or compassion as inhumane, less than human. When we apply our test, we find the definitions to be true. To merciful is human because our Creator is a God of mercy. Therefore, to be merciful is to be in the image of God.


Since the essence of humanity is imaging God, we can never truly know ourselves without knowing God. Of course, since we were designed to image God, we can never truly know God until we know ourselves in this specific sense. In other words, we cannot know ourselves until we know the One we were created to reflect; that is the essence of what it means to be human. On the other hand, as images of God we cannot know the One we were created to reflect until we know that reflecting Him is our design and purpose. We learn such knowledge of God and ourselves through special revelation. We learn who we are from God's Word. Likewise we discover that the knowledge of God required to truly know ourselves is very specific kind of knowledge. It is much more than the accumulation of information. It is a knowledge of God that is rooted in relationship. It is a knowledge of God that comes from turning our hearts and affections toward His face that we might reflect His glory. This is the true joy of humanity. As the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism declares, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." To be truly human is to live in a God-ward posture. Man will undoubtedly continue his search for his identity, but he will never find it apart from His Creator and God. In the words of Augustine, "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee."

- Stan McGehee Jr

Next month in our last installment in this series on the What Does it Mean to Be Human? we will consider how to biblically assess the nature of true humanity.