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"What Does it Mean to Be Human?"

Part Four: The Image of God

In the first three installments of this study we have considered man's historically futile search for true humanity and addressed the question of whether man can ever know the true nature of humanity. If, from the moment of conception, all human beings are marred by sin, we cannot even observe what humanity is truly supposed to be. Yet, through the grace of God, the holy and sinless Son of God came into this world. For one brief, shining moment, we beheld perfect humanity. The Word of God defines the true humanity exemplified in the incarnation. It is to that revelation that we now turn.

The Image of God

What does it mean to be truly human? The world has offered many suggestions, but we have already discovered the futility of following that particular path. When we look to the Scripture, we find a very simple answer. In Genesis 1:26 we read, "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'" That which is unique to humanity, that which distinguishes man from the rest of creation, is being created in the image of God. This is the essence of true humanity. We were created to reflect God, to mirror His character and purpose in the earth. We are most human when we fulfill that purpose and most inhuman at those points where His purpose and character are utterly obscured.

We must realize that imaging God is not simply a feature of humanity; a mirroring quality added to everything else man perceives himself to be. We do not merely bear the image of God, we are His images. This is the essence of humanity and it pertains to the whole of our existence. This is why sin so pervasively mars that image. In this respect, many Christians are confused about the doctrine of total depravity. It does not propose that man is as evil as he could possibly be. This would be a complete eradication of God's image. Rather, it refers to the fact that every aspect of man's being has been disfigured by sin. We were created, not just in part, but in totality, as images of God. We are like cracked and defaced mirrors. Our imaging capabilities have not been completely destroyed, but they have been corrupted. Our fragile humanity has suffered defilement. In the fall, the image of God has been defaced but not effaced. We have lost the capacity to reflect God as we really should. The fall has left man shattered; he exists as a mere shadow of his former self.

Oh the Inhumanity!

We need to be cautious when defining the problem of human identity. At certain times, most people have a profound sense that they, and the lives they lead, are trivial and demeaning. They have a nagging notion that they were intended for something more; they long for authentic existence. But, in a world consumed with the concepts of personal identity, human dignity, and self-affirmation, we often frame the question incorrectly and define the problem inaccurately. The problem is not is not humanity but, in a broader sense than often defined, inhumanity. In other words, the problem is not being human, the problem is living in a manner that is less than human; the problem is being fallen.

In the garden, we find Adam and Eve desiring something more than what they were created to be. They wanted to be other than human. However, grasping for more, they ended up with less. They lost even that which they had. This was the original defacing of humanity. In this same spirit, man, in his pride, continues in this desire to be more than what he was intended to be. He is not satisfied with being human, even though, because of the fall, it is something that he actually knows little about. Instead, he wants to be a god. Man aspires to a place that is not his, all the while never even attaining to that for which he was created. He confuses his state of fallen humanity for the essence of true humanity. This is a fatal mistake. In hopes becoming a god, man sacrifices the honor of imaging God for the indignity of inhumanity.

Many Christians fall prey to the deception that humanness is their Achilles heel. Too often, Christians believe that the solution to their problems will come when they achieve some ethereal state in the resurrection, finally freed from this sinful body. However, according to Scripture, we need to be freed from sin and corruption, not the body. The body is an essential aspect of who we are as human beings. In the resurrection, we will not be raised to some incorporeal state; we will be raised with new, physically tangible bodies. In this respect, Christianity is unlike any other world religion. While several other religions have some explanation of immortality, a state of ultimate existence, none teach the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Without exception, these religions seek an eternal state that supercedes humanity. However, remembering that the essence of humanity is to image God, this is the eternal state to which God's people are called. In the resurrection we will not be freed from humanity, but all traces of inhumanity.


When human beings fail to reflect God as they should, they are living lives that are less than human. We do not need to be more than human, but more human than we have been since our degradation in the Fall. What we need is to reflect the image of God. This is the essence of true humanity.

- 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.