How do you understand what it means to be human? Most of us think about humanity in terms of potential or utility—what we might be, or what we actually do. When someone asks us what we do for a living, for example, we say “I am a [fill in the blank].” When we talk about protecting the most vulnerable, it’s usually with an eye toward what they could be, whether a doctor, dentist, or delivery person.
I don’t think this kind of utilitarian approach to defining humanity works. It’s what we see the entire world trying to do every day, and it doesn’t make sense. If our identity is based on our job, education, intelligence, sexuality, or anything else you can think of, we’re thinking too small. We’re thinking in ways our Creator never intended for us. He gives us a better answer to the question we’re asking. He knows what makes a person a person because He’s the One who made us. And what He says is that a person, a human being, is one who is made in His image.
And therein lies the mystery, doesn’t it? What does it mean to be made in God’s image, according to His likeness (Gen. 1:26)? The short version is that as God’s image bearers, we are mirrors, reflecting God’s attributes to the rest of creation in three distinct but complementary ways:
- Our nature. By virtue of being made like Him, we share characteristics with God, our Creator. We are creative and communicative beings. We are logical and rational beings. We are moral and compassionate beings. These are inherent to our nature, hardwired into our DNA.
- Our actions. Humanity is given authority and responsibility over the rest of creation. This is what’s meant by the terms “rule” and “subdue” (CSB), or to “have dominion” (ESV). We “subdue” the earth, harnessing its resources for human flourishing, which naturally encourages wise technological and scientific development. In our dominion or ruling over creation, we not only resemble God using our shared characteristics, but we reflect God in managing the resources He’s provided responsibly.
- Our relationships. All humans are designed for relationships (even introverts like me). Of all the things God created, the only thing He deemed “not good” was that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18). He needed a complement, someone like him who would be his equal, which led to the creation of the first woman from his side. In our relationships, both marital and platonic, we reflect God’s Trinitarian nature, existing in eternal community as the Father, Son, and Spirit.
All these characteristics are unique to humanity, and are fundamental ways in which we resemble God. And although our sin twists and perverts our ability to rightly reflect God, we still reflect Him in some way. Despite our sin, we are what God says we are: His image bearers, and no one and nothing can take this away from us.
This is another post in my informal series exploring different theological concepts for another project I’m working on. As such, application is going to be limited. Hopefully the knowledge will be helpful.