What Does It Really Mean to Be Human?
A recent poll for a major Internet search company ranked "What is the meaning of life?" as the toughest question of all, coming far above such other existential stumpers as "What is love?", "Do blondes have more fun?", and "Why do you never see baby pigeons?"
To ask questions about life's meaning is to raise the question of purpose: what does it mean to be human? This is perhaps the most important question we can wrestle with. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychotherapist who survived the horrors of the concentration camps during the Second World War, wrote these oft-quoted words:
For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.(1)
What Frankl was getting at was the question of meaning, does human life have a purpose, is there something we were designed to aim at, something we were intended to be? If atheism is true and there is no God, then there can be no grand purpose to life—we are just freak cosmic accidents, random collocations of atoms thrown up by the tides of time, chaos, and natural selection. We are nothing more than matter, molecules, and atoms. But if that's true, some fairly drastic consequences follow. For instance, there would be nothing wrong with treating our fellow human beings on that basis, as if they were just particles, as mere things. After all, they would have no inherent value or dignity.
Christianity, however, has always explored the question "what does it mean to be human?" very differently, rooting its answer back in the very first book of the Bible, where we read:
So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.(2)
This aren't just fancy theological words, this is foundational, not least for human value and dignity. That humans bear God's image, the imago dei, explains why you have real value, regardless of your gender, race, intelligence, or earning potential—why all human beings are equal. It tells you why human life has dignity, why you must not treat people as means rather than ends, and it also gives a foundation for morality and ethics. All of those things in Western civilization have traditionally sat on the idea that human beings were made in God's image. Toss that idea away as some of my atheist friends wish to do, and all that stands on the ruined foundation crumbles into dust. I say some atheists: others have reflected more deeply. Listen to these words from French atheist philosopher, Luc Ferry:
The Greek world was fundamentally an aristocratic world, a universe organized as a hierarchy in which those most endowed by nature should in principle be "at the top," while the less endowed saw themselves occupying inferior ranks. And we should not forget that the Greek city-state was founded on slavery. In direct contradiction, Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identically, that men were equal in dignity—an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.(3)
But there's another fascinating aspect to Genesis 1. Inherent in the Hebrew word translated "image" is the idea of reflection. It is the nature of a mirror to reflect the thing at which it is angled. The Bible says that our lives are designed to be orientated at God, the mirror of our souls intended to reflect God's glory. But if we don't orient our lives toward God, what will take his place? All of us angle the mirror of our soul at something and if it isn't God, it will be work, or family, or performance, or money, or, like Narcissus of the Greek legend, ourselves, transfixed by our own image, beauty, cleverness, or reputation. But if you try and build your life around one of those things, you will end up a hollow, empty individual, for it will ultimately let you down.
There is only one way to deal with our brokenness, the scratches on the mirror of our soul, and that is to orient our lives at the one whom the Bible describes as the perfect image of God, Jesus Christ. According to the Bible, Jesus Christ was willing to be trampled on, rejected, broken for us, that our broken image might be remade, forgiven, and restored. The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is at heart about restoration: the promise and the power to restore the image of God that we have allowed to become so marred and twisted in us.
If all we had was Genesis 1, we would know that human beings are unique, that they have value and dignity. But we would have no way to get back to that image that we have fallen so far from. But the Bible tells the whole story: the story of what God has done about that problem in Jesus, in the True Image of God, in the cross.
Human beings are not just atoms; we are not just matter. We are more than the stuff of which we are made, more than our economic production, our relationships, our biology, our psychology. We are image bearers who carry incredible value and significance—value so high that Jesus was willing to pay the price of his life to redeem and restore that broken image, that the mirror of our souls might be angled at him and reflect the True Image of God as it was intended: and that in so doing, we might be truly human.
Andy Bannister is Canadian director and a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Toronto, Canada. His forthcoming book The Atheist Who Didn't Exist: Or the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments will be released by Monarch in July.
(1) Viktor E. Frankl, The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), 21.
(2) Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011 ), 72.
(3) Genesis 1:27.
For more on this topic, see RZIM Canada's Short Answers video based on the same theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYXqJ4B3nn4
Or consider registering for one of RZIM's summer schools. Join members of our world-class team and special guests from critical disciplines as we consider the multifaceted nature of humanity, our fears and aspirations, beauty and brokenness, laments and longings—our flaws and our nobility.