WHAT IS MAN?
by Bob Wheeler
One of the greatest riddles in modern thought involves the most intimate of all questions: what is man? One would think that if we knew anything at all we would what we are – we would know ourselves. And yet in modern secular thought we are largely a mystery to ourselves.
The problem is that the question of man’s identity is closely tied to the question of man’s origins. Most modern thinkers believe that we are the product of evolution, a blind, purposeless natural process. To them there is no such thing as “Intelligent Design.” But this has created a dilemma for the modern thinker. On the one hand it has led some to try to explain human behavior in terms of pure biology – we are physical organisms, and our thought processes are purely the result of brain chemistry. But certain other thinkers, most notably Existentialist philosophers, try to argue that we exist as autonomous individuals, and are thus free to define ourselves as we please. We exist first and acquire and “essence” or identity as we go through life and interact with other human beings.
But both of these viewpoints represent a radical departure from traditional Western thought. The ancient Greeks sensed that there was something special about man, that we were rational beings and not mere animals. We are self-conscious. We have a sense of right and wrong. We communicate with each other through language. And we are conscious of our own mortality. The purpose of education, moreover, was to help us reach our full potential. But that, in turn, implied that there was a kind of ideal humanity that we should all strive to become – a sound mind in a sound body.
But human behavior itself is problematical. We have a sense of what is right, but often we do what is wrong. There are character traits that we admire and others that we detest. But why? Animals do not think that way. Clearly we are not mere beasts and animals. But how did we become so different?
The biblical answer is that we were created by God to be special, but then fell from our original state of innocence and became corrupt. “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26,27; NKJV).
There are several significant things about this passage. First of all the existence of man is the result of a prior conscious decision on God’s part. God first conceived of the idea of “man” (‘adam) and then brought him into actual existence. In other words, contrary to Existentialist thought, man’s “essence,” his defining characteristics, preceded his existence. And this, in turn, means that man must conform to a divinely ordained purpose.
Secondly, what makes mankind so special is that we were created in the “image” and “likeness” of God. There is some way in which we bear a resemblance to God himself. Exactly what this is is not defined in the text, but the text does go on to say that man is to exercise control over the earthly creation (“let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,” etc.). This suggests that man functions as God’s vice-regent here on earth.
This is both humbling and uplifting at the same time. David could look at the starry heavens and exclaim “What is man that You are mindful of him, / And the son of man that You visit him?” (Ps. 8:3,4) On the one hand man is just a mere speck in the vast expanse of the universe. But then David goes on to reflect on the special position that man occupies in the creation: “For You have made him a little lower than the angels, / And You have crowned him with glory and honor” (v. 5 – the word translated “angels” could also be translated “God” – NASV or “heavenly beings” – ESV). David then goes on to say “You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; / You have put all things under his feet . . .” (v. 6) – the animals of land, sky and sea. Certainly mankind occupies a special place in God’s creation!
But man sinned and fell – he rebelled against God and gave himself to all sorts of passions and vices.
“The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
They have all turned aside,
They have together become corrupt;
There is none who does good,
No, not one.”
What this means is that the human race, as it exists today, is a twisted perversion of what God originally created. We fall far short of the ideal humanity. What is involved in salvation, then, is the restoration of the original ideal – of God’s image in man. “. . . since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him . . .” (Col. 3:9,10).
What all of this means in practical terms is that we have purpose and meaning in life – we were created for a specific purpose and were designed to fulfill a specific role. And thus there is a specific goal and ambition that we should have in life: to become the kind of human beings that our Creator intended when He made us.
This explains the paradox of the human condition: we sense that we are more than just animals, but that we are not what we should be. Our inward sense of things is correct, and is confirmed by the revelation that God has given us in His Word.
Man, then, owes his special dignity to the fact that he was created by God in His image. But that means that we can find happiness and fulfillment in life only by submitting to His will, but becoming the human beings that He intended us to be.