What makes us human?
Is humanity, for instance, expressed by our actions? The term humane—expressing compassionate actions—is one measure of humanity. We call people humane if they care for needy and hurting people. Or even needy animals as in the “Humane Society.” A question, then: are humane people more human than those who are inhumane?
Or is humanity a simple function of our being, as in our existence as human beings? That’s certainly a bottom line if we only think about our biology—about our physical status as a particular and discrete species. We aren’t insects, reptiles, fish, or fowl but humans.
That’s true but, again, isn’t the biological answer too narrow? Think, for instance, about some morbidly evil people in history: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and others. These are just a few of hosts of people who have been called sub-human. Is there something to the charge?
Or are such people just representatives of a less-positive side of humanity—the opposites of the more humane crowd? Opposite but still part of a single spectrum?
No. The truth, biblically, is that something is missing in those who are inhumane. Their humanity is incomplete so that they betray the substance of true humanity.
Yet our instinct is to deny the Bible as we take our physical experience to be final. We may use the analogy of animals. We can trace a range of qualities within a given species. Dogs, for instance, are still dogs whether a given dog is a family-friendly golden retriever or a dangerous junkyard pit bull, right? So aren’t humans just another species among the animals that display a wide character range?
This is where a key question comes into play. Do we really believe in the spiritual realm—in the supernatural world portrayed in the Bible? Or do we dismiss it?
A couple of Bible portrayals of humanity may shed some light for us. The first is the change in Adam and Eve after they rebelled in Eden. And the second is the “measure of full manhood” Paul used in Ephesians.
Genesis 3 and the fall of Adam turned on the question of whether Adam would die if he ate from a forbidden fruit tree. God said he would die “in the day” if he ate from it and the serpent said just the opposite. So Adam ate of it and everything changed: his relations with God, with his wife, and with nature.
Jesus—in John 3—certainly had this in mind when he treated Nicodemus as dead rather than alive. The Pharisee had been born “of the flesh” but not of the Spirit. In other words he lacked the Spirit and was, therefore, devoid of God’s eternal life. He was dead although alive physically. Jesus had, in effect, affirmed the continuing application of God’s promise to Adam that humanity would die in the ‘day’ of his eating the forbidden fruit. The serpent had lied and God had told the truth.
Paul saw the point and its significance when he wrote to Christians in Asia Minor. In Ephesians 2:1 he applied the point Jesus made to Nicodemus to all humanity—“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Death is our separation from God’s life. Salvation, on the other hand, is God’s work of making some humans “alive together with Christ” (2:5).
The true measure of unspoiled humanity was revealed in the creation of Adam and Eve in God’s image and likeness. The relational basis of God’s being—of God’s eternal existence as the “us” who is “one” and who speaks of his existence as “our image”—set up the relational basis for humans as the singular “man” who is both male and female in marriage.
Paul then tied that creation design—“the two shall become one flesh”—to speak of the eternal marriage of Christ and the church as he linked the marital passage of Genesis 2:24 to the union of believers to Christ by means of the Spirit—see 1 Corinthians 6:17 and Ephesians 5:32.
What, then, is true of unspoiled humanity? Of humanity united to Christ? Listen to Paul once again. We are to live as those who are united to Christ and who have his Spirit’s life within us. And by this we are to grow together, “until we all attain the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood [humanity] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” [Ephesians 4:13, ESV]
Here’s the point. Jesus is the fully human man—Adam’s unfallen replacement—and we must be united to him to be truly human. So when we see the inhumanity of man we see the world of Adam but not of Christ. And all who are not born of the Spirit are still in that realm. It is a humanity devoid of life rather than a living humanity. And with that comes the distortions of subhuman living—differing only by the extremes it may reach.
What is the solution to this sub-humanity? Nothing less than the life of Christ, and he invites us to that life as a free gift of love. Call it the “good news” of at last being what we were meant to be!