Three thousand years ago, an ancient sage gazed at the world and asked the most important question anyone could ask about our corporate humanity:
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him…? (Ps. 8:3–4)
Indeed. What is man? What does it mean to be human? You cannot answer a single question of consequence regarding human beings without answering that question first. Everything vital, meaningful, and moral about us hangs on its answer. It is the quintessential query regarding the nature of human existence.
MANY OTHER QUESTIONS FLOW TOWARDS THIS ONE
Is gender fixed or fluid? Is homosexuality natural or perverse? Is there a right to abortion? What about capital punishment? Or sexual slavery? Or social justice?
The answer to each of these questions depends upon an answer to a prior question: What is man?
There are three ways to respond.
1. NATURALISM: WE ARE NOTHING
Here is the first way, the response of naturalism — the religion currently governing science. According to pop “Science Guy” Bill Nye, “We are just a speck, on a speck, orbiting a speck, in the corner of a speck, in the middle of nowhere.”
“We emerged from microbes and muck,” Carl Sagan declared. “We find ourselves in bottomless free fall…lost in a great darkness, and there’s no one to send out a search party.”[i]
And they are right, of course. In a world without God, humans are nothing but cogs in the celestial machine, cosmic junk, the ultimate unplanned pregnancy, left to build our lonely lives on the “unyielding foundation of universal despair,” as atheist Bertrand Russell put it. Nihilism — bleak “nothing-ism.”
2. NEW AGE: WE ARE GOD
There is a more cheerful alternative, though: the New Age answer to the question “What is man?” There is a God, according to Rhonda Byrne, and he is you. In The Secret, her celebration of human divinity, she writes:
You are God in a physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You…. You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. [ii]
So the secularists have given us two options. Either there is no God, or there is and we are Him. Cosmic debris or divine perfection. In either case, we are alone — solitary nothing or solitary everything. Scylla or Charybdis.
3. A THIRD WAY: NEITHER GODS NOR GARBAGE
Our ancient sage, though, provides a third answer. No, we are not God, but we are not garbage, either. There is another alternative, a path between those two monsters. It is also one that makes complete sense of our deepest intuitions about what it means for us to be human.
THE ODDITY THAT IS EARTH DAY
Something has always confused me about Earth Day celebrations. They seem to be based on a contradiction. Earth Day is a fete enjoyed by naturalists, on the main, who celebrate nature as ultimate and man’s unique moral responsibility to protect it.
There, did you see it? Did you catch the contradiction?
In order to see the misstep, you must see something else first. Worldviews come in packages. They are like puzzles with particular pieces fitting together into a coherent whole. Foundational concerns either fit crisply with other details or foreclose on them.
In a naturalistic worldview, nature is all there is — physical things in motion strictly governed by the deterministic laws of physics and chemistry. In this package, then, there is no place for actual moral obligations of any kind because morality is based on free choices, not on physical determinism.
Further, Darwinism is a strictly materialistic process that produces strictly material goods. No pattern of genetic mutation and natural selection can cause an immaterial moral obligation to pop into existence. [iii] Thus, no living thing can have an obligation to protect another. The locusts take what they can and leave nothing for the hapless boll weevil. Nor should they. May the best bug (the “fittest” critter) win. That’s the program.
Nature’s “balance” is maintained by the corporate tug o’ war for survival that all living things engage in (on this view), not by one species acting responsibly towards another. There are no moral hierarchies in nature since nature has no resources to build them. Thus, the notion that a specific animal, even a human one, has responsibility of stewardship over any other — much less over nature’s entire project — is completely foreign to Darwinism and, thus, to naturalism. In short, there is nothing in an atheistic, naturalistic world that makes sense of man’s obligation towards nature.
That’s the contradiction.
MY FATHER’S WORLD
As I said, it confuses me, and it ought to trouble naturalists, too, but it doesn’t appear to.
There is a reason for this, I think. To them it just seems obvious — regardless of their underlying worldview — that humans are different in a qualitative way, making us responsible as stewards over the world entrusted to us. That’s not the exact language they’d use, of course, but it’s what the intuition driving Earth Day amounts to.
And they are right about this intuition, of course, but certainly not in virtue of naturalism. Naturalists can talk all they want of human obligations, human meaning and purpose, human value, human significance — even human rights — but it’s all chaff in the wind given their foundational understanding of reality.
There is a worldview, though, in which each of these features of human worth makes perfect sense. Ours.
Here is what the Earth Day crowd gets right: Man is different. Humans are special. People are responsible precisely because they are not the same as anything else in nature. And we all know this, which is why the fact continues to stubbornly assert itself even with people whose worldview package cannot justify it.
That’s because this world is not Mother’s world (“Mother Nature”). It is Father’s world.
Here is what Father says about human beings. Humans are beautiful, but they are also broken. They are good, but they are also guilty, and so they are lost. But it hasn’t always been this way, so there is hope for rescue.
These are things we all know, it turns out. They reflect our deepest intuitions about ourselves and the world we live in.
Carl Sagan says we are cousins of apes.[iv] That is Mother’s assessment, of course. Father says different:
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:27)
This is the starting point for the answer to our question, “What is man?” At the core of our being lies a mark, an imprint of God Himself — not on us, as if foreign and attached, but in us, as a natural feature built into our natures. This mark is part of what makes us what we are, who we are. We would not be humans without it, but only creatures. Because of this mark, we are not kin to apes. We are kin to the God who made us for Himself.
I do not want you to miss the significance of this simple statement, “God created man in His own image,” the very first thing said about humans at the outset of God’s Story. It means that anyone reading these words — indeed, every person who has ever lived or died or hoped or dreamed anywhere on this planet at any time in history — bears something beautiful at their core, a beauty that can never be lost and cannot be taken from them.
No, we are not gods, but we are like God in an important way. God’s image in us is what makes abortion a homicide and sexual slavery a travesty. It is the reason we are not free to treat each other like animals. It is why certain “inalienable” rights belong uniquely to us. It is also the basis for our friendship with God. We are like Him so we can be near Him in an extraordinary, intimate way.
In a very real sense, then, you have never met an “ordinary” person.[v] Because of the mark of God within our souls, we are each extraordinary in a way that no disfigurement — physical or moral — can ever change, no circumstance can ever alter, no thief can ever steal. It is God’s forever gift to humanity, His image on our being.
Thus, we are precious to Him as nothing else is. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31).
Notice something else about Father’s world. God says He made us “male and female.” God made gender binary, not “fluid.” There are two and only two, not a vast array. This is a good thing — one made to match the other, each designed to fit the other physically for reproduction (obviously) and soulishly for oneness when paired together in lifelong relationship. The two make one, each “fearfully and wonderfully” made, man for woman, woman for man — the one as the other’s proper, lifelong complement and companion.[vi]
There is another reason for our binary sexuality. Only in the combination of those unique characteristics germane to each gender is the image of God fully manifest. Though in God’s essential nature He is Father, God is neither male nor female, strictly speaking, but shares and manifests the magnificent glories of both genders.
Note one thing more. God said to them:
Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth. (Gen. 1:28)
This is the accurate insight of the Earth Day crowd. We are both masters and stewards; regents on earth, yet servants of the Most High God.
But there is a problem. Something went south.
I want to tell you another thing everyone knows. Something has gone terribly wrong. We call it “the problem of evil,” and it prompts us to ask, “Why is there so much badness in the world?” There is a wrinkle to this concern, though, another detail each of us also already knows.
The world is broken, true enough. But we are broken, too, and our brokenness is a huge part of what is wrong with the world. The world is broken because we are broken. Though man has inherent dignity, he is also cruel. The evil is “out there,” as it were, but it is also “in here” — in us.
Things did not start out that way, though. At the very end of the very beginning, once God had set everything in its proper place, we find this summary of all He had done: “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
All was as it was supposed to be, just as God intended, everything working according to its purpose, man and woman one with each other and the world, resting in their friendship with God.
In that peaceful paradise, though, there was a lone prohibition — a test of fidelity to a Friend, of love to a Father, of loyalty to a King. There was also a tempter who told a terrible lie and a devastating disobedience that changed everything.
When our first parents chose to follow the deceiver rather than their Sovereign, they broke fellowship with their Father, they broke communion with each other, and they broke harmony with the earth they’d been entrusted with. Indeed, when Adam and Eve sinned, they broke the whole world. Human badness made the world go bad.
Because our parents became broken, each of us is now broken like them since they reproduced children just like themselves, and their children have done likewise, one broken generation cascading down to the next.
Each of us is still beautiful, to be sure. God’s image cannot be erased. However, it can be defaced and disfigured, sullied and spoiled. And that is what has happened. Where there was freedom, there is now slavery and struggle. Where there was spiritual life, there is now spiritual death and decay. Where there was friendship with God, there is now enmity and strife.
This is the second part of our answer to the question, “What is man?” Yes, man is beautiful, but man is terribly broken. And it gets worse.
To say we are broken is accurate, but it is also easily misunderstood since it does not go far enough. We are not machines that are malfunctioning. We are not bodies that are ailing. We are subjects who revolted, rebels who are now morally corrupted. We are guilty, and for this we must answer.
Again, each of us knows this deep down inside. Years back, I lectured to a sold-out crowd at the University of California at Berkeley. I made the case against moral relativism simply by observing how frequently we object to evil deeds done by others.
This tendency, I pointed out, explains something about ourselves, too, since we are the “others” doing those evil deeds we object to. And we know it. Deep inside of us is a gnawing awareness of our own badness, producing a feeling we universally recognize. That feeling has a name. I asked them what it was. All over the auditorium I heard their response. “Guilt,” they said, one by one.
Yes, we all feel guilty, don’t we? At some point or another, if we are honest with ourselves, we feel the pain of our own brokenness. “But why?” I asked. “Why do we feel guilty? How about this,” I suggested. “Maybe we feel guilty,” I said, “because we are guilty. Is that in the running?” This, of course, is exactly what the Story tells us:
There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one. (Rom. 3:10–12)
Humans are beautiful, yes. But humans are also broken. And in our moral wretchedness we are also profoundly guilty. We owe. We are in debt, not to a standard, not to a rule, not to a law, but to a Person — to the One we have offended with our disobedience. And this is not good news, since our guilt has severe consequences.
At the end of the Story we find a dark passage.[vii] It tells of the final event of history as we know it, a great trial on a great plain where a great multitude of the accused — the guilty ones — stand before a Judge. The books of death are opened, each of our moral lives laid bare for all mankind to see — the record in the books the basis for a final reckoning, a last judgment.
Nothing is missed or overlooked. From massive acts of evil to minor moral missteps, no sullied deed passes. “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known,” Jesus warned (Matt. 10:26). “Every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment,” He said (Matt. 12:36). It is not a pretty picture.
Before the Judge stand all the beautiful, broken, guilty ones, each shut up under sin.[viii] Every mouth is also shut, each voice muted, silenced from any defensive appeal or any excuse, all the world accountable to Him with whom we have to do.[ix] The record in the books speaks for itself.
Here is Sagan’s “bottomless free fall” — mankind “lost in a great darkness.” He is right about that, since we are all guilty, and no judge owes a pardon. Atonement must be made. The debt must be paid. Justice must be perfect.
There is one more detail to the Story, though. I did not leave the students at Berkeley in despair, abandoned under the weight of their own guilt — culpability that we all shoulder, blame that we all share.
“The answer to guilt is not denial,” I told them. “That’s relativism. The answer to guilt,” I said, “is forgiveness. And this is where Jesus comes in.”
Sagan is right when he says we are lost. But he is wrong when he says, “There’s no one to send out a search party.” Clearly, man needs rescuing, and he cannot rescue himself. Help must come from the outside. From outside of ourselves. From outside of Sagan’s closed cosmos. From outside of this world.
And the search party has arrived. The Rescuer has come:
Therefore, when [Jesus] comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, but a body You have prepared for Me; in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come…to do Your will, O God.’” (Heb. 10:5–7)
Because our souls bear God’s own image, we are wonderful. Because we have rebelled against the God who gave us our beauty, we are broken, guilty, and ultimately lost. “For the wages of sin is death…” the Story tells us (Rom. 6:23). In the darkness, though, there is hope, because it then adds, “…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
He is the One who calls to us:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt. 11:28–29)
[i] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (New York: Random house, 1994), 6, 51.
[ii] Rhonda Bryne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books, 2006), 164.
[iii] In a previous issue of Solid Ground, I explain why Darwinism as a system is completely incapable of generating actual, objective moral obligations. See “God, Evolution, and Morality,” parts 1 and 2, at str.org.
[iv] Sagan, ibid.
[v] I owe this insight to C.S. Lewis.
[vi] Note Jesus’ comment in Matt. 19:4–6.
[vii] Rev. 20.
[viii] Gal. 3:22.
[ix] Rom. 3:19.
Greg Koukl is the author of Tactics, an apologetics primer, and The Story of Reality, which is a lot like this article. He is the founder and president of Stand to Reason, an organization that seeks to equip Christians to be knowledgeable, wise, and godly ambassadors of Christ. This article is reprinted with permission.