From the Archives: The Dignity of Being Human

The other day I was driving in downtown Kokomo and saw a comical sight—comical for me, at least. A man in pickup truck was backing into a parking space, tapped the streetlight pole with his truck’s bumper, and—boom! Down she went. Although he did not hit the pole hard, one weighty tap was all it took.

We, too, are fragile. In Psalm 103:13-14, the psalmist reminds us that, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (ESV).

The fact that we are vulnerable does not mean we are not valuable. God’s compassion is showered upon us like the compassion of a loving father. He values us so intently that He did not spare his own Son for us (Rom. 8:32).

Our human dignity comes from God. Understanding human dignity is a theological point, but that does not preclude it from being an important issue in daily life. It is a crucial matter that affects the life and death decisions we make.

In Genesis 2:7, we are told that mankind originated from the dust: “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

Our physical chemistry is made from the same building blocks that make up the rest of creation. According to (chemistry heading), our bodies are approximately 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1% phosphorous, and fractions of a percent of other elements. Reduced to our elements, our body is worth about one dollar.

Yet we all know intuitively that a human life is worth a fortune. This is why when one commits murder, he is to forfeit his own life, according to Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, 
for God made man in his own image.”

Consider the billions of dollars Americans spend for healthcare. Also consider the laws we enforce to protect our citizens. It is not only Christians who believe that human life is valuable. People instinctively know this is the case.

What makes man particularly valuable is the fact that God “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life.” The Scriptures further inform us that both male and female humans were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).

Being in the image of God means that we are like God in some ways. It does not mean that we look like him (some people believe that God looks like the old guy on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reaching out with his hand!).

We are like God in that we are persons. There are three classes of persons in the universe: God—who is Three Persons—angels (holy or fallen, i.e., demons), and human beings. Two classes of persons have no bodies (divine and angelic), but humans are uniquely connected to both the physical and spiritual world. We are body and soul (spirit).

What makes a person? We might argue that being in the image of God makes one a person. If so, are angels also—in some sense—also in the image of God? Bodie Hodge of Answers in Genesis thinks so:

Often Christians describe the image of God as superior intellectual ability, such as reason and abstract thought, worship of God, language and communication with God, ability to make decisions, creative expression, immortality, emotions such as love, sadness, anger, and so on. These attributes show how separate man is from beasts and other physical entities; however, angels, Satan, demons, and other heavenly host, have many of these same attributes. (“Were Angels Created in the Image of God?”)

Hodge, like others, suggests that angels were probably created in the image of God, though the Scriptures do not directly state this. Certainly they meet the above criteria, unlike animals that meet only some of the criteria in a limited way. (Sorry, this bodes poorly for the idea of “doggie heaven.”) The angels exist to serve God and to serve God’s children, not the other way around (Heb. 1:14).

Implications of human dignity

Many moral, relational, and social issues revolve around who we think we are. Are we merely highly evolved creatures? Does our dignity come from our intelligence? What about abortion? What about end of life issues?

Let’s ask this question first: “Do mentally handicapped people, for example, have value?” We would answer yes. Although such individuals may not be able to express all the attributes involved with being in God’s image, they do possess them. They are persons from a race of persons.

Moving on to abortion, an unborn child has unique genes—not merely those of the mother or those of the father, but a combination. Therefore it is incorrect to assume that an unborn child (whether embryo or fetus) is simply part of the mother’s body. The child is dependent upon the mother for his or her survival, but a baby already born is also dependent upon others for survival. Brainwaves can be detected as early as six weeks. An unborn child is still a child (see Psalm 139). Adoption is the loving option.

End of life issues can be difficult. Many people have told me, “If I need to be put on machines to keep me alive, I don’t want that.” There is another side to consider: sometimes machines (like ventilators) or procedures help a person to survive so they can recover. Many people walking among us today have been on ventilators or have seen their lives preserved by temporary measures.

When it comes to such difficult and complex decisions, I remember the advice of C. Everett Koop. Koop was an outstanding Christian man who served as Surgeon General during the Reagan administration. In a booklet written for pastors and other clergy (we are often consulted in these matters), Koop advised that we try to help people determine whether we are extending a person’s life—or his death. Good advice.

Human dignity comes from God; there can be no objective source for it otherwise. If there is no God, human dignity is a myth and man is nothing more than a creature that pollutes the environment and is wrecking the planet (as the documentaries insinuate). Although we are responsible to care for the environment, it is precisely because God gave man dominion over the earth that we must do so! The earth is not our mother and we are more than polluters. God is our Father, the earth is our stewardship, and we are higher in value than its plants and animals.

Yes, we were created from the dust. Our frame is weak and vulnerable. But the breath of God within makes us a dignified race of persons who—though marred by sin—bear the image of God.

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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