Originally posted here in Westminster Magazine.
Expanding our life experiences, maximizing skill, advancing beyond routine—we are on a treadmill of seeking to transcend human frailty and live the way we want. Not many of us want to live forever on earth, but as humans we attempt to design and shape the circumstances of our lives around personal preference and pleasure. We dream first, limit ourselves last.
The authentic and visible manifestation of this American way of life can be helpful to Christians in getting some perspective. Although the American church has responded to this in several ways: denouncing self-expression, reigning in sinful cravings, re-directing the cultural conversations toward a new or different end, or even making peace with this new “awakened” lifestyle—these approaches have lacked a connection to the larger issue at play. The American way of life reveals a proclamation of the deeper groaning of the heart, a message that illustrates a discontentment with the role of God in the cosmos and how our relationship to him influences human-to-human interaction. Without a clear grasp of who we are in relation to God, our fully designed lives can impact ourselves and others negatively.
On June 24, 2022 Roe v. Wade (1973) was overturned by the Supreme Court, putting forth a serious occasion for Christian reflection, and illustrating this biblical truth. Although initially signaling a “win” to Christian advocates of the unborn, it is more accurately a day of confusion—when the federal government refused to take a moral Constitutional stance and instead relied on historical precedent to send the question of human worth back to individual states. Incremental progress with new opportunities? Perhaps. But in all of this, the value of human life is not an answered question. It is a rejuvenated debate that puts a foundational question back in the laps of every Christian to contend with, “Is human life valuable?”
Instincts Can’t Always Be Trusted
In Western countries we are entrusted with the power of making choices (sometimes irreversible) that impact nearly every part of our lives (e.g. affiliations, location, looks, and lifestyle). This manner of life can give us an awkward unsettledness with the Scripture’s focus on human fragility. I do not want to think of myself as a child—docile, reliant, and prone to error. Yet the starting place of Scripture in describing you, and me, is the image of sheep who need herding (Jn. 10:14), children believing false doctrine (Eph. 4:14), and helpless infants needing instruction (Matt. 18:3; Ps. 131:2). We are repeatedly being sanctified from the ways of the world through the renewal of our hearts and minds (Rom. 12:2).
The contrast, then, between cultural self-autonomy and Biblical dependence on God is significant, and illustrates why it is difficult for us to answer a “basic” question like “Is human life valuable?”
Even many Christians answer this question differently. Some skim the surface of Scripture without wrestling through its implications in navigating complex discussions, or provide a personal assessment loosely connected to God’s Word that only holds true in some contexts and conditions. Here are some examples of what I have heard—I suspect you might recognize a few of these perspectives:
- Humans were created by God so their value cannot be defined.
- Humans have active brains, beating hearts, and pain receptors.
- Humans have heightened emotional awareness, above and beyond that of animals.
- Humans can think and make decisions.
- Humans can form communities, develop values, and recognize beauty in ways that other lifeforms cannot.
- Humans can live the way they choose, without chronic suffering or disability.
These examples each have a common flaw. Failing to understand a deeper biblical foundation, they rely on instinct-based conclusions. Our cultural values present a half-truth, yet on their own they are incapable of encapsulating the fullness of biblical wisdom. These reasons should leave us discontented, pressing for a more concrete standard for why a person is a person and has value. We must discern how our cultural values mesh with what the Bible celebrates and corrects.
Value Comes from Lineage
From the beginning of Scripture, we find that people are set apart from the physical creation in the Genesis narrative (1:26). Humans are created, blessed, and presented as “human” with the phrase “in our own image, after our likeness” (1:26). The text presents us with the same language, “image” and “likeness,” when Seth was born to Adam in Genesis 5:3: “he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” The similarities between these two passages (and other genealogies) begins to shift our attention away from a single attribute that defines humanity such as a physical, cognitive, or emotional characteristic and more toward the sensus plenior (deeper meaning) of the Imago Dei (image of God).
The common thread between Seth’s creation and Adam and Eve’s creation is that the person created came from someone who existed prior. As God brought Adam and Eve into the world and declared them “good,” so too did Adam and Eve produce Seth. Thus, what matters is that we have an ancestral connection to the Maker of humanity.
In Genesis 1, we are introduced to this ancestral connection through an active and relational Creator. God immediately begins doing things, but before He begins working, an assumption is made: He is. It was because of His existence that He had the capacity to craft the heavens, earth, and everything in them. This is where we encounter a starter definition for what it means to be human. Just as Seth’s “image” and “likeness” was tied to his father and mother’s prior existence, so too does Adam and Eve’s “image” and “likeness” originate and derive from God. So, being human involves lineage.
This is affirmed in the creation, fall, and resurrection of humanity. The Westminster Confession of Faith links the creation and fall of the Adamic line by putting it like this.
Our first parents, being seduced by the subtility and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit… By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed… to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.
And among several examples, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, connects the lineage of humanity with the fall and resurrection of humanity, through the sanctifying power of Jesus, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (ESV) The line of Adam is not secondary to the core Gospel message, but part and parcel of it.
To be human, then, is to 1) have a God and Creator who is existent and 2) be a descendent of God through Adam’s line. For believers and non-believers, we share in the same “image” and “likeness” lineage which includes physical, cognitive, and emotional attributes.
- The non-believer still retains their value and designation of being called Imago Dei (Gen. 3:6; 9:6), but lives in tension; a life apart from Jesus and under God as judge, not Father (Isa. 55:1-3; Jn. 4:13-15; Matt. 7). In other words, they are fully human but without a covenantal relationship with God. They are not (yet) spiritually family.
- For Christians, we can say that Abraham, Adam, and God are our fathers in the richest sense of lineage (Gal. 3:29). We are family in every sense, including spiritual. The Imago Dei is not defined differently for believers but is instead marked by the intense desire to please our Savior, which should look radically different in the world (Matt. 5:3-16).
Thus, we can affirm and advocate for the meaning and value of human life (Christian and non-believer) without undermining our familial connection to God. Is, then, human life valuable? Christians respond in the affirmative: our dignity comes from the very Author of the universe. Now, let us explore how the Imago Dei expresses its value.
We are holistically human
By recognizing the lineage of Adam as the basis for being human, we can affirm the myriad characteristics of being human that come along with being a descendent of God’s people (physical, cognitive, emotive), while not reducing humanity down to our favorite combination of qualities. The concept of lineage helps us to not define humanity in a perverse or reductionist manner.
When humanity is seen through this biblical lens, Christians have a useful tool for challenging fragmented definitions of human life. Perceiving how civil society is consistently involved in a process of discerning which interests and values to prioritize over others, Christians can avoid elevating certain human attributes over others by providing balance and parameters. This metalevel view is needed by our communities, which tend toward hyper fixation on one aspect of human experience while dangerously neglecting another (sexual identity, reproduction, financial wellbeing, mental health). Our communities hurt when we define humanity by our own preferences and values.
We challenge “neutral” or “middle-ground” definitions of human life
Made in the image and likeness of God, we have an inherent sensory conception of what it means to be human and have dignity, which means that we frequently project our “ideal human” onto others, knowingly or unknowingly. We seek to make the world in our own image, often suppressing God’s image and recognition of his enabling grace from springing forth.
This propensity is deeply intertwined in our psyches. We gravitate toward imaged people who are similar to us. The more shared features, stories, and experiences the higher dignity-level we attribute to them. However, a holistic understanding of what it means to be human confirms that our ideas should not overshadow the people we are encountering. Instead, our identification of value should be enlightened and guided by God’s definition. This places a challenge directly before the church: does our church reflect the creative diversity of God by reflecting the composition of its local communities?
We are constrained
We are born into a life position that we can neither predict nor choose, with a background that shapes us and that we can neither fully adopt nor reject. To put this another way, family, wealth, disability, joy, loss, and limitation are wrapped up in our human experience. These conditions cannot be changed by relabeling or rejecting the traditional worldview. Rather, we must see that we are interwoven into a larger historical movement. John Murray writes, “A theology that does not build upon the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies upon the past evades the demands of the present.”
We exist as part of a larger history with a bright future, but our knowledge of the past and future is limited. Instead of trying to become “ahistorical”—above or beyond history, we need to commit to working within our conditions and learning to “pursue godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6-7). Thus, we are consistently seeking to live well in our conditions, even with the knowledge that progress comes with partial outcomes and will only be obtained through the grace and truth of Jesus.
Let us consider this example: conversations surrounding self-perception and body image. Frequently we encounter struggles with self-worth and comparison that seem to emphasize a very biblical idea: that of sensing our inadequacy in a vast world of possibility. There is a sense of very healthy realism here, yet, the conversation cannot stop with just this personal assessment. Our perspective necessitates a face-to-face encounter with God’s creative intention, which both encourages and challenges us. In Psalm 8:4-5, David writes, “… what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (ESV) We genuinely wonder why God is involved with us at all, given our dissatisfaction with ourselves and our recurring problems. This is a biblical perspective. David continues, “Yet you have made him [humans] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (ESV) God has instilled us with “glory and honor,” similar attributes to his own.
This Psalm illustrates how God intentionally made us with worth and purpose and this value originates from God, not our own repetitious self-talk, self-love, self-work, self-awareness, or self-expression (Col. 2:1-15). God’s created purpose pushes us to step beyond our limited imagination by not just coming to terms with our inadequacy (realism) but holding firm to the value God personally places on us (God’s redemptive work on our behalf, his presence within us, and promise of a hope-filled future).
The past or present may be outside our control and not aligned with the ideal. Still, the Lord has placed us in his chosen life space, and we will bear the weight of struggles that we did not choose, which may constitute life-long challenges. Rooted in Jesus, we confess that we have wanted to define ourselves, taken on struggles, and devised solutions on our own terms – we have not wanted to see ourselves as God sees us. Viewing our circumstances from the Lord’s vantage point enables us to value what he values – both the blessings of embodiment and the strength to seek change, even personal improvement, without disparaging what he has given and sustains.
We distinguish between human failure and human worth
A common theme from beginning to end of Scripture is humanity’s falling short in pleasing God in word, thought, or deed (whether personally or communally). Human failure—even as descendants of God who have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them, is not only entirely possible, but frequently occurring. This persistent infatuation with sin represents the pinnacle of human failure as it disregards the authority and kingship of God and breaks our communion with him. This raises the question, “How can humans exist in the image and likeness of God as sinners?”
We begin by distinguishing between the notion of human failure (an “ethical” category”) and human worth (a “metaphysical” category). Cornelius Van Til puts it this way, “Sin is therefore breaking loose from God ethically and not metaphysically… Metaphysically speaking then, both parties, believers and unbelievers, have all things in common; they have God in common, they have every fact in the universe in common. And they know they have them in common.” Having been made in God’s image and likeness, we will continue to exist as creatures of image and likeness. Metaphysically, this means that we will always be reflective of our Maker and maintain an absolute standard of human worth. We will sin and tarnish our relationship to God, others, and our view of ourselves (we are fully responsible for all these transgressions) but this constitutes an ethical departure from his will, not a breaking away from him in terms of value.
Why does this matter? Because a new generation is being raised who does not clearly see the difference between ethics and metaphysics. Instead, they deprecate their own person or dismiss the truth of Scripture when traditional ways of speaking about sin and the human condition are addressed. For example, needing to receive Jesus’ redemption and “having nothing” and “being nothing” and “giving nothing” are messages that illustrate a linguistic ambiguity between the young and old. Our communication may be rooted in Scripture, but Jesus’ love is not in spite of our worthlessness, it is because of our human neediness. We deserve nothing from God—this is true, but we are his errant creation needing correction. We have worth, even in our neediness. This is vital to differentiate in the training of our next generation of Christian leaders because Scripture’s emphasis on lineage illumines both God as Father (connection, dignity) and Savior (need, dependence). In the words of B.B. Warfield, “The image of God is deeper than sin and cannot be eradicated by sin (Gen. 5:3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; Heb.2:5).”
We challenge ideas of “justice” that conflict with valuing lineage
Justice is the governor of relationships – the parameters that guide, define health, and cast a vision for safe growth in community. For this reason, defining humanity directly intersects with the ethic of justice because justice is not only characterized by the notion of you living in a community, but a community with you in it.
To circle back to where we started, abortion and pregnancy is, at the core, about several parties intersecting in their interests (mother, child, father, wider community). Those interests may align or be in conflict, but the issue of justice emerges when one party is the recipient of harm. If the issue was a matter of freedom, then others would not and could not be negatively impacted. What is difficult for the American mindset is reforming its conception of freedom: to place independence within the framework of justice, not the other way around. When freedom is built on the foundation of justice, then we are looking out for another person’s wellbeing – both today, tomorrow, and twenty-five years from now (mother, child, father, wider community).
If the recognition can be made that human life is at stake in abortion, then the role of justice can be deliberated. If you deny the humanity of a child in utero, you strip all biblical teachings of justice from your argumentation. Grounded in God’s design of lineage, you cannot claim to be on the side of justice if you deny the presence of a human who is and will more fully be. Justice governs relationships, and abortion does not strengthen the relationships among societal members, it cuts them off. Abortion lacks a definition for humanity that is biblical, a commitment to community, and the preservation of future generations.
Biblical justice only stands on your side when you seek counsel from God. Life is defined by the Creator who shapes both life and relationships, something too great for us to fabricate. Life should be cared for in the fear of God’s sovereignty – he reigns, creates, sustains, and completes. When we deliberate over an idea or policy that impacts any of those life stages, we should be very careful. The church must be ready to guard life and simultaneously to foster its flourishing for the long-haul, grounded in the truth of God’s Word.
We challenge short-term ethical thinking
From conception to crime and relationship to power, decisions are made that put our ethics to the test. In the present, defining humanity in our own image and likeness can bring about significant benefits to ourselves, even if to the desecration of others, and we must be aware of our tendency to reject our own human fragility and make decisions that we are not qualified to make.
Our short-term thinking should be governed by long-term principles. In the rush of the present, stop and think about how your relationship to God intersects with those around you.
- Would others see that I view myself as created in God’s image, cherishing his gift of life and physical embodiment, not disparaging it?
- Are my daily priorities focused on building healthy relationships or are people overshadowed by the tasks I want to complete?
- Is my behavior (actions, words) positively contributing towards the growth and dignity of those around me, or do I consider some people valuable and others expendable?
- Do my decisions help to build a stronger community grounded in biblical truth, or am I projecting my own desires onto those around me?
- How does my behavior or decision impact another person’s present and future wellbeing?
We need to see God’s perspective more in our daily life as his children. We are connected to the Maker of humanity which has large implications for how we view ourselves and how we value others. We ought to define in likeness to God’s speech, to advocate that which God champions, and to love in the way God discerns as healthy. We need God’s saving from defining humanity in our own image each and every day.
 Among the early church fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 329-390) makes this very point, in Oration 29 of “On the Son.” He characterizes two ways to become human. 1) Through “direct creation” such as Adam being made man by God. And 2) through “parentage” such as Adam and Eve bearing offspring, including Seth. In Nazianzus’ words, “… what of Adam? Was he not alone in being a creation formed by God? Yes, you will say. Was he alone in being human as well? Of course not. Why? Because manhood [humanity] is not formation [or, “direct creation”]; what has parentage [or, “that which is begotten”] is also human.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus. On God and Christ. Translated by Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York (2002). 79.
 Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter 6: Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and of the Punishment Thereof. Sections 1-3
 Christians are called to trust in their historical heritage, which is scribed in Genesis, expressed by Moses, and re-affirmed by Jesus (1 Cor. 15:22, 45-49; Rom. 5:12). God’s unique relationship with Adam and Eve is our historical connection to God’s verbal declaration of human worth, the guardrail between biblical confessions of faith and a more general philosophic humanism.
 Sinclair Ferguson writes, “God is both Father and Judge. The terrible thing for the unbeliever is that he is both; in rejecting God’s judgement on his life, the unbeliever also rejects the privilege of having him as his Father; in rejecting God’s fatherly grace, the unbeliever encounters him as Judge. For the believer, the knowledge that God is Father transforms his view of him as Judge, and the knowledge that he is Judge fills him with awe that such a God is also his Father.” Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Sermon on the Mount: Kingdom Life in a Fallen World. Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, Pennsylvania (2009). 150.
 John Calvin writes, “scarcely a single person has ever been found who did not fashion for himself an idol or specter in place of God… an immense crowd of gods flow forth from the human mind, while each one… wrongly invests this or that about God himself.” (65) Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. Volume XX. Edited by John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen. The Westminster Press, 1960.
 Murray, John. Collected Writings. Volume 4. Banner of Truth: Pennsylvania, 1983. 9.
 Van Til, Cornelius. Defense of the Faith. 4th Edition. Edited by K. Scott Oliphint. P&R Publishing: New Jersey, 2001. 70; 177.
 Warfield, Benjamin B. Studies in Theology: The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield. Vol. 9. Baker Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1991. 258.