What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human? There is much discussion in society about gender and defining what it means to be male or female. Yet this question, the starting point to any discussion of identity, is given little honest thought. And when it does come around, discussion typically revolves around potential or utility. To be a human is based on what we might become, or what we actually do.

When someone asks us what we do for a living, for example, we say “I am a [fill in the blank].” When we talk about protecting the most vulnerable, it’s usually with an eye toward what they could be, whether a doctor, dentist, or delivery person. But I don’t think this kind of utilitarian approach to defining humanity works. It’s what we see the entire world trying to do every day, and it doesn’t make sense.

Thinking beyond utility

If our identity is based on our job, education, intelligence, sexuality, or anything else you can think of, we’re thinking too small. We’re thinking in ways our Creator never intended for us. He gives us a better answer to the question we’re asking.

God knows what makes a person a person because he’s the One who made us. So how does he define humanity? How does God answer the question? God says that a human being is a being who is made in his image. (Gen. 1:26)

Clear as mud, right?

To be made in God’s image

If being a human is to be one made in the image of our creator, what does that actually mean? The Bible says that God according to his likeness, but doesn’t leave a detailed outline of what precisely that means. The story of creation wasn’t meant for that, and that’s okay. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have clues to the answer in the rest of the Bible. We do. And what the Bible describes is that for humanity to be God’s image bearers, we act as mirrors, reflecting something of God’s attributes to the rest of creation in three distinct but complementary ways:

Our nature

By virtue of being made like him, we share characteristics with God, our Creator. God made us as creative and communicative beings, because he too is creative and communicative. We are logical and rational beings, just as he is. We are capable of being moral and compassionate beings, just like him. All of these are inherent to our nature, hardwired into our DNA.

Our actions

Humanity is given authority and responsibility over the rest of creation. This is what’s meant by the terms “rule” and “subdue” (CSB), or to “have dominion” (ESV). We “subdue” the earth, harnessing its resources for human flourishing, which naturally encourages wise technological and scientific development. In our dominion or ruling over creation, we not only resemble God using our shared characteristics, but we reflect God in managing the resources he has provided responsibly.

Our relationships

All humans are designed for relationships (even introverts like me). Of all the things God created, the only thing he deemed “not good” was that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18). The man needed a complement, someone like him who would be his equal, which led to the creation of the first woman from his side. In our relationships, both marital and platonic, we reflect God’s Trinitarian nature, existing in eternal community as the Father, Son, and Spirit.

We are what our Creator says we are

So even as Christians work to answer questions around gender and what it means to be male or female, working to uphold the truth that God created us male and female intentionally and distinctly, we cannot forget this.

The characteristics that God has imbued us with are unique to us, and are fundamental ways in which we resemble God. And although our sin twists and perverts our ability to rightly reflect God, we still reflect him in some way. Regardless of how we feel, regardless of what other messages we’re bombarded with, regardless of our own sins, we are what our Creator says we are: his image bearers, and no one and nothing can take this away from us.


Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books including the Big Truths Bible Storybook, Epic Devotions, Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty, and Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World. His next book, published by Lexham Press, will release in Spring 2023.