What Makes a Person a Person?

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I have a confession: My wife and I really enjoyed the recently-cancelled show Chuck. All the suspension of disbelief that was required aside (basically the entire premise of the show demands it), it was a lot of fun. If you’re not familiar, the big idea of the show is a computer geek working at a Buy More (Best Buy) gets a government super-computer put into his head and becomes a special agent with the CIA.

Yep. That’s the actual premise (hence the aforementioned need for suspension of disbelief).

So, in the final arc of the show, the plot revolved around the final villain’s desire to get the Intersect for himself and destroying everything in Chuck’s life to get it—including wiping his wife Sarah’s memories of the last five years and using her as a weapon against him. The big twist in the end centered around using the Intersect device to give Sarah her memories back and then she’d be back to normal.

Except in the end, Chuck had to use the device on himself in order to save the day.

Anyway, as Emily and I watched the finale several months ago and rewatched it again recently, I was left with one lingering question:

What makes a person a person?

Are we are who we are simply because of our memories and experiences or is there something more to it? The big idea of the final MacGuffin suggests that one’s identity is locked in one’s memory, and that human memory is essentially just data like any other.

I realize I’m probably overthinking a plot device, but stay with me here. What happens when we take our identity and begin to see ourselves as a collection of data?

If the stuff that makes us “us” is functionally little more than the ones and zeroes your computer is translating into text right now… are we still human?

Thankfully, we’ve got an answer in the Bible. God has not left us in the lurch on this. He’s given us the answer to what makes a person a person, and it’s significantly better than ideas about memory and data. Consider the account of the creation of the first man and woman:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:26-31)

Notice two key elements described:

1. Man (that is, humanity) was made to resemble God. This is at the heart of God’s saying, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” We form relationships because God is relational in the Trinity. Morality comes from God. Language comes from God. Reason (that is, logical and rational thought) comes from God. Creativity comes from God.

All these characteristics are unique to humanity, and are fundamental ways in which we resemble God. Without them, one cannot truly be a person in the fullest sense.

2. Humanity is given authority and responsibility over the rest of creation. This is what the Bible means when it says we’re given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

We “subdue” the earth, harnessing its resources for human flourishing, which naturally encourages wise technological and scientific development. In our dominion, we not only resemble God using our shared characteristics, but we reflect God in managing the resources He’s provided responsibly.

No other created being is given this charge. And while our ability to exercise this dominion responsibly may have been distorted in the Fall (Genesis 3), it remains fundamental to our being persons.

And so back to the question:

What makes a person a person?

Is it our memories, experiences, or personality? Are we mere collections of data?

What makes a person a person is his or her being made in the image of God, resembling and reflecting Him to all the earth. And whatever alternatives we’re offered, this is the only answer that will ever truly satisfy.

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

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3 Replies to “What Makes a Person a Person?”

  1. To the modern mind, a person is what the government says is a person.

  2. To the modern mind, a person is whatever the government declares it to be.

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