What is Man?

“What is man that You remember him,
the son of man that You look after him?
You made him little less than God
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him lord over the works of Your hands;
You put everything under his feet.”

Psalm 8:4-6

By far, my favorite subtopic in Christian apologetics is human ontology. That’s fancy philosopher-speak for the study of the nature of mankind. It asks: What, exactly, IS a human being? Or, as the Psalm above words it, “What is man?”

Is Homo sapiens different from the animal kingdom in degree only? In other words, are we simply animals with more highly evolved cognitive capacities, including rationality? Is our “self” nothing more than our material brain? Or, are we different in kind, meaning, is there something about man that makes him essentially distinct from any other living creature, and thus, of higher value? 

According to orthodox Christianity, human beings are a different kind of being altogether. Most importantly, we all have a soul, a self, which can be defined as the immaterial mind–the seat of rationality and moral awareness. Many theologians have said that having an immortal human soul (as opposed to a finite animal soul) is what it means to be made in the imago Dei, the image of God. It is this distinctive that imparts a supreme value to humans. This is why Christians have strong convictions on bioethical issues in particular. We believe that humans are equally valuable from the moment of conception to their final breath, and should be protected and treasured at every single moment in between. To be sure, animals have considerable worth as part of God’s good creation, but human health and survival always trumps that of any animal.

Contrast this view with that of the materialist, who denies this sharp discontinuity between humans and all other organisms. By their lights, we are only different in degree, thanks to blind evolutionary processes. Our species is at the top of the food chain thanks to our more sophisticated neural networks. There is, then, no ground upon which to say humans are more precious than any other species. To do so would be to commit “species-ism,” as some atheist bioethicists, such as Peter Singer, have pointed out. Singer, you may be aware, is the Princeton professor who has said that “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons,” and “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” According to Singer, if a baby is born with abnormalities, it should be permissible to perform an after-birth abortion (infanticide) and “start all over.” And you know what? If atheism is true, and humans are only material creatures who are not of higher value and not morally accountable to a higher power, Singer is correct. He is simply being consistent in his worldview. As Wesley Smith (a conservative bioethicist and opponent of Singer’s) has so aptly phrased it, the materialist’s view implies that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

Now, many non-theists reject the logical conclusion of their metaphysical beliefs. Something within them, I believe the very image of God they deny possessing, makes them aware that this cannot be right! Humans must be more valuable than a sewer rat, and a newborn baby should not be euthanized just because he or she suffers from an abnormality. The problem is, the non-theist cannot offer objective justification for such beliefs. Whenever I’ve asked a non-theist to explain how they justify the  claim that humans have higher value than any other living thing, the usual response has been, “Well, we have to use our emotions and/or rational faculties in these situations.” So basically, we have to use our [blindly evolved] brains to determine the value hierarchy of [blindly evolved] animals and when (and if) human animals should be protected at high cost. That assertion seems arbitrary and down-right circular to me.

On the other hand, if human beings are intentionally made by God, in His image, endowed by Him with great value, and distinct in kind from all other life forms, the problem evaporates. If Christian doctrine is correct, then objectively speaking, we have high, unalterable worth–born or unborn, able or disabled.

There is actually another serious ramification to claiming that human beings have unalienable inherent value, and it is one that a great many non-theists refuse to accept: the existence of objective morality. But the problem is, you can’t have the former without the latter. How do I figure this?

If something, such as a human being, has inherent value, then objective moral rules that serve to protect that thing must exist. 

Stated another way: To argue that mankind has intrinsic value is to assume the existence of objective moral rules conducive to human preservation. Otherwise, we’re just making up reasons and we won’t all agree on what should be done in various situations. The debates over abortion and assisted suicide are perfect examples.

[Furthermore, if there is such thing as objective morality, there has to be an unchanging standard for it that exists outside of us (this is known as the grounding problem). Any attempt to formulate a moral rule without assuming the existence of an absolute standard, must rely on relativism—on human opinion, which varies from one person to the next, one culture to the next, and one time period to the next. Therefore, God–the only conceivable unchanging standard of good–is necessary for objective morality to exist. This is known as the Moral Argument for the existence of God.]

In 2014, God willing, I’ll begin my doctoral work, focusing strongly on the subject of human ontology, so you’ll likely hear much more from me on this topic in the coming years, as I grow in my knowledge and understanding. For now, I would like to direct you to the best podcast series I’ve ever worked though: “The Doctrine of Man” by William Lane Craig. It is available through the Reasonable Faith app. Just click on “Podcasts” then choose “Defenders.” So far, Dr. Craig has posted 15 installments to the series. You can also access it through iTunes at this link.