What Is The Purpose Of Humanity?
This post is by Bruce Ashford (Provost and Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.). To see the entire series click here.
In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time and moved to a predominantly Muslim republic in the former Soviet Union. I had never traveled farther west than San Antonio, farther north than the tip of Maine, farther east than Nags Head (NC), or farther south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?
The first week in the country, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented camel’s milk. At some point in history, a Middle Eastern or Central Asian entrepreneur decided to take some camel’s (or horse’s) milk, allow it to rot over a period of time, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish jello for breakfast.
The second week in the country I was introduced to the “banya.” My buddies told me that it “will be a lot like an American sauna.” And sure enough, it was a square room with a lot of heat. But there were a few differences. One difference lay in the fact that steam was generated by pouring vodka onto a barrel full of hot coals. (I wanted to join in, but I couldn’t find my bottle of Nyquil.) Another difference lay in the fact that Central Asian saunas have bundles of birch branches in the corner, with which the men whip one another about the back, starting at the heels and working methodically and consistently up to the shoulders. Afterwards, they go outside the banya and roll around in the snow. I’m not kidding. I’ve never prayed so hard for the rapture.
Cultural oddities aside, one of the primary things I noted was the many ways in which human beings are the same, whether they are born in North America, Europe, or Asia. And our sameness is not just anatomical—such as the fact that we are bipedal mammals with well-developed brains and opposable thumbs. We are the same in that each of us is created in the image and likeness of God. Each of us is an imager of God. But what does it mean that we are imagers of God?
Being created in God’s image says something about us structurally (who we are) and functionally (what we do). Structurally, the Genesis account teaches us that the whole person is created in God’s image. It doesn’t single out one aspect of our person (e.g. intellect) but includes all of who we are. Functionally, the Genesis account teaches that imagers are to be fruitful and multiply, to till the soil, and to have “dominion” over God’s good creation. This command—to have dominion—is a summary command that strikes at the heart of what it means to be an imager.
To have dominion means to rule, just as a king would rule. In the Bible, God is the King over his kingdom and we are His representatives who help Him rule. In order to equip us in our role as imagers, God has endowed us with various capacities: spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, physical. Taken together, these capacities enable us to represent God and honor Him in everything we do in this world. We may honor and represent Him in our families, churches, workplaces, and communities. We may image Him with our interactions in the arts, the sciences, politics, business, homemaking, scholarship, education, sports, and entertainment. When we begin to understand that our whole person is created in God’s image (rather than merely one aspect of our person, such as our brain or our inner-spiritual self) we are liberated to live all of life as God’s representatives. No part of our lives is insignificant to God!
It can be a little overwhelming when we begin to understand that our service to God extends way beyond church attendance and certain “do’s and don’ts” contained in the Bible. How then do we go about representing God in these many aspects of our lives? One way to begin this exciting process of imaging God well is to ask three questions about any endeavor we undertake.
The first question is, “What is God’s intention for this area of human life?” Every aspect of human life is related to God in some way. He is the one who created us with the ability to pray to God, talk to others, enjoy a piece of art, study the world scientifically, engage in social and political life, and so forth. And when He created us with those abilities, His intention was that we do those activities in a way that honors Him and helps others to flourish. Each activity we undertake should honor Him and help others to flourish.
The second question is, “In what ways has this area of human life been distorted by human sin?” Each aspect of life has been corrupted by human sin. In political life, for example, we use power to oppress others and serve ourselves. In entrepreneurship, we are tempted to build businesses unethically and in ways to only serve the “bottom line” instead of serving the community. In the arts, we often make “gods” out of our favorite performers. So, we must think long and hard about how sin keeps us from imaging God properly in our pursuits.
The third question is “How can I bring Christian healing to this area of human life?” Now that we have thought about God’s intentions for human life, and the ways in which sin corrupts His good intentions, we are in a place to help restore these areas of life to God’s intention. In this way, we are able to honor the Lord not just within the four walls of a church building but to the “four corners” of the earth!
Because Christ is Lord of all, and because the whole person is created in the image of God, we have the great privilege and responsibility of imaging God in absolutely everything we do. This is our great dignity (that we are like God) and our great humility (that we are not God).
This blog series is based on the fall study of The Gospel Project for adults and students, focused on the doctrine of humanity, titled “Bearing God’s Image”.