By Joel Settecase / 8-minute read.
Man’s nature is best described as fundamentally broken. While having been initially created good, mankind has gone astray and is in desperate need of restoration, forgiveness and redemption.
Why This Question Matters
We start this section by asking why we need to ask this question at all. That is, why do we need a definition of man at all? After all, we are human beings. Shouldn’t it be obvious to us what we are?
The fact is, the answer to “What is Man?” is not obvious. Or at the very least, there is no shared definition of humanity across all worldviews. Therefore, if we want our thinking to be shaped by the Bible, we must ask this question and see how the Bible answers it. (It is also important to note here that we are using the term “man” in an inclusive way to refer not just to adult males but to male and female human persons of all ages. This usage is biblical and theologically significant in ways which we won’t expound on here, but which will perhaps become clear as we go on).
Some Alternative Views
We mentioned above that there is no unified way that all worldviews answer the question of mankind or human nature. Here are a few samples of the various answers out there:
Materialism: Man is a complex machine or evolved animal, the product of an unguided process of evolution by natural selection over millions of years.
Mormonism: Man is a spirit child of Elohim, the Heavenly Father, who himself is an exalted or deified man. As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.
Hinduism & New Age: In Hinduism, “Atman” (man) is “Brahman” (ultimate reality or the cosmic soul). Man is one with the universe, though he may not be aware of this. New Age thought is similar, in that the self is god.
Postmodernism & Intersectionality: Man’s nature is debated, but generally seen as being without any objective definition or essential nature (a Postmodernist would likely object to my use of “man” to describe humanity!). Neil Shenvi says, “As a non-theistic worldview, critical theory believes that our identity is not primarily found in our vertical relationship to God but in our horizontal relationships to other people and other groups.” On this view, individuals define themselves and relate to one another and society according to an intersecting network of sub-groups, each with various levels of “privilege” and “oppression.”
Then there is the question of the moral status of human nature: is man basically good, basically bad, more good than bad, more bad than good, or fundamentally broken? There are diverse answers to this question as well.
The Biblical Teaching
So what does the Bible teach? What does man’s Creator have to say about his creation? According to the Bible, man is:
Persons bearing God’s own image (Genesis 1:27).
Designed as an expression of unity-in-diversity, male and female each with their own roles and both equal in value and personhood (Genesis 2:18; 5:2).
Created to procreate and exercise dominion over the animals and the natural world (Genesis 1:26).
Valuable and possessing of dignity from the moment of conception (Psalm 51:5; 139:13; cf. Exodus 21:22-25; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:41).
The first humans were a married couple, specially created by God (the husband from the soil and the wife from the side of her husband) (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). All humans since that time are descended from the same married couple (Genesis 3:20; Acts 17:26) and so are rightly considered a single race.
Man is the only “animal” given personality, and as such people are more like God than anything else in nature and enjoy a status infinitely higher than animals, plants and machines. However, unlike God, who is infinite, man is finite. As such, he is infinitely lower than God and is dependent on him (Matthew 4:4).
Adam, our first father, sinned, an event we refer to as the Fall, recorded in Genesis 3:1-7. As the father of all mankind, Adam was also our representative. As a result of his Fall, sin and its consequences (death and hardship) spread to all mankind, who all became sinners (Genesis 3:16-19; Romans 5:12).
So man’s nature is best described as fundamentally broken. That brokenness is both given to us (by virtue of our shared ancestry, according to Psalm 51:5) and chosen by us (by virtue of our own individual sins). We should not think of ourselves as victims but rather as villains. In man’s natural state he is utterly sinful (“totally depraved,” as the Reformers put it) and enters this world under God’s judgment. Ephesians 2:3 describes our state apart from God’s grace as living “in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts,” and being “by nature children under wrath.”
Sin broke all human relationships--to God, to society and the world, and even to oneself. Although man was originally created to exist in perfect relational harmony (similar to how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to one another), since the Fall man’s default is interpersonal strife and jealousy (action that the Apostle Paul calls “merely human” in 1 Corinthians 3:3). Left to our own devices, we would become more and more sinful, and earn more and more of God’s wrath and judgment. The final state of an unrepentant, sinful person is everlasting punishment in Hell (Matthew 10:28; Revelation 21:8).
Yet while man’s nature is broken, his dignity as being God’s image bearer has not been completely destroyed. Human life is still valuable and dignified (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9-10). Furthermore, mankind is not a lost cause. It is possible for sinners to be reconciled to God and reborn, given new life and adopted into God’s family as his children (John 1:12; 3:7).
So we see that man, while having been initially created good, has gone astray and is in desperate need of restoration, forgiveness and redemption.
There has only ever been one human being who did not sin, namely Jesus Christ, who is both fully human and fully God (Philippians 2:6; Hebrews 4:15). Therefore, Jesus both flawlessly exemplifies what it means to be human, and perfectly provides the means by which broken and sinful humanity may be “fixed” and forgiven.
For a comparison of different worldviews’ answers to the question of humanity, cf. the “Theory Comparison Chart (Santrock Chapter 2)” Christinao.wordpress.com, accessed on June 18, 2019, https://cristinao.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/sire-cristinao.pdf.
See also: James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 156-209, especially page 200.
On the issue of ethnicities and race: although the Bible recognizes many ethnicities, it presents only one “race.” That is, human beings of every ethnicity share the same primeval parents, Adam and Eve. However, biblically speaking there are really two “races,” the race of Adam (unregenerate sinners still under Adam’s headship) and the race of Christ--those who have been reborn and brought into God’s family (John 1:13; 1 Peter 2:9), who have Christ as their representative or head.