Mar 25, 2013

The Ethics of Personhood

6 Min Read

Human history is tragically full of examples of the persecution and oppression that arise when those in power create their own definitions of human personhood and rights so as to exclude and misuse certain groups of people. Scripture is clear that God has given all human beings dignity, personhood, and rights. The biblical understanding of personhood provides the essential foundation for ethical decisions about how to treat other people.

The Biblical View of Personhood

The Bible begins with God, the sovereign Creator of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth“ (Gen. 1:1). His handiwork, everything from light to land to living creatures, is called “good.” But humanity, being the very image of God, is the crown of creation—“behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). As such, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature.

In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image.” In the beginning, our Creator gave us a remarkable title: “the image of God.” This expression reveals the dignity of all human beings because it designates people as representatives of the King of the universe. As the image of God, humans are given special dignity and dominion, and are commissioned to care for God’s good creation (vv. 28–30).

Consequences of the Biblical View of Personhood

As God’s image-bearers, human beings are imbued with a dignity and worth beyond that of animals. Speaking to Noah after the flood, God emphasizes that human life is to be highly valued, and that violence against any human being is to be rigorously punished (Gen. 9:5–6).

In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God’s plan was for the earth to be filled with His image-bearers, who were to glorify Him through worship and obedience. This state of being, enjoying the bliss of God’s intended blessing and His wise rule, is called shalom. As Cornelius Plantinga Jr. writes,

In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed. . . . Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be. (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, p. 10)

Shalom means fullness of peace, the vision of a society without violence or fear: “I will give peace [shalom] in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid” (Lev. 26:6). Shalom is a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being—abundant welfare—with its connotations of peace, justice, and common good. In short, biblical writers use shalom to describe the world of universal peace, safety, justice, order, and wholeness God intended, in which all human beings enjoy freedom, security, and peace.

Unbiblical Views of Personhood

Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell and shalom was violated. Adam and Eve violated their relationship with God by rebelling against His command. This was cosmic treason. Instead of trusting God’s wise and good word, they trusted the serpent’s crafty and deceitful words. In response, the Creator cursed humanity with futility and death. God’s royal image fell into the severe ignobility we all experience.

This tragic fall plunged humanity into a relational abyss. After the fall, humanity was enslaved to idolatry (hatred for God) and violence (hatred for each other). Sin inverts love for God, which in turn becomes idolatry, and inverts love for neighbor, which becomes exploitation of others.

The fallen human heart finds ways to justify its hatred of other people and its desire to exploit them. The result is the multitude of unbiblical views of personhood found throughout human history that dehumanize and exclude people who are made in God’s image. There have been several major non-Christian views of the nature of humanity, such as the rationalistic dualism of Plato, the materialist economic determinism of Karl Marx, the psychic determinism of Sigmund Freud, and the environmental conditioning determinism of B.F. Skinner. Myriad other unbiblical ideologies of personhood have existed, such as tribalism, Social Darwinism, racism, Nazism, and views of superior personhood based on religion, wealth, gender, age, intellect, heredity, and many other factors.

Consequences of Unbiblical Views of Personhood

Without the biblical understanding of human personhood and dignity as image-bearers of God, society is free to degenerate into violence, oppression, and exploitation of the weak by the strong. The Old Testament clearly depicts the cruelty and violence that results from the fall: violence against children (Ps. 137:9), women (Amos 1:13), and the unborn (2 Kings 15:16); rape (Judg. 19:22–30); massacres (1 Sam. 22:18–19); and enslavement (Amos 4:2).

Without the biblical understanding of human personhood and dignity as image-bearers of God, society is free to degenerate into violence, oppression, and exploitation of the weak by the strong.

Throughout history, we see how unbiblical views of personhood are used to exploit and oppress people. The strong oppress the weak, and there is injustice against disliked and lesser-valued groups, from the unborn to the elderly. There is abortion, infanticide, child abuse, and exploitative child labor. There is slavery, gender violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking, labor trafficking, racism, genocide, and ethnic warfare. There is class warfare, disenfranchisement, age discrimination, oppression of the poor, and discrimination against the disliked, the disabled, the uneducated, the weak, and the powerless. The injustices and exploitations that occur when personhood is redefined are innumerable and heart-breaking.

The Biblical Call to Justice and Mercy

Though it does not hesitate to depict the harsh reality of violence and oppression, the Bible clearly calls us to fight for justice and mercy for all people as God intended (Ex. 23:2–3, 6; Deut. 24:17–18; Prov. 21:3).

The prophet Zechariah portrays God’s people as a nation that practices justice and mercy in their society:

Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. (Zech. 7:9–10)

When Israel fails and continues to rebel against God’s law, God threatens judgment, but then pours out grace and restores them. Zechariah envisions God‘s grace leading to repentance and a people who fervently pursue justice and mercy for all. As a result, the unbelieving nations will come asking about the Lord (Zech. 8:20–23). God’s people will be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), a hope that culminates in the Messiah.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in Him:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Freeing the captives and relieving the poor and oppressed was central to His divine mission (Matt. 4:24; Luke 6:20; Luke 7:18–23; Luke 14:12–24; John 8:36). His ultimate act of liberation was His substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set His people free from slavery to sin and death (Acts 13:36–39; Rom. 8:1–4; Gal. 1:3–4; Heb. 9:27–28; 1 Peter 2:24; Rev. 1:5).

Throughout His ministry, Jesus opposed the dehumanizing assumptions of His culture. He spent significant time with children, women, the poor, the diseased, Samaritans, and other outcasts (Matt. 8:1–4; Matt. 9:9–13; Matt. 21:28–32; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 6:17–19; Luke 10:38–42; John 4:1–45). Paul echoes this paradoxical approach:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:27–29)

At its best, the church has been known for love and sacrificial service to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has been a powerful apologetic for the gospel. By upholding the dignity of all people as the image of God and tangibly expressing the biblical ethic of personhood flowing from it, the church can be a light to the nations and participate in God‘s mission by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.