Secular humanism has no way of explaining either the greatness or the tragedy of human existence. However, the biblical story of creation and the fall provides the basis for affirming both human dignity and depravity. We are born into the world “in Adam,” that is, as glorious traitors.
Glorious in Every Way
God created us for His glory. We exist for Him, not He for us. And yet, unlike the rest of creation, we were created in God’s image for a special relationship with Him, naturally “endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image; having the law of God written in [our] hearts, and power to fulfill it” (Westminster Confession of Faith 4.2). According to Scripture, human beings are neither semi-divine nor demonic, but creatures who have been given a royal dignity as God’s viceroys.
Adam and Eve were both created in God’s image, but God made Adam the federal head of the human race. Would Adam acknowledge gratefully his dependence on God and His revelation? Or would he seek to usurp God’s throne, determining for himself what he would believe and how he would live?
Notice the high view of human nature that the above quotation from the Westminster Confession reflects. We were created with the power to fulfill God’s law “yet under a possibility of transgressing,” the confession adds, “being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change. Along with this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.”
Adam and Eve were not neutral; they were oriented toward God and His righteous law. Besides this freedom of choice, Adam and Eve enjoyed a natural knowledge of God. By nature they loved God with their whole mind, soul, heart, and strength. God did not create man with any defect or weakness. The glory of God was reflected in the whole person: the body and its passions as well as the soul and the intellect.
Fallen in Every Way
In Romans 1, Paul argues that the “wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (v. 18). You can’t separate reason from ethics. Ever since the fall, we have been twisting, distorting, and suppressing the truth that comes to us through general and special revelation. Unbelief is not the result of a lack of evidence. Everyone knows God’s existence and invisible attributes through His works in creation, “so they are without excuse” (vv. 19–20). It is not that God fails to reveal Himself, but that humanity does “not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (v. 21). To be grateful is to acknowledge dependence, but that is precisely what our fallen hearts do not want to do. We do not want to reflect God’s glory; we want to possess the glory that is God’s alone. We do not want to be an image, but the original. We suppress the truth so that we can become our own creators and lords, as Paul indicates in his description of the lengths humanity will go to in order to deny accountability to God (vv. 22–32).
Total depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we can possibly be. After all, even Gentiles sometimes follow the dictates of their conscience (Rom. 2:14–16). Rather, it means that just as God’s image encompasses our whole self, the bondage of sin does as well. All aspects of our human constituent nature have been affected by the fall. We cannot reason, will, or work our way out of our moral bondage (3:9–20). But at least our wills are free, right? Paul replies, “There is no one righteous, no, not one.” What about our minds? No, Paul writes, “no one understands.” Our hearts? Paul adds, “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10–11). While we know by nature enough to condemn us, we can only be saved by the special revelation that God gives us in the gospel (3:21–31). The story of creation and the fall presents an apologetic basis for explaining both the dignity and depravity of man, and thus why all people are in need of Christ, who is the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15).