Understanding Personhood


We live in a world where there is much cruelty and violence. Whether we watch local or international news on television, we hear of countless instances of intimidation, injustice, thefts, beatings, murders, and wars. In some places, violence seems to be a way of life; elsewhere, it seems to explode unexpectedly in apparently peaceful places. How do we account for this violence?

Many today claim that violence does not really arise from the human heart, but it is the result of external social conditions. If we can make the social environment better, it is said, the essential goodness of man will manifest itself. Many others claim that violence is a result of man’s evolutionary development and was necessary in his struggle for survival as an animal. Neither of these claims is biblical or ultimately helpful in understanding the violence that we observe in our world.

Christians understand that human beings were created good, but fell into sin and rebellion against God and alienation from one another. Apart from God’s redeeming and renewing grace, fallen man finds only violence in his heart. David expresses the truth eloquently as he writes of God’s attitude toward the wicked: “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” (Ps. 5:5–6).

In this passage, David highlights three key characteristics of the wicked. First, they are boastful and proud. They assign far more value and importance to themselves than they deserve, failing to acknowledge the superiority of God over them. Second, they are full of lies and deceit. They live according to falsehoods that they invent rather than according to the truth of God. Third, they are bloodthirsty and violent. In their pride and self-deceit, they are willing to use cruelty to advance themselves rather than pursuing love and peace.

Early in Genesis, we see a picture of this wickedness in action. Cain murders his brother Abel out of selfishness (4:8). Cain’s great-great-great-grandson, Lamech, also shows this selfishness: “Lamech said to his wives: ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me’” (v. 23).

The selfish sense of superiority that we see in Cain and Lamech can be seen in many ways throughout history. Consider this judgment about the attitude that was foundational to the British Empire:

Britain’s empire was not liberal in the sense of being a plural, democratic society. The empire openly repudiated ideas of human equality and put power and responsibility into the hands of a chosen elite, drawn from a tiny proportion of the population in Britain. The British Empire was not merely undemocratic; it was anti-democratic… . My contention is that in terms of administration itself, while there was clearly a great deal of racial arrogance among the administrative class as a whole, notions of class and hierarchy were as important, if not more so (Kawasi Kwarteng, Ghosts of Empire, p. 2).

While Cain and Lamech seem to show their power out of selfishness, other wicked individuals seek to justify their violence. In one way or another, they claim that the victims of their violence are in some way inferior or less human than they are. I can justify violence against those who are not like me: they are not part of my family, my neighborhood, my tribe, my nation, my race, or my religion.

The wicked justification of violence may well be at its worst when it appeals to science. We can see that in a particularly clear way in the Nazi movement in twentieth-century Germany. The character and historical appeal of Nazism is complicated, but one important element of its ideology was its use of science. In particular, it used the theory of evolution. If evolution teaches the survival of the stronger at the expense of the weaker, it seems to follow that stronger races should dominate inferior races. Nazi scientists claimed to have scientific means for distinguishing races and for proving the superiority of the Aryan race to others, particularly Jews and Slavs. Today we know that the Nazi science was bogus, but at the time it convinced many, including some of the most educated scientists. Nazi ideology did seem to be a logical extension of evolution.

A distinguished historian wrote of the intellectual environment that prepared the way for Nazism: “Integral nationalism, anti-Marxist ‘national’ socialism, social Darwinism, racism, biological anti-Semitism, eugenics, elitism intermingled in varying strengths to provide a heady brew of irrationalism attractive to some cultural pessimists among the intelligentsia and bourgeoisie of European societies undergoing rapid social, economic, and political change in the late nineteenth century” (Ian Kershaw, Hitler, p. 134). But were social Darwinism and eugenics really irrational for evolutionists?

The leaders of the Nazis applied such Darwinism to politics. Adolf Hitler declared: “Politics is nothing more than the struggle of a people for its existence… . It is an iron principle [—] the weaker one falls so that the stronger one gains life” (Kershaw, p. 289). Heinrich Himmler foresaw a “battle to the point of annihilation of those subhuman enemies I mentioned throughout the world against Germany as the core nation of the Nordic race, … against Germany as the bearer of culture for humanit y” (Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler, 814).

The Nazis wanted to take Jews’ property and expel them from Germany. They wanted to drive Slavs out of Eastern Europe and take their land. Out of a selfish desire for power, they visited hideous violence on Jews and Slavs, using a scientific justification that dehumanized these people. Millions of Jews and Slavs died.

The “scientific” justification of slavery also rested on notions of racial superiority. The enslavement of black Africans in recent centuries was justified by the claim that they were racially inferior to white Europeans and Americans. Some even claimed that slavery was a civilizing and Christianizing institution. In reality, it was a violent institution promoted in the interest of cheap labor. Here again we see scientific and moral justifications for a violent and dehumanizing practice.

In our day, the justification of abortion similarly rests on “scientific” arguments that proclaim the unborn baby to be merely subhuman tissue. Proponents of abortion insist that they are exercising their freedom legitimately. However, they have actually dehumanized the unborn child to justify their elimination of unwanted pregnancies.

In these three instances, we see bad science used by wicked men to make moral or religious judgments as if they were objective scientific conclusions. The real problem is not science, but the abuse of science. The horrendous effect of these pseudo-scientific justifications is dehumanizing violence born of selfishness.

These scientific justifications of violence rest on reducing some or all humans to the status of animals. The psalmist anticipated this tragic situation in a remarkable way. Psalm 49 is addressed to all the people in the world in order to teach them wisdom and understanding. Here the teaching of wisdom begins by meditating on the universal reality of death. If death is the same for the fool and the wise, for the poor and the rich, for the weak and the powerful, what meaning does life really have? “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (v. 12). How can man be more than a beast? The answer is by knowing the truth: “Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (v. 20). Ultimately, only real wisdom or understanding separates man from the beasts. The truth is that only God can save His people from death and give them everlasting life: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol” (v. 15).

As Christians, we must beware of becoming self-righteous in our reaction to those who dehumanize people. There were Christians who were taken in by Hitler and Christians who defended slavery. We must not dehumanize those with whom we disagree. We especially want to make clear to those who have defended abortions or had abortions that all those who come to Jesus in repentance and faith find forgiveness.

As David described the wicked so insightfully in Psalm 5, he also showed the character of the righteousness that we all must pursue: “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you” (v. 7). As Christians, we look away from ourselves, hoping only in the steadfast saving love of God in Jesus. Then, instead of boasting in our pride and selfishness, we bow humbly before our God. This is the antidote to dehumanization and violence in our world.

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.