What is Man?
by Greg Gilbert
Every evening after work, I sit down to spend a few minutes catching up on the news of the day. Though it’s a restful few minutes for my body and mind, I have to admit that I don’t find in those moments much rest for my heart. That’s because what I see in the headlines reminds me of a deep-rooted reality: there is something wrong with our world, and even with ourselves as human beings. But what is it?
People have given different answers to that question. Some say the problems are primarily economic, others that they’re social, and still others that they’re psychological. Certainly, these answers may give some insight into some of the symptoms of our travail, but the Bible teaches that the disease is something far deeper and more profound. In a word, the problem is sin—rebellion against the creator God who created us.
The book of Genesis recounts how God created the world by the power of His mere command, and according to Genesis 1:26-28, the crowning act of God’s work was the creation of human beings. Unique among all the creatures in the universe, human beings are made “in his own image.” To be created in the image of God means many things. We human beings reflect God’s character and nature in our rationality, our creativity, even our ability to relate to God and one another. But the image of God does not merely refer to what we are; it also refers to what God created us to do.
Besides living in fellowship with God, Adam and Eve were given the job of ruling over and caring for His creation as His vice-regents. Thus, God told them that they were to “subdue” the earth and “have dominion” over it—not by abusing and tyrannizing it, but by “working it and keeping it” (Gen. 2:15). In doing so, they would communicate to all creation the love and power and goodness of the Creator. Perhaps most fundamentally, this is what it means to be God’s image in the world: just as an ancient Near Eastern king might set an “image” of himself on a mountain as a reminder to his people of who sat on the throne, so Adam represented God’s authority to the world over which he was given dominion.
Adam’s authority over creation, however, was not absolute. It was derived from and circumscribed by God Himself. People often wonder why God put the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden. The reason is that tree reminded Adam and Eve that their authority to rule and subdue the earth was not absolute. That’s why Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit was such a tragic sin. By eating the fruit, Adam and Eve were trying to do precisely what the serpent falsely told them they could do—they were trying to “become like God” (Gen. 3:5). They were grasping for more power and authority than God had given them, thereby making a play for the high throne.
The consequences of Adam’s sin were nothing short of catastrophic. God had promised that if the humans ate from the forbidden tree, they would surely die. What He meant was not just physical death, but also—and more horribly—spiritual death. This was a just and right punishment. Not only could a perfectly holy and righteous God never tolerate such evil and sin in His presence, but by declaring their independence from God, Adam and Eve cut themselves o from the source of all life and goodness. They deserved the wrath of God for their rebellion against Him, and the wages of their sin was nothing short of eternal death, judgment, and hell.
Even worse, when Adam sinned, he did so as the representative of every human being. So Paul wrote to the Romans, “Many died through one man’s trespass” (Rom. 5:15). That is why each of us ratifies over and over again Adam’s act of rebellion against God with our own sin. We, too, long to be free of God’s authority and rule, and so we give ourselves to the pursuit of pleasure and joy in created things as ultimate ends. In the process, we declare that God is not worthy of our worship, and thus we prove ourselves worthy of the curse of spiritual death that God pronounced in the beginning.
If the story of the Bible were to end there—with human beings under God’s wrath without a possibility of escape—we would live in a hopeless reality. But praise God, the story doesn’t end there. Instead of leaving us to die in our sin, God acts to save. Through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus, He saves His people from their sin and makes everything right once and for all, finally and forever.