The Ethics of Personhood

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. However, Scripture is clear that all human beings have dignity, personhood, and rights given to them by God. 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, good creator of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God’s creative handiwork, everything from light to land to living creatures, is called “good.” But humanity, being the very image of God, is the crown of God’s good creation—“behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature—as they were created to be like God, by God, for God, and to be with God (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:15).

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


Consequences of the Biblical View of Personhood

As God’s image-bearers, human beings are imbued with 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 for humanity was for the earth to be filled with his image-bearers, who were to glorify him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic 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, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

Shalom means fullness of peace. It is 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 the common good. Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that shalom means harmonious and responsible relationships with God, other human beings, and nature. In short, biblical writers use the word 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 into sin and shalom was violated. Adam and Eve violated their relationship with God by rebelling against his command. This was a moment of cosmic treason. Instead of trusting in God’s wise and good word, they trusted in the crafty and deceitful words of the Serpent. In response, the Creator placed a curse on our parents that cast the whole human race into futility and death. The royal image of God fell into the severe ignobility we all experience.

This tragic fall plunged humanity into a relational abyss. Paul Tripp writes, “What seemed once unthinkably wrong and out of character for the world that God had made now became a daily experience … For the first time, the harmony between people was broken.” God’s image-bearers were created to worship and obey him and to reflect his glory to his good creation. 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.

As Ashley Null points out, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” 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 which dehumanize and exclude people who are made in the image of God. Greg Bahnsen examines several major non-Christian views of the nature of humanity, such as the rationalistic dualism of Plato, the materialist economic determinism of Marx, the psychic determinism of 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 so on.

Arguably, all unbiblical views of personhood can be divided into two sorts: (1) views that are reductionistic, that is, they reduce people to merely material beings, not made in the image of God; and (2), views that are gnostic, that is, they downplay the material aspect of people, so that suffering is seen as no more than an illusion. Both paths open the way to dehumanization, violence, and exploitation.


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: cannibalism (2 Kings 6:28–29), violence against children (Ps. 137:9), women (Amos 1:13), and the unborn (2 Kings 15:16), rape (Judges 19:22–30), massacres (1 Sam. 22:18–19), and enslavement (Amos 4:2).

Throughout human history, we see again and again how unbiblical views of personhood are used to exploit and oppress people. The strong eat 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 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. That which should be held sacred is commodified, bought, and sold. The examples of injustice and exploitation that occurs when human 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.

The prophet Zechariah portrays a God-given role for God’s people as a nation that practices justice & 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 true repentance and a people who fervently pursue justice and mercy for all people. The result is that the nations of unbelievers will come asking about the Lord (Zech. 8:20–23). God’s people thankful, worshiping God, and working for justice and mercy will be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), a hope which culminates in the coming of the Messiah.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and 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 4:17).

In making this declaration and in his ministry, Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is at the very center of his divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teachings and his example show us that the proclamation of the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ actions contradicted the dehumanizing assumptions of his culture. Jesus spent significant amounts of time with children, women, the poor, the diseased, Samaritans, and other outcast and disliked groups, valuing and loving those considered less valuable by the culture of his day. This paradoxical approach to the value-systems of the world is echoed by Paul when he writes, “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).

The Christian church has, at its best, been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to “the least of these”—the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. By upholding the dignity of all human life as the image of God and tangibly expressing the biblical ethic of personhood that flows from it, the church has the opportunity to be a light to the nations and to participate in God’s mission by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.