Being Human 101

We hear a lot about what it means to be a human, and hear a lot of competing voices. In church you sometimes hear the spiritualistic notion that we are at our most basic souls housed in bodies. In the academy you’ll sometimes hear a materialistic reduction of humanity that says all we are is our bodies, that the spiritual experiences we have are really just the chemical activities of in our brains. That we are nothing but the physical stuff existing in time and space. All across our society, both within religious circles and without, there is a great deal of confusion regarding whether or not we as human beings have a spiritual existence at all, and if so how that spiritual existence relates to our flesh and bones.

We must always start at the beginning. Genesis 2:7 reads, “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” God first forms our physical being before breathing life into us, or giving us a spiritual existence. This notion is underscored in the language used earlier in Genesis 1:26-27, being made created as God’s image, after his likeness. The word “image” is probably more akin to statuary than a picture, and sometimes it even takes the connotation of an idol. The same word shows up in the Ten Commandments and the injunction to Israel not to make a graven image of God. The implicit reason being, because we are ourselves meant to be God’s image, his physical representatives in creation. We were created to look like God, made male and female to live in life-giving community; being fruitful, multiplying, making the wild creation into a beautiful garden like the one God planted for us in Eden.

If you’re a little troubled by all this, don’t worry. Of course it all went tragically awry. We rebelled from God, sin and death entered God’s good creation, and now our bodies break down, get sick, and die; our spirits are prone to sin and all the corrupting effects that it brings. We may be tempted to think, because of the brokenness of creation, that our bodies are somehow cages. Certainly they sometimes feel that way. My body tempts me to indulge in more food than I ought. At the tender age of thirty I already have a bum shoulder and creaking back from too much rugby in college. I know I’m not alone in this. And I haven’t even scratched the surface on all the sexual issues our embodiment brings! So it would seem that our bodies are skin and bone cages keeping our spirits, our true selves, down.

But the Christian scriptures would push back against this. Time and again Paul places our hope, not in some disembodied view of heaven—where our translucent ghosts play translucent harps on clouds—but in bodily resurrection when we will receive bodies (real physical bodies) that are no longer subject to sickness, sin, and death. So how do we make sense of this? Our bodies were made good in Genesis, Paul tells us they will be remade good in the age to come. But right now they can be more than a little problematic.