Sherif A. Fahim is a lecturer at Alexandria School of Theology in Egypt and the general director of El-Soora Ministries in Egypt. He is currently a PhD candidate at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. Sherif is also an elder in a Presbyterian church in Alexandria.
Sherif, you have an extraordinary breadth of experience. Having lived, studied, and taught in several countries, as well as interacted with theological students from a diversity of denominations and cultures around the world, how do your experiences shed light on various views of human nature?
In the different cultures and backgrounds I have encountered, I have seen several common and pervasive factors that dehumanize human beings. For instance, sometimes people are evaluated according to their color or race. I have visited certain countries in Africa where race determines many things: The one whose skin color is like mine is my friend, but the one who has a different color is my enemy.
Other times, people are considered as nothing more than productivity “machines.” This is an industrial view of humanity. What skills do you have? What can you do? How strong or healthy are you? People are evaluated only from the perspective of their potential for production. They are useful to their employers as long as they function at maximum efficiency. Employers try to pay minimum salaries to retain them, while using them to return the biggest benefit. But what if this “machine” breaks down or becomes useless? You get rid of it, as you would get rid of any old machine in your house or at work that stops being useful. In World War II, this was Hitler’s view of those who were sick or had disabilities: Why should society spend time and effort on “productivity machines” who can no longer contribute their resources? The opposite and equally problematic view of humans as machines is seeing them merely as consumers. In consumerism, people are reduced to creatures whose deepest needs are materialistic. Our ultimate goal is to have enough possessions and perhaps some level of luxury. In a consumer society, moral decay is less of a concern for the welfare of humankind than maintaining economic prosperity.
Another view that has become dominant, especially in the West, is considering humans primarily as sexual beings: the defining factor of our human identity is our sexuality and our expression of personal desires pertaining to sexuality. This is clear in today’s advertising—as anyone can recognize—as well as the widespread contemporary celebration of homosexuality and transgenderism.
In all of these views, people are being evaluated from a human perspective, not from a divine perspective—and in the process, we are reduced to caricatures, twisted versions of our whole selves.
This sounds like Francis Schaeffer’s description of fallen human beings as “glorious ruins.” What are some key biblical and theological concepts that you find essential and illuminating for a truly Christian doctrine of humanity—relevant not just in the West but all over the world?
From God’s point of view, he created humankind in the image of God. The children of Adam and Eve have always been and forever will be image-bearers in a covenantal relationship with God. To be human at heart is to be made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). This is our value, and it is a dignity that does not change. You cannot add to it or subtract from it. Yet knowing that we are created in the image of God in this way should not lead us to be self-centered. It should point us to God himself and motivate us to love and value our neighbor. This is the image the Bible displays from its first chapter.
Moses wrote this text to the Israelites either during the time of the exodus or while in the wilderness. The Israelites (who lived for a long time in Egypt) would have understood what Moses meant by “image.” The Hebrew term tselem basically means a three-dimensional statue. An image was a physical statue of something or someone, especially important beings like gods or kings. All over the ancient world, it was understood that encountering the image of the king gives a hint of the nature of the king himself. We have today in south Egypt an impressive temple named Abu Simbel, which was built by a great Pharoah, Ramses II. Anyone who visits will find four statues of Ramses. Why would he make such a great temple so far in the south, and why would he make these four “images” of himself there? Well, back then, enemies would come from the south to attack Egypt, and when they saw these statues of the king, they had an idea of just how great and powerful this king was whom they were about to face. In saying that we are all created in God’s image, Moses means that whenever we meet another human being, we encounter a picture of how great God is. As God’s images, we should reflect his glory as the one true God and the King of kings.
What’s more, in the ancient Near Eastern world, some people were given the title “the image of God.” In Egypt, the one who usually held this title was none other than Pharaoh himself. Then in Genesis 1, Moses says that everyone was created in the image of God. How phenomenal it was for the Israelites to hear this! Every single human being has dignity and value and deserves the honor of a royal figure. This gives us at least two messages: First, we should treat everyone we meet like royalty; and second, we are all equal in dignity and value. No one person’s life is worth more than another’s.
We also know from God’s word (Gen. 3), however, that humanity is fallen and that God’s image in us has become distorted, but not annihilated. By nature, these same royal and dignified humans are described as spiritually dead, enemies of God, children of wrath, followers of Satan (Eph. 2:1–3), and rebels and sinners against God with the entirety of their beings (Rom. 3:9–20). The fall polluted our entire human nature and touched every part of our humanity. Calvin expresses this line of thought as follows: “There is no doubt that Adam, when he fell from his state, was by this defection alienated from God. Therefore, even though we grant that God’s image was not totally annihilated and destroyed in him, yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity.”
Even in our fallen state, we are still the image of God (cf. Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). Although humanity retains its humanity, it is radically misdirected humanity. Total depravity doesn’t mean that we became animals or demons. In fact, being made in the image of God is what makes sin really serious. But it is also a source of hope. We now can go to seemingly hopeless individuals and the most vicious criminals and bring them the gospel because they have the inherent capacity to be in communion with God, since they were created in the image of God.
Although we have not lost the capacity to have communion with God, we have lost the ability to recover that communion with God. We are totally dependent on the Redeemer, the One who has come in our own nature, becoming the second Adam so that we may become the image of God in the perfect sense. Jesus Christ is that second Adam, the true image of God (Col. 1:15) who came to save humanity and restore the image of God in those who are united to him (Col. 3:9–10; Eph. 4:22–24; Rom. 8:29). In him, we are being renewed from glory to glory by being conformed to the image of Christ himself (2 Cor. 3:18).
How do you see these biblical and theological truths steering the church and individual believers to increased faithfulness to the Lord’s word and ways?
The highest view of humanity is to see humanity as created in the image of God. The most realistic view of humanity is to understand that this image has been radically distorted by the fall. This balanced view of humanity is both glorious and truthful. It means that we all have the same dignity and value, while at the same time, we all need to be saved. There are many implications for Christians who believe such a doctrine. I will point to at least three of them here.
First, we must love those who are different. As fallen human beings, we have a natural tendency to classify people according to our preferred criteria (such as color, political party, level of wealth, or allegiance to a certain sports team). We tend to group ourselves with those who are similar to us and think less of those who are different from us. If we get the chance to avoid or get rid of those who are different, then we are happy to do so. But surprisingly, our prejudice does not stop there! When we are done rejecting obvious outsiders, we then start to look inside our own groups and find those who are different from us using some other criteria, fighting and persecuting them until we get rid of them too. When there was only one person different from himself, Cain killed Abel. Our response to God’s commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” is always an excuse: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). That human beings are created in the image of God means we are called to treat every human being according to this reality, no matter their color or status or abilities. As Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “What kind of neighbor am I called to be?” Because we have been made new in Christ, we are called to share his love with whomever he places in our lives.
Second, we must not confuse roles with value. Many people think that holding leadership or teaching roles gives a person greater value. Think for example of the husband as the head of the wife (Eph. 5:23). Does this mean that he is of greater worth than her? Or in the church, does being the pastor or having authority in the church confer greater value than being a layperson? Absolutely not! Being God’s image and renewed in Christ is a full and equal reality for both men and women and for every member of Christ’s church. Understanding the meaning of the image of God, of not confusing role with value and living in such a way that shows God’s design for the home and the church, best protects families and churches from unnecessary conflicts and resentment.
Third, our doctrine of humanity must lead to the worship of God. The Bible’s teaching about the image of God is strongly tied to worship. In the Ten Commandments, God forbade the use of images to represent him, especially for the purposes of worship (Exod. 20:4–6). Any man-made image is inanimate; thus it can never appropriately reflect the true and living God. In fact, whenever someone makes an idol to worship, he is making something that reflects his spiritual deadness: he reflects the image of false gods that cannot hear, speak, or act to save (Ps. 115:4–8). As G. K. Beale has memorably put it, “What you revere, you resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” When we turn from God, we become more like the idols we worship. But when we turn to the Lord by faith in Christ, we transform more and more into the image of Christ. God made one object to faithfully reflect his glory and to point to his greatness: human beings. As image-bearers, we should live and act in a way that glorifies our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
2. G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2016), 16.