Meandering Reflections on Human Existence and the Problem of Sin and the Solution God Provides 

Central to the Christian faith and the theology of the Christian religion is the doctrinal tenet expressed in the book of Genesis that human beings are made “in the image of God” and “after God’s likeness.” A theology of Creation, and especially the creation of humans, must contend, therefore, that human beings have a unique and exalted place in the universe as we know it. The question to be asked, however, is what it means to be created in the image of God and after the divine likeness. In the following essay, I want to explore this tenet of Christian faith to show two things: 1) what the Christian doctrine of human sin means in light of the fact that we were created in the image of God; and 2) what this implies for our doctrine of salvation.

Made in God’s Image in all of our existence

When we say that human beings bear or are made in the imago Dei, we need to remember that this exalted description does not merely apply to our “spiritual” nature, but to the entirety of our being. In fact, it is wrong to think of human beings as having a “spiritual nature.” This is especially true if we posit our spiritual nature as something other than our physical nature. Now, I know that people often quote the New Testament by speaking about the conflict between “the flesh” and “the spirit/Spirit.” However, from the book of Genesis itself we understand that human nature is irreducibly physical, although it is not simply material. Consider the passage in Genesis 2, where the creation of man and the subsequent creation of woman is described. God takes the dust of the earth and fashions that dirt into a human body. Then he breathes into that human-body shaped dirt the breath of life and only then does “man” become nephesh. The word nephesh is sometimes translated soul, but it actually means something closer to “living” or “being.” The point I want to make is that the material nature of Adam is foundational to his creation, just as much as the “breath of life” is.

What I want to emphasize in this is that our bodies are just as crucial to human identity as is the breath of life. It seems to me that Genesis’ reference to “the breath of life” which God “breathes” into man can be understood as a parallel to the statement in Genesis 1 that human beings are made in the image of God. The imagery of Genesis 2 seems to be that God’s own “breath” or Spirit is what uniquely animates the material existence of a human being. But we should not downplay the importance of the biblical teaching that it is the “dust of the ground” that is shaped and that becomes the receptacle of the breath or Spirit of life. . . breathed by God himself. And when Eve is created, she is made from the matter of Adam’s own body and is flesh of his flesh, etc.

If one adds to the creation story the plain teaching of St Paul in the New Testament that at the ultimate redemption of humanity will involve a resurrection of the dead and a recreation of human physical life, and that our bodies are not to be discarded in Eternal life but are to be transformed in to spiritual BODIES, then we must understand that our existence in the body is inherent to what it means to be a human being. In his book, The Importance of Being Human, E.L. Mascall declares correctly that corporality is inherent and everlastingly a part of what it means to be what we are. This view of humanity began to be formulated in Jewish thought, plus even the origins of the doctrine of resurrection, during the intertestamental period, probably sometime around 200-300 B.C.

The implication of this for our Christian anthropology and our doctrine of human nature is simply this. We are the image of God in our biological existence, not merely our spiritual natures. This does not mean that we “look” like God, of course, since God is Spirit. God has no appearance, because God cannot be seen in his essence, only experienced. But it does mean that our existence is a matter of real uniqueness. We are not merely apes, even sophisticated apes, as the naturalistic theory of evolution would insist. Neither, however, are we angels, because angels are only spiritual messengers of God, nonmaterial beings. (We should be careful not to be too creative in our angelology.) Rather, human beings are material and physical beings in whom a transcendent element has made us capable of God. We are the part of Creation where the material world has been made self-conscious and beyond that capable of the knowing and acknowledging and responding to the reality of the Divine. And in a particular way, we are the part of Creation in which God makes himself uniquely present to the rest of his Creation.

So…what is sin?

Human beings are creatures who are made for the world, in fact to be the lords over the Creation as stewards and developers and caretakers of God’s world. That seems to be the point of Genesis 2 and the commands to subdue the earth, etc. But let me reiterate, we are made for the Creation. At the same moment, however, we must insist that we are made for this world in a special way. WE are made for this world and this world was meant to be the means through which we would know God and relate to God. We are made for God and made capable of God and made able to know God. In fact, the reality of Christ’s incarnation carries with it the staggering implication that our nature is capable of being united to the personal presence and the transcendent reality of God’s own nature.

Here, I believe, is where we come to the place of understanding more clearly the import and meaning of the doctrine of Sin. As the only creatures made especially capable of God, who bear the possibility of knowing and relating to—even trusting and loving God—we bear a great blessing. At the same time we bear a significant challenge—to avoid being satisfied with merely the material world. BECAUSE WE ARE MADE FOR THIS WORLD, AS THE MEANS THROUGH WHICH WE WOULD ENCOUNTER GOD AND SERVE GOD.

Let’s be careful and clear to understand something here. The original creation should not be understood as the final product of God’s creative work. In fact, even after the 6th day and the making of humanity in the image of God the Creation is described as “very good.” The Hebrew construction does not at all imply perfection, but instead describe a state in which God determines and declares that his work is very good. The meaning of the Hebrew tov (good) can, in fact, refer to moral good and usefulness and functional good. At the end of his original creative work, God declares that the world containing humans in his image is, in fact, all that he wants it to be AT THAT MOMENT. Hence, we would be wrong to believe that it was a state of perfection. Furthermore, in the second chapter of Genesis, as I have already referenced, Adam is created to tend the garden, because there were no (cultivated) plants growing, there was something more to be done. He is, as well, to subdue the earth, to be fruitful and multiply.

In his material existence, Adam was to serve God and know God by being in the world and acting in the world. The problem of sin, it seems to me is found in the decision by human beings to flip the essence of our natures. We are made for God and to know God in the world. We determine to live as though we are made for the world, and we can have God be part of the world that we want to make the focus of our existence. Simply being satisfied with the world and its satisfactions seems to me to be the real origin of our human problem. That exchange of focus from God to the world produces in us a rejection of God as the true telos (end or purpose or fulfillment) of our lives. As a result, we exalt our own wisdom and decide for ourselves what is valuable for us and how we will live. Even God becomes an object that we seek to include in our own lives based upon our own wisdom. It is probably true to say that sin is less about rebellion against God (at least active rebellion) than it is about redefining God or Truth for our own purposes.

Think for a moment about three different passages of scripture that lend themselves to understanding sin in the terms I just described. First, Cain and Abel. In the story, Cain and Abel after the calamitous events of their parents’ failure in the Garden are not living lives of utter disregard for God. They are making sacrifices to God. (Interestingly, at this point we have no evidence that God had called upon them to make sacrifices.) Each of them is bringing his own because they are including God in their lives in some way. Abel’s is accepted and Cain’s is not. Cain’s anger is that God does not accept his sacrifice. Cain wants to acknowledge God, as does Abel, but when his brother’s sacrifice is accepted and his rejected, Cain does not ponder how to make a sacrifice that would be acceptable to God. No! He is angry at God for not accepting his offering and at his brother because his was accepted by God. Just as Eve, his mother, looked at the tree and determined that the forbidden fruit was good for gaining wisdom, rather than being a danger as God had said, because she and Adam trusted their own judgments, so Cain seems to believe that God should conform to his (Cain’s) wisdom.   “What I say I should offer you should be good enough” he seems to be saying.  He does not want God to leave him alone, but he wants to acknowledge God only on his (Cain’s) terms.

Second, the Tower of Babel story. Humans seek to make a tower to reach to heaven. Ensuring their own prominence is their goal.  They are not rebelling against God so much as attempting to establish themselves as capable of being deity-like in their abilities to provide for themselves (So, no one can remove us from our place.) Gaining access to the heavens—where God resides—is to redefine God as one who can be reached by our own efforts and wisdom.  This is to diminish God’s essential nature, looking to control God rather than acknowledge He is the ONE upon whom we must depend. Here human beings are not shaking their collective fist in the face of God per se but are attempting to make the divine a part of the world which they can control.

Third is the first chapter of Romans. Here Paul says that humanity, although knowing God’s existence and even his divine nature, preferred the creature over the Creator. Hence, they make idols in the image of created things and even in the image of humans. Paul says they did not worship God as God or give thanks to him. The point seems to be that we don’t recognize our dependence upon God, nor do we acknowledge the priority of the transcendent One over our lives. Worshipping idols made to look like the creation itself, means that the sinfulness of humanity takes the form of attempting to find our fulfillment in the material, visible, immediately accessible word that offers itself to us through our senses.

Sin is a matter of failing to recognize the fact that we are made for more than the world we live in and which, as I have already said, we ARE made for. But, as those who are made capable of self- awareness and capable of transcendent reflections because we are made for God, the reason we are made for the world is that through the world we might encounter our spiritual need for God. In other words, the world (understood as God’s creation) is not our problem. Our problem is ourselves—our willingness to take the less challenging way and merely look for purpose and meaning in the tangible things of our experience. This leads, then, to Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride— what the church understood to be the Seven Deadly Sins…the central character flaws that will damn us. But they all begin with the unwillingness or the refusal to acknowledge something vital about ourselves—and something that we cannot escape, since we always bear God’s image even in our fallenness—that we are made for something greater than ourselves, God.

When we want what presents itself to our senses immediately as the pleasing and satisfying things right in front of us, lust for those things is the resulting malady. We are made for God and for eternal joys and pleasure. Thinking we know best our desires become lusts and we become driven to fulfill them. Sexual lust is especially problematic because it is so immediately experienced, but all other lusts are equally driving. We can lust for anything in this world. Or course, Gluttony is merely a physical expression of our desire for the material things of this world and is evidence that we will literally stuff ourselves with the things we lust for. Food is like sex in that it is a basic drive. But, when we neglect the reality that we are made for the Eternal and the Infinite, we must gluttonize the temporal and finite.

Greed, the desire for more and more and a disregard for the needs of others, is another manifestation of what happens when we take life into our own hands. We cannot stop ourselves from greediness, because we have nothing or no one upon whom we might depend for well-being. Sloth is a manifestation of our deep malady in the sense that seeking God, living for the eternal, and finding meaning in that which is transcendent is a hard task. Being satisfied with whatever immediately is available is easy. Sloth keeps us trapped in our sin every bit as much as Lust. Wrath is merely our anger that we cannot get what we want and always want something more. Envy is the condition of wanting what others seem to enjoy because we merely lust for our own fulfillment. And PRIDE is the sin that drives the rest, because in failing to recognize and admit our need for God we only have our own wisdom and dreams, which we must elevate to a quasi-deity like state. Admitting we cannot fulfill our own lives is hard if one does not recognize the goodness of being created for God.

Why the Incarnation was necessary to save us

Human beings exist in the “place” where the material world and the transcendent reality of God meet. This is the blessing of our humanity and the challenge. Given our self-awareness and our appetite for meaning and our capacity for God, we also have a freedom, if you will, to look upward to God for our lives’ purpose or to look “downward” toward the material creation. Our embodiedness is the way that we relate both to the world and to God, therefore. We are not essentially spiritual creatures who are only secondarily physical. That is not what Scripture, or the Christian tradition teach us. Neither are we essentially physical creatures who have spiritual aspirations. We are, rather, simultaneously physical and immaterial in our make-up.  You could say we are biologically spiritual and spiritually biological.  We are creatures of time and space who seek the eternal and the infinite. This is the case because in making us God breathed into the dust out of which we were made the something of Himself—the breath/Spirit of life.

For this reason we needed an Incarnate Savior who God provided in the Incarnation. In preferring the material creation over our Creator, in looking to the world and determining to define our lives in relation to the sensible, material world, our first parents—Adam and Eve—abdicated the real factor that makes us human, namely the presence of God. By turning away from God and establishing our own wisdom as the final authority of our lives, we “lost” the centering, fulfilling, and purpose-giving gift of God’s own personal place in our existence. This is what Paul means in Romans 1. Not recognizing God in worship and thanksgiving means we instead worship something else—make something else our highest priority—and we fail to recognize our dependence upon God—we don’t give thanks to God. As a result, we are shaped into the image of that upon which we depend. We become, thereby, slaves to Sin. The material world becomes our “god.” And we establish ourselves as the final word and the ultimate wisdom. Having lost God’s presence in our biological existence and our spiritual essence being corrupted we have brought upon ourselves death. Death is primarily spiritual (Ephesians 2), but it has biological implications, as well. In order to redeem us from our Sin and from ourselves and from the Death that we have brought upon our lives, God must touch the entirety of our human existence. Hence, the Word becomes FLESH and dwells among us. The Word takes upon Himself our brokenness in our essential humanness. He takes our physical essence, because otherwise he would not really be human for us.

Since sin is not merely a matter of offense against God, although because God is personal and God is holy sin is an offense to God, the Incarnation of the Word is needed. Should there have only been a need to atone for guilt for our offense against God, any number of sacrifices might have been possible. If God could accept the blood of bulls and goats, etc in the Old Covenant, we understand that God can determine what will satisfy righteousness. God is not determined by any need for satisfaction, at all. God’s justice, for instance, cannot be thought of as something that constrains or determines what God’s actions must be. To establish God’s justice or righteousness as something that requires God to act in a particular way is to make the mistake of thinking of God as having some essence of category that is not subject to his sovereignty. However, the Incarnation of the Son is God’s response to our need, not his own.

The Word becomes flesh to restore our true human nature, because the presence of the image of God in our bodily existence is our true nature. God who made our biological, cellular, and material existence to be the bearer of his image, comes into the world to reclaim and restore our biological, cellular, and material existence. This is the meaning of the resurrection of the body. Christ’s resurrection restores our true life because in his perfect obedience unto death—the curse upon us because of Sin—he suffers and dies ON OUR BEHALF not in our place. On our behalf he defeats death. On our behalf he bears guilt. On our behalf he becomes sin. On our behalf he is resurrected. On our behalf he ascends into heaven. On our behalf he intercedes for us. On our behalf he will return to bring the Father’s Kingdom completely. And on our behalf, as Paul says, one day he will make himself subject to the reign of the Father. This is not merely done in our place, for that does not necessitate our participation in what he is doing and has done and will do. To do it on our behalf is to do something for us that we cannot do, but it is to do it in such a way to include our participation in the action done.

As creatures who bear the image of God (or who ARE the image of God), but who have been alienated by sin from the true image and true nature that we ARE, human beings are body and soul in union with each other. Soul is not what we are most completely. I am not my soul, and you are not your soul. Our souls are not our personhood or our consciousness or our minds. Soul is what makes us to be alive in a human way. And to be alive in a human way is to exist as one who has been granted the image of God. In order to think clearly about how soul and body unite in utter oneness of being to make us the kind of beings we are, we can utilize the philosophical insights found in Thomas Aquinas, who took the doctrines of Aristotle and applied them to Christian theology for the sake of clear thinking.

Aquinas speaks of the soul and the form of the body. By that he means that whatever the soul is, it is the principle that makes a human body to be a human body, rather than some other kind of body. Think about it like this. In the world around us, from an exclusively material point of view we are made up of the very same matter as all other things, especially organic things (things that are living). Carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, iron, zinc, etc. There is nothing about these elements that cause them to be organized in such a way so as to become the matter of a human body. These elements are merely potentially something living if they are organized to be able to be capable of life. However, they do become a living organism when they are organized in a particular way. But what causes these elements to be organized in a particular way so as to be a human body rather than a lobster body? The very same elements are in both bodies. What causes these elements to be capable of hosting a human mind rather than a canine mind? The elements are the same in both human and canine brains. Humans are obviously not dogs or lobsters.

The answer is found it a proper understanding of the human soul. The soul is best conceived of the “organizing” life force that comes from the mind of God and is infused into the material of the body to make a human being a human being. In this way the soul is very distinct from the body. It is even prior to the body, if you will, not temporally but in terms of importance. Without the human soul the human body is just dead and inert elements. With the human soul giving shape, function, capabilities and rational consciousness to the human body, the human body becomes a human person.

Now, theologically we could affirm that everything that is living has “soul” as part of its being, just not rational and spiritual soul. Plants are organized matter that is filled with life. So are animals. But only humans have the capacity for rational thought and spiritual purposes. Only human beings participate in the image of God. Therefore, the human soul is the mechanism by which the image of God is shared with the material of our bodies so that we as biological beings can be the image of God in the material world. The soul makes us more than merely physical because the human soul is the gift of the image of God. God gives life and function—soul—to all living things, but only to human beings does God give the gift of being alive in a spiritual and rational way.

Thinking about this, we see that in the Incarnation Christ had to have a human soul as well as a human body, otherwise he would not have been a real human being. The eternal Word of God— through whom all things were made—could not have taken the place of the human soul. In fact, the church rejected such a notion in the early centuries of Christian faith. That teaching was known as Apollinarism, promoted by a 4th century Christian teacher. It denied that Christ had two natures—fully divine AND fully human. Instead, this teaching wanted to promote the view that Christ had only ONE nature. It was a kind of overreaction to Arianism which denied the equality in divinity with the Father of Jesus Christ. The ancient church rejected this teaching, however, because it saw that the implications were that Jesus had not—as scripture teaches us—become like us in every way, except Sin.

For the eternal Son to become human, then, the Eternal LOGOS took on flesh AND soul of humanity. This conclusion was the implications the church saw in Apostolic faith and in the Nicene Council and Chalcedonian Council’s statements. The purpose of the LOGOS uniting with the fullness of human nature is to heal all our nature—soul and body. Hence, when Christ dies a human death, the human soul (life giving principle) of Jesus leaves his body, but the Eternal Word cannot die. The human soul is kept in union with the Eternal Word even at the time of death. When Christ is resurrected, then, his human life-giving principle (his soul) is reunited with the human body so the human person, Jesus of Nazareth, is resurrected from the dead and exalted and glorified. All of this is because Jesus of Nazareth is completely in every way, THE GOD-MAN—God having completely united all that it means to be a human being with the eternal Word.

Salvation is a complete healing and restoration

There is, then, no aspect of our human existence that is not touched by the miracle and the healing of the Incarnation. And there is no aspect of our human need that is not atoned for in the crucifixion, or any aspect of our human essence that is not caught up in the new creation that is the Resurrection. Hence, in this life we begin to live in Jesus, not simply in the forgiveness he has offered, but in the new life that his own reality has created for us. Salvation truly is complete and full.

Because of how God made us, by his own free choice, and because God is Love, by his very nature, and because God would not deny his own existence and nature, out of the sovereign freedom that He has, once we were fallen into Sin and into Destruction (brought on ourselves by ourselves), God’s response “had to be”—not be any need imposed on Him at all—the Incarnation. Our essentially material-spiritual nature required it. The problem was not how would God forgive us, but how would God work to restore us fully to our true life.

Having made us to be in union with himself in free trust and self-giving love toward God, when we abdicated such a glorious destiny for the lesser satisfactions of the sensible Creation and our own wisdom and way, we lost the one thing that would make us truly human, namely the vital personal presence of God IN our biological being. We became therefore creatures bearing an image from which we were alienated. Without the vital and active relationship with God that we lost, we were given over to, what Paul calls, a depraved mind and became incapable of truly understanding ourselves, much less our need for God.

If we were going to be able to love God and trust God and relate to God again, our nature had to be restored, not just our sins and guilt forgive.  Hence, the incarnation is God’s response to our need. By becoming fully human, the Eternal Son of God recreates for us union with God through the life of Jesus, just as he atones for our guilt and defeats death on our behalf. All this he does so that WE MIGHT TRULY LIVE—THAT IS, HAVE ETERNAL (GOD’S OWN) LIFE IN US. Just as he breathed into the dust of the earth and man became nephesh, God through Christ gives us back the gift of the life-making Spirit.

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G.Stephen Blakemore, Ph.D
G.Stephen Blakemore, Ph.D
Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary. As Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary he contributes with ranging versatility as a pastor and philosopher.