God's Perspective on Man

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Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 28.4 (Dec. 1976) 145-51.

[American Scientific Affiliation © 1976; cited with permission]

God's Perspective on Man

Vernon C. Grounds

Philosophy and science are both bafflingly inclusive

in their subject-matter. Yet each of these disciplines is

essentially an attempt to answer a simple question.

Taken in its broadest sense, science is dedicated to

the task of answering that question which perpetually

haunts our minds, "How?" A simple question indeed!

But to explain how grass grows on our earth or how a

machine functions or how galaxies zoom through the

vast emptiness of space has been one of the great enter-

prises of modern civilization, perhaps its greatest. On

the other hand, philosophy, taken in its broadest sense,

is also dedicated to the task of answering a simple

question which never quits plaguing us, "Why?"

Though the why-question like the how-question is de-

ceptively simple, it often teases us nearly out of

thought. So, for example, a child asks innocently, "Why

was anything at all?"--and the sages are reduced to


We who are amateurs in the philosophical enterprise

find ourselves bewildered as we glance at its profusion

of rival schools and listen to their in-group jargon.

Fortunately, though, one of its most illustrious prac-

titioners, Immanuel Kant, provides us with helpful

orientation. In the Handbook which he prepared for

the students who studied with him at the University

of Koenigsburg a century and a half ago, Kant points

out that philosophy, a disciplined attempt to explain

why, concerns itself with four key-problems.l First,

what can we know? Second, what ought we do? Third,

what may we hope? Fourth, what is man? In a way

that last question, "What is man?", the problem of an-

thropology or the nature of human nature, includes

the other three. For man is that curious creature who


insists on asking questions. Man is that unique animal

who tirelessly cross examines himself about himself.

Man is that relentless interrogator who probingly won-

ders what he can know and what he ought to do and

what he may hope. Philosophy, therefore, twists and

turns around the person and the philosopher. Every

question he raises is inescapably enmeshed with the

question concerning himself as the questioner, "What

is man?"

The fourth key-problem in Kant's succinct outline of

philosophy echoes a recurrent Biblical theme. In


Job 7:17 that very question appears. In Psalm 8:4 that

question re-emerges, and Hebrews 2:5 repeats that

same question. Thus we are not surprised that philos-

ophy, which like theology is a why discipline, puts

anthropology or the problem of man front and center.

But whether we label ourselves philosophers or theo-

logians or scientists, every one of us is a human being

who grapples with the issue of self-identity, Hence

the question, "What is man?", concerns us individually

at the deepest levels of our existence; for that question

is really the haunting question, "Who am I?"
Man as Garbage

Before proceeding to present God's perspective on

man, which can be done only because we presuppose

that the Bible is God's Word spoken to us through

human words, let me remind you of some competing

models of man that are widely accepted today. There

is of course the purely materialistic concept which holds

that man is nothing but, as Bertrand Russell elegantly

phrased it, an accidental collocation of atoms. This

concept, though advanced with the blessing of con-

temporary science, is by no means excitingly novel. In

the 18th century self-styled illuminati scoffed that man

is nothing but an ingenious system of portable plumb-

ing. In pre-Hitler Germany an unflattering devaluation

of Homo sapiens was jokingly circulated: "The human

body contains enough fat to make 7 bars of soap,

enough iron to make a medium sized nail, enough

phosphorus for 2000 matchheads, and enough sulphur

to rid oneself of fleas." When human bodies were later

turned into soap in the extermination camps, the grim

logic of that joke was probably being worked out to

its ultimate conclusion.

Today, tragically, that concept, apparently certified

by science, is articulated by a celebrated novelist like

Joseph Heller. In Catch 22 he describes a battle. Yos-

sarian, the book's hero, discovers that Snowden, one of

his comrades, has been mortally wounded. Hoping that

none of us will be unduly nauseated by it, I quote this

vivid passage.
Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden's flack suit

and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden's insides

slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept

dripping out. A chunk of flack more than three inches

big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm

and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled

quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic

hole it made in his ribs as it blasted out. Yossarian

screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over

his eyes. His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced

himself to look again. Here was God's plenty all right,

he thought bitterly as he stared-liver, lungs, kidneys,

ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden

had eaten that day for lunch. Yossarian . . . turned

away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning

throat. . .

"I'm cold," Snowden whimpered. "I'm cold."

"There, there," Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a

voice too low to be heard. "There, there."

Yossarian was cold too, and shivering uncontrollably.

He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed

down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had

spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the

message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snow-

den's secret. Drop him out a window and he'd fall. Set

fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot like

other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage.

That was Snowden's secret.2

Man is garbage. That, crudely stated, is a common view

of human nature today. In the end, man is garbage-

an accidental collocation of atoms, destined, sooner

or later, to rot and decay. To guard against any mis-

understanding, let me say emphatically that from one

perspective man is indeed garbage or will be. That

appraisal is incontestably valid, provided man is not

viewed as garbage and nothing but that. Man has other

dimensions to his being which no full-orbed anthro-

pology can ignore.

Man as Machine

A second concept, apparently endorsed by science,

holds that man is essentially a machine, an incredibly

complicated machine, no doubt, yet in the end nothing

but a sort of mechanism. Typical is the opinion of

Cambridge astronomer, Fred Hoyle, who writes in The

Nature of the Universe:
Only the biological processes of mutation and natural

selection are needed to produce living creatures as we

know them. Such creatures are no more than ingenious

machines that have evolved as strange by-products in

an odd corner of the universe. . . Most people object

to this argument for the not very good reason that they

do not like to think of themselves as machines.3
Like it or not, however, Hoyle insists, that is the fact.

What is man? An ingenious machine-well, a whole

complex of machines. R. Buckminster Fuller, whose

genius seems to belie the truth of reductive mechanism,

pictures man as
a self-balancing, 28 jointed, adapter-based biped, an

electro-chemical reduction plant, integral with the segre-

gated storages of special energy extracts in storage bat-

teries, for the subsequent actuation of thousands of hy-

draulic and pneumatic pumps, with motors attached;

62,000 miles of capillaries, millions of warning signals,

railroad and conveyor systems; crushers and cranes. . .


and a universally distributed telephone system needing

no service for seventy years if well managed; the whole

extraordinary complex mechanism guided with exquisite

precision from a turret in which are located telescopic

and microscopic self-registering and recording range

finders, a spectroscope, et cetera.4

That man from one perspective is a complex of

exquisitely synchronized machines cannot be denied

and need not be, provided human beings are not ex-

haustively reduced to that, and nothing but that. Man

has other dimensions to his being which no full-orbed

anthropology can ignore.

Man as Animal

Still another current concept of man holds that he

is essentially an animal. Loren Eiseley, a distinguished

scientist whose prose often reads like poetry, eloquent-

ly sets forth this model of humanity in his 1974 Ency-

clopedia Brittanica article, "The Cosmic Orphan." What

is man? He is a cosmic orphan, a primate which has

evolved into a self-conscious, reflective, symbol-using

animal. Man is a cosmic orphan, a person aware that

he has been produced, unawares and unintentionally,

by an impersonal process. Thus when this cosmic

orphan inquires, "Who am I?", science gives him its

definitive answer.

You are a changeling. You are linked by a genetic chain

to all the vertebrates. The thing that is you bears the

still-aching wounds of evolution in body and in brain.

Your hands are made-over fins, your lungs come from a

swamp, your femur has been twisted upright. Your foot

is a re-worked climbing pad. You are a rag doll resewn

from the skins of extinct animals. Long ago, 2 million


years perhaps, you were smaller; your brain was not so

large. We are not confident that you could speak. Seven-

ty million years before that you were an even smaller

climbing creature known as a tupaiid. You were the

size of a rat. You ate insects. Now you fly to the moon.

Science, when pressed, admits that its explanation is a

fairy tale. But immediately science adds:
That is what makes it true. Life is indefinite departure.

That is why we are all orphans. That is why you must

find your own way. Life is not stable. Everything alive

is slipping through cracks and crevices in time, chang-

ing as it goes. Other creatures, however, have instincts

that provide for them, holes in which to hide. They

cannot ask questions. A fox is a fox, a wolf is a wolf,

even if this, too, is illusion. You have learned to ask

questions. That is why you are an orphan. You are the

only creation in the universe who knows what it has

been. Now you must go on asking questions while all

the time you are changing. You will ask what you are

to become. The world will no longer satisfy you. You

must find your way, your own true self. "But how can

I?" wept the Orphan, hiding his head. "This is magic.

I do not know what I am. I have been too many things."

"You have indeed," said all the scientists together.
Something still more must be appended, though,

science insists as it explains man to himself.

Your body and your nerves have been dragged about

and twisted in the long effort of your ancestors to stay

alive, but now, small orphan that you are, you must

know a secret, a secret magic that nature has given you.

No other creature on the planet possesses it. You use

language. You are a symbol-shifter. All this is hidden in

your brain and transmitted from one generation to an-

other. You are a time-binder; in your head the symbols

that mean things in the world outside can fly about un-

trammeled. You can combine them differently into a

new world of thought, or you can also hold them ten-

aciously throughout a life-time and pass them on to


Expressed in Eiseley's semi-poetic prose, this concept,

while confessedly a fairy tale, has about it an aura of

not only plausibility but nobility as well. Sadly, how-

ever, when man is reduced to an animal and nothing

but an animal, the aura of nobility vanishes and

bestiality starts to push humanity into the background.

Think of man as portrayed in contemporary art and

literature and drama. Take, illustratively, the anthro-

pology which underlies the work of a popular play-

wright like Tennessee Williams. What is the Good

News preached by this evangelist, as he calls himself?

His Gospel, interpreted by Robert Fitch, is this:
Man is a beast. The only difference between man and

the other beasts is that man is a beast that knows he

will die. The only honest man is the unabashed egotist.

This honest man pours contempt upon the mendacity,

the lies, the hypocrisy of those who will not acknowledge

their egotism. The one irreducible value is life, which

you must cling to as you can and use for the pursuit

of pleasure and of power. The specific ends of life are

sex and money. The great passions are lust and rapacity.

So the human comedy is an outrageous medley of lech-

ery, alcoholism, homosexuality, blasphemy, greed, bru-

tality, hatred, obscenity. It is not a tragedy because it

has not the dignity of a tragedy. The man who plays

his role in it has on himself the marks of a total deprav-

ity. And as for the ultimate and irreducible value, life,

that in the end is also a lie.6

These, then, are three contemporary models of man,


all of them rooted in a philosophy of reductive natural-

ism. First, man is nothing but matter en route to be-

coming garbage. Second, man is nothing but a complex

of exquisitely synchronized machines. Third, man is

nothing but an animal, a mutation aware that, as a

cosmic orphan, it lives and dies in melancholy loneli-

Man as God's Creature

Now over against these views let us look at man

from God's perspective, unabashedly drawing our

anthropology from the Bible. As we do so, please bear

in mind that we are not disputing those valid insights

into the nature of human nature which are derived

from philosophy, no less than science. Suppose, too, we

take for granted that psychology and sociology are

properly included within the scientific orbit. In other

words, we are assuming that man is multidimensional

and that anthropology therefore requires God's input if

it is to give us a full-orbed picture of its subject.

To begin with, then, the Bible asserts that man is

God's creature. So in Genesis 2:1 this statement is

made: "The Lord God formed man of dust from the

ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of

life and man became a living soul." Exactly how God

formed man Genesis does not tell us; it does tell us,

though, that man is not an accident, a happenstance, a

personal mutation ground out by an impersonal process.

On the contrary, Genesis tells us explicitly that man

owes his existence to God's limitless power, wisdom,

and love. It tells us explicitly that man-dust inbreathed

by deity-cannot be explained except in terms of crea-

turehood. Which means what? As creature, man is

qualitatively different from God, utterly dependent

upon God, and ultimately determined by His creator.

It is God Who determines man's nature and determines,

likewise, the laws and limits of human existence.

Obviously, the implications of this Creator-creature

relationship are enormous. Few reductive naturalists

have perceived them as penetratingly as Jean-Paul

Sartre, the foremost spokesman for atheistic existential-

ism now living. Realizing what follows if indeed man

has been made by God, Sartre repudiates the very

notion of creation. Understandably so! If there is no

Creator, then there is no fixed human nature, and

man has unbounded freedom. He can decide who he

will be and what he will do. That is why Sartre postu-

lates atheism without stopping to argue for it.

Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, states that if

God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom

existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he

can be defined by any concept, and that this being is

man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is

meant here by saying that existence precedes essence?

It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears

on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If

man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable,

it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will

he be something, and he himself will have made what

he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there

is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he con-

ceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills

himself to be after this thrust toward existence. . . . If

existence really does precede essence, there is no ex-

plaining things away by reference to a fixed and given

human nature. In other words, there is no determinism,

man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if God

does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn

to which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm

of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justifica-

tion before us. We are alone, with no excuses.7
Thus in Sartre's opinion only if man is not a creature

can he be genuinely free, free to shape his own nature,

free to run his own life, free to pick and choose his

own values. And Sartre is right. Grant that man is a

creature, and you must grant that he can never sign

a declaration of independence, cutting himself free

from God. He is inseparably related to God, finding

fulfillment and obedience to his Maker's will. Hence

Paul Tillich, in tacit agreement with Sartre, argues that

the modern repudiation of God springs from man's

fierce desire to renounce his creaturely status. In

Tillich's own words:

God as a subject makes me into an object which is

nothing more than an object. He deprives me of my sub-

jectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I

revolt and try to make him into an object, but the revolt

fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invinci-

ble tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other

beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is

equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of

terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a

thing among things, a cog in the machine they control.

He becomes the model of every thing against which

Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said

had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made

into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute

control. This is the deepest root of atheism.8
Tillich, alas, grossly misconceives the Creator-creature

relationship; but one thing he profoundly apprehends.

Man as God's creature can never sign a declaration of

independence from his Creator. That is the basic fact

of human existence.
Man as God's Image

In the next place, the Bible asserts that man is God's

image. Genesis 1:26 announces this second momentous

fact of human existence rather undramatically. "And

God said, Let us make man in our image, after our

likeness." To interpret the full significance of the in-

triguing phrase, the image of God, is plainly beyond my

competence. But its central thrust is undebatable. Man

was created not only by God and for God but also

like God. He was created a finite person reflecting the

being of infinite Personhood. Qualitatively different

from God and absolutely dependent upon his Creator,

man was endowed with the capacity of responding to

the divine Person in love and obedience and trust, en-

joying a fellowship of unimaginable beatitude.

My purpose is not to defend the audacious claim that

the unimpressive biped whom Desmond Morris labels

the naked ape is indeed God's image. But that auda-

cious claim loses at least some of its initial incredibility

when one takes into account man's extraordinary char-

acteristics. These have been succinctly summarized by

Mortimer J. Adler in that study, The Difference of Man

and the Difference It Makes, which challenges reduc-

tive naturalism to rethink its inadequate anthropology.

1. Only man employs a propositional language, only man

uses verbal symbols, only man makes sentences; i.e.,

only man is a discursive animal.

2. Only man makes tools, builds fires, erects shelters,

fabricates clothings; i.e., only man is a technological


3. Only man enacts laws or sets up his own rules of

behavior and thereby constitutes his social life, organiz-

ing his association with his fellows in a variety of dif-

ferent ways; i.e., only man is a political, not just a

gregarious, animal.

4. Only man has developed, in the course of genera-

tions, a cumulative cultural tradition, the transmission

of which constitutes human history; i.e., only man is a

historical animal.

5. Only man engages in magical and ritualistic prac-

tices; i.e., only man is a religious animal.

6. Only man has a moral conscience, a sense of right

and wrong, and of values; i.e., only man is an ethical


7. Only man decorates or adorns himself or his artifacts,

and makes pictures or statues for the non-utilitarian pur-

pose of enjoyment; i.e., only man is an aesthetic animal.9

Man, the animal who is discursive, technological,

political, historical, religious, ethical, and aesthetic, cer-

tainly seems unique enough to lend some plausibility to

the Biblical claim that he was created in God's image.

That audacious claim, which does not impress Adler

as preposterous, also receives powerful endorsement

from the well-known physicist, William G. Pollard. How

better, he inquires, can man be designated than the

image of God? His cogent argument for this position

cannot now be rehearsed; but his conclusion, it seems

to me, deserves to be heard even by those of us who are


Starting from the perspective of the mid-twentieth cen-

tury, we are able to see two very fundamental aspects

of the phenomenon of man which would not have been

evident before. One of these is the conversion of the

biosphere into the noosphere. The other is the miraculous

correspondence between the fabrications of man's mind


and the inner design of nature, as evidenced by the

applicability of abstract mathematical systems to the

laws of nature in physics. Both of these quite new per-

spectives strongly support the contention that man is

after all made in the image of God. What we have come

to realize is that there is no scientific reason why God

cannot create an element of nature from other elements

of nature by working within the chances and accidents

which provide nature with her indeterminism and her

freedom. We also see in a new way that the fact that

man is indeed an integral part of nature in no way pre-

cludes his bearing the image of the designer of nature.

Or to put it another way, there is nothing to prevent

God from making in His image an entity which is at

the same time an integral part of nature.10
Regardless of how persuasive or unpersuasive we

may judge Pollard's argument to be, the belief that man

is God's image supplies the only solid ground for that

much-praised, much-prized value of Western civiliza-

tion-man's inherent dignity. For what is it that imbues

man with dignity? If he is nothing but garbage or a

complex mechanism or an over-specialized animal, why

ascribe to him a worth that is literally incalculable?

Why follow the teaching of Jesus Christ and impute

to human beings a dignity which is best articulated by

the phrase, the sacredness of personality? That Jesus

Christ does impute so high a dignity to human beings

is indisputable in the light of the Gospel. Indeed, He

imputes to human beings a dignity so high as to dichot-

omize nature. On the one side, Jesus Christ puts the

whole of created reality; on the other, He puts man;

and axiologically, or in terms of his worth, man out-

weighs nature. Thus in Matthew 6:28-30 our Lord as-

signs to man a worth above and beyond the whole

botanical order. "Consider the lilies of the field, how

they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet

I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was

not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so

clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomor-

row is cast into the oven, shall he not much more

clothe you, O ye of little faith?" But why is man, if

merely one more emergent in the evolutionary process,

valued above and beyond rarest roses or exotic orchids?

Again, in Matthew 10:29-31 our Lord imputes to

man a worth above and beyond the whole avian order.

"Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of

them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.

But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear

ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many spar-

rows." But why is man valued above and beyond para-

keets and falcons?

Once more, in Matthew 12:12 our Lord imputes to

man a worth above and beyond the whole zoological

order as He exclaims, "How much more valuable is a

person than a sheep!" Come to Denver for the National

Western Stock Show held annually in January, and you

will be astonished at the fabulous prices paid for

champion steers, as much as $52,000. Remember by

contrast that an average person even in today's inflated

economy is worth about one dollar chemically. Then

why is man valued above and beyond blue-ribbon


Furthermore, in Matthew 16:26 our Lord imputes

to man a worth above and beyond the whole sweep

of created reality. "What shall it profit a man if he

gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what

shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" Why does

Jesus Christ value man above the entire planet and be-

yond all the cosmos? Why? Man is unique because he

alone is God's image-bearer; and as such he possesses


inherent dignity and incalculable worth. As finite per-

son reflecting the inexhaustible realities and mysteries

of infinite Personhood, he cannot be valued too highly.

Yet of what practical significance is this evaluation

of man, grounded in his dignity as the image of God?

Is not this belief just one more element in an outmoded

theology? Let Leslie Newbigin answer.
During World War II, Hitler sent men to the famous

Bethel Hospital to inform Pastor Bodelschwingh, its

director, that the State could no longer afford to main-

tain hundreds of epileptics who were useless to society

and only constituted a drain on scarce resources, and

that orders were being issued to have them destroyed.

Bodelschwingh confronted them in his room at the en-

trance to the Hospital and fought a spiritual battle which

eventually sent them away without having done what

they were sent to do. He had no other weapon for the

battle than the simple affirmation that these were men

and women made in the image of God and that to de-

stroy them was to commit a sin against God which would

surely be punished. What other argument could he have

Yes, and what other argument was needed? Abandon

belief in man as God's image, and in the long run you

abandon belief in human dignity.

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