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Only Human


What does the phrase, “I’m only human,” mean? We use these words when someone has just made a foolish mistake. For example, a husband who has forgotten to leave the toilet seat down is awakened in the middle of the night by a rather indignant wife in a fury over such an inconsideration. He replies groggily, “I’m sorry; I forgot; I’m only human.” The phrase is used to express something we feel deeply about humanity in its present condition. We are flawed creatures who often forget, make mistakes, and act selfishly. “I’m only human” means others should not expect too much from me since I am limited and “prone to wander” as the hymn put it. This sentiment is reinforced by the narrative in Genesis 3 about our fall. Through an act of rebellious disobedience, our first parents fell short of the glory of God and in so doing contaminated our species. By noting how the lifespans in Scripture show a decidedly downward trend, we gain the impression that over time humankind has continued its descent as it continues to degenerate from generation to generation. We are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who tend towards selfishness and rebellion. Holiness and self-sacrificial love are not “natural” for us; we have to work hard to resist our “flesh.” Even with maximal effort, we are complete failures without external help from God through His spirit. Ungodliness, however, comes without effort as if intertwined in our very DNA. When we think of being human, we think of our current fallen state.

Nevertheless, this kind of thinking may require some serious readjusting. Our race was not the unfortunate result of a God who carelessly duct-taped us together from leftovers strewn around on the ground, nor are we the accidental byproduct of a long mindless series of natural processes. Rather, we came to be through the climactic act of the benevolent and almighty King of the universe who carefully and ingeniously crafted us in His own image. How beautiful must Adam and Eve have been? How brilliant were they? I doubt they ever came into a room and could not remember what it was they intended to get. As a master craftsman, God did quality work turning out two magisterial humans finely tuned for life on earth. Then, to humanity, the sovereign One gave the royal duty of reigning over creation as His representatives. The first humans knew nothing of sin and all of its dark consequences. They enjoyed a relationship with the Most High unencumbered by iniquity and impurity. The Father placed His darling creatures in the Garden of Eden (“Eden” means pleasure or delight) and graciously gave them three commandments: have a lot of children, rule over the world, eat any of the plants except the forbidden tree. The world was not made to imprison them, nor were the rules He gave for the purpose of holding them back. Life was good; the world was young and bounteous; and humanity lived in joyous harmony with God, each other, and the rest of creation. This is true humanity.

Since we have seen two contrasting descriptions of what it means to be human, which one is the standard? Should we equate humanity with our present fallen, selfish, depraved existence, or should we think of how our race was first created prior to our descent into the bottomless pit of sin and rebellion? Depending on what choice we make, we will need to name the opposite view with respect to our baseline definition. For example, if we identify humanity with our current reality, then Adam and Eve prior to sin were not really “human,” but something better; perhaps they were “super humans.” However, if we define humanity based on its original design, then Adam and Eve began as genuine humans who plummeted into a lower level of existence; perhaps they became “sub humans.” I am contending here that the second of these two approaches is better. Humanity should be defined by its original glorious beginning rather than how we are now. Thus, we are not fully human, but fallen, corrupt versions of humanity we are sub-human. I propose we calibrate our thinking this way for three reasons: (1) things are typically defined by origin, (2) this approach affirms God’s competence, and (3) it helps us to avoid over spiritualizing tendencies. I will take each of these in turn.

We should think of humanity as that magnificent and harmonious existence that Adam and Eve enjoyed before they sinned because this is how God originally made us. When choosing a definition, one often finds it helpful to go back to the beginning and think about when something was made. For example, a person may use a screwdriver to bang a nail into the wall, but this does not make it a hammer. A screwdriver remains a screwdriver because it was manufactured as a screwdriver. Even if someone leaves it outside and it gets rusted, it remains a screwdriver. If it becomes bent so that it is no longer able to drive screws, it is still a screwdriver, albeit a useless one. I’m sure there are exceptions to this definitional rule, but in the case of humanity, this way of thinking seems to fit quite well. We are still humans, but we’ve become rusty and bent so that we no longer fully exhibit our former glory, nor are we able to carry out our purpose effectively.

A second reason why we ought to recalibrate our understanding of humanity relates to God’s competence. If we think of humanity as inherently flawed, we may end up unintentionally accusing God of incompetence. For example, if horn honked on my car each time I hit the brakes, I might merely conclude that my particular vehicle is defective. However, if all of the cars made by the same manufacturer exhibited this same brokenness, then we would be on good grounds to question the skill of the manufacturer. So, if we think of humanity as a class of beings inherently flawed and prone to selfishness, surely this reflects on God. However, if we think of ourselves as sub-human (or fallen humans), then we recognize that God’s craftsmanship is not the problem, but something that happened after we left the factory.

Lastly and most importantly, this understanding helps prevent us from over spiritualizing who Jesus is and who we will become after the resurrection. One of the earliest beliefs that late first and early second century Christians contended with was called Docetism. An idea was floating around that Jesus was not actually a human being, but a non-physical being who only appeared to be a man. The epistles of John confront this teaching head on, calling the one who does “not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” a “deceiver” and an “antichrist” (2 John 1:7). Ignatius of Antioch likewise contended with such people a generation later and wrote that Jesus “truly suffered…not as certain unbelievers maintain, that he only seemed to suffer” (Smyrneans 2:1). Ignatius goes on to point out that even after the resurrection and ascension, Christ still possessed flesh (Smyrneans 3; Luke 24:39-43). Against a world that considered humanity helplessly flawed, the Christians were adamant: Jesus had actually come as a flesh and blood human being, not merely an illusion.

Another group of second century Christians called “the Gnostics” (the Knowers) likewise devalued humanity, especially the body. They hypothesized that our true self, or soul, had come from a heavenly realm and somehow became imprisoned in these fleshy bodies. Our destiny, they said, was to escape at death in order to ascend back up to the divine fullness. Early Christians like Justin and Irenaeus fought hard against movements that depreciated the “flesh” as inherently evil. Rather than looking at matters from a fall from above followed by an ascent at death, they recognized the goodness of God’s original creation and His ultimate plan to redeem it in the Kingdom of God.

In conclusion, our problem is not that we are “only human” but that we are not human enough; we are tainted copies of a glorious archetype. Jesus, on the other hand, was fully human, patterned after the first man. He was not a hologram or a pseudo-man; he was a real human—the kind of being we are destined to become. Thus, Jesus is not a “mere man” as if he participated in our common error-prone condition, but he is the quintessential human who righted the wrong of our first parents, redeeming the whole race. Because of what he did, God has promised that one day the faithful will fulfill their original royal destiny when the Kingdom comes and our Father’s will is finally done on earth (Mat 5:3-10; 6:10; Rev 5:9-10; 11:15). Come Lord Jesus!

7 Responses to “Only Human”

  1. on 23 Nov 2011 at 6:27 pmDoubting Thomas

    Great article Sean!!! I would like to also say, “Please come Lord Jesus”…

  2. on 23 Nov 2011 at 8:36 pmGeorge

    I work in a state hospital where I take care of some of the hardest patients there are!Those I work with often treat some of the long term residents as sub-human because”they did it to themselves because of the way they lived their lives”cold and bold without compassion,treating these helpless people differently then others.Its time to be white hot and walk as our Lord walked that is our mission to be Living Epistles to the best of our ability until He returns.Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done on earth as it is in HEAVEN. Love what you wrote stirred me up.gw

  3. on 24 Nov 2011 at 11:25 amXavier

    Great article. Good fodder to use when we’re constantly attacked by Orthdodoxs with the claim that we make Jesus “a mere man” just because we say he is not a “God-man”.

    The Apostle Paul actually defines for us what “merely human” means as those who revert to a “fleshly” state 1 Cor 3.3-4. Describing such as people who are “jealous and full of strive”. And NOT a description for who Jesus is!

  4. on 24 Nov 2011 at 2:59 pmAnthony Buzzard

    Sean, just excellent!

    We can spend the rest of our careers insisting on the “origin” of the Son, origin being what defines him. The word “beget”, “procreated, caused to come into existence”, is the storm center of all discussions about Jesus.

    Luke 1.35; Mat 1.18-20 need to be mentioned in about every second line we write!

    In hope…


  5. on 24 Nov 2011 at 4:46 pmWolfgang

    Hi Sean,

    it seems to me that your article “sort of artificially” makes some points which really do not even relate to the topic of “only human” and how people use the term. If you observe the contexts in which the expression is usually used, you will find that they use the expression quite consistently with how the expression is defined … as a reference to the state of humanity now, and NOT as a reference to the state of a human originally, nor in its redeemed and perfected state.

    Could it be that one should observe context in which expressions are used — be it in our daily lives or in the pages of Scripture — in order to correctly understand what a person is communicating when using such expression?

    We can set our minds on understanding “human” as a reference to man as he was originally created, but would that lead us to understanding the term “human” correctly ? I would say that we can only understand the term correctly when we observe the context and realize that someone might be using it to describe man in such different situations as when (a) he was created and was without sin prior to the fall, or (b) man after the fall in an unredeemed state, or (c) man after the resurrection or change having received eternal life.

    As the matter relates to Jesus and him being human, the point is NOT that he was a living being without sin, but a living being of the kind “human” (not a God, not an angel, not an animal). “Human” is not defined by being without sin (a state man was originally in before the fall), having sinned and living in sin or being redeemed and having all sins forgiven, etc …” The term “human” (“man”) defines a living being in contrast to other kinds of living beings, such as God, angels, animals.

    Some perhaps a bit more critical thoughts as I was reading your article … but I trust they will prove helpful.

  6. on 25 Nov 2011 at 11:16 amFiona

    Hi Sean, I really enjoyed your article. It made me think about Jesus in a different way. Thank you for this clear perspective, and food for thought

  7. on 25 Nov 2011 at 1:28 pmSarah

    Fantastic, Sean. Thanks for writing this. It’s become clear to me that the “Jesus was not a mere man” idea has infiltrated the church because trinitarian theology has diminished the Biblical Adam-Christ parallels to insignificance.


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