Interpreting Jesus and Atonement – Practical Issue #5: Does God Value Every Person? Does He Anchor Universal Human Dignity?


The quest for the foundation of human dignity seems to lead to either a gigantic sinkhole or Christian faith.

Nothing else resonated.  My friend S, who wavered between a soft atheism and a generic theism, had been meeting with me for almost 18 months as part of his spiritual journey.  We had tried reading the Bible, some literature from other religions, secular books, poetry, and even his poetry, all the while sharing about our lives.  But until he and I talked about whether human beings have inherent dignity, and why, nothing seemed to interest him.  Science didn’t prove that human beings were special in the universe; it just proved that we had different abilities from other animals.  Philosophy didn’t prove that human beings had worth; it had to assume it from somewhere else.  Our own existence and desire to live weren’t enough either; if we said, ‘Human beings have dignity just because I say so,’ we had to concede that if Hitler also said, ‘Just because I say so,’ then we would wish we hadn’t used that rationale.

After reading a paper I had written on the topic[1] and discussing it with me, S said, ‘I’m interested in going to church.’  He said that despite his past negative experiences and despite knowing that his sexual orientation will be a question he’d have to address later.  Does the Christian God anchor human dignity for each and every person?  Not in the penal substitution framework.

In the medical (ontological) substitution framework, God does anchor human dignity for every person.  That’s the fifth reason I’m offering for why everyone should care about interpreting Jesus and the atonement.  It would be a shame to lose a precious biblical conviction and effective tool for evangelism.

Anchoring human dignity means that there is something real and true that legitimately distinguishes human life from animal and plant life.  Social activists and political philosophers have written a flurry of recent books on whether there is a foundation for universal human dignity, and what that might mean.  Their anxiousness reflects a spiritual search.  Why are they searching for a foundation?  Sometimes it’s because the United Nations intervenes in the affairs of countries where that dignity is being violated.  But is human dignity just an aspect of western culture?  Philosopher Richard Rorty believes so.[2]  But that means that the U.N. is just acting in a culturally imperialistic way when it intervenes.  Why should other people respect human rights?  Just because we have bigger guns than they do?

Another reason why people are looking for a foundation for human dignity is that a dry, scientific view of a universe without a God leaves a lump in our throat.  Are we significant?  For example, radical animal rights advocates accuse human beings of ‘species-ism.’  Why are human beings as a species more special than any other living beings?  Maybe Jainists are on to something when they try not to kill even flies.  But if there is no difference between human life and other life, then firefighters should feel perfectly neutral between saving your brother from your burning house versus saving your dog.

British political philosopher John Gray (an atheist), American legal scholar Michael Perry (a Roman Catholic), and German philosopher Jurgen Habermas (an atheist) are among those who recognize that universal and equal human dignity comes from a Christian – and only Christian – foundation.  Habermas, one of Europe’s most prominent political philosophers, who built his intellectual career on secular and Marxist foundations, surprised many by saying in 2004:

‘Christianity, and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization…To this day, we have no other alternative to it…We continue to nourish ourselves from this source.  Everything else is just idle postmodern chatter.’[3]

Nor is this conclusion unique to Western scholars.  One of the leading Chinese scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said in a lecture to a group of Americans:

‘One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.  We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.  At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.  Then we thought it was because you had the best political system.  Next we focused on your economic system.  But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.  That is why the West has been so powerful.  The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.  We don’t have any doubt about this.’[4]

Though I submit that viewing capital as morally equivalent to land and labor involves a fundamental departure from Christianity,[5] this admission is significant.  Can any deity serve as an adequate foundation for human dignity and sacredness?  I ask this because the deist god believed in by the Enlightenment philosophers and the authors of the American Constitution is understood to be entirely passive in the face of human evil.  Yet to be fundamentally passive in the face of human evil is to be evil.  It is to be uninvolved in the afflictions of human beings.  Since the deist god was not and is not personally involved in supporting human dignity, such a god cannot serve as the foundation for this idea.  The deist god was always nothing more than an intellectual place holder for a generic ‘creator’ who endows people with theoretical ‘rights’ but who otherwise does not intervene in human history.  The deist god therefore suffers from a consistency and integrity problem.  My friend S recognized this.

It seems to me that the Hindu god and the Muslim Allah suffer from similar problems.  With the Hindu god, there is no true moral difference between actions or motivations that we call ‘good’ and other actions or motivations we call ‘evil.’  This is because in Hinduism, good and evil are held to be constructs of our own limited perspective; they are simply aspects of the same ultimate reality, as Shiva the Destroyer is merely an aspect of the one god.  Similarly, as I wrote above, the Islamic concept of God also leans towards the Hindu concept of a god who is both good and evil because of God’s active causation of all things.  Furthermore, serious questions related to human dignity can be raised about how the Qur’an envisions the political and social status of non-Muslims, ex-Muslims, women, and slaves.

The Christian Trinity, by contrast, quadruply affirms human dignity and sacredness in one continuous movement of love towards humanity.  First, he made humanity, male and female, in his own image.  He gave equal value to men and women, unlike the Greek tradition, which told the ‘Pandora’s Box’ story of Zeus creating women in order to punish men for receiving fire from Prometheus.  Not so with the biblical God.  He also made loving relationships the norm for humanity, starting with marriage (Gen.1:27).  The question of what is imaged in humanity leads to a reflection on the source of that image in the Trinity.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit freely choose to love one another, for that is their divine nature; they cannot choose otherwise.  Because God is not coerced from some force outside of him, it follows that people, to be like God or similar to God, must also not be coerced by some outside force; they must be free to reflect their God-given, God-inclined nature.  Jesus said, ‘Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you’ (Jn.15:9), and since the Father did not coerce the Son’s response, so the Son did not coerce his followers’ response.  God created human beings as beings-who-are-becoming, beings designed to grow through love, with a nature inclined towards this God.  Our free choices towards God and one another would have helped us know and participate in the Trinity himself, eventually resulting in each person’s free choice to allow our human nature to be perfected in union with this God, such that we would freely choose to always choose God eternally.  This understanding of humanity and the Trinity means that the Christian God is completely and wholly opposed to human evil, and not complicit in it at all:  He is incapable of turning us into robots precisely because of his love for us, and this explains why this God is not a passive partner-in-crime to human evil.  It is not a choice that is even available to him.  Thus, we cannot posit a definition of omnipotence whereby the Trinity can override human free choice but merely chooses to not do so for some unexplained reason.  Rather, this God’s love upholds and enables human free choice, even when that choice is abused to reject God Himself.  I understand that this raises questions for those Lutheran and Calvinist traditions rooted in Augustinian monergism, but the question must be asked.

Second, this God personally took corrupted human nature – the source of human evil – to himself, in a preliminary way in the community of Israel, and then ultimately and ontologically in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the representative of Israel.  In the person of Jesus, he took corrupted human nature to himself, fought its self-centeredness, defeated it in his death, and gave us back a new, God-soaked, God-saturated human nature in the body of the resurrected Jesus.[6]  Jesus is able to share his new humanity with us by his Spirit, once we receive his Spirit by faith.  Jesus, therefore, is both the Christian foundation for human worth and the model and source of Christian human love and responsibility to one another to honor the other’s dignity:  ‘Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mt.20:26 – 28)  Jesus fully reveals a God who simultaneously loves humanity and opposes the evil corruption of our nature – a God who can be considered to be wholly good.  The resurrected Jesus reveals to us what the God intended for humanity from the beginning of creation:  to be elevated and glorified and brought fully into the life of the Trinity.  In other words, God designed each and every person to share in the physical, glorified, God-soaked humanity that the resurrected Jesus now has, regardless of whether the fall of humanity had happened or not.

Third, in his present, personal work by his Spirit, this God is simultaneously attacking the root source of human evil in each one of us and personally loving us and providing love in which we can participate.  This gives rise to a ‘new humanity in Jesus’ (Eph.2:15) indwelled by the Spirit of Jesus, mobilized in Christian mission, proclamation, and embodied witness through Christian love and social justice.  The Spirit of God does not operate mechanically and causally on people as if they were simply robotic.  The Spirit works personally; he issues both an external call concretely spoken by another person, but also an ongoing internal call within each person, through our consciences and in our humanity (Rom.1:20; 2:12 – 16), because our humanity is patterned after Jesus’ and because Jesus exerts a claim on it.  Each person is called to respond personally to Jesus through the activity of his Spirit.  This reality makes the Triune God a very active opponent of human evil at its very source.  While enabling and utterly respecting our human free choice, he calls us to freely join him in healing humanity and the world, while we receive his ongoing healing of ourselves.  In this understanding, predestination requires human free will.  The patristic, Nicene, and Eastern Orthodox definition of predestination involves a human being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom.8:28 – 30; Eph.1:4) which requires human free will, because only by freely choosing to always choose the Father can a human person grow in the image of Christ.  Thus, the theologians prior to Augustine universally taught free will.

Fourth, this God promises to resurrect people in the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection, in fresh, purified, and incorruptible human bodies.  This is why, for example, the apostle John writes, ‘We know that when he appears, we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is.’ (1 Jn.2:2)  The Triune God will give to each willing person the resurrected humanity that he physically perfected in Jesus.  This is Eastern Orthodox explanation of the sayings in John 6 which contain the language of the Father giving humanity to the Son to save.  Penal substitution adherents gravitate towards John 6:37 – 44 claiming Jesus’ words for their view of limited atonement and God’s omnicausality.  Yet they overlook the difference between what the Father gives to Jesus (all human nature), versus who voluntarily comes to him (persons).  Notice the interplay back and forth between the neuter subject and the personal subject.  ‘All that (neuter) the Father gives me will come to me’ (Jn.6:37) refers to all of human nature being resurrected by Christ.  ‘And whoever (personal) comes to me I will never drive away’ (Jn.6:37) refers to persons who come to Christ with faith and trust.  This refers to human nature:  ‘This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that (neuter) He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it (neuter) up on the last day’ (Jn.6:39).  This refers to persons:  ‘For this is the will of My Father, that everyone (personal) who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him (personal) up on the last day’ (Jn.6:40).  Jesus is the source of life for everyone, even the wicked.  If he was not, then they would not be raised up.  All come to Christ, but not all come to Christ in the same way.  All belong to Christ by nature by virtue of him taking up their nature and so all will come to him in the resurrection.  But some will come to him in belief, which is why ‘come to me’ (Jn.6:37) is not synonymous with belief.

And just to make sure that human dignity can be upheld even in the extremes of heaven and hell, let’s explore that.  Those who receive Jesus and the fundamental transformation he both offers and insists upon experience Jesus’ love as love.  They receive the final consummation of their personal union with the Triune God for which they had longed; they also receive the new heavens and the new earth as the restored and elevated creation which God had always desired.  But those who reject Jesus reject their very own existence and destiny.  Through their own choices, they will have conditioned their nature and will to curve in upon themselves with self-love, having taken even that gift from God and turned it inwards.  Yet this God does not stop loving them.  He keeps calling out to them in love.  But because they experience God as a hated and jealous competitor who constantly calls out to them to yield up their self-definitions, ambitions, pride, and resistance, they experience God’s love as sheer torment.  They can only experience His love with utter loathing and bitterness, and with ever increasing feeling.  In this case, hell is the wrath of God against their corrupted human nature, yes, but this does not change the fact that, on a more profound level, hell is the love of God for them as persons.  What is important for the purpose of this paper is simply to note that this action does not impugn this God’s ability to serve as the foundation of human dignity, because, articulated this way, he loves each and every human being for all eternity.

Teasing out the implications of Christian belief, building from this last point, C.S. Lewis aptly remarked,

‘Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false…And immortality makes this other difference, which, by the by, has a connection with the difference between totalitarianism and democracy.  If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual.  But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of the state or civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.’[7]

To be precise, every individual has more dignity than the state.

Can a ‘god’ who arbitrarily condemns some people to damnation prior to time and prior to their choice serve as the basis of each person’s human dignity?  I do not see how he can, for he would only love some people, and not all.  Can a god who holds some people in a hellish prison system against their will as they desire reconciliation serve as the basis of each person’s dignity?  The same basic problem seems to occur.  Those theological schemas call into question how a god understood in these ways can serve as the basis of universal human dignity, for his own actions suggest that he is willing to create ‘throwaway people’ from the start, and/or inflict eternal suffering upon them even when they want to be reconciled to him.  If there are Christian theologians who insist on those theological schemas, I will leave it to them to explain how their articulation of the Christian God can serve as the basis for universal human dignity.  I am confident, in the meantime, that a systematic Trinitarian theology (which is Patristic, Nicene, Orthodox, and Reformational) offers a quadruple affirmation of human being, flowing out of the continuous commitment of an active, interventionist, thoroughly good, and loving Creator AND Redeemer God who loves every human person, who joins Himself to humanity, first as one of us, then as one with us, thereby overcoming the corruption and alienation within human nature itself.

[1] For a fairly full treatment of science, philosophy, existentialism, and various theologies as possible sources of human dignity, see my paper, Human Dignity: Does Every Human Being Matter? located here:

[2] Richard Rorty, ‘Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,’ note 43, at p.116.  This is critiqued by Michael Perry 1998, p.38 – 39.

[3] Jurgen Habermas, Time of Transitions (English translation Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), p.150 – 151

[4] Reported by Time essayist David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington DC: Regnery, 2003), p.5

[5] See, for example, Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, IV.31 – 38

[6] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.18.7; see also 2.12.4; 3.18.1; 5.1.3; Odes of Solomon 11, 15, 17; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch.48, 100; Athanasius, On the Incarnation, ch.2 – 3.  To see that the patristic theologians taught ontological substitution and not penal substitution, and the significance thereof, please see my essay Penal Substitution vs. Medical Substitution: A Historical Comparison, found here:

[7] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1943, 1945, 1952), p.73

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