How intrinsically “valuable” are human beings according to the cosmos and also according to the Bible? In the cosmos all living things die, including human beings, and even some of the tiniest forms of life live by sucking the life out of the ones with the largest brains and/or the biggest hearts. As for the Bibleʼs view of humanityʼs intrinsic “value,” even more questions arise, a wide variety in fact.
First, letʼs review the most direct and common recognitions of humanityʼs place in the cosmos:
The Cosmos and Human “Value”
Every living thing in the cosmos dies. There is plenty of evidence that our home planet, the earth, has been struck by large objects from space. Visible fiery meteors continue to enter the earthʼs atmosphere from time to time some even videotaped, and some larger objects from space have passed so close to the earth in the past few decades that their pathways were within the distance from the earth to the moonʼs orbit. Also, a little behind the arm of the Milky Way in which our solar system lies, there are stars being drawn into our galaxy from a nearby smaller galaxy, and so over a million stars are entering our galaxy and their gravity is interacting with stars found in our galaxy which can cause grave problems for any planets on those stars as they pass nearby each other. Lucky for us the arm of the galaxy where our solar system lies has just recently (in galactic time) already passed through that danger zone where the stars keep entering our galaxy. Also note that a solar flare from our own sun came so near the earth in the 1990s that it disabled satellite and cell phone communication. The earthʼs magnetic field is also diminishing (viz., the earthʼs poles shift in polarity and power over time, and a “few generations from now” our planet will soon be in a down phase, lacking a magnetic shield, and no one knows for sure how that might effect life on earth, or affect how electronic-based technology—computers and telecommunications function). I also read that dangerous gamma radiation was detected striking the earth in bursts coming from the vicinity of a “magnestar” that blew up in our general part of the galaxy. That could be quite dangerous if the star were just a bit nearer. Others have supposed that radiation from a star going nova in our vicinity might have instigated some extinctions in the past. Though if any star went nova near the earth that might be it for all life on earth. So this cosmos provides uncertainties galore concerning the continuance of life. Even stars and galaxies in our cosmos have finite lifetimes (though the question of what sort of infinite matrix all cosmoses might lie within, or how that matrix generates new cosmoses, remains an open one in physics and philosophy).
Astronomers have evidence of rings of matter and even planets surrounding distant stars, so there might be planets in the cosmos other than earth on which sentient beings live (found in the “galactic habitable zone” of our galaxy or of distant galaxies, since thereʼs over a hundred billion other galaxies out there, each of them containing a billion or so stars). It is not inconceivable that such beings should they exist, live on planets like ours in which every living thing dies. One is therefore left with far more questions than answers concerning cosmic “value.”
God and Human “Value”
Assuming God exists, how do we know for sure that God “values” human beings or to what degree He does? Iʼve already reviewed questions regarding the nature of such “value” based on the cosmic situation in which God has placed humanity, and also based on the fact that neither nature nor God provide every embryo a whole and healthy start in life, but instead the opposite is true, since disabilities, nutritional deficiencies, and childhood illnesses, including deaths during birth and deaths during infancy and early childhood are very common among all species, including human beings.
The Bible says and/or implies that God finds human beings “valuable,” even created in Godʼs own “image,” however human beings wrote those books, and any sentient being would probably find it difficult to imagine a deity not created in their own image.
However, being “created in Godʼs image” does not even mean that humanity was so valuable as to be granted the equally god-like gift of immortality. Instead, early authors of some books in the Bible also expressed in numerous places that everyone went to the same place after they died, Sheol, the grave, the land of shades. Such authors of early books of the Bible taught that only God was immortal, while human beings were created from dust and to dust would return. Iʼm not saying the Bible teaches a uniform view of the afterlife, but simply noting that there are different ideas in the Bible of the afterlife. One was that humanity was animated dust and was not immortal like God. Such a view was common in the ancient world. Among the Greeks for instance, they viewed humanity as mortal , but a select few “heroes” could be taken up to be with the gods and live forever like Hercules (the early Hebrews likewise pictured only a few like Enoch and Elijah being taken up, but in other places the Bible emphasized humanityʼs mortality and a place known as Sheol where all ended up). So some strands of the Bible picture humanity as being “valued” while they lived and breathed, but after death they were “valued” no more than say, “dust” or mere “shadows.”
Speaking of the Bible, the same people who wrote some of the earliest books in the Bible also assumed the cosmos was created in six evenings and mornings as measured by evenings and mornings on what we today know to be but one planet, earth. This does not impress humans living today who have learned that all planets have their own days and nights, evenings and mornings, rather than the earthʼs evenings and morning being central. Was the very first light created “in the beginning” for the sake of instituting our planetʼs earth days and nights, evenings and mornings? And all the rest of the cosmos was likewise created “based on earthʼs days and nights,” six of them, whether in metaphor or fact? But if that is what “revealed” books of the Bible teach, then how can we be sure of other matters in such books, including statements that God “values” humanity?
Even the pains and pleasures that people and nations experienced were interpreted by the Bibleʼs authors as being signs of “Godʼs” pleasure and displeasure, or signs of Godʼs “punishments” or “blessings.” While today people question such easy black or white supernatural interpretations of disasters and boons, of good times and bad times. It would appear that it is indeed the writers of the Bible who are interpreting what happened to them and their nation in terms of “God,” just as they interpreted the earthʼs status in cosmic creation myths, with light created for the earthʼs evenings and mornings, and the earth created even BEFORE the sun, moon and stars were “made and set… above the earth… to light it, and for signs and seasons” on earth, merely one planet out of the entire cosmos?
The ancient Greeks likewise viewed their nation as lying at the “center of the earth” with their oracle of Delphi lying at the earthʼs navel, and the earth itself being the foundation of creation with a dome above it where the sun, moon and stars lay. The ancient Greeks also thought they “knew” why good and bad things happened during the Trojan war to certain warriors and nations. They “knew” it was due to the pleasure or displeasure of their “gods” and the exertion of their supernatural powers to decide battles or bless the land (read Homer).
The “Value” Of Humanity in the N.T.
Only in the New Testament are human beings portrayed as having such “value” that God would put Himself through suffering, death, and hell, including God “becoming sin”—becoming something that God cannot stand—hence God punishing God, in order to spare humanity from “hell.” That is quite a claim concerning humanityʼs “value” but note the lateness of such a claim even in the “revealed religion” of the Bible.
Also, think about the self-centeredness of such a portrayal of humanity. Humanityʼs self-centeredness began with claiming it was created in Godʼs image, then in the intertestamental period believing it would live eternally, and now in the N.T., humanity claiming its own “sins” or failures are why God had to put God through pain, death and hell, with God Himself becoming sin, and shunning and punishing Himself, thus creating a rift, albeit temporary, in God. Quite a jump from humanity being simply mortal dust that returns to dust and winds up in Sheol, the land of shades. For now the human writers of the N.T. have even divinized humanityʼs faults, imagining God had to take humanityʼs faults so seriously as to tear God Himself into pieces in a manner of speaking, God punishing God (or to use a metaphor from nature and animals) God smeared Himself with our poo and hated Himself, disassociating God from God, creating a rift in the Godhead all because of US. Thus humanityʼs ego and hubris appears to have grown over time and throughout “revealed revelations” in the Bible, such that even our poo is made to eventually smell good or come out good, regardless of the consequences to “God.”
The “Value” of Humanity Vis-à-Vis the Question of Hell
Even one human groupʼs self-centered dislike of other nations or other human beings differing from them, has sought justification in the “Divine,” namely “Divine condemnations.” Such hubris not only gave birth to the interpretation that when other nations suffered they were being “punished by God,” but also applied later in the sense of eternal punishment (book of Daniel) other intertestamental works, and of course the N.T.
In intertestamental works the idea of “evil” demons and Satan ruling this world, their power over this world, and fears thereof, all grew immensely, leading to elevated suspicions and hatreds projected onto “outsiders.” In the N.T. the projection of such fears was also projected onto believers who loved the same holy books, and who were labeled, “heretics.” Thus Christians began persecuting fellow believers as soon as the first Christian emperor gained the throne of Rome, and Christians proceeded to kill more Christians in a few years during the Arian-Athanasian controversy than were killed during the previous three hundred years under non-Christian Roman emperors; even killing each other over matters such as whether or not a bishop had ever denied his faith under duress during the earlier days of persecution or remained “pure” (the Donatist controversy). Today Christians continue to debunk each otherʼs practices and beliefs far moreso than non-believers have ever done.
The notion of hell raises the question of the “value” of humanity in other ways as well. Though some Christians declare that hell is Godʼs “great compliment” to human beings, that simply begs the question of what God would do to someone He wished to “insult” rather than “compliment.” Furthermore, if God already sees the past and future, then God would know in eternity that there was no “choice” for some souls but hell. What “value” does such a view place on human life?
Hellish conundrums continue when one considers the view that Adamʼs sin (as Augustine taught) automatically damned all humanity, and it was up to God to grant the gift of saving grace to whomever He would, but he only grants it to some, and denies it to the rest, which means God “values” only some, and damns the rest. Jonathan Edwards put it in Augustinian terms and added darker metaphors, teaching that we all deserve the utmost punishment, because Godʼs disgust toward all of Adamʼs children since the fall is similar to the disgust we feel when we see a horrid insect or worm. Doesnʼt sound like everyone is extremely “valuable” in Godʼs eyes.
Christians have also argued that heretics and other non-believers in this life are not very “valuable” at all, since they spread the disease of unbelief that kills people eternally. Some Christians have even argued that we should treat heretics and/or unbelievers no better in this life than God is going to treat them in the next, in hell. For example see these statements by Luther and Melanchthon regarding the Anabaptists, a diverse Reformation movement of Bible readers and preachers, many of whom wanted to live in a land were religious beliefs were totally a matter of conscience, and there were no state churches, nor coercion, nor indelible national creeds (neither Lutheran nations nor Calvinist ones nor Catholic ones), but instead each person could read the Bible and love and follow Jesus as they were led by God.
“They [the Anabaptists] are not only blasphemous, but highly seditious, urge the use of the sword against them… We may not, therefore, mete out better treatment to these men than God Himself and all the saints.”
—Luther in letter (written early in 1530) to Menius and Myconius who were composing a work against the Anabaptists
“They [the magistrates] should apply to them [the Anabaptists] the law of Moses against blasphemy and treat them as the Roman Emperors treated the Arians and Donatists.”
—Melanchthon in a letter to Myconius (Feb. 1531)[SOURCE: Mackinnon, James (Ph.D., D.D., Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, University of Edinburgh), “Luther and the Anabaptists,” p. 57-75 in Luther and the Reformation, Vol. IV., Vindication of the Movement (1530-46), (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc, 1962), pp.64 & 69]
A Few Final Questions of “Value” According to the Bible
How “valued” is humanity in the “primeval history” stories in Genesis in which God “repents” of having made man, and floods the earth, drowning nearly every breathing thing on it? How about in Exodus where God tells Moses He would like to let all the Israelites in the desert die and raise up a people from Moses alone? (Even if the story is interpreted as being a ruse on Godʼs part or a temptation or testing of Moses by God, anyone reading it cannot help to also see in it a certain callousness toward human life by God. Note that it states elsewhere in the Bible that God does not “tempt” people so why would he “tempt” Moses with an offer to let the Israelites die and set Moses up as a new Abraham giving birth to a new people? Admittedly, theologians finely divide, some say “gerrymander,” the words “tempt” and “test” in this case). And one could also ask what “value” God places on human life when He commands Joshua to slaughter every breathing thing inside certain cities, including babes and pregnant women? Makes life seem relatively “cheap” in Godʼs eyes.
Revealed biblical religion even states that God “sends lying spirits” into prophets, and God “hardens” peopleʼs hearts in order that they might be destroyed utterly as in the book of Joshua (“The Lord hardened their hearts to meet Israel in battle in order that He might destroy them utterly, that they might receive no mercy”). Or, God sends plagues and famines, or God says He will put people in the situation where they will be forced to eat their own children just to survive. Or in the N.T. God “sends them great delusion” that they might not turn and be saved. Sounds like a cavalier way to treat human life.
*A Final Note on “Hell”*
From Originʼs day to ours Christian theologians have continued to debate just how much of Jesusʼs apocalyptic speech about “hell” needs to be taken literally. Some say such speech is an accommodation to the ideas of Jesusʼs day concerning ideas of heaven and hell already in circulation since the inter-testamental period; and thus we donʼt even know for sure just how much of what Jesus spoke about hell was an accommodation to ideas and concepts his audience already took for granted.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1908) by Schaff-Herzog says in volume 12, on page 96, “In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked. Other theological schools are mentioned as founded by Universalists, but their actual doctrine on this subject is not known.”
Augustine (354-430 A.D.), one of the four great Latin Church Fathers (Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome and Gregory the Great), admitted: “There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.”
Origen, a pupil and successor of Clement of Alexandria, lived from 185 to 254 A.D. He founded a school at Caesarea, and is considered by historians to be one of the great theologians and exegete of the Eastern Church. In his book, De Principiis, he wrote: “We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued….for Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet.” Howard F. Vos in his book Highlights of Church History states that Origen believed the souls of all that God created would some day return to rest in the bosom of the Father. Those who rejected the gospel now would go to hell to experience a purifying fire that would cleanse even the wicked; all would ultimately reach the state of bliss.
The great church historian Geisler writes: “The belief in the inalienable capability of improvement in all rational beings, and the limited duration of future punishment was so general, even in the West, and among the opponents of Origen, that it seems entirely independent of his system.” (Eccles. Hist., 1-212)
Gregory of Nyssa (332-398 A.D.), leading theologian of the Eastern Church, says in his Catechetical Orations: “Our Lord is the One who delivers man [all men], and who heals the inventor of evil himself.”
Neander says that Gregory of Nyssa taught that all punishments are means of purification, ordained by divine love to purge rational beings from moral evil, and to restore them back to that communion with God….so that they may attain the same blessed fellowship with God Himself.
Eusebius of Caesarea lived from 265 to 340 A.D. He was the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and a friend of Constantine, great Emperor of Rome. His commentary of Psalm 2 says: “The Son ‘breaking in pieces’ His enemies is for the sake of remolding them, as a potter his own work; as Jeremiah 18;6 says: i.e., to restore them once again to their former state.”
Gregory of Nazianzeu lived from 330 to 390 A.D. He was the Bishop of Constantinople. In his Oracles 39:19 we read: “These, if they will, may go Christʼs way, but if not let them go their way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only painful, but enduring also; which eats up, as if it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice.”