Misunderstanding Christianity’s “Negative” Anthropology

One of the stumbling blocks to accepting the gospel that I’ve seen quite frequently is Christianity’s anthropology, meaning simply how Christianity understands what it means to be human.

In one sense, I get this.  I mean, listen to some of the basic tenets of Christian anthropology:
–everyone is born a sinner, which means that …
–there is something fundamentally wrong with all of humanity at its core, and thus … 
–people are inherently evil, not good, so that …
–many of people’s natural desires can’t be trusted or justified, and what’s worse …
–all people will give account to the God whose moral code they violate daily by their very nature

Plus, your sin makes you smell awful!
Wow.  Where do I sign up?  No wonder Christianity gets a bad wrap for its view of human nature.  Having some issues with self-image, self-esteem, etc? Maybe we want to look somewhere else — anywhere else? — for our sense of value, meaning, and purpose.  
Here’s the problem: that Christian anthropology you’ve heard? Yeah, that’s not the whole picture.  In fact you’ve missed the beginning of the story, not to mention the end! 

Honey, let’s just go in for the second half.  I’m sure we can catch up on the plot as we go.
It might surprise you, but actually Christianity has a very high view of what it means to be human — higher by far than secular humanism or other competing systems.  For Christians, what it fundamentally means to be human is to be an image-bearer of the Living God! Now, there’s a lot of theological discussion about what exactly it means to be an image-bearer, but we can take away at least two things pretty safely: 1) to be human means to display some of the attributes of God, and 2) to be human means to be given charge over the rest of the created order.  So if you’re keeping score at home, here’s the minimum anthropology we’ve drawn out so far:
To be human means to share in the likeness of God and to serve as His representative in ruling the rest of the creation.
That’s not so negative a view of what it means to be human at all, now is it? So how do we get from here to the whole “sinner” anthropology you’re probably more familiar with? The Scriptures teach that human beings weren’t all that satisfied.  Instead of being to content to be like God in some ways and rule on His behalf as His regents, we aimed for a better gig: we wanted be God.  In doing so, the image became cracked, and remains so to this day.  We still inherent the image of God as part of our birthright as human beings, but the image if fractured, broken, battered, and twisted.  And so are we.  And each of us reenacts the original rebellion, rejecting God’s rule and our proper place as created beings in a myriad of ways.
So Christian anthropology as you’ve probably encountered it mourns what was lost and tries to be honest about what we human beings have become.  And just believing that we started out as much more than we are now doesn’t exactly get us off the hook for being negative about humanity.

We could have been contenders!  
What unmistakably makes Christian anthropology such an amazingly positive thing is the end of humanity’s story.  For what we believe humanity can be — what each human being can be — is even more than a restoration of the original image we bore.  We believe that through the transformational power of the Spirit of God, those who believe in Jesus Christ are being made into His likeness! Humanity can be redeemed and made into something even better than it was at the beginning.  Again, this is a very high view of what it means to be human: we will be made like God (but not actually become God, part of God, or gods, mind you! That gets a little tricky for some folks.)
The issue is that part of participating in the future of humanity is to admit humanity’s state in the present.  The gospel requires us to say that, yes, we are sinners; yes, we are rotten at the core (despite some good things we do); yes, this situation is utterly helpless.  When we admit that, we are free to cling to God’s provision for humanity’s terrible state — salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ.  When we freely admit what we are, we begin to see the beauty and power of who He is.  And the encounter slowly changes us, despite the bumps and bruises, the slip ups and failures, until eventually we will be made like Him when He makes all things new.
So, yeah, I really do think I’m a hopeless sinner when it comes to any standard of goodness that matters.  I think you are, too.  But I see something glorious in your future — a future in which sin does not have the last word and in which your flaws and failures don’t have the final say when it comes to defining what you are.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)
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