"Tis madness – yet how often we, to gain the fruit, cut down the tree.” (The Satires of Cynicus)

I was travelling recently on a train and got into conversation with a fellow commuter. Life had been tough, and he shared with me stories of family breakdowns and strained relationships. As we chatted, he made a comment about the challenges of being human’ with all life throws at us. I was struck by the phrase, as this is the title of a bigger project we are beginning work on at the Evangelical Alliance – The Being Human Project. It seems to a number of us that the very essence of what it is to be human is possibly the most contested idea in our current culture – and we as Christians don’t always have a lot to say.

In the beginning God spoke the world into being and it was good. In the beginning God breathed life into humans and it was very good. In the beginning God and people lived together and there was peace. In the end we will gather in a city filled with the light of God and there will be healing. In the end we will gather in the new heavens and the new earth where God will be with us and we will be with Him and there will be rest. In the end God and humans will be reunited and all will be well.

The Christian story has always been a story of what it means to be human ― what it looks like to thrive and flourish and live abundantly. It starts in Genesis with a picture of God, the creator of all things, in relationship with His people. It ends in Revelation with a picture of God reconciling all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe to Himself.


At the heart of the story is the moment when God humbled Himself, took on human flesh and walked amongst us. Jesus was both fully human and fully God. He suffered the judgement, wrath and consequence of all human sin and ushered in a new reality of being human redeemed and resurrected with God.

In his new book Dominion, historian and agnostic Tom Holland argues that the entire fabric of the cosmos was ruptured when God became human and walked the earth. The crucifixion of Jesus was not merely an event in history but the very pivot around which the cosmos turns” (Dominion, xxvi). Humanity as a whole and the life of each human being is ultimately defined by this moment in history.

The Christian story loudly and proudly declares that to be human is to be God’s image bearer – to be inherently and irrevocably endowed with the dignity and honour that comes from God’s character. To be human is to be committed to community, to love actively and sacrificially. We create, reconcile and sustain, because God creates, reconciles and sustains. Who we are to be as humans becomes clearer as we understand better whose image we bear.

Culture clash

But the Christian story isn’t the only narrative being shared in our culture today. We are storied creatures, and there are many competing stories trying to frame and form our identity and our understanding of personhood. These cultural stories give us permission to seek success, family, love and acceptance. These stories offer individuals and groups rights and dignities. These stories show us what justice and fairness can look like.

But often, these stories feel small or fragile because they are so transient. What is believed to be good for people today has changed from what was accepted as good 50, 30 or even 10 years ago. Values of duty, diligence and self-sacrifice, popular in previous generations, have given way to the new moral high grounds of authenticity, tolerance and collaborative participation. Absolutes have given way to relative platitudes. We are left bereft of certainty and commonality. All these movable, pliable values and beliefs leave us feeling vulnerable because they are not rooted in an objective understanding of what being human actually is.

The best story wins

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, so the story goes, walked into a room to get a bagel. Out of the blue he asked, Who is the most powerful person in the world?” A few names were nervously put forward. One employee suggests Nelson Mandela. NO! You are ALL wrong,” said Jobs. The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.” You see, the storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come. Bobette Buster, story consultant, lecturer and top Hollywood screenwriter, puts it this way: In our culture, he who tells the best story wins.”

So why isn’t the Christian story the most compelling in our culture? Maybe because our story has become small too. Maybe we, too, have shrunk our story, so we have little better to say to this culture. Eugene Peterson comments that, The Holy Scriptures are story-shaped. Reality is story-shaped. The world is story-shaped. Our lives are story-shaped” (Eat This Book).

The Christian message is not so much about inviting Jesus into our hearts, but about God inviting us into His ongoing story of the redemption. We are not the prime mover, and we don’t get to redefine the story on our terms. God makes the first move and we find ourselves in His story, following the story-making, storytelling Jesus, and spend the rest of our lives exploring the amazing and exquisite details, the words and sentences that go into the making of the story of our creation, salvation and life of blessing”.

This larger story is most simply conveyed in the story arc of creation: fall – redemption – consummation. What went wrong is that we began to communicate and live into a half-story focused only on fall and redemption. The half-story is simple: we are all sinners, but Christ died and rose again so you can be saved. It’s a simple and easy-to-follow story: you have a problem, but I can offer a solution. But, this simpler, shorter gospel led to a more individual view of salvation. The gospel is reduced to saving souls for heaven, but in so doing leaves Christians twiddling their thumbs waiting for death and the after-life.

The problem is that when we start with sin, we don’t start where the Bible starts – with creation, blessing and a good world. Without an originally good world, we have no reason to fight for better. Without blessing, we cannot hunger for wholeness. Without creation, we cannot respect all life. The Christianity of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury needed a full gospel; we cannot live a fully human life if the Christian story is limited to an individual salvation.

There are two responses to the half-story. The first strips it back further, because it is awkward to point out that people are sinners. So, we simply declare: God loves you; God accepts you as you are. But that doesn’t work; it’s too thin. In fact, it is so shallow, it isn’t actually the gospel.

The other, and only, response is to embrace, indwell and explore the implications of this fuller, deeper, richer, more hopeful narrative. To rediscover and retell the fullest gospel story. To off er people like that commuter on the train a rooted hope that meets the challenges of being human in our culture today.

Being human

Strangely, the UN declaration of Human Rights does not define the human being. The secular story is ultimately a thin one that cannot even fully define what it means to be human. It generally reverts to biological terms to separate us from other species or functional capacities – in particular rational thought. As writers like T. S. Eliot, Tom Holland and Larry Siedentop have noted, our equality and human rights framework is, whether its adherents realise it or not, deeply Christian. We live in a society that continues to live off the fruits of the Christian story, while simultaneously chopping down the very tree that sustains that fruit.

Over the next two years the Evangelical Alliance will be pulling together theologians, practitioners, artists and musicians to explore and demonstrate to our society something of the fullness of what it means to be human. Sparking conversations, sharing stories, offering perspective and insight, we will be creating space for creativity and resource. We will stretch our imaginations and respond with worship and praise to the one in whose image we are made.

The Being Human Project will explore three big themes: dignity, relationships and purpose. Each one deeply rooted in our biblical story, painting a picture of beauty, truth and goodness that can offer hope in a world wrestling with artificial intelligence (AI), global conflict, beginning and end of life, identity politics and so much more.

Hope because everyone is created. Everyone has dignity. This dignity is not grounded in something humans do or possess but is endowed by our creator. We are then called to be in Christ’ – to participate in the divine nature of Jesus (2 Peter 1:4). Those who respond to that call have their identity redefined and they are filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out into the world, on mission. This understanding of personhood and dignity impacts how we view life at the margins, biological sex, gender, race, and disability. It challenges identity politics and the rising influence of tribalism and nationalism. It recognises the inherent value and dignity of every human being and calls us to radical acts of generosity, justice and mercy.

Hope because we have been created as relational beings in the image of a relational God. We are made for relationship with Him, with each other and with creation. The birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ changed history forever. In Christ, reconciliation with God is made possible. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). How do we honour marriage, celebrate singleness, and champion family, teaching that water is thicker than blood! There are tough conversations to be had about sexuality, pornography and commitment, but they form part of a larger narrative about being human. There will also be challenging conversations about freedom (of speech and religion), rights (and responsibilities) and justice in the context of relationships.

Finally, hope because each of us has been made for a purpose. In the beginning God made human beings to steward and to cultivate His creation – the cultural mandate. Paul reminds us that we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Each of us has been commissioned and gifted to serve God in a particular time and place. This raises challenging questions about work, rest and play. What is our role in creation care? How do we find rest and sabbath in an increasingly fast-paced world where technology and AI are expanding rapidly?

The Being Human Project does not lack in ambition. It cannot, because we continually meet people who are trying to work out how to be human. How to follow Jesus in our contested culture. How to live an abundant life. We have the best story. Let’s live it. Let’s tell it. Let’s make it known.

Peter Lynas is the director of Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland. Jo Frost is the Evangelical Alliance’s director of communications and membership.