Traditional view of the nature of humanity

  • What is it that makes us human beings?
  • What actions are appropriate for humans?

A creature

The traditional western worldview, which was shaped by the Christian Bible, was that humans are creatures – in other words, they were intentionally created by another.

Created by God

According to Genesis 1:26-29 God created human beings 

in his own image, 
in the image of God he created them; 
male and female he created them.  TNIV

Whilst this account stresses the equality of each gender, Genesis 2:4-25 goes on to describe how God first creates man from the dust and breathes life into him. He then places man in the Garden of Eden (see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'). In order to provide companionship for man, animals and birds are then created and named by man. Finally, God creates woman as a partner for the man. As a result of disobedience against God, woman is made subject to the man (Genesis 3:16) and a sense of authority and power within human relationships is introduced.

An ordered created world

The chain of being

By the 16th century (when Shakespeare was writing), the universe was seen as a hierarchy, with God, the Creator, as at the top. Everyone and everything else, having been made by God, was a ‘creature' of God:

  • Next to God in the order of creation were the angelic spirits: there were thought to be nine orders, or ranks: Seraphs, Cherubs, Thrones, Principalities, Virtues, Powers, Dominions, Archangels, Angels.
  • Below these spirits were human beings, who were thought to be unique in having both a body, like animals, but also a spirit (orsoul).
  • Below mankind came animals, having body but no soul; then plants; then stones.

In traditional Elizabethan imagery, humans were each seen as a miniature world (microcosm) which corresponded to the wider cosmos (macrocosm).

Spiritual soul and physical body

In medieval and early modern times, writers often described the body as a container for the soul, seeing the body as made of earth and the soul as a spirit trapped within it. This idea was partly derived from the Greek philosopher Plato, but also reflected the words of Genesis (see above).

Mortal and eternal


Human life is mortal, that is, it inevitably ends with physical death. In Act II sc ii Hamlet describes a human as a ‘quintessence of dust', recalling the words from the service for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer:

‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust'.

The eternal soul

Christians believe that all human beings have a soul which is immortal and reflects something of being made in God's image. Despite the relative brevity of human life, according to Christian belief the soul actually only wants to spend a short time in the world: it would far sooner be back in heaven. This was because humans were made in the image of God and welcomed the chance to be reunited with him.
(For more information see Big ideas: Death and resurrection.)

Humankind in the image of God

What does it mean for humans to reflect the nature of God?

The grace of ordinary life

  • A person reflects the Creator when they fulfil the potential they were created with
  • There is grace in humbly serving others
  • Humans were created to work using their abilities. A society that allows unemployment is a society that denies the image of God in people.

Human creativity

Some people think that human intelligence, for example as evidenced through language and through creative abilities, indicates something of humanity's divinely-given qualities. The Bible however, draws a clear distinction between God, the creator, and everything else in the universe – creation. The fact that humans are creative is simply a reflection of the image of God in human beings. Even the brightest human mind is limited by the search for a logical answer to what is beyond human comprehension.

Reason versus passion

Reason informs the soul of man, reflects the nature of God  (though in earlier centuries it was not believed that God had need of discursive thought, as he is all knowing anyway) and makes humans higher than animals:

  • Because people have a soul, they can aspire to reach beyond their body and mortality
  • If they debase their soul, and lose their reason — especially through drunkenness or by giving way to extreme passion — then they are no better than animals.

Conscience and choice – free will

Much literature reflects that, like their maker, humans can make moral choices based on an understanding of right and wrong. From the Early Church onwards, the image of God was associated with freedom - Christians believe that God is free and that humanity participates in this. People are neither automatons nor simply driven by unconquerable instincts, but have free will.

Innocence and sin

The Genesis account

According to Genesis (the first book of the Bible), when God created humans he placed them in the Garden of Eden, sometimes known as ‘Paradise'. In this garden was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The first two humans, Adam and Eve, were told by God that they could eat anything in the garden except the fruit of this tree.

Eve, the first woman, was tempted by a serpent (traditionally held to be the devil in the shape of a snake) who spoke to her, telling her that if they ate the fruit she and Adam would ‘be as gods, knowing good and evil' (Genesis 3:5). This was a lie, but the serpent induced Eve to eat. She and Adam were then for the first time aware of shame, and instead of being innocently naked they tried to make themselves clothes out of fig leaves.

All tainted

Once Eve had eaten the fruit, she offered some to Adam and he also ate some, disobeying God's command not to. Before this they had both been innocent. Now they had committed sin — an offence against the laws of God.

  • As this is the first sin in the Bible, it is also known as ‘original sin'
  • Since all human beings are, according to Genesis, descended from Adam and Eve, all humans share this ‘original sin'.

The descent from original innocence to sin, because of the actions of Adam and Eve, is also called ‘The Fall of humankind' or simply ‘The Fall'.

More on the Fall: Writers have sometimes depicted it as a physical fall down through the air, like the classical story of Icarus falling after trying to fly too high. It is referred to in this way, for example in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man.

For further information see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'.

Hope for humankind

Christians believe that Jesus Christ ‘turned around' the effects of original sin and so it can be washed away by baptism into faith in Christ, and forgiven by the grace of God. (See Themes and significant ideas: Grace, Mercy and forgiveness.)

Free will

There is a huge debate as to how far individuals should be held accountable for their actions:

Natural and unnatural behaviour

Hamlet feels (Act I scene iv) that some people are born with defective characters:

‘So oft it chances in particular men,
That, for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth – wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin — ….
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect, being nature's livery ...
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.'

i.e. it is in their ‘nature' to behave in such a way.

At the same time, behaving unnaturally, in a way that is below the level that should be appropriate for the nature of humans (see Imagery and symbolism: The chain of being) makes people like animals: ‘A beast, no more.' (Hamlet Act IV sc iv)

Getting the balance right

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare shows also us that it is possible to
go to the other extreme. Those who forget that they are not angels, but instead have human weaknesses, are just as unaware of their own humanity as those who behave like animals.

Sexuality and procreation

Creation and new life

Part of human nature is sexual activity:

  • Is sex merely sensual, involving no commitment?
  • Should humans echo the behaviour of other creatures, which procreate purely by instinct?


  • Is it an act which reflects the self-giving love of God and echoes his creativity?

Attitudes to sexual activity

  • In the western Christian worldview, sexuality was only to be expressed within marriage, where vows were made in the presence of God
  • Although there was inevitably sexual activity outside marriage, it was very much frowned upon, and the woman would usually be considered disgraced
  • But in much literature, the arrival of a child is also described in terms which suggest it is a right and natural part of the creative process.


Because the soul is believed by Christians to be eternal, and humans are accountable for the actions they have chosen during their lifetime on the basis of free will, there is a focus in the western tradition on the fate of humans after physical death.

The Last Judgement

Many writers and artists have concentrated on depicting the Last Judgement. This is the biblical idea that, at the end of the world, all peoples will be judged before God. The Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 25:31-34) records Christ describing how,

‘when the Son of Man comes in his glory … all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left'.

(See also Big ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb; Goats.)

Those on the right represent people who are faithful to God. They will be blessed and called into the eternal kingdom of God. Those on the left, who have rejected- or rebelled against- God, will be sent into the fires of hell. This vision was the subject of many medieval church paintings.

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