Christianity teaches that human beings are unique among all the creatures that live on the Earth, even if they are also very similar in various ways.
Just like the animals, human beings have bodies, and they are always concerned to preserve the life and health of their bodies. An “animal” is something that is animated. In other words, it has life and can move around on its own in order to preserve its own life. In this sense, human beings are animals just like cats, dogs, horses, and the rest. That is why Genesis says that both the animals and human beings are “living creatures” (Gen. 1:20-21, 24, 28; 2:7, 18). In modern language, we would call them “animals.”
The body is very important for human beings. The Apostle Paul teaches: “No one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes it and tenderly cares for it” (Eph. 5:29). Of course, some people come to hate their bodies for various reasons and even try to harm it. But it is also clear that, if it comes to that, something has gone wrong. Hating your own body is a sign that something isn’t right somewhere. Our bodies make it possible for us to live in the world and to enjoy the good things provided in it: food, drink, activities, and the friendship of others. The body is a good thing! Human beings are supposed to live in their bodies.
But there is also a crucial difference between human beings and the other animals. The Bible teaches that the human being is made “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). This is a profound teaching, and it has been interpreted in various different ways in history. At the very least, however, I think the following points can be understood from what the Bible teaches.
The Bible teaches that God has granted the human being the responsibility of caring for the Earth. All the other animals make use of the Earth’s resources to preserve their lives, but the human being is given the additional task of taking care of the Earth itself and everything that’s in it. This is what the Bible teaches in Psalm 8:
“You [God] have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”Psalm 8:5-8 New Revised Standard Version
When the Psalmist says that God has granted human beings “dominion” over the “works of His hands,” we should understand this correctly. It does not mean that human beings are free to do whatever they please with the Earth that has been entrusted to them! Quite to the contrary: human beings are themselves inhabitants of the Earth. No one who is thinking straight would destroy his own house, since he has to live in it! In the same way, human beings cannot live if the Earth is not in good condition. We need food, water, and shelter in order to be happy and healthy. That is why it would be better to think of this “dominion” in terms of a responsibility. Just as the owner of a company might entrust the manager with taking care of a particular franchise, promoting it and making sure it runs effectively, so also God entrusts human beings with the care of the earth.
Someone might ask: But aren’t the Earth and nature so much more powerful than human beings? How can they have dominion over them? That is certainly true. But at the same time, it’s also clear that human beings are capable of making use of the materials that the Earth and nature provide in order to make our lives better. We can hunt or farm the land for food, and we can use its “stuff” to build houses, roads, buildings, medicine, and technology for ourselves. As the famous Romanian theologian Dumitru Stăniloae said, the world that God has created is knowable by us so that we can make use of it in order to live good lives. It is true that there are some things which are presently beyond our control, but God has given human beings “dominion” over the world precisely so that they can take up the challenge of “domesticating” it and making it a home for them! Whatever is not in our control now is a challenge for us to conquer.
Christianity thus teaches that human beings are “created in the image and likeness of God.” Among other things, this means that they are given charge over the whole Earth. It is their home, and God gives them the responsibility of caring for it.
This is a tremendous responsibility, of course, but it also implies that the Earth is the gift of God for human beings. God does not leave human beings to fend for themselves! He has provided for them everything they need in order to be happy, healthy, and to enjoy their lives in the world. Thus, we read in Psalm 104:
“You [God] cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.”Psalm 104:14-15 New Revised Standard Version
Notice what he says! He does not say that God causes these things to grow, and, as a happy coincidence, human beings can make use of these things in order to make themselves happy and nice. No! Rather, what the Psalmist says is that God causes these things precisely so as to take care of the human being. They exist for the sake of human beings. The world is a gift!
Thus, human beings are created by God with the responsibility of caring for the Earth. This is how they are His “image and likeness.” Just as He rules over everything, so human beings are supposed to rule over the Earth. But the deeper truth is that God has provided a home for human beings in this Earth He has created. And just think how wonderful the Earth is! Everything we love, everything that makes us happy, is something that we find here on Earth, whether it is food or drink or friends or activities. And these things all come from God, who created the Earth for us. God creates the world in order to make it possible for us to enjoy life and to be happy in this world. The Earth and everything in it is a wonderful gift in which our every need can be met and we can be happy — if only we take care of it and make use of it properly, as God intends.