In fact, two of the world’s most influential religions offer unique but conflicting answers to this provocative interrogative.
The Eastern mystical religion of Hinduism makes the amazing claim that the true human self is none other than God himself. In other words, for Hindus the human soul is divine. However, the dominant religion of the West—historic Christianity—asserts that God created human beings and that those beings were made in God’s expressed image. Thus, for Christians, humans are simultaneously both unlike and like God (a paradox of “created persons”1).
An exploration of how these two perspectives describe their views helps determine which position appears to be more rationally viable in explaining human beings.
All reality is an undifferentiated spiritual one (monism).
All is God and God is all (pantheism).
Therefore man in his true spiritual self is God (a divine soul).
According to Hinduism, the true human “self ” (ātman) is identical in essence to Ultimate Reality or God (called Brahman). This ātman is not merely related to, or part of, Brahman; rather ātman is Brahman (the true self is God). Because human beings are part of the universe and that universe is collectively considered divine, man’s essence is divine.
The soul of each human being is the cosmic or world soul. Yet while man is God, man erroneously perceives himself as being separate and distinct from God. This grand case of mistaken identity constitutes humanity’s basic predicament, and the unenlightened state is described as one of terrible ignorance and illusion.
According to Hinduism, then, people desperately need spiritual enlightenment or, more specifically, self-realization. Salvation (or liberation) in Hinduism comes when the soul experiences moksha (complete absorption into Brahman).
Along with the religion of Judaism, Christian anthropology affirms the biblical view that of all God’s creatures only humans were created in the expressed image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). Thus, while human beings are finite creatures who were made from the dust of the ground, they nevertheless possess qualities and characteristics that make them “similar” to God.
How Humans Are Like God
God created human beings with the ability to understand and imitate, at least to a degree, some of God’s attributes. These characteristics (spiritual, rational, relational abilities) belong to humanity, though in a significantly limited way. And, like God, people are moral beings. They display knowledge, wisdom, goodness, love, holiness, justice, and truthfulness. Theses attributes in humans, however, differ in degree from those found in God. In him the same characteristics are unlimited and perfect.
How Humans Are Unlike God
God’s divinity makes him differ in kind from people. Certain other attributes separate God completely from his creatures, and this difference is known as the Creator-creature distinction. These qualities consist of such metaphysical characteristics as self-existence (independence), immutability (changelessness), infinity (limitlessness), and eternality (timelessness).
In Christianity, people need salvation because they have misused their God-given freedom and rebelled (sinned) against God’s righteous plan and law. That redemption is achieved through placing one’s confident trust (faith) in Jesus Christ and accepting his atoning death for sin that was accomplished on Calvary’s cross.
A Brief Evaluation
Positively speaking, Hinduism’s basic intuition that ultimate reality takes the form of a spiritual unity accords with the impulse that most people have when thinking about God.
However, the Hindu idea that human beings are actually God––though suffering from a type of cosmic amnesia––seems, on its face, logically absurd. How the human self or soul can be identical to God in nature or essence yet also—at the same exact time and in the same exact way—be separated from God constitutes a violation of the law of noncontradiction (A cannot equal A and non-A). Additionally, thinking of people as God doesn’t in any way comport with the human experience of moral failure and limitation.
The historic Christian portrait of human beings as highly endowed (great) but yet morally flawed (wretched) carries tremendous explanatory power. For that is the way man truly appears. Biblically speaking, human greatness is attributed to the imago Dei (image of God) but the wretchedness stems from man’s fallen (sinful) nature.3
Of the two religions, Christianity’s anthropology appears to much more accurately explain humanity’s enigmatic nature. For those not aware of Christianity’s other truth-claims, a religious perspective that correctly describes the human predicament seems worthy of further investigation.