The Blade Runner films are a fascinating philosophical journey into a world where humans coexist with “replicants”: androids so realistically designed that it is hard to tell whether or not they are actually human. And each of the protagonists ends up reflecting on this question: What does it mean to be human? In 2049, we meet Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant himself, who expresses hesitation about his assignment to kill the only existing child known to have been born to a replicant. The replicants’ ability to bear children threatens those in power and the existing barrier between replicant and human. As the story continues, we are led to believe that our emotions, our ability to love, and ultimately, our ability to procreate, are truly what make us human, and stand out from all of the imitations of life that we have designed. But is this accurate? In the film, the line between humans and their creations is blurred, with the replicants at times even showing higher standards of morality and a greater sense of self-sacrifice than their human counterparts – so what does it mean to be human?
As Blade Runner 2049 progresses, it becomes clear that the child being sought is the child of former Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford), the protagonist from the first film. In a twisted parallel of the biblical creation story, humans have made replicants in their own image… and now some of them are awakening to dream that they can achieve a better form of existence than mankind ever has. If the replicants reach their goal of “self-replicating,” one character even comments that it would empower them with the capacity to become “more human than human.” It was this same attempt to achieve a better form of existence (and define good and evil for themselves) that led Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, putting humanity and all of creation into a downward spiral, out of harmony with both our nature and our intended purpose in this world.
Where the movie falls short in answering this central question of the nature of humanity is that it doesn’t ascribe to us the glory of what humans truly are: made in the image of God the Creator. Genesis 1:26-30 reveals that we are created in the likeness of the creator of the universe, appointed to be stewards over every good thing he has made. Nothing inspires more dignity, more essential worth in the life of every human being, than remembering that we are made to reflect the goodness, the creativity, the love and the joy of the One who gave us life.
In the covenant God makes with Noah after The Flood, it clearly shows how unique humans are within the scope of creation when God says he “will require a reckoning for the life of man,” and that he will hold every human being responsible in a distinct way for how they treat other people, precisely because mankind has been made “in the image of God” (Genesis 9:5-6) in a way that the rest of creation is not. The covenant even implies that animals will be called to account for human bloodshed because the life of every human being is inherently sacred! Nothing can compare with the weight of wonderful significance that God has instilled in every human life simply because we are all made in his likeness.
So if it is not fundamentally our emotions, our ability to love, or our ability to procreate that truly make us human, but rather our image bearing nature given to us by God that truly makes us human, then the very possibility of something being “more human than human” makes little sense. But we’ve lost touch with what our humanity truly is. And if we do not know who we are, if we no longer define ourselves in relation to our creator because we have chosen to define human nature for ourselves, then we would expect this to impact our ability to discover and define human purpose – how our Creator intended us to live.
The purpose of humanity is inherently tied to our relationship to God: we are children of God, created by him, to worship and adore him. The replicants have also been given this gift of ‘life’ by mankind, created in his image, but what for? Two possible options are offered in the film. The villain, Niander Wallace, head of the Wallace replicant manufacturing corporation, has thus far colonized several planets, and he makes the bold claim that humanity “should own the stars” at whatever the cost; with a limitless host of replicants, what could possibly stand in the way of our conquest? Conversely, the hero, Officer K’s storyline, emphasizes a quest for truth and sacrificial love as the ultimate purposes we ought to pursue, as he seeks to find out who the replicant child is and ultimately risks his own life to protect the child. Caught between competing claims for his allegiance, K is advised that “dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.” But why should one choose love over conquest? With no Creator in view, how does one know how to choose between this or that definition of purpose? Who becomes the hero and who becomes the villain? Is ‘the right cause’ all purely a matter of perspective?
There is another story that gives us a heavenly perspective, a story of a man who, not merely being made in the image of God, but being in very nature God, took the nature of a servant and humbled himself in obedience to his Heavenly Father to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2). Jesus shows us what it truly means to be human and promises that through his sacrifice for our sins, we are freely given an eternal life with our Creator who cherishes us, that when we remain in Him, He remains in us (John 15). So when we try to evaluate questions of purpose, we feel intuitively that love is greater than conquest. Self-sacrifice triumphs over self-serving behavior in the end – or at least we hope it does. And the Bible tells us that indeed all people, because we are made in the image of God, have some idea of the kind of lives they ought to lead, some desire for something greater than themselves. Ecclesiastes 3:11 confirms that God has set eternity in the human heart. But it is only in the context of revelation from our Creator that we know without a doubt that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:26), that a story of sacrificial love is a higher and truer calling than a story of conquest and domination.
Without Jesus, humanity is lost: we will be hopelessly hunting for meaning, for purpose, and for identity until 2049 and, should he not return by then, for the foreseeable future. If there’s no higher power than human beings to help us to know how to live and how to love, then what’s to stop us from raging on in our endless wars as we fight for the dominance of our own chosen created meaning of life or in the pursuit of our own happiness? St. Augustine’s Confessions echo that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” When we try to define purpose for ourselves, we are disconnected from his truth; when we try to put the pursuit of our own happiness above our pursuit of Christ, we lose our way.
In the beginning, God created us in his image. As our Creator, he necessarily defines what it means to be human. God showed us what it meant to be perfectly human in the person of Jesus, and only when we worship him for who he is, may we truly enjoy the abundant life that he has promised (John 10:10). We must constantly turn to our Creator, to fix our eyes on who He is so that we remember who we are. We know how to feel because Jesus wept over death and showed compassion for the sinner, the sick, the disabled, the poor, the marginalized and even for his enemies when he lived among us as human (John 1:14), we know how to love because Jesus first loved us and he demonstrated that the greatest love is to lay down our lives for others (1 John 4:19; John 15:13), we procreate because God blessed us to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). We cannot merely respond to whatever calls to love or to conquest our hearts may cry out, because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
The Westminster Catechism reminds us that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” (Paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Romans 11:36). Recognizing our Creator’s image in ourselves, seeing Him for who He has revealed Himself to be, and fulfilling His purpose for our lives gives us purpose, and that is what it means to be human.