When we look to Scripture to discover what we human beings truly are like, one of the first, most foundational things we discover is that we are embodied creatures made in the image of God. Every part of that description is important. Humans are made in the image of God, reflecting his nature, representing him, and reigning on his behalf over the earth and animal kingdom. We are also creatures. We are objects of God’s creative work, and as such, we exist in a permanent state of dependence on and submission to him. God is Creator, we are creatures, and this order will never be reversed. Our status as creatures does two things. It limits our power and authority as we realize that we creatures need God and he does not need us. Second, it bestows astonishing dignity and honor on us because we are neither accidents nor mistakes that happened in nature.
Many evangelical Christians could probably explain in some capacity why it matters that humans are creatures made in the image of God. What is harder for many of us is explaining why it matters that we are embodied. Of course, no one disagrees that we are embodied (at least not yet). But the fact of our having bodies does not seem to carry a lot of significance for many Western people today. In fact, it’s easy to get the impression of the opposite, that many of us see our embodiment as an obstacle to be overcome, a limitation to be transcended, or even a necessary evil to be suppressed.
As theologian John Kleinig has observed, “society as a whole does not know what to make of the body.” Kleinig points out that many modern people express confusion about the body through one of two ways. First, they become “obsessed” with achieving a body they desire, so they go to great lengths to get slimmer, fitter, stronger, or prettier. Kleinig sums up the situation: “My ideal self, the person I would like to be, must match that ideal body. Yet that ideal is never fixed. It changes as fashions change.” The result for many people, however, is a profound and often debilitating shame over the way their body fails to look like the ideal body. This shame is expressed through an increasing alienation from our bodies, as we despair of having the image we desire and try harder and harder to separate our “inner self” from our disappointing physical self.
This dynamic that most of us experience—this connection we feel between our bodies and an ambient sense of shame or disappointment—is very near the center of the biblical story of the fall. After Adam and Eve sinned against God, their eyes were opened to the knowledge of good and evil. What did they see? They saw their naked bodies (Gen. 3:7). Their sin did not disrobe them; it did not free up their true selves, suppressed by fellowship with God. Instead, sin turned them against their true selves. The first experience of shame in the history of the world was between Adam and Eve and their own bodies.
Sin’s power is visible not just in its capacity to alienate us from our bodies but to make this alienation the fundamental thing we are aware of when it comes to them. Because of this, we miss the good givenness of our bodies. By “good givenness” I mean the sheer reality that we exist in an embodied state and cannot do otherwise. Our bodies are given to us in our mother’s womb. We are passive recipients of God’s creative work. Even thousands of years before ultrasound technology, King David of Israel knew that the Lord had knit him together in his mother’s womb and that the result was a body “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). What did David do to possess such a wonderfully made body? Absolutely nothing. His body was made for him without his input, without his effort, and without his agency, yet it is inarguably real and essential. The body has givenness.
Why does this matter? How does acknowledging the good givenness of the body do anything for us in a digital age? The wise life is the life lived in light of true reality. The material world in general and our bodies in particular are part of that reality. Our bodies, in their good givenness, are a fundamental aspect of who we are as people made in God’s image. Therefore, true wisdom requires us to live within and accept our physical embodiment. Our creaturely design is divinely ordered, something to inspire worship, gratitude, and joy. Biblically speaking, it’s when we attempt to get around or beyond our identity as embodied creatures that we plunge headlong into despair and folly.
Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, our cultural moment in the modern West is profoundly hostile to the body. The internet, which dominates our lives as the primary medium through which we encounter most of the world, is an entirely disembodied habitat. Consequently, the internet trains our consciences to think of ourselves and the world in disembodied ways. We do not exist bodily online but through photos and videos that we carefully manipulate to construct a preferred identity. On social media, our “community” is not a room full of people physically present, whom we can reach out and touch, but a collection of usernames and avatars and timelines. This habitat itself tells us a story—a story that humans are not essentially people with flesh and blood, voices, and facial expression, but “users” whom we can sufficiently know from their words, profile pictures, and shares.
This is not just a minor tweak in how we think of what it means to be a human person. It is an intellectual and spiritual revolution. And there is much reason to think that a worldview of disembodiment has currently seized the reins of cultural power.
Digital technology has recalibrated our worldviews and reshaped our consciences not to see the good givenness of our bodies. This isn’t merely a problem of content; it’s a problem of form. In other words, it’s not simply that on social media and the web we read sentences that devalue the physical. Rather, the nature of online presence itself powerfully reinforces the sense that we are not our bodies, that we have total control over our identity and our story, and that any threat to this feeling can and ought to be “deleted” so that we don’t have to put up with it.
According to a vast amount of research, teens and young adults in contemporary American society feel significantly lonelier and more isolated than generations prior. For many, friendship is an elusive art that seems to be slipping further and further away with each successive generation. Even worse, the emerging generation of adults in many economically developed parts of the world are failing to marry and start families, sometimes well into adulthood and sometimes completely.
Meanwhile, technologically speaking, it has never been easier in human history to “connect” with another person: to meet, get to know, and develop a relationship with someone even over vast distances. The trends of loneliness and unwanted solitude have not only resisted technological connectivity; they seem to have worsened alongside digital connectivity’s ascent.
I believe, Christians can only understand and respond to these and other cultural shifts correctly if we understand them in the context of digital technology’s undermining of biblical wisdom. Because wisdom is a submission to God’s good and given reality, our immersion in computer and internet existence is a crisis of spiritual formation. Our digital environments dislocate us, training us to believe and feel and communicate in certain ways that our given, embodied, physical environments do not. The more immersive and ambient the technology, the more extreme this effect.
 For an excellent introduction to this idea, see Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).
 John Kleinig, Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021), 5.
 Kleinig, Wonderfully Made, 6.
 Vivian Manning-Schaffel, “Americans Are Lonelier Than Ever—but ‘Gen Z’ May Be the Loneliest,” NBC News, May 14, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/. See also Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic, 2012).
 See Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (New York: Atria, 2017); and Turkle, Alone Together.
Content taken from Digital Liturgies by Samuel James, ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
Samuel James is the associate acquisitions editor at Crossway. He is the author of Digital Liturgies, a regular newsletter on Christianity, technology, and culture. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, Emily, and their three children.