Animals and Angels

Animals and Angels

Are human beings…

  1. Advanced animals: evolved apes with the same desires (and since we’re just animals, we should act like them–letting urges lead us where they may) or…
  2. Primitive angels: striving to shun desire, deny the flesh, and be perfect?

Neither; humanity lives in the tension between. As humans, we have desires but also the capacity to tame them. We are mammals, but we’re mammals capable of reason. We are more than the sum of our parts but wholly less than perfect.

Trouble starts when we treat other people (or ourselves) as something they’re not, at either end of the spectrum. However, the undoubtedly more dangerous mistake is to treat people like animals. By seeing someone as less than human, we give ourselves permission to degrade, oppress, and humiliate our fellow man.


Another time, in a forest, with the temperature at 2o F, we began to dig up the topsoil, which was frozen hard, in order to lay water pipes. By then I had grown rather weak physically. Along came a foreman with chubby rose cheeks. His face definitely reminded me of a pig’s head. I noticed that he wore lovely warm gloves in that bitter cold. For a time he watched me silently. I felt that trouble was brewing, for in front of me lay the mound of earth which showed exactly how much I had dug.

Then he began: “You pig, I have been watching you the whole time! I’ll teach you to work, yet! Wait till you dig dirt with your teeth–you’ll die like an animal! In two days I’ll finish you off! You’ve never done a stroke of work in your life. What were you, swine? A businessman?

I was past caring. But I had to take his threat of killing me seriously, so I straightened up and looked him directly in the eye. “I was a doctor–a specialist.”

“What A doctor? I bet you got a lot of money out of people.”

“As it happens, I did most of my work for no money at all, in clinics for the poor.” But, now, I had said too much. He threw himself on me and knocked me down, shouting like a madman. I can no longer remember what he shouted.

As much as I wish the preceding passage was fiction, it is indeed a real account written by Holocaust survivor Victor E. Frankl describing one of many degrading experiences from his time in the Nazi concentration camps. [1]

What could possess one human being to treat another so poorly? To treat a weak old man, wearing next to nothing in unbearably cold weather, like a pig for not digging enough?

This passage in illustrates what happens when enough people are convinced that “others” are not worthy to be called human. That’s how regular people were convinced to kill their neighbors. That’s how unthinkable genocide could spread across an entire nation of otherwise normal people. If history has taught us anything, it’s the danger of seeing people as animals.


At the same time that nobody wants to be treated as less than human, no (sane) person wants to be treated as more than one either. After the initial high of admiration wears off, even celebrities become exhausted by the expectation of perfection [2]. To worship a human being is to place a burden of perfection on their shoulders they were not equipped to carry.

There’s a story in the Bible about one of God’s servants, a good man named Noah. Throughout his life, Noah is favored in the sight of God and man. One night, he gets drunk on the wine produced from his vineyard and becomes naked in his tent. The next day he curses the man who found him out of humiliation.

I never understood this story. Why would God give us this shining role model of a good man only to end his story in failure? Now I think perhaps it was a reminder to us that Noah was only human, and even the best humans fall short. Even in his old wise age as a faithful lifelong servant of God, Noah messed up. The hopeful message from this parable is that God can and does use imperfect humans.


How we see others impacts how we see ourselves.

Jesus always preached to show no favoritism because doing so would elevate some and degrade others, both of which end in separation. By now we know how slippery of a slope that can be.

Looking back on my life, the times I’ve felt most ashamed all occurred when I tried to act like something other than human. When I acted like an animal and just gave into the heat of the moment, I did things I regretted. When I acted like an angel, pretending to be something more than I am, I crumbled under the disappointment of constantly falling short.

We can think beyond ourselves, but the desires of the flesh still exist. These desires aren’t bad in and of themselves. The problem comes when we let the animal consume the angel or vice versa. Thus, balancing this tension is the great challenge of being alive.

Through it all, there is something beautiful about being human. Of course, the mistakes we’ve made are numerous, but also are all the ways humanity has, however imperfectly, stumbled towards a better future.

Not just an animal. Not a whole angel. Exactly human. All of us.


This article was inspired by a chapter from the book Sex God by Rob Bell.

[1] Passage pulled from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl p. 25

[2] See Miss Americana on Taylor Swift which details the painful expectations of fame; and the songs Monster by Shawn Mendes & Justin Bieber and Walk on Water by Eminem which talk about the pressures of being put on a pedestal.