Racism continues to be a problem in the world today. Prejudice or discrimination due to skin color or other ethnic characteristics is a violation of biblical law. Yet the problem persists, and unfortunately is even found within the church. As is often the case, the solution to this problem is found in Genesis.
It is a sad chapter in the history of the United States of America. The Atlantic slave trade brought many Africans to work as slaves in the cotton plantations in the southern States. By the late 1700s, a racial caste system had developed. People of African descent were seen as somehow “less” valuable than those of European ancestry. The problem escalated rapidly after the publication of Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species.”
Evolutionism and Racism
Darwin did not start racism, but his writings certainly provided apparent justification for it. His view of origins fueled racism by concluding that some “races” of people were more evolved/advanced than others. If all organisms are descended from a common ancestor, then man is just another “animal.” And some animals are far more advanced than others. Why should man be exempt from this rule? If Darwinian evolution is true, then naturally some men are more “evolved” while others are biologically closer to apes. Darwin believed that his own “race” was far more advanced than the Africans and Australian Aborigines. He believed that these other “races” were more closely related to apes and referred to them as “savages” and “degraded.” Darwin’s racist attitudes are revealed in the subtitle of his seminal book: “The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.”
It makes sense. If human beings are merely evolved animals which were not designed but are merely the product of natural forces over time, then why would we have any inherent value? People dominate the (other) animals because we can; our superior intelligence and technology allows us to use the other creatures of this planet as we will. If evolution is true, why not use the technologically primitive “races” to work our plantations just as we use oxen to plow a field?
One atrocious outworking of such unbiblical thinking involves a man named Ota Benga. He was an African who had been purchased as a slave and was put on display in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo! Some people objected to this, but others defended this display in the name of evolution. A New York Times article defended the zoo, stating, “Pygmies are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him and one from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education of books is now far out of date.”
Creation and Equality
On the other hand, if man is created in the image of God and if all men are descended from Adam, then we are all brothers. We have inherent value because the Lord Almighty values us. We have no moral right to hate our brother for we are equally made in God’s image. God has given us dominion over the animals, but not over other men. Therefore, we may not use a man as we would use an animal. Human beings have inherent rights that other creatures lack.
Our own Declaration of Independence recognizes this fact. It states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Our founding fathers were creationists and understood that all men are brothers. This declaration then gives the reason why all people have equal rights: “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yes, the reason we have rights is biblical creation; God has given us those rights. Chemical accidents have no rights! But people do. All people are equal before the law of God. As God’s image-bearers, all people are entitled to respect and dignity regardless of ethnic traits, cultural background, intelligence, or technological sophistication.
The Biblical Basis for Equality
Although an evolutionary worldview naturally leads to racism, a biblical worldview advocates equality. There are several reasons for this. First, unlike animals, human beings are made in God’s image. This sets us apart from and above the animals and it also places all people on the same plane – we are all image bearers regardless of any ethnic characteristics. Genesis 1:26 states, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”
Of course, the word “man” can refer to an individual man, men in general, or human beings in general (both men and women). This is the case both in Hebrew and English. Context determines which meaning applies to a given passage. In Genesis 1:26, we know that “man” refers to both men and women because the next verse clarifies: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The Scriptures are clear that both men and women bear God’s image and are equal in that sense.
But what does it mean to bear God’s image? Some people erroneously think this means that we physically look like God. But this is absurd because God is not a physical being; He is an invisible spirit (John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17). The author of Genesis clarified what being made in the “image” of God means: it means after God’s “likeness” (Genesis 1:26). To be made in God’s image means that we are like God in some ways. We would do well to remember that this implies that we are also unlike God in other ways.
Some people erroneously assume that we must be like God in terms of physical appearance. But again, God is not a physical being. So this is clearly not the intention of the text. The Hebrew word translated “likeness” in Genesis 1:26 is also used in Isaiah 13:4 to refer to a noise that is “like” the sound of many people. Now this cannot refer to a visible or physical appearance because sound has no visible appearance. Rather the noise was similar to another sound in a way that is non-visible and non-physical. Likewise, human beings have a non-visible aspect to our nature that is in some sense similar to God. This might include such things as moral reasoning, creativity, and so on. We understand that all people have moral awareness (Romans 2:14-15).
Second, the Bible teaches that all people today are descended from Adam and Eve. Eve is the mother of all living (Genesis 3:20) and God made from one man all nations (Acts 17:26). This refutes the claim that some “races” of people were separate creations, unrelated to Adam and Eve. According to the Bible, we are all blood-relatives. All humans are descended from Adam and have inherited his sin nature (Romans 5:12). All people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). All people deserve death and separation from God’s holiness and need a Savior (Romans 6:23). There is absolutely no place for racism in the Gospel (Acts 10:34-35). At the foot of the Cross, ethnic traits and cultural distinctions fade in the weight of our sin and our gratitude for God’s grace.
The creation-based theme that all people are equal before the law of God is carried throughout Scripture. God Himself does not look at a person’s outward appearance but is concerned with a person’s inward heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Hence, God does not show partiality in His judgments (Romans 2:10-11), and therefore neither should we since we are called to emulate God’s character (Ephesians 5:1). Those who have received the Gospel are family; ethnicity is irrelevant (Galatians 3:28). Rich or poor, small or great, male or female, dark skinned or light skinned, all people are to be treated fairly and equally before the law (Deuteronomy 1:17; Leviticus 19:15) and all are welcome to embrace Christ as Savior and Lord (Acts 10:34-35).
Many passages in Scripture forbid showing partiality in judgment (Deuteronomy 1:17, 16:19; Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15; Job 13:10; Psalm 82:2; Proverbs 24:23, 28:21; James 2:9). In some of these passages (e.g. Deuteronomy 1:17, 16:19), the phrase “show partiality” is translated from the Hebrew words “nakar” and “panim.” The word “panim” means “face” and the word “nakar” in this context means “to regard, to acknowledge, to discern, or to pay attention to.” God therefore forbids regarding the face of a person (the person’s physical appearance, skin shade, etc.) when rendering judgment. In John 7:24 Jesus states this explicitly, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” Thus, the Bible denounces all forms of racism.
Genetics and the Origin of “Races”
According to the Bible, there is only one race of people: the human race. How then did we arrive at the various ethnicities in the world today? God placed information in the genetic codes of Adam and Eve that had the potential for all sorts of variations in our physical traits. Some people have light colored skin; others have dark colored skin. Some people are stocky and others are thin. Some are short, some are tall. Some have brown hair and others are blonde. Some have blue eyes and others are brown. The information for these traits was contained in the genome of Adam and Eve, even though not all of these traits were expressed at that time. For the details on how this occurs, see our primer on genetics.
Every person has two sets of DNA. Some physical traits are the result of a homozygous combination of genes, meaning the genes are the same on both DNA sets. The O blood type is one example. When a man with the homozygous combination marries a woman with the same homozygous combination, their children will also have that same combination and will exhibit the same trait. Hence, if Mom and Dad have type-O blood, so will all their children. The situation is more complex with the heterozygous combination (where the genes on the two DNA sets differ) because the child inherits only one of the two genes from each parent and we don’t know in advance which it will be. So two parents with heterozygous type-A blood will have some children with type-A blood and some with type-O blood.
Skin color is similar. Actually, all people have the same skin color: brown. It is simply a question of how much brown. There is a dark pigment called melanin that is produced by cells known as melanocytes. Some people have genes that code for a large amount of melanin production that is distributed widely in the skin. This results in dark brown skin. Other people have genes that code for less melanin, resulting in very light skin. In addition to genetics, exposure to ultraviolet light will temporarily cause the melanocytes to produce more melanin – resulting in a “tan.”
At the Tower of Babel, God split up mankind by confusing their languages. As people dispersed from Babel, each group carried certain genes in their DNA which resulted in certain traits. Some had genes for light-colored skin. Others had genes for dark-colored skin. If one of these small groups of people had a homozygous genetic combination for a certain trait, then all their descendants would also have that trait. Hence, people with very light skin who marry other people with very light skin will have children that have very light skin. This continues with their grandchildren and so on, until there is a large group of people in a particular location that have certain physical traits in common.
The same is true of those people who left Babel with genes for very dark skin. If they chose to marry only people with dark skin, then their children would have very dark skin because this arises from a homozygous genetic combination. The genetics of medium-brown skin is more complex because this can arise from either a heterozygous combination or a homozygous combination. If a person with medium-brown skin marries someone with the same shade of skin, and if both have the same homozygous genes, then their children will have medium brown skin. But if the two people have the heterozygous combination, then their children could have any shade of brown ranging from very pale to very dark. It seems likely that Adam and Eve had this heterozygous combination; hence their skin color was likely medium-brown and their children likely had a range of shades.
Modern genetics is consistent with the Bible. All people are indeed descended from Adam and Eve, and the various ethnicities have resulted from the genetic bottlenecks that occurred in the dispersion from the tower of Babel. In fact, the genetic difference between any two randomly selected people is on average about 0.2%. However, the genetic differences responsible for the various traits associated with ethnicity are only 0.012%, which means they are dwarfed by other differences. Genetics confirms that all people are the same race – the human race.
For whatever reason, some cultures have placed a great emphasis on skin shade, and people often prefer to marry others with a similar shade. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with marriage between two people with the same skin shade, there would also be nothing wrong with a man marrying a woman with a very different skin shade from his own (providing they are both believers). There is no biblical command or principle against such. After all, both are descendants of Adam and Eve. No rational person one would complain that a man with big ears should not marry a woman with little ears, or that a tall man must not marry a short woman.
But for some reason, some people claim that it is morally wrong for a person with a lot of melanin in the skin to marry a person with little melanin in the skin. There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for such an absurd belief, and it is in fact contrary to Scripture. The position shows partiality in judgment, which is contrary to God’s law as we have seen. It also violates Deuteronomy 4:2 which indicates that we may not add to or subtract from God’s Law. Therefore, it is a sin to claim that something is morally wrong when the Bible does not. Jesus repudiated the Pharisees for such thinking in Matthew 15:3-9. God does not approve of people “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:9).
The position that people should marry within their own ethnicity is not a biblical doctrine. People sometimes mistakenly think that passages like Deuteronomy 7:3 forbid marriage between people with different ethnic backgrounds. However, the very next verse reveals the reason that God did not allow the Israelites to marry pagans and it has nothing to do with ethnicity: “For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:4). It was the spiritual condition of these people, not their skin color or any other physical/ethnic traits. God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance.
In fact, there are biblical counter-examples showing that God endorses marriage between two believers of differing ethnic backgrounds. Rahab from Jericho was not a Hebrew, but she had faith in God and married the Israelite Salmon. God blessed the marriage such that one of their descendants was Christ (Matthew 1:5).
Some of the arguments people make against marriage between different ethnicities are outrageously silly. One example is: “You don’t see sparrows mating with cardinals” as if animals were our moral guide. Of course, sparrows and cardinals are different species, and I agree we should not marry outside our species (though not for that reason)! But aside from this, it is the naturalistic fallacy to argue that something is morally right simply because it occurs in nature, or morally wrong simply because it does not occur in nature. After all, some animals eat their own young. But I hope no one would argue that this makes it okay for people to do this! In fact, the Bible sometimes uses the disgusting behavior of animals to show us what NOT to do. For example, we are not to be a fool who repeats his folly as a dog returns to its vomit (Proverbs 26:11). We are not to lack understanding like a mule or horse (Psalm 32:9). Animals are not our moral guide; the Bible is.
There are biblical criteria for a marriage but ethnicity is not one of them. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman by God for life (Genesis 2:24). Furthermore, both must be believers because light has no fellowship with darkness (2 Corinthians 6:14).
The Bible teaches, and genetics confirms, that there is only one race of people: the human race. All people are descended from Adam and Eve and bear the immaterial image of their Creator. All people therefore are equal before the law of God and justice demands that they be treated as equals. The dispersion at Babel caused some homozygous combinations to arise in various genetically isolated people groups. Hence, certain people groups have some physical traits in common that distinguish them from other people groups: ethnicity. However, ethnic traits are genetically insignificant and dwarfed by other genetic differences. Therefore, there is no scientific or biblical basis for any sort of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. Racism is a sinful violation of God’s law and is repudiated in Scripture. We are not to “regard the face” of a person when rendering any sort of judgment. We are all of one blood. In God’s family, there is no room for ethnic prejudice. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:12-13).