Framing Human Origins: Modern and biblical perspectives†

January 31, 2024

Framing Human Origins: Modern and biblical perspectives†

 How do we make sense of ourselves and the world around us? How do you make sense of life? Where do your ideas come from? Who taught them to you? What was their agenda? What is your agenda? How do you know when you’ve made adequate sense of something? Can the sense you make of something ever be incorrect?

We all have to make sense of things somehow. In order to know how to spend our money and our time, how to react to what goes on around us, or who to vote for, we can’t avoid making sense of life through some grid or other. And a refusal to adopt a consistent grid is itself a commitment to a particular mode of sense-making.

Here’s one common answer. We make sense of the world through stories and frameworks, some of which we call critical theories.

How do they work? Here’s one way of thinking about it. When I was an undergraduate I would often have to write essays on one critical theoretical approach to society or another: Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir, Foucault, and so on. And as I kept doing this over the years, it struck me that, although these ways of understanding and critiquing society were often very different from each other, they had particular features in common. They all made certain things in the world visible, viable, and valuable. For example, reading enough Marx made the possibility of a communist revolution seem real, something that might happen in the world. Reading Simone de Beauvoir makes visible the ways in which there is very often one rule for men and another rule for women in society, in a way you might not have noticed before. And reading most of these critical theoretical viewpoints teaches you to value the transgression of norms as something to be sought.

At the same time as I was writing these essays, I was also attending a local church and being taught to read the Bible carefully, take it seriously, and apply it to the whole of life. And it struck me that, among all that the Bible is and all that it does, it is also performing these same three moves: making things viable, visible, and valuable.

If we went out into the streets of Sydney this evening and asked people the question: have you ever considered trusting the promises of the God of the Bible, most people would likely not say: ‘Yes, I’ve considered that possibility and thought that, on balance, I’d prefer not to’. Even if they were too polite to say it, they would think something like ‘What planet have you just landed from? That’s a ridiculous idea.’ They have no category for that. It’s not viable for them. But you begin to read the Bible, to see how God makes practical promises to Abram, to Joseph, to David—and how he systematically keeps those promises—and you come to see that it’s a viable thing to do.

Or think about how the Bible makes things visible. You may have seen many wonderful sunsets in your time, but it may never have occurred to you that ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1). Or you may have lived most of your life without noticing the destitute or the relationally poor in society, and then you read passage after passage in the Bible in which God shows his concern for the widows and orphans, calling himself ‘father of the fatherless’ (Psalm 68:5), and you start noticing the poor more and more. The Bible has made these things visible for you.

The Bible also makes things valuable. If you had asked my pre-Christian fifteen-year-old self whether I wanted serving other people to be a priority for my life, I would have looked at you in bemusement. That just wasn’t something I considered valuable. But then over the years, as I read and understood more of the Bible, of the Christ who ‘did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45), and of the command of Paul to ‘have the same mindset as Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:5) when he emptied himself and became a servant,  by God’s grace and the work of his Spirit I began to value service just a little more.

So that is my working definition of a critical theory: it makes things in the world visible, viable, and valuable, and therefore provides you with a perspective from which you can critique the status quo.

State of nature

In this article I want to examine four critical approaches to the question of human origins: three from modern secular culture and one from the Bible.

Almost all cultures—and ours is no exception—tell themselves stories about human origins.

We love origin stories. How did Batman become Batman; how did Wonder Woman become Wonder Woman; how did Luke Skywalker become a Jedi? The world’s cultures are full of origin stories too: how was the world made? Where did human beings come from? Why? Why do we have this fascination with origin stories? Why do people trace their family trees? Why do adopted children sometimes make great efforts to trace their birth family? Why was one of the brutalities of colonialism and the slave trade to cut people off from their histories?

Because if you know where you came from, we think, you know who you really are. Knowing how things began helps us to make sense of how they are now.

And in the last 350 years or so of modernity, we have had our origin stories too. I want to consider one of them with you today.

It’s called ‘the state of nature’, and it first comes to prominence in the work of Thomas Hobbes in the 1640s.

In Hobbes’s version of the state of nature, baseline human existence is a state of war—in Chapter 13 of Leviathan he famously calls it a war of everyone against everyone, in which life is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. The only way to avoid this terrible situation is to appoint an absolute sovereign who will keep order in society and who will administer justice as it sees fit, without any right of appeal.

It’s quite a bleak view of human nature, and quite an authoritarian understanding of how society works.

Fast forward just over 100 years to 1755, and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau has a very different picture of the state of nature. For the Rousseau of The Discourse on Inequality, the state of nature begins as a fundamentally peaceful and harmonious place: people are fundamentally empathetic—they have pity for each other and for animals, and they naturally act kindly towards each other. They don’t need dominating with an authoritarian sovereign, like Hobbes’s inhabitants of the state of nature; in fact, as Rousseau says at the beginning of his later work Of the Social Contract, ‘People are born free, and everywhere they are in chains’. It’s society that causes our problems, whereas for Hobbes it’s society that saves us from ourselves.


Modern-day state of nature theorists

So here we have two very different stories about human nature, and we can see both these stories shaping how we make sense of the world today.

On one side you have the Hobbesians. And among their ranks, no voice is louder or more tenacious than that of Steven Pinker. In The Blank Slate, Pinker dismisses the ‘many intellectuals’ who ‘have embraced the image of peaceable, egalitarian, and ecology-loving natives’.[1] Modern ‘data’, he argues, tells a different story: ‘In a nutshell: Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong’.[2] Rousseau, he says, is merely being ‘romantic’ and ‘politically correct’.

Contemporary Hobbesians often hold to the ‘thin veneer’ theory of society: a thin veneer of civilization veils a seething cauldron of brutality and cruelty. Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the wake of the 2005 New Orleans flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, argued that the events following the disaster reveal that civilisation is ‘the thin crust we lay across the seething magma of nature, including human nature’, and if we but withhold the fundamentals of organised life like water and personal security, we find that ‘we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all’.[3]

On the other side you have the Rousseauians.

One of the best-selling modern Rousseauians is Rutger Bregman. In Humankind he seeks to debunk the tradition of an innately selfish and violent humanity. With some nuances along the way, Bregman concludes that ‘we once inhabited a world of liberty and equality’,[4] but things began to go wrong with the emergence of the first settled communities between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago.

He became convinced that ‘Rousseau might be the true realist after all’[5] when, in the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men he warns that agriculture and private property do not bring stability and prosperity, but war and disease. Our history, Bregman argues, is one long and vain struggle to lift ‘the curse of civilization’.[6]

In addition to the Hobbesians and the Rousseauians, there is a third group trying to make sense of the world today. They aren’t Hobbesian or Rousseauian. In fact, they reject the whole idea of a state of nature. They come in two varieties.

The first, weak variety is the stance adopted by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their bestseller The Dawn of Everything. They reject the state of nature story, but they frame their rejection of the state of nature story itself as part of a better story of progress, in a way that fundamentally maintains the shape of the story they claim to be leaving behind.

The strong rejection of the state of nature story is taken, for example, by Michel Foucault in The History of Madness or The Order of Things. Foucault rejects the whole idea of a story about our origins making sense of the world for us, and he rejects the logic of progress that the Hobbesians, Rousseauians and Graeber and Wengrow all share. So those are the three ways we make sense of the world today in terms of this state of nature story.

Here’s the rub. None of these approaches is utterly wrong, but none makes sense of everything.

With the Hobbesians, we can point to events that seem to reveal a certain innate brutality in human beings; with the Rousseauians, we can point to events that seem to show human beings as fundamentally benevolent and kind; and with the anti-state of nature theorists we can show how neither of those stories is sophisticated enough to account for humans as we find them.

But we find ourselves forced to choose. This is the pathos and tragedy of our late modern cultural ecosystem. You are either a pessimist about human nature, or an optimist. You are either a Hobbesian of the right, or a Rousseauian of the left, and the only way out of that dilemma is to throw the baby of making the world intelligible out with the bathwater of grand narratives.

Now I’d like to explore a different approach. I want to go back to an older story, and a story from which Hobbes, Rousseau and the anti-state of nature theorists are all borrowing. It is, of course, the story of human origins in the opening chapters of the Bible.

Biblical asymmetry

Let’s look a little more closely at this story: specifically its first two elements, often summarized as ‘creation’ and ‘fall’. In particular, I want to reflect on how they relate to each other.

In the beginning, God created a good world in which relationships were rich and full. Human beings enjoyed the fullness of relationship with God himself, with each other, and with the world around them.

But then, human beings, with a little urging from a serpent, decided that they really knew better than the God who made them what should count as good and what should count as evil in his world, and this usurpation of God’s place is called sin. From that point on, relationships are marred. Human beings are now alienated from God, from each other, and from the world around them.

But—and here is where it starts to get really interesting—the creation and the fall are not two equal and opposite events in the Bible. The fall does not wipe out all the goodness of God’s good creation and bring us back to zero.

In other words, in the Bible’s story there is an asymmetry of good and evil. Good precedes, exceeds and (as we would see if we read on to the end of the Bible) succeeds sin.

Evil, argues C. S. Lewis, is ‘a parasite, not an original thing’,[7] and our world has the appearance of a caricature or ‘a distorted image that nevertheless embodies certain recognizable features’,[8] while ‘nature has the air of a good thing spoiled’.[9] Evil arrives at the party of existence once it is already in full swing, and it leaves before the dancing is over.

Within the biblical view of things, this asymmetry actually limits the ontological primacy of evil. As philosopher Paul Ricoeur puts it, the biblical account of the sin of Adam and Eve is ‘the most extreme attempt of a separation of the origin of evil from the origin of the good; its intention is to set up a radical origin of evil distinct from the more primordial origin of the goodness of things’.[10]

Without something like this asymmetry between creation and fall, evil is with us all the way down and all the way back, like the ‘damned spot’ that Lady Macbeth cannot wash away.

Multi-lens anthropology

So Genesis 1 to 3 build up what we might call a multi-lens anthropology: we can’t make adequate sense of human beings if we view them through any single lens alone—either creation or the fall. (It’s worth noting that we encounter more lenses as we read on through the Bible, but the two lenses of creation and fall are enough for this article.)

In contrast to this, both Hobbes and the Rousseau of the Second Discourse have a single lens anthropology. Societies can develop over time, of course, and technology can improve, but there are no qualitative ruptures in the human condition.

In fact, Hobbes is quite at home in Genesis chapters 3 to 11, in which we witness a state of affairs not a million miles away from his war of all against all, with Cain murdering his brother Abel, the boastful, warmongering misogynist Lamech, and, in the bleak summary of Genesis 6:5 ‘The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’

Rousseau’s state of nature, by contrast, bears more resemblance to Genesis 1 – 2: people live in harmony with each other and with the natural world around them; there is no jealousy or shame but only joy and celebration of each other; work is a pleasure and all is right with the world.

Like the blind men and the elephant in the famous poem, it appears that both Hobbes and Rousseau have grasped something of the shape of the biblical story, but they are taking part of it as the whole: people are either fundamentally benevolent, or fundamentally malevolent.

But the biblical story frames both of these approaches as reductive heresies of a richer story.

Along with Hobbes, the biblical narrative has no illusions that people will behave perfectly if only given the right conditions. Israel’s repeated breaking of the covenant leaves us in no doubt about human stubbornness and selfishness. Hobbes departs from the biblical account, however, when he argues that the solution to this selfishness is a maximally powerful central authority that punishes all violations of the covenant. If that were the case, the Old Testament would be very short, because Israel would have been exterminated very quickly.

Along with Rousseau, the biblical motif of covenant foregrounds perfectibility, freedom and a vision not merely of security (like Hobbes) but of flourishing. Rousseau departs from it, however, when he argues that these things can be brought about through changing the conditions of society and improving education. Human perfectibility for the Bible is an eschatological project that requires not new societies or new educational standards, but new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26).

Hobbes and Rousseau have each grasped something of the complex biblical reality, but as with all heresies, they exaggerate and deform some aspects while neglecting others.

Normative critique

Not only are the single lens anthropologies reductive, they also have significant and problematic consequences.

Here’s the problem: the very possibility of cultural critique relies on establishing and maintaining a difference between what there is and what there ought to be. If there is no ‘ought’ against which to judge the ‘is’, then there is no way meaningfully to critique what there is. One problem with single-lens anthropologies is that they can find it hard to justify a radical critique of the status quo, especially if that status quo itself appeals to the way things are in establishing its ethical and political positions.

For example, pre-revolutionary France read the pre-eminence of the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV off the celestial hierarchy: the planets in the solar system all orbit around one unique sun, so our society should similarly be ordered around one unique king. The natural world gives us the pattern. This logic respects the relationship between ‘how things are’ in the cosmos and ‘how things should be’ in society, choosing one aspect of ‘how things are’ to be its guide, as any such position must.

Why does it make any less sense to say, ‘We should have absolute monarchy because the sun is the centre of the solar system’, than it does to say, with a thinker like Gilles Deleuze, that ‘difference is what there is, therefore our politics should value and promote difference’? Arguments will be advanced that boil down to saying, ‘But this is how things really or most fundamentally are’, though the question of what is considered most fundamental is one of methodology and perspective.

This inability to critique the status quo frustrated C. S. Lewis no end before his conversion to Christianity. He writes: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?’[11]

In other words, if what there is, is everything, there is no objective external standard against which we can evaluate it. The only possible standards are conceptual—interpretations and ideals—and they must be part of the same reality as everything else, because that is all there is. But on what basis can one fragment of what there is be used as a yardstick to judge the rest of what there is? Here again we lack an objective standard by which to judge—and so it goes on. For the philosophers among us, this becomes an infinite regress or ‘who will guard the guards?’ problem.

The only way to solve it, ultimately, is by shouting louder for longer than your opponent, and ideally making them be quiet too, which I fear describes a lot of our public discourse these days.

The biblical story, by contrast, opens the way to a politics that is not trapped in the present and that does not cherry-pick the aspect of the natural world on which it chooses to model itself, but that can look beyond the way things are now to find society’s model and norms.

In a biblical frame, we cannot take the way things are now as the model of the way they should be; we must locate ourselves in an unfolding story that weaves a complex set of evolving relationships between good and evil.

This is why a biblical view of the world provides a robust and compelling ground—perhaps the only such ground—for radical political critique.

It also provides the justification for investigating the world around us, and the framework for the way we still make sense of the world.

A phalanx of philosophers and social theorists who have no interest in defending Christianity have formed an orderly queue to testify to the deep influence of the view of the world articulated in the biblical creation account on how we make sense of the world.

Friedrich Nietzsche, safe to say no friend of Christianity, writes in his book The Gay Science:

it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests, […] even we knowers of today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by the thousand-year-old faith, the Christian faith which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth; that truth is divine.... [12]

Or Carl Schmitt, who was raised a Catholic and became a committed atheist before he produced his major works, argues in Political Theology that

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development […] but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.[13]

So I suppose what these writers are saying, is that Christianity makes sense of science and politics, and whenever we make scientific or political sense of the world around us we do so, to some extent at least, on the back of Christian theology.

A multi-lens biblical approach sees reality through three lenses: how things are now after the fall, how God first created them to be, and how they will be once redeemed.[14] It insists that human existence today, after Genesis 3, is not original, not the standard for how things should be, and not final. It asserts that our present state neither ultimately defines us nor confines us.

As the German Marxist cultural critic Theodor Adorno writes at the end of his book Minima Moralia, in order meaningfully to critique the status quo we need what he calls a ‘standpoint of redemption’: somewhere to stand from which we can pronounce meaningful judgment on the present. Adorno was no Christian, but it’s interesting that he reaches for this theological language when it comes to the possibility of cultural critique.


Utopianism & cynicism

Another consequence of making sense of human beings and the world in terms of a multi-lens anthropology is that you don’t resolve either to cynicism or to utopianism.

Utopians think that human beings are fundamentally good, and we human beings have it within us to create heaven on earth. The danger of this position is that if we believe it, it becomes easier to justify any means to achieve this supremely desirable end of bringing about paradise. It is the sin of violent revolutions that consider any finite bloodshed excusable in the service of the ultimate good. This is one great political temptation of our age.

There is, however, an equal and opposite danger—namely, pessimism or cynicism: to believe that everyone is bad and corrupt in every way and at all times, that all politicians are always crooks, and that there is no point trying to make the world a better place because all such attempts always fail eventually anyway. This is perhaps the other great political temptation of our age.

A Christian whose thinking is patterned according to the shape of the biblical narrative and who takes account of multi-lens biblical anthropology will be neither a pessimistic Eeyore nor a utopian Tigger, neither a Cassandra nor a Pollyanna.

On the one hand, human beings created in the image of God have a wonderfully stubborn capacity for godlike actions of love, compassion, and generosity.

On the other hand, fallen and sinful human beings have an ever-renewed capacity for unreason and brutal violence.

Breathtaking acts of kindness should delight the Christian, and stomach-churning deeds of barbarity should revolt her, but neither the one nor the other should come as a surprise, and neither the good nor the evil of which human beings are capable should pose a challenge to her multi-lens biblical anthropology.

G. K. Chesterton understood this when he wrote, ‘In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.’[15]

Single-lens anthropologies have the tendency to flip-flop between optimism and pessimism because they lack the temporal dexterity that comes from the biblical separation of creation and fall. Collapsing these moments together, they see humanity either as if the fall had never happened, or as if it were the only event that had ever happened.

In such anthropologies, furthermore, either good or evil (sometimes both) often has to be explained away as an illusion.

Evil is explained away by the utopian: murder is the product of social inequalities; adultery or family violence are the inevitable biological outcome of sexual frustration; paedophilia is the expression of a biological urge that simply happens to be taboo in our culture and at our point in history.

Good is explained away by the pessimist: generosity is just disguised self-interest; philanthropy is motivated only by a desire to feel good about ourselves; altruism is a not-so-subtle and sometimes misfiring attempt to protect one’s own genetic heritage.

How does the biblical narrative relate to this utopianism and pessimism? It does not tread some imaginary safe, manicured bourgeois path between pessimism and utopianism, taking care to fall for neither.

In fact, it is both more pessimistic than the pessimist and more utopian than the utopian.

It is more pessimistic than the pessimist because it recognizes that the sin at the heart of the human problem cannot be expunged by any education, social reform, a cash injection, or a medical intervention.

It is more utopian than the utopian because it believes in the radical transformation of the human heart, begun in this life and completed in the next. You see, the Christian has a dream. She believes in a reality without mourning, crying, and pain—yes, a reality without death, where every tear will be wiped from the eyes of those who belong to Christ.

So her multi-lens biblical anthropology gives her what we might call a sober optimism, a realistic romanticism, and a critical idealism.


So as I begin to conclude now, I have tried to make two arguments.

The first argument is historical. The Bible happens to have provided, in the Western tradition, a particularly sophisticated and rich framework for understanding who we are as human beings, and therefore for being able to make critical judgments about social and cultural matters.

The second argument is logical: The Bible’s story makes sense not only of our origins, but of the very enterprise of normative critique itself. It doesn’t make sense to critique society unless you begin with something remarkably close to a biblical view.

Whenever we claim that the way things are is not the way they should be and mean by that something more than ‘I have a negative feeling’, we necessarily assume something like the standpoint of redemption, or something like the difference between creation and fall. We also rely on such an assumption whenever we want our social, cultural or anthropological critique to be persuasive for other people.

To the extent that making sense of anything means not simply reproducing it but translating it, re-contextualising it or drawing analogies between it and something else, it’s hard to defend our ability to make sense of anything in a critical or constructive way without assuming something that gets remarkably close to the shape of the biblical story.


Associate Professor Chris Watkin (Monash University, Melbourne) has an international reputation in the fields of modern and contemporary European thought, atheism, and the relationship between the Bible and philosophy. His book, Biblical Critical Theory, was named Australian Christian Book of the Year.


† This article is adapted from the first of the New College Lectures delivered on October 10, 2023. This and A/Prof Watkin’s two subsequent lectures can be viewed here.


[1] The Blank Slate (Penguin, 2003), p56.

[2] Ibid., p95.

[3] Timothy Garton Ash, ‘It always lies below’. The Guardian, 8 September 2005.

[4] Humankind: A Hopeful History trans. E. Manton & E. Moore (Litter, Brown, & Co., 2020), p98.

[5] Ibid., p102.

[6] Ibid., pp93-112.

[7] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperOne, 2001), p45. 

[8] Al Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans, 2005), p58.

[9] C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (HarperOne, 2001), p147.

[10] Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Harper & Row, 1967), p233.

[11] Mere Christianity, op. cit., p38.

[12] F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science ed. Bernard Williams, trans. J. Nauckhoff (CUP, 2001), p201.

[13] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (MIT Press, 1985), p36.

[14] The detailed picture is more complex than this three-stage process, but the three-lens approach is a good heuristic device, setting in place fundamental categories that can be filled in later with greater nuance.

[15] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (John Lane, 1909), ch7.

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