This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 02 (2011). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
A Christian view of human nature is situated between the two extremes of radical freedom and total determinism. On the one hand, humans have a real but limited freedom, a freedom limited by the constraints of our created nature, but sufficient to ground moral responsibility. On the other hand, humans are influenced by a variety of factors—our environment, families, social context, and genetic inheritance. They shape and affect our lives in profound ways and may even limit the options available to us.
However, these influences never rise to the level of total determinism, for God still holds humans responsible for the choices they make. The contemporary movement of transhumanism is an example of a view of human nature as radically free; sociobiology is an example of a totally deterministic view of human nature. A Christian view of human nature acknowledges an element of truth in both, but sees both as subject to several weaknesses and finally inconsistent with biblical teaching on human nature. A proper understanding of human nature should guide us in terms of how we should address others with the gospel and what we may expect from the people to whom we minister.
The subject of our own nature is one of perennial interest to humans. From the ancient question of the psalmist (“What is man that you are mindful of him?”1), to the advice of the English poet Alexander Pope (“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man”2), human nature has always attracted attention and amazement. One aspect of human nature that has been the subject of intense discussion, especially since the onset of the Enlightenment, has been human freedom. Are humans free agents, capable of determining their own natures and controlling their own destinies, apart from some given nature to which they must conform, or is human freedom illusory at best, with the reality being that all supposed choices are in fact no more than the playing out of a predetermined hand, with human nature and destiny determined by forces external to humans?
My own sense is that, beginning with the Enlightenment and continuing to today, there has been a strong stream of thought in the West that has asserted increasingly radical claims for human freedom. The words of the poem Invictus reflect this attitude: “Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the Pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul….It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll, / I am the captain of my fate: / I am the master of my soul.”3
Alongside the emphasis on human freedom, there has been a minority view that has been growing, especially in the past hundred years. Figures like Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Durkheim, and Skinner, in differing ways, began to argue that humans are products more than agents, with influences from our nature and nurture being seen in increasingly deterministic terms. While both these views are current in our world today, I believe the determinist views to be on the rise, and the free views to be declining, but this article will address both, beginning by examining what I call the “free views.”
In these views, there is no divine givenness to human nature; rather, we create our own nature. There is no human essence a priori; nothing to which we must conform. We are capable of determining our own destiny, free to make genuine choices. In general, I see this view as ascendant from the Enlightenment into the twentieth century, but coming under increasing challenges from determinist views in the last hundred years.
Two important streams of thought emphasizing human freedom in the twentieth century were existentialism and secular humanism. Jean-Paul Sartre was famous for the claim that human existence precedes human essence, and the claim that human freedom was the most important and distinctive human property.4 The secular humanist movement produced four manifestos in the past hundred years (in 1933, 1973, 2000, and 2003). A paragraph from Humanist Manifesto II (1973) reflects the view of human freedom characteristic of the movement: “Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life-span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.”5
From a Christian perspective, several weaknesses of the theologically ill-founded and overly optimistic anthropology reflected in this statement are obvious. But in recent years a new variety of the free view of human nature has emerged, called transhumanism. While sharing many of the assumptions of secular humanism, transhumanism is more radical, especially in the application of technology to ultimately change the very nature of humans. Nick Bostrom, member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University and one of the founders of the World Transhumanist Association, describes it as an “intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition,” especially by the careful study and use of technology “that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations.”6 Some of the limitations they seek to overcome are death and limits on bodily function, intellectual capacity, even mood, energy, and self-control. Thus they have a very high view of human freedom and ability.
Two statements illustrate their perspective. From the Web site of the World Transhumanist Association, we read a statement of transhumanist values: “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning we can learn to remold in desirable ways.”7 A more explicit statement is, “Transhumanists place a high value on autonomy—the ability and right of people to plan and choose their own lives,” including “the right to choose when and how to die—or not to die.”8
Technology is the tool transhumanists believe will help them achieve their goals. Kevin Warwick writes words that sound like science fiction, but they are spoken seriously from a leading researcher in cybernetics: “I was born human….But while fate made me human, it also gave me the power to do something about it. The ability to change myself, to upgrade my human form, with the aid of technology. To become cyborg—part human, part machine.”9 In recent years, with the explosion of biotechnology and what are called GRIN technologies (Genetic, Robotic, Information, and Nano), many believe we are close to moving beyond the human to the posthuman. In fact, transhumanists see our present position as a transitional one, and give their core value as “exploring the posthuman realm,” in which they foresee “possible future beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.”10
Transhumanists are not unaware of potential dangers. They acknowledge that “some of these coming technologies could potentially cause great harm to human life; even the survival of our species could be at risk.”11 They realize the need to address ethical concerns, and the first descriptive phrase of the World Transhumanist Association on their Web site is “for the ethical use of technology to extend human capabilities” (emphasis added). Their ethics include advocacy for “the well being of all sentience,” and rejection of racism, sexism, speciesism, nationalism, and religious intolerance. They stress “the moral urgency of saving lives, or, more precisely, of preventing involuntary deaths among people whose lives are worth living.” For example, they think cryonic suspension should be available for those who desire it, saying, “While cryonics might be a long shot, it definitely carries better odds than cremation or burial.”12 On balance, they think the risks associated with exploring the posthuman realm are well worth taking.
By way of evaluation, Christians have always applauded efforts to heal and eliminate disease. We, like transhumanists, recognize death as an enemy (see 1 Cor. 15:26). We also recognize the fallenness and transitional nature of this body, but our version of the posthuman looks to divine resurrection of the body rather than human technology.13 Christopher Hook, in a perceptive article, reviews some of these developments and asks questions that should make us appropriately skeptical of the goals of transhumanism: “What does it mean that our Lord healed and restored in his ministry—never enhanced? Is it significant that the gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, love, patience, kindness—cannot be manufactured by technology? How would the transformation from homo sapiens to techno sapiens affect our identity as bearers of the image of God?”14
Moreover, as a close relative of secular humanism, transhumanism shares some of its cousin’s weaknesses. While genuinely mindful of ethical concerns, transhumanism has no basis for adjudicating issues of good and evil, and the mindset that focuses on enhancements and upgrades and sees human nature “as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning,” would seem inconsistent with any high view of intrinsic human dignity.
But the most serious problems with transhumanism stem from its naturalism. Without any God or the prospect of life beyond the grave, they tend to see death as a violation of an individual’s right to life. But who gives any individual a right to life? Moreover, may not the end of life in this world be a severe mercy from God? True, death entered the world as the punishment for sin, but a punishment that opened the door to mercy. For once humans had fallen and become like God in knowing, not just good, but now evil, God intervened: “He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). It was the mercy of God that established the limitation of life as a fallen human; as redeemed persons, we are welcomed to the tree of life (Rev. 22:3).
Unending life as a fallen human would not at all be an unmixed blessing, as several recent films suggest. While a comedy, the 1992 movie Death Becomes Her portrays two characters who take a youth serum and are given eternal life, but it is a life that becomes increasingly tedious rather than fulfilling. A more serious portrayal of extended life is given in The Green Mile. In that 1999 film, Paul Edgecomb (played by Tom Hanks) has contact with a deeply spiritual man that extends his life span well beyond all his contemporaries, but at the movie’s end, as he finally sees signs that he is aging, he welcomes them. As Albus Dumbledore observes to Harry Potter, one truth Voldemort never learned is that there are worse things than death. In seeking to overcome the graciously given limitation of life as a fallen person amidst a fallen world, transhumanists are showing a limited vision. Perhaps they can make life longer; will that make it better?
Finally, in thinking technology can overcome the power of death, transhumanists are blinded by idolatrous pride. God established death as the wages of sin. Only by dealing with sin can death be dealt with, and only God can deal with sin. He has done so in Christ, and so can give life that is truly abundant and eternal. What transhumanists seek, God offers, but it comes by grace through faith, not as a humanachievement through technology. Apart from receiving the gift of God, transhumanists will, sooner or later, bump up against some of the hard limits of human nature, established by God in mercy and justice.
The common feature that binds the second group of views together is the idea that human actions and behavior, or human nature, are determined by something other than the person’s responsible choice. Thus, all determinist views are contrary to the fundamental Christian idea that human persons are responsible agents. We cannot deny that we are influenced by a variety of factors. Some (the family, for example) are divinely ordained to influence us, and do so, for better or for worse. But fundamental to Christianity is the idea of moral responsibility that entails at least some area or degree of freedom or choice.
A second factor in common in these views is the attempt to describe humans scientifically. In practice, at least in the twentieth century, that meant that humans are approached with the presupposition that human nature and behavior must be described without reference to nonempirical factors (God, conscience, genuine choice, and freedom).15 But any methodology of study must be adequate to the nature of the subject, and it is an open question as to whether naturalistic methodologies have sufficient breadth to encompass all the data relevant to the study of humans.16
Among the influential voices arguing for deterministic views of human nature in the twentieth century have been Sigmund Freud, B. F. Skinner, and Emile Durkheim. Stephen Evans traces what he calls “the loss of the person” in Freudian psychology, Skinnerian behaviorism, and Durkheim’s functional sociology.17 But today interest seems to be growing in explaining human behavior as related in various ways to our genetic inheritance. One approach, sociobiology, is usually associated with the work of Edward Wilson. In his 1975 work, Sociobiology and the New Synthesis, Wilson defines sociobiology as “the study of the biological basis of social behavior.”18 The underlying assumption is the evolutionary idea of natural selection, with the corollary that behavior is determined by that which best enables some to pass their genes down to future generations. For example, why have males typically been more promiscuous than females? The answer is that they have desired to spread their genes to ensure their continuation. More faithful men limited the spread of their genes and were in danger of seeing their line die out, especially if their mate was not particularly fertile. Females, on the other hand, needed more stability for safe rearing of the young and a faithful male to provide for them, especially during pregnancy. Thus they were less inclined to wander sexually.
In contrast to many sociologists, Wilson and sociobiology see very little role for culture in shaping human behavior. He says, “The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.”19 Altruism, morality, parental care, and involvement in raising their children—nothing is a matter of choice. All is determined by the biological imperative of passing genes on: “Human behavior…is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable function.”20
Others have studied traits such as alcoholism, homosexuality, religious fervor, even happiness, and found links with particular genes. We are genetically predisposed to some behaviors, and there is evidence of genetically influenced hyperactivity in certain brain centers. The conclusion of some is “that we are simply genetically programmed, that the discovery of our genetic composition is all that is really required in order to define ‘self.’”21
Both views assume more than demonstrate that human choices are determined by evolutionary history or genetic inheritance. Sociobiology makes some plausible speculative arguments, but there is little empirical data on why ancient ancestors made choices as they did, and intuitively, few people are conscious of making choices based on their concern to pass on their genes. Rather, many make decisions contrary to that interest (e.g., men who are faithful to a spouse unable to have children).
To their credit, some sociobiologists today recognize the dangers of genetic determinism. For example, they acknowledge that some could, on the basis of sociobiology, endorse male aggression, since it “is genetically fixed and reproductively advantageous.” They reject such interpretations of sociobiology, contrasting biological determinism, which attempts to explain everything about human behavior, with sociobiology, which “restricts the domain to nothing but facts about human evolution and behavior, i.e., evolutionarily significant facts,” and allows a role for other factors in explaining human behavior (psychological and sociocultural).22
Likewise, recent evidence seems to indicate some degree of genetic predisposition for certain behaviors, but not genetic determinism. The emerging field of epigenetics is finding that individual choice can to some degree influence our genes. Nature and nurture interact, with neither having a deterministic monopoly.23 Despite these weaknesses, sociobiology and genetic determinism continue to exercise significant influence within North American culture.
A Christian view of human nature, in terms of why humans do what they do, can affirm aspects of both the free views and the deterministic views, but qualifies and limits both, and adds distinctive new elements as well.
We agree with the free views, contra the deterministic views, that humans have a measure of freedom; that is, we make morally responsible choices. Such moral responsibility seems basic to the fact that we are judged by God. But that freedom is not absolute or unlimited.
We affirm, against the free views, that human nature has been created by God, and thus has a certain givenness to it. We cannot escape the fact that we have been made by God and for God, and living contrary to that makes us less human and not more. All the free views examined above assume naturalistic evolution, and thus miss the key fact that we are created beings, and that the Creator’s design imposes some hard limits that we cannot escape, and that we ignore to our detriment.
The deterministic views have a valid point in noting that there are a variety of factors that influence our choices. Families were ordained by God and He intends and instructs parents to influence their children. But all parents learn that children have minds and wills of their own and refuse to be determined by parental influence. Likewise, environments, social groupings, genetic inheritance—all these things do influence people, because God has created us with the ability to impact and influence one another. Yet individuals from the same families, backgrounds, and environments can and do choose diverse paths, because these influences are just that—influences, not determining forces.
In contrast to those who emphasize only freedom, or only deterministic influences, a Christian view sees humans as both creatures and persons.24 Anthony Hoekema states, “One of the basic presuppositions of the Christian view of man is belief in God as the Creator, which leads to the view that the human person does not exist autonomously or independently, but as a creature of God.”25 We cannot escape the fact of our creation, or the design in human nature. It limits our freedom. But we are different than all other creatures in that we are also persons. “And to be a person means to have a kind of independence—not absolute but relative. To be a person means to be able to make decisions, to set goals, and to move in the direction of those goals. It means to possess freedom—at least in the sense of being able to make one’s own choices.”26
To be a human means to be a creature, and thus subject to the influences of our created nature, and all the other influences the Creator places in his world. To be a human also means to be a person, bearing a fearful freedom that carries with it awesome moral responsibility for decisions that have eternal consequences. Influenced, yet responsible; created, yet persons. These elements are foundational to a Christian view of human nature.
Seeing the people to whom we minister as influenced yet responsible leads to two obvious yet important practical applications.
First, in our sharing of the gospel, we must make clear that everyone bears moral responsibility for their choices. Not only is this fundamental Christian conviction challenged openly by secular forms of determinism, it may be undermined subtly by misapplications of the doctrine of total depravity. In looking at the failure of nonbelievers to love God, should we say, “They couldn’t help themselves,” or, “After all, that’s just the world being the world”? I believe in total depravity, but nowhere in Scripture is depravity interpreted as giving nonbelievers a “pass.” Depravity does not equal excusability. I think our culture is eager to excuse sin, but we must make clear that what we all need is not a good excuse, but genuine forgiveness, for wrong and sinful, morally responsible choices.
Second, in our daily interaction with believers, we must take seriously the effect of factors that influence them, for good and for ill. We all enter life with a set of assets and liabilities—family background, environment, social groupings, genetic inheritance. Some are given a much stronger “hand” than others; others face many barriers and obstacles. God only fully knows the circumstances each individual faces, and thus God alone can judge rightly, in terms of how people play the hands they were dealt: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).
A wise believer will understand that for a person who has entered the Christian life after being raised in an abusive non-Christian family; who is seeking to follow Christ despite the opposition of family and friends; who is bringing with her the damage of a lifetime of destructive habits—for such a person simply holding her own is a tremendous victory. But for a person who was raised by loving and encouraging parents, who has had the benefit of a strong church family, who has received much in the way of training and encouragement—for such a person to simply hold his own would be altogether unacceptable. Counsel must be shaped by a compassionate understanding that recognizes that some are given more, and some less. No one is completely denied freedom and choices, but people come to us from different paths and backgrounds. Deciding when encouragement and affirmation are needed, and when rebuke and admonition are needed, requires knowledge of our people, the leading of the Spirit, and a Christian view of human nature.
John S. Hammett, Ph.D., has been a pastor, missionary, and professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, since 1995. He is author of a number of books and articles, including “Human Nature,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel Akin (B and H Academic, 2007).
- Psalm 8:4. All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
- Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man,” epistle 2.
- William Ernest Henley, “Invictus.”
- One treatment of Sartre’s thought is entitled, “Sartre: Radical Freedom” in Leslie Stevenson and David Haberman, Ten Theories of Human Nature, 5th ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 181–200.
- Text is available at http://www.americanhumanist.org/who_we_are/about_humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_II, accessed June 22, 2009.
- Nick Bostrom, “The Transhumanist FAQ: A General Introduction,” Version 2.1 (2003), 4. Available at www.transhumanism.org.
- Nick Bostrom, “Transhumanist Values,” available at http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/more/transhumanist-values/, accessed June 22, 2009.
- Bostrom, “Transhumanist FAQ,” 4, 34.
- Kevin Warwick, I, Cyborg (London: Century, 2002), 1.
- Bostrom, “Transhumanist Values,” and Bostrom, “Transhumanist FAQ,” 5.
- Bostrom, “Transhumanist FAQ,” 5.
- Bostrom, “Transhumanist Values.”
- See the helpful analysis by Matthew Eppinette, “Humanism 2.0: Transhumanism as a Cultural Trend,” in Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 190–207, esp. 204.
- Christopher Hook, “The Techno Sapiens Are Coming,” Christianity Today 48, 1 (January 2004): 35–40.
- Albert Einstein said, “Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and that holds for the actions of people.” He also realized, however, that his determinism was destructive of ethics, and so he also said, “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.” Einstein, as cited in Walter Isaacson, Einstein, His Life and Universe (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 388, 392.
- C. Stephen Evans, Preserving the Person: A Look at the Human Sciences (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, The Person in Psychology: A Contemporary Christian Appraisal (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) both contend that the methodology used by the social sciences leads them to miss the uniquely personal aspects of human nature.
- See Evans, Preserving the Person, 35–67.
- Edward Wilson, Sociobiology and the New Synthesis, cited in David Barash, Ideas of Human Nature: From the Bhagavad Gita to Sociobiology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), 265.
- Ibid., 272.
- Celia Deane Drummond, “Theology and the Biological Sciences,” in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918, ed. David Ford with Rachel Muers, 3rd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 359.
- This more modest view of sociobiology is reflected in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on sociobiology. See “Sociobiology,” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sociobiology/, accessed August 12, 2010.
- For a popular presentation of epigenetics and the view of “interactionism,” as opposed to determinism, see David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told about Genetics, Talent and IQ Is Wrong (New York: Doubleday, 2010).
- See the insightful discussion of these two aspects of human nature in Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 5–10.
- Ibid., 5.