Thanks to Carl Trueman’s bestsellers The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and Strange New World, Christians are in a far better place to understand this bizarre cultural moment. How did we get to a place where humans with XY chromosomes—otherwise known as males—have risen to dominance in female sports, won acclaim as one of USA Today’s Women of the Year, and been hosted by the Smithsonian to perform interactive drag shows for young children?
Trueman does a stellar job retracing the steps from Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and other thought leaders, through the sexual revolution, and up to our day. His analysis is spot on, so far as it goes. But what if there’s a far more ancient origin to the expressive individualism trending in our day? (Full disclosure: I had an on-air discussion with Trueman suggesting this very thesis, and he heartily agreed.)
In Genesis 3 we behold the “Tree of Knowledge.” The serpent tempts humanity’s first couple with a pitch to be “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). We typically use the English word “know” in ways that blur the meaning of Genesis. Allow me to offer a real-life scenario in which our English word “know” comes closer to the ancient Hebrew of Genesis 3.
After college, I lived in a bachelor pad with friends. One of those friends, Dave, was a founding member of a band called Linkin Park. Their debut album, Hybrid Theory, had recently gone multiplatinum. Dave was hard at work with his bandmates crafting their sophomore release, Meteora, which went on to be certified platinum seven times over. He returned from the studio daily and we would listen through the rough concept tracks of what became over 50 songs, only 12 of which survived the final cut.
I had questions. What effect are you using there? What inspired that track? How did you make that part sound so face-meltingly huge? I never once stumped him. Dave knew the songs. He didn’t know them because he’d blasted them on the radio over and over or studied the sheet music bar by bar. He knew them because he made them. Dave knew why the song was that way because he personally chose to make it that way. He had a maker’s knowledge. He had what ancient Jews would have called bachar, the very thing offered by the serpent in Genesis 3.
Knowing something because you made it is the kind of knowledge God—and God alone—has of his universe. He knows it because he personally chose it to be what it is. God knowing good and evil, then, is Hebrew shorthand for God creating, composing, determining, and defining what is good and evil.
What about that phrase “good and evil”? This is an ancient Jewish way of speaking that names polar opposites to include everything in between. It would be like saying “black and white” to refer to every color, or “the Beatles and Creed” to refer to every rock band. “Good and evil” is Hebrew shorthand for everything. God, as God, defines the meaning of everything. He “made all things” (Isa. 44:24). He “laid the foundation of the earth” and “determined its measurements” (Job 38:4–5). He “know[s] the ordinances of the heavens” and “establish[ed] their rule on the earth” (Job 38:33).
God is the originator, the determiner, the authority, the boundary-setter, the ultimate meaning-maker of the entire universe. All of this liberating truth is compacted into that tiny Hebrew phrase, “knowing good and evil.”
Creator and Creatures
Erasing the Creator-creature distinction, then, is the essence of humanity’s first temptation, and every temptation since. It goes something like this: “Creatures like you can define the scope and meaning of everything! Take hold of the absolute sovereignty over reality that God is trying to hog for himself!”
The clever serpent insinuates that God keeps his creatures dumb and docile to protect his fragile ego. “If you want real power you have to stop bowing to God and instead become god,” he tries to convince Eve. “This fruit is your ticket to that supremacy. Eat it. Take a dose of divine power for yourselves. Taste sweet liberation from your cosmic oppressor. Vive la révolution against the hegemonic power of heaven!”
This, of course, was a colossal lie. God had granted his first image-bearers an astounding amount of creative power. He commanded them to be culture makers who mirror their Creator by multiplying the net beauty in the universe (Gen. 1:26–28). He created us to be like him, but not equal to him; to be representatives, not replacements. Insofar as we embrace this arrangement, we’ll flourish. Yet our modern world beckons us at every turn to reject this distinction—leading scores of people down paths of rebellion and ultimately grief and destruction.
Ancient Lie, Modern Slogans
Listen closely and you can still hear the old serpent’s hiss behind the popular slogans of our day: “Believe in yourselvesss. Follow your heartsss. The answersss are within.” The slogans, like the serpent’s original rhetoric, sound innocuous and even morally good—but their “feel good” vibes just mask their insidious aims to convince you of the oldest lie in the book: that you have the sovereign power to determine meaning and define reality however you like.
Today’s ubiquitous expressive individualism markets itself as cutting-edge and progressive. In reality, it’s hyper-fundamentalist and uber-traditional, following the retrograde dogmas not only of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Marx but also of an ancient snake. There’s nothing novel or fresh about these old lies. It’s far more authentic—and satisfying—to live out the truth that God is God. He is sovereign, and we are not. Within that Creator-creature distinction we find true freedom.