Universal Human Experience in the Bible

Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginnings—the story of original sin and the story of Cain. . . .  No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us. . . .  A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. . . .  [The story of Cain] is everybody’s story.  I think it is the symbol story of the human soul.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The Bible has many themes, but they are unified by a single subject matter — human experience in the world.  On every page, we find authentic human experience.  But what attitude do biblical writers take toward human experience?

Most significantly, in the eyes of biblical writers, human experience occurs in the context of God’s existence and supreme importance.  It is a rare biblical passage that does not concern God explicitly or implicitly.  Nearly every passage poses (or provides an answer to) the question, “What is God like, and how should people relate to him?”

The view of human nature that emerges from the very human stories and poems of the Bible is also a unifying element. In brief, the Bible postulates that . . .

  • human beings have a capacity to be both good and bad;
  • human beings can choose between good and evil;
  • human beings are both physical and spiritual beings.

While people are viewed as good in principle, the Bible shows time and again that, in practice, people are naturally inclined to make foolish choices and do bad things.

Merging the twin themes of God and human experience, one of the Bible’s chief concerns is the divine-human relationship — the question of how God and people relate to each other.  We might say that the Bible is a continuous exploration of how God and human beings ought to relate to each other, which is often contrary to how they actually do relate to each other.

How people relate to each other morally is another key preoccupation of the Bible.  If we ask what aspects of human experience are most often portrayed in the Bible, interesting answers emerge.  Surely the quest to define “the good life” recurs frequently and in many forms.  The experience of suffering runs strong in the Bible, but so, too, does the experience of joy.

A final way in which to see ideational unity in the Bible is to formulate a short list of questions to which the Bible continually provides answers, as follows:

  • What is God like?
  • What are people like?
  • What does it take to please God?
  • What constitutes the good life?
  • What is human destiny?