In the early 21st century, there are few ideas that can be identified as universal. Few ideas span multiple disciplines of human knowledge, from philosophy to economics, from religion to world health policies, from ethics to psychoanalysis, from medical practice to jurisprudence, from trade policies to energy management to music performance, from water treatment to watercolor instruction.
Human knowledge and culture have exploded so thoroughly in diversity and specialization, especially in the Modern period, that few universals or unifying themes remain. There is certainly beauty and richness here, but nothing universal.
Such massive diversity is seen not only in the contemporary state. When one moves from a synchronic to a diachronic analysis, considering views and ideas across time, the hope of finding any consistent idea seems hopeless and naive. Human experience, culture and knowledge are too vast to expect one to find much consistency. Diversity and change appear to be the only recognizable unified and steady ideas.
Yet, remarkably, there is one meta-theme or meta-concept that appears with remarkable tenacity and consistency across times and worldviews. This concept has staying power and universal voice because it addresses what is most basic and innate to all of humanity, despite the diversity of race, culture and values. It is a concept that proves to be the motivating force and end goal of all that humans do and think.
This idea or theme can be identified as human flourishing.
Human flourishing alone is the idea that encompasses all human activity and goals because there is happiness. These are not merely cultural values or the desire of a certain people or time period. The desire for human flourishing motivates everything humans do. All human behavior, when analyzed deeply enough, will be found to be motivated by the desire for life and flourishing, individually and corporately.
The Bible speaks to the issue of human flourishing in very significant ways. But this is not unique among ancient or current philosophies, religions or worldviews.
What is unique, and what is revelational and authoritative for the Christian, is that Holy Scripture understands human flourishing to be a function of God’s redemptive work in the world, the very core of his relation toward his creatures. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, God is at work redeeming his broken, sinful and rebellious creatures. From the promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15 through the climactic vision at the end of the book of Revelation, God reveals himself to be actively and graciously redeeming his people, saving them from oppression, forgiving their disobedience and dishonoring acts, and leading them into a time and place of his full presence.
The biggest metaphor or image to describe this work is God’s kingdom or reign. From beginning to end of Holy Scripture, God is a king who is establishing his perfect heavenly reign on the earth through his chosen people, now those who are in Christ. His kingdom is a time and place of righteousness; that is, the time and place where the world is set to right, both individually and corporately.
This beautiful understanding of the message of the Bible is not novel or unknown. But what has often been missed in our biblical and theological thinking is that all of this truth is intimately and organically woven together with the theme of human flourishing and well-being.
As we saw above, to be aligned with God’s kingdom is to be a wholehearted person. As we grow in this reality, we increasingly experience flourishing as described in the Old Testament as “shalom.” Moreover, the very way that God’s kingdom and reign are described is with these same concepts.
All this means that at its core and in its very essence, God’s saving work, his redemptive activity and his goal for humanity and all creation is precisely this: that we flourish fully, even as he himself flourishes perfectly, completely and with overflowing abundance.
This idea of human flourishing must be rediscovered as a central part of the Bible’s teaching on salvation and redemption.
God is not unconcerned about our well-being and happiness. Peace, happiness, blessedness, health, joy and abundance of life are the consistent messages of Scripture and the goals of God’s work. We should cease thinking of spirituality and godliness as something that has nothing to do with human well-being and flourishing — including in a physical, economic, psychological and relational sense.
A related implication is that this understanding helps us make the most sense of many portions of the Bible, including well-known sections that have not been perceived as related to human flourishing.
One of the biggest and most important examples is the most famous section of Scripture, the Sermon on the Mount. When we go back and reread the Sermon in light of the whole Bible’s emphasis on flourishing, it makes much more sense and takes on a far deeper meaning. From its opening concatenation of blessing (ashre /makarios) statements through its emphasis on the blessings of teleios/wholeness to its final image of being like a strong house that can weather storms and stand with dignity, the Sermon on the Mount offers us a vision of what true human flourishing can look like. It is found through God’s gracious and revelatory coming in the Son, Jesus, whose accomplished mission is to establish God’s heavenly reign on earth.
With this vision filling our eyes and hearts, we may turn our gaze outward to the world and the work of Christ’s Church.
If God’s goal in redemption is the restoration of our full humanity and our God-centered human flourishing, then there is no doubt that the mission of the Church — God’s people on earth — should be the same.
Our theological reflections and their practical outworking must be to bring true human flourishing to individuals and society as a whole. This must be motivated, informed and colored by the reality of God’s coming kingdom, centered on Jesus the Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Without this anchoring, the pursuit of human flourishing is not biblical.
But this spiritual understanding does not make it less physical and practical. Seeking social justice, racial equality, economic flourishing and peace (“Makarios (blessed) are the peacemakers,” Matthew 5:9) is not an optional part of the Church’s mission, nor a minor alleyway.
These are practices that testify to the reality of God’s coming reign and are in alignment with what God himself is doing. How precisely to go about promoting this human flourishing in society will always be a matter of debate among theologians, pastors, economists, psychologists and politicians. But whether this is the mission of the Church should never be a question.
• Jonathan T. Pennington, Ph.D., is associate professor of New Testament interpretation and director of research doctoral studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He can be reached at @DrJTPennington. The full version of this paper can be read at https://tifwe.org/resource/a-biblical-theology-of-human-flourishing-2/.