Theological naïvety?

If the Bible teaches that technology is good, why does so much of its influence in the world seem bad? On the news we hear of man-made ecological disasters caused by oil spills and radioactive leaks. We learn of children losing limbs by stepping on land-mines; communities torn apart by weapons of mass destruction. Don't these facts prove that the Bible's positive spin on technological development is naïve? Surely experience shows us that human technology is both good and bad?

Actually, the Bible does not deny the reality of suffering in a technologically orientated world. Neither does it imply that technology cannot be used in ways that are immoral and harmful. Yet, instead of blaming technical development itself as the root of such evil, Scripture points us in a different direction. It points us toward human nature. Until we grasp this we will never develop a biblically balanced theology of technology.

The human virus

If there is one event in history that changed our world forever it is the one recorded in Genesis 3. There we read of Adam and Eve's choice to reject the LORD's wise leadership over their lives. This brought about a deep fracture in the relationship between God and people (Genesis 3:8-11). It also produced an immense cosmic crash in which the perfect state of creation was significantly marred and damaged. God poured out His righteous anger on our world and a process of decay and death began to unfold, continuing even to this day (Genesis 3:14-19).

But that is not the worst part of this tragic, true story. When Adam and Eve rose up against the LORD their choice resulted in human nature becoming defaced and corrupted. Since that point in time it is as though the human heart has been permanently infected by an anti-God virus. Out of this condition flows all of the evil we see at work in our world today. Are we tempted to doubt this? Listen to Jesus' startling diagnosis on the matter:

 

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)

 

Jesus' words are uncompromising in their description of human nature. The reason that our world is such a messed up place is because we are messed up people. Our hearts are morally and spiritually polluted with unimaginable evil. Understanding the Bible's teaching on human nature informs our theology of technology. Technology itself is a good thing. True, the raw materials from which technical innovations are hewn are damaged by the Great Crash of Genesis 3. But God's material world remains in itself good, not evil. What determines the impact that a particular technological innovation makes in society will be the hearts and hands that wield it.

Sometimes society is able to produce good inventions because even sinners are still made in God's image (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). But, at other times, the influence of this Divine likeness is partially overridden by the overwhelming evil of the human heart. When this happens, cultural progress can become hijacked for morally dubious ends.

So, let's be clear, what determines the moral value of any technological advancement is not the material product itself, but the hearts that design it and the hands that wield it. A knife held by a surgeon can be a tool of healing to a cancer patient; brandished by a violent gang member it becomes a weapon of death. It is the condition of the human heart which determines the moral impact of modern technology. If we are in any doubt about this, a close look Genesis 11 should clarify our thinking.

Rogue technology

After the events of Genesis 3 the progress of the human race was a mixed affair. As noted earlier, Adam and Eve's family developed many technical skills which were good and wholesome. But hand in hand with this came a moral and spiritual decline which was deeply disturbing. By chapter 4 we read of the first homicide in which Cain murdered his brother Abel. Then in Genesis 6 we are told that 'the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart' (Genesis 6:5-6).

The LORD's grief over the state of humanity led him to bring about a worldwide flood. This judgement was designed to vent His holy anger over sin, purging the earth of an evil culture in the process. And yet, in His mercy, He saved the lives of Noah and his family in an elaborately designed ark. The purpose of this was to preserve the human race and give it an opportunity to start over again. How did it do second time around? Sadly, not very well. Noah's descendants chose to realign themselves with Adam and Eve's earlier decision to overthrow God's leadership from their lives. How was this rebellion expressed? Through the application of what was, for the time, cutting edge technology:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1-4)

The tower mentioned in this story was probably similar to the ancient Ziggurats which have been uncovered by modern archaeologists in the far east. These man-made temples resembled jagged pyramids that incorporated steps running up the sides of their external walls. The idea being that people could ascend these stairways to heaven to meet with the gods they worshipped. Such deities could then return the compliment (should they wish to) by descending the steps to pay a visit to earth.

The building of the tower of Babel was therefore ultimately an expression of human arrogance. It was an attempt to declare that man can storm heaven and dictate to God the terms of His entrance into this world. Babel was rogue technology at its worst. Bricks and mortar, which might have been use to serve and glorify the LORD, became core materials in a scheme to overthrow His authority and defy His life-calling (v.4).

The outcome of humanity's godless application of technology was a culture of confusion. The God-given drive for material progress, which ought to have added cohesion and blessing to society, brought down the displeasure of God (Genesis 1:5-9). This led to a broken and divided society in which misapplied technology played a central, damaging role.

Once again it is essential to understand that the root of the problem was not technical innovation itself. It was the hands and hearts that used and abused it. As the failed Babel project reveals, since Genesis 3 there is often a moral ambiguity attached to human progress because people themselves are morally ambiguous agents. Ultimately, God alone can deal with this tendency because He alone has the power to change human nature through the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).