Peterson’s “Darwinian truth” makes no sense for the New Testament

Peterson’s appeals to a mythological interpretation of the New Testament are fundamentally at odds with the historical evidence we have of how New Testament authors viewed what they were writing.

This essay is most likely of zero interest to Christians, but it may be of interest to atheists who have found Peterson’s mythological discussion of the New Testament interesting.

In justifying how different layers of truth (historical, metaphorical, archetypal, etc.) are imbued into a single great text, such as the Bible or the Mesopotamian mythos, Jordan Peterson is wont to appeal to the expanding “penumbra” of knowledge [1]: there is a core circle of things that we clearly understand, there is a huge ocean of things that we don’t understand at all, and then there is a penumbra of things between the circle of things we know and the ocean of things we don’t know that we are attempting (badly) to understand. In Peterson’s understanding, this penumbra is the realm of myth—we cannot consciously explicate (for instance) what the optimal response to uncertainty is, so we instantiate the optimal response in myth so that we can attempt to understand the myth, which is more comprehensible than the uncertainty itself.

Jordan Peterson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Women's Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Hyatt Regency DFW Hotel in Dallas, Texas.
Photo: Gage Skidmore, here.

This essay is not intended as a criticism of this model. Certainly the model appears prima facie plausible for myth that began as oral tradition, and if we are willing to entertain some Jungian archetypes then it appears plausible even for narrative more generally. I merely want to point out that this model only makes sense when the author of a great text is intending to write a narrative, not when they are intending to convey a history of things that actually happened. There is obviously a great deal of interpretative work to be done in, for instance, a history of the First World War, but that interpretative work is constrained by the actual events that occurred: the interpretation is legitimate only to the extent that it admits Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination on 28 June 1914 and the armistice’s being signed on 11 November 1918.

The problem then, possibly for Peterson and certainly for many of his followers, is that the historical record (i.e. the record that we can obtain on the historical evidence alone without any special pleading to divine revelation) clearly depicts the New Testament’s authors as believing the events they describe­ to have actually happened—they did not appear to believe they were writing myth [2].

The New Testament can be roughly divided as follows:

  • To begin are the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which function essentially as histories of Jesus’ life, followed by Acts, which is essentially a history of the early Church. It’s generally believed that these were written somewhere between 30 and 80 years after Jesus’ death.
  • To end, we have the Book of Revelation, which is a prophetical book that most major denominations do not believe should be interpreted in a straightforwardly literal way and therefore doesn’t concern us here.
  • Between these are the epistles, which are actual letters that actual Christians wrote to actual other Christians or to be read aloud to actual Christian congregations. They are generally (as with most letters now) are intended to convey some information or exhortation to the recipient. The best historical evidence we have dates most of these as having been written earlier than the Gospels (starting from roughly 20 years after Jesus’ death).

To be clear, there is abundant purely historical evidence that most of these epistles were real letters written by real Christians to other real Christians, and not simply edited or cobbled together at a later date to reinforce an extant Christian mythology. For a start, Biblical scholars generally concede where sections were likely added in by later scribes (for instance, 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is generally believed to have been added later), and while there is scholarly division over whether some epistles were written by their purported author (e.g. whether the Epistle to the Colossians was written by Saint Paul), there is no such division over other epistles (e.g. whether the Epistle to the Romans was written by Saint Paul). Indeed, even where there is division about whether an epistle was written by its purported author, the alternative author is generally proposed to be a contemporary admirer of the purported author, not some clergyman several hundred years later. In other words, the epistles are likely a very good reflection of actual Christian beliefs in the time shortly after Jesus’ death. And if we take that seriously, then the idea that the referents of the letter are intended primarily as mythological rather than historical is… bizarre.

Take, for instance, Chapter 15 from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which according to scholarly consensus was indisputably written by Saint Paul. Emphasis is mine; it’s worth reading in full:

1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. […]

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

(1 Cor 15:1–20)

Note the underlined bits here. In the first, Paul is explicitly saying: “If you do not believe that the historical event of Christ’s resurrection happened, you can go and verify that it happened by speaking to those before whom Christ appeared after he was resurrected”. In the second, Paul is explicitly saying: “If you do not believe literally in the historical event of the resurrection—i.e. if you believe in a mythologised version instead—then your faith is in vain”. In the third, just in case he hadn’t already made it clear, Paul is explicitly saying: “But this historical event did happen, and will happen again when we Christians are resurrected”. Again, this was an actual letter that was written by an actual Christian to be read out before an actual Christian congregation that really existed. There is straightforwardly no way to interpret the above other than to say Paul is insisting on the utterly non-mythological historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

In other words, even if we thought for some reason that the more narrative gospels were fundamentally intended as mythological in nature (which, incidentally, we also have no real evidence for), we could not possibly believe that the epistles—which broadly precede the gospels—were intended as fundamentally mythological. I am not trying to get into whether the resurrection actually did happen here—and others elsewhere have made persuasive cases that early Christians could believe that the resurrection actually happened without its having happened. My point is solely to say that Peterson’s (and others’) insistence on looking at these first and foremost as mythologies is utterly anachronistic and entirely unsupported by the historical evidence we have about the epistles’ authorship and audience.

This isn’t to say it’s illegitimate to read the New Testament as mythological—it’s simply illegitimate to read it as mythological unless you’re a Christian. I, as a Christian, can believe that Scripture is divinely inspired and therefore operates at all levels simultaneously—historical, mythological, eschatological all at once. If a non-Christian, however, wants to read them as mythological, they have to form a case whereby the books of the New Testament were not intended as myths at the time of their authorship, were canonised by the early Church understood explicitly as historical and not as myths, and have been affirmed by Christians throughout the ages explicitly as historical and not as myths, while the whole time were actually just an exploration of the “penumbra of the unknown” in spite of a complete lack of evidence for this.

Peterson, to his credit, refuses to rule out the historical interpretation [3]—he simply says he’s first and foremost interested in the mythological lens. His argument, if on shaky foundations, is therefore not technically unsound. Other scholars of mythology would do well to follow his lead, or to simply affirm the New Testament as historically false instead of affirming it as myth.

[1] See, for instance, the first lecture of his Biblical series:

[2] To be clear, I am not arguing for the truth claims of the New Testament in this essay. Independently, as a Christian, I do believe the New Testament is true, but this essay is only intended to show that the authors believed what they were writing to not be mythological in nature.

[3] See, for instance, his interview at Transliminal Media:

“Well, Christ’s spirit lives on. It’s had a massive effect across time. Well, is that an answer to the question, “did his body resurrect?” I don’t know. I don’t know. The accounts aren’t clear, for one thing. What the accounts mean isn’t clear. I don’t know what happens to a person if they bring themselves completely into alignment. I’ve had intimations of what that might mean. We don’t understand the world very well. We don’t understand how the world could be mastered, if it was mastered completely. We don’t know how an individual might be able to manage that. We don’t know what transformations that might make possible.” (transcript here:


The theodicy of Dark

Dark fulfils the theodicy expressed by Dostoevsky: Evil exists because of the lies of Man, and all the suffering of innocents is preventable, but at the end “there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all human hearts”.

How much unjustifiable cruelty is the world’s salvation worth? This is the question that Ivan Karamazov poses to his monastic brother Alexei in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. If God plans for the salvation of mankind, then how can innocents like children be tortured and tormented? How can a good God allow for unjustifiable suffering? What theodicy—what reason for the suffering—could we possibly give?

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? (p.245)[1]

The Brothers Karamazov understands that this is not a question that is answerable in a rational way. One can either accept the whole wretched injustice of the world, or one can (as Ivan does) “most respectfully return [to God] the ticket” (p.245).

Adam, the arch-villain of Dark, who wants to “most respectfully return [to God] the ticket”

This acceptance of being unable to rationally answer this question is mirrored by Netflix’s time-travel drama Dark (huge spoilers to follow). Through seasons one and two, it is revealed that the ostensible hero Jonas in fact will inevitably become the arch-villain Adam. Having discovered that his soulmate Martha is in fact his aunt, having realised that he inadvertently triggers his father’s suicide by going back in time to save him, having watched his aunt-soulmate Martha be killed by his older self, and having at every turn been thwarted by his attempts to set the world right, Jonas—as do Ivan and contemporary thinkers like David Benetar[2]—eventually concludes that the wretched mess of the world would be better off never having existed. Accordingly, Adam does unforgivable things to bring about his ultimately compassionate goal of euthanising the world.

One parallel universe over, Jonas never existed, and Martha assumes the hero role that had been held in Jonas’s universe by Jonas. Eventually, Martha too falls from innocence—she conceives a child with Jonas, and after being forced by her older self to kill Jonas, her heart hardens and she becomes “Eve”. Unlike Jonas/Adam, Martha/Eve answers the unanswerable question in the affirmative: existence—in the form of her child—is worth it, so she will do unspeakable things not for the compassionate goal of ending existence, but for the compassionate goal of preserving it.

Martha/Eve as a teen, adult, and old woman.

In this way, Jonas/Adam and Martha/Eve represent the two options that seem available to us (and to Ivan) in the face of the ineradicable and inexcusable misery of the world. We can sell our soul by admitting Evil as part of God’s plan, or we can sell our soul by rejecting God’s creation. Both options are borne of compassion, and both options end in apocalypse.

The beginning of the apocalypse.

Of course, in our world, in The Brothers Karamazov, and in Dark, Evil is simultaneously a cosmic force and a conscious choice that we freely make. Jonas/Adam and Martha/Eve certainly conspire to ensure that the free choices of individuals lead to their ruinous ends, but they often rely on individuals’ cowardice and deceit to do so. In neither world would the apocalypse have taken place if not for Alexander’s succumbing to Hannah’s blackmailing, or the four families’ refusal to convey information to one another during the earlier seasons, or Ulrich’s (many) affairs. As Katherina notes, the entire city is “like an ulcer, and we are all a part of it”; as Franziska notes, “that’s exactly what’s ruined everything—all your fucking secrets”. The causal chain runs inexorably back and forth through time to ensure that precisely the miseries that have happened will happen again, but the causal chain is only inexorable because nobody chooses to stop it by telling the truth.

Franziska confronts her parents over their repeated deceit.

In this sense, too, Dark fulfils the theodicy expressed by Dostoevsky:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it really is so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God. (p.320)

But Dark does not end with an admonition towards responsibility. In Dark’s finale, it is revealed that the entire wretched knot of causal connections that has caused such unjustifiable and heinous suffering all stems from father’s grief over a car accident that killed his son (Marek), daughter-in-law (Sonja), and granddaughter in the “overworld”. Hubristically trying to reverse time and bring his family back, the father accidentally split the overworld reality in two and created the two ulcerous worlds that cause such misery both for themselves and for one another. A not-yet-fallen Martha and Jonas venture to the overworld and impede the son’s passage, thereby preventing the car accident. But in their interaction, Martha and Jonas see their souls reflected in Marek and Sonja respectively[3]. There are reflections of the ulcer in the overworld, but the reflections are not yet distorted and twisted. We see the world before the unjustifiable suffering has ever occurred.

Martha and Jonas (left) save Sonja and Marek (right).

Indeed, the salvation of Marek and his family in the overworld fulfils all the empty vacuous promises in the ulcerous worlds. The henchman Noah becomes correct when he promises that God has a plan for each of them, Adam becomes correct when he promises deliverance into paradise, and Jonas is finally vindicated in his belief that he and Martha are soulmates. In one of the most touching scenes of the series, Adam reveals to Eve that they can both finally lay down their swords. He reveals that Jonas and Martha have been sent to the overworld and ulcer will finally be lanced: he will win, in that their worlds will be no more, and she will win, in that a world will remain. They have fought the good fight, they have finished the race, and they have kept the faith.

Adam and Eve reconcile before they cease to be.

Following her and Jonas’s saving of Marek and his family but before the ulcer ceases to exist, Martha hauntingly asks “will anything of us remain?”. But this is perhaps asks the wrong question. Had she asked instead whether anything of the misery and suffering of their worlds could be justified, she could have answered as Ivan had wanted to:

… I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all human hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed: it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but to justify all that has happened with men.  (p.235–236)

“Wir passen perfekt zusammen. Glaub nie etwas anderes.”

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

[1] All page numbers cited are in reference to: Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1992. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Random House.

[2] See, for instance, his book Better Never to Have Been (Wikipedia page here).

[3] For more on this specific plot interpretation, see here or archived version here.