From Garden to City

American culture is obsessed with the idea of progress. Progress has been embedded in the American narrative from the very beginning of the country’s history, as colonists arrived and continually moved west in the belief that something more, something better, always awaited them tomorrow. The American Dream is the continuation of that idea of Manifest Destiny — we always believe that there’s a better life out there if we’re willing to work hard. And while Manifest Destiny and the American Dream have rightfully been criticized for the horrible suffering they inflicted and continue to inflict on Native Americans, African Americans, and other groups, the idea of progress at their root persists more strongly in Silicon Valley than virtually anywhere else. Rather than being laughed at, wildly optimistic visions of the future are encouraged (and often backed by large amounts of money). And while the claims made are often fantastic and far from reality1, Silicon Valley’s optimism is validated by the radical reshaping of society according to the vision of leaders of tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft in recent years.

Our culture’s desire for progress, however flawed it often may be, is propelled by a good and universal human desire — the desire for a more prosperous, joyful, and just society than the one we were born into. We see this good desire constantly reflected in the narrative of the Bible. In this article, we’ll look at the idea of progress at the beginning and end of the human story in the Bible; in a following article2, we’ll investigate how we should think about progress in the middle of the human story, where we live now. Because technology is often the means through which we seek progress, understanding the Biblical narrative of progress is crucial groundwork to finding a vision of redeemed technology.

The Cultural Mandate

We are introduced to the idea of human progress in the very first chapter of the Bible. After God creates humans and places them in the Garden of Eden3, God gives them, and consequently the rest of humanity, his first command, which theologians call The Cultural Mandate:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

- Genesis 1:29

God, who just created the entire world and rules over it, invites humans to create and rule over it with him. God subsequently rests from his work in creation, but the work of creation isn’t finished. Unlike other creatures, God offers us the opportunity to be coworkers with him in the continuing work of creating and forming the world.

As God’s image-bearers4, we reflect God’s creative character, but we don’t exactly match his abilities. There aren’t many people who can speak matter into existence or create life out of nothingness — God does those things with ease. But the world of Genesis is full of abundant raw materials — it’s described as a garden full of water, trees, plants, birds, animals and fish. By making new things using the raw materials that have been given to us, we fulfill our role as coworkers in creation with God.

At its simplest, technology is simply one of the outputs of this creative process. One definition of technology is that it is the creative use of raw materials to accomplish or produce something that previously wasn’t attainable. We can fulfill the Cultural Mandate in many ways, but creating new technology is clearly a way we participate in the creative work of God.

Furthermore, the exact language of the command to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” also necessitates technological progress. The earliest technology of food production — grabbing food you find with your hands and eating it — could never sustain a population that would “fill the earth”. Without technological progress, we could never fill the earth, let alone subdue it. Technological progress is crucial to every part of this commandment, which in many ways serves as God’s mission and purpose for humanity.

A New, Perfect City

From the creation account, we see that God intended humans to pursue progress, including technological progress, from the very beginning. But what is the purpose of this progress? To ask the morbid existential question, why would God command humans to create new things and make the world better if we all die and everything we do will be destroyed by the inevitable heat death of the universe?5

Thankfully, God promises us something beyond both human and cosmic death. Heaven, the world we will inhabit after death, is described in many places, but one of the most vivid images is in Revelation 21, the second to last chapter of the Bible:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

— Revelation 21:1-4

If this is truly the world that awaits us, then all of our dreams of progress will eventually be realized. By seeking progress, we’re all yearning for this heavenly city, whether we realize it or not. We often become cynical in life, suppressing the belief that the culmination of our dreams is truly possible to protect ourselves from disappointment when we fail to acheive these dreams in our lives. But God promises us the realization of our grandest dreams in heaven someday.

One of the key things to notice is that the focus of this passage is a city — “the new Jerusalem”. This is in direct contrast to the beginning of the Bible, where we see Eden as a garden. While a garden is unformed, a city is a product of intentional design and creation. I think that this is meant to demonstrate to us that in heaven, the Cultural Mandate has been fulfilled and is continuing to be fulfilled. We see two Biblical visions of a perfect world in the Garden of Eden and the Holy City, and to transform the Garden into the City, you need creative work to take raw materials and turn them into new things that contribute to goodness. The entire narrative of the Bible celebrates this progress towards greater joy and human flourishing, from the beginning of time until the end.

Does that mean that there will be no more progress to be made once we get to heaven? This used to be my view — I saw heaven as a static world that was maximally perfect but never changing or growing. Maybe complaining about having a perfect life is ridiculous, but something about experiencing no growth or progress in heaven bummed me out.

Fortunately, looking back at the Garden can inform a more rich view of the City. Despite the world being perfect in the Garden, humans were commanded to work alongside God to bring even more goodness to their surroundings. The perfection of Eden isn’t a static peak of perfection that we just enjoy forever. Instead, it’s a world where all things are good, whole and complete, and where progress is being made to experience even more goodness, wholeness and completeness. That’s why I said earlier that in heaven, the Cultural Mandate is continuing to be fulfilled6. Our command to be God’s coworkers in the ongoing work of creation never stops; it just continues in a new and redeemed world.

Grounded Dreams of Progress

While these visions of progress within perfection are valuable for us, we currently live in between the Garden and the City. Our world is far from perfect, and its brokenness makes the deep need for progress obvious to all. While I wanted to save most of the discussion of this topic for a later article, I think ending with a broad ideal of how to think about progress in our world.

Ecclesiastes, one of the most peculiar and powerful books of the Bible, offers two verses that I think can inform our our thinking about progress today. The author says:

God has made everthing beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.

— Ecclesiastes 3:11

This quote further confirms what we’ve been discussing so far. God has set eternity in our hearts, meaning that we long for the eternal and transcendent. Part of the desire for eternity is the hope for progress beyond the temporary nature of life today, where things decay and die. We long for an eternal, utopian world, and that’s a good thing.

But while this article has painted a largely positive picture of our desire for progress, we can get carried away and lose touch with reality. This is one of the easiest criticisms of Silicon Valley and the culture of tech in general. People with grand visions of progress can become fixated on seeing that vision become reality in the present. As a result, they overpromise, offering a vision of life that is fundamentally different than our current reality. When reality kicks in and these promises fail to come to fruition, it can inflict real damage on other people and themselves.7

That’s why despite his previous quote, the author of Ecclesiastes grounds his vision of the eternal in reality:

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

— Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

The author recognizes the fact that no matter how much progress we make, nothing about our condition ultimately changes. We may have better technology and richer culture and better health and tastier food, but the things that give life richness, like relationships and beauty, and the things that cause us to feel the brokenness of the world, like evil and death, are still present and fundamentally the same regardless of all our progress. So while all these advancements are worth striving to acheive, we can’t become obsessed with trying to bring a vision of utopia to our current world. We will one day experience heaven, a utopia which will truly be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before — a truly new thing under the sun. But until then, we need to have grounded dreams of progress, recognizing that we can’t fully heal the brokenness of the world, but daring to imagine a time when the progress we dream of will finally be reality.


1. For example, a certain founder’s claim to be able to detect hundreds of diseases with only a single drop of blood.

2. As much as it pains me, everyone wins when these get broken up into smaller articles.

3. Which was the true first mention of progess — it was a pretty big step for humans to go from not existing to existing.

4. In an attempt to make this as accessible as possible, I’ll try to link to additional information about topics that I don’t explicitly define. Here is a good high-level overview of the idea of humans being made in the image of God.

5. That escalated quickly.

6. I’m saving the “has been fulfilled” part of that same sentence for the next article.

7. See, once again, a certain founder’s claim to be able to detect hundreds of diseases with only a single drop of blood.