The Nature and Destiny of Man

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The Nature and Destiny of Man (two volumes, 1943) is one of the important works of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The book is partly based on his 1939 Gifford Lectures. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked it the 18th-greatest non-fiction book of the 20th century.[1]


Niebuhr deals with big issues such as the nature of man, history, and the end of history. Niebuhr begins by arguing that the Christian view of man's nature, compared with alternative views, is more complete and offers more explanatory power. According to the Christian view, man is made in the image of God. Unlike alternative views that establish a good and bad duality between mind and body, in the Christian view, both mind and body are good because both are created by God. Man is made to live in harmony with others and God's will but violates this harmony when he inevitably makes himself the center and source of meaning for his life.

Man has tremendous creative and imaginative powers, and his mind can transcend both itself (since he can make his own thoughts the object of contemplation) and the natural world (since he can manipulate natural forces to create new possibilities and vitalities of nature). Because man cannot find ultimate meaning in what he can transcend, he cannot find ultimate meaning within himself or in the natural world. This is why we turn to religion.

Christianity is a religion of revelation, meaning that Christians believe that God must speak to us in order for us to arrive at a correct understanding of his nature and will. If the Bible is to be believed, God spoke to man throughout history but his message was not clearly understood. Because of our misunderstanding, and because God's law is so radically different from man's law, Jesus' message was highly offensive to his listeners. What Jesus told us is that God overcomes evil not by destroying evildoers but by taking their evil upon himself. God's love is suffering love.

To live in accordance with the law of love seems to require that we accept the reality of an existence beyond this life. If the reality of this other existence is denied, then Jesus' statement that "whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" makes no sense. Yet, we are not to despise this life. To be righteous, to a Christian, means to serve others, and we need to strive after intermediate and partial arrangements that help point the way toward ultimate resolutions and revelations. God provides ultimate meaning. Just as the human mind can provide meaning to a sequence of chronological events by comprehending them all in an instant, so God provides meaning by comprehending all events both prospectively and retrospectively.


  1. ^ "100 Best Nonfiction". Modern Library. Retrieved March 4, 2015.