Economics 101

Reading Ayn Rand Through A Biblical Lens

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Photo courtesy of Anna Roarke

Ed. note: this post is adapted from portions of David Kotter’s research paper, Check Your Premises: Ayn Rand Through A Biblical Lens. You can read the full paper here.

How does one explain the popularity of Ayn Rand over the decades?

All of her books are still in print, and more than thirty million copies of her novels Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, We the Living, and Anthem have been sold.

I think that one reason for Rand’s continued popularity is that her work sometimes presents deep truths from the Bible, however unintentionally, that resonate with readers.

Even when Rand is inconsistent with the Bible, her novels are appealing because they attempt to provide justification of the sinful pride resident in everyone.

For example, Rand divides all people into two categories: myself and everyone else.

With respect to the self, she contends that selfishness is the virtue which allows individuals to be free to live, free to work productively, and free not to fear violence. When I read her books as an unbelieving teenager, it was because of my sinful nature that I was drawn to her arguments that justified caring for myself more than anyone else.

Interestingly, the Bible also contains motivating appeals to self-interest. For example, Jesus presumes that everyone will act according to self-interest in asking in Matthew 5:46, “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

Further, Jesus repeatedly declares that a reward will be given to those who give to the needy in secret (Matthew 6:4), or lend at generous terms (Luke 6:35).

Since Rand operated strictly from a materialist perspective, she missed Jesus’ point about eternal reward, much less about living for the glory of God in everything and not for one’s self.

In dealing with others, Rand contends selfishness requires that relationships should fundamentally be based on trade for mutual benefit, whether among family members or in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, she completely misses the essence of loving self-sacrifice for family, friends, and the church. For Rand, this led to awkward character development of the relationships in her novels, and also the the tragic relationships she experienced in her own life.

Rand’s viewpoint regarding trade for mutual benefit in the marketplace is consistent with the biblical worldview of the marketplace where individuals pursue an honest profit by serving others with fair prices and quality goods.

Nevertheless, the Bible also cautions that self-interest can devolve into the sin of selfishness and greed. These can lead to still more sinful behavior. For example, employers could be tempted to short workers on the wages (James 5:4), or a buyer could be less than honest during a transaction (Proverbs 20:14).

This points to the fact that the Bible views self-interest differently than how most of us would define it. For more on the difference between self-interest and selfishness, see this post by my colleague Jay Richards.

In addition, individuals have the right to profit from productive labor, but this right is not a license for hoarding wealth nor self-indulgence. Among the reasons for the destruction of the city of Sodom, according to Ezekiel 16:49, was that they “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

This highlights a conundrum faced by people in business every day: free markets are driven by self-interest to produce prosperity for millions of people, yet self-interest apart from the gospel rapidly devolves into the sinful selfishness promoted by Rand.

How else do you think Ayn Rand’s views compare and contrast with a biblical worldview? Leave your comments here

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  • Gerry Breshears

    It is hard to imagine someone more knowingly against Christianity than Ayn Rand. Yes, if you look hard, you can find some things that are unintentionally paralleled with Scripture, but that’s only because we are inescapably human. She ridicules Christianity with it’s inherent altruism, its valuing serving the God who came to us in Jesus, it compassion and service for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor. Yes, she does speak of value creation, but only for the sake of self enhancement. She is completely hostile to the Christian grace based life. She is about as consistent to the self-serving values of the Satan of Job as anyone can be. I hope you will do an honest critique of her philosophy.

  • Francisco Rodriguez

    Ayn Rand is certainly anti-Christian, but from the perspective of “Work”, in the most terrestrial sense, she has a beneficial respect for human interaction. Her attention to the ideas of work, despite being selfish, also demand honesty in trade as well as being completely against theft of any kind. In our current culture, many Christians believe the Government should be the intermediary for distribution of wealth by permitting themselves to steal (aka: act out legal plunder) in order to give (aka: false philanthropy). From this perspective Ayn Rand is in line with scripture. Sadly, she worships at the alter of “self” while many Believers today worship at the alter of the State.

    I truly believe that her initiative, for a very young child could be initially valuable with regard to responsibility and work; but only for a short season when the heart of that child can understand Faith and Work together for the purpose of eternal rewards. It would seem that the study of Rand would be most effective for a fully engaged student of the Bible so as not to lose themselves in…well, themselves.

  • Wait… “the biblical worldview of the marketplace”? What’s that? If you’re talking about capitalism – the modern version of which arose in the 14th century AD – I’m wondering when you believe the Bible was written.

    Or perhaps you meant 12th century medieval European merchant capitalism?

    Or maybe you’re thinking of Islamic merchant capitalism, which originated around the 9th century AD? I am, admittedly, fairly uneducated on the history of economics, as well as “biblical economics” – if there is such a thing (seems like Scripture is mostly silent on this). So I’m actually very open to a true lesson on these things, and in fact read these articles in hopes I would find one. But alas…

    I’m actually struggling to figure out the motivation for this series. It seems to me like a proof-texting of Rand (and conservative economics) with a couple of verses from Exodus. And the usage of those verses from James and Proverbs in this particular article? Laughably out of context.

    But the laughing stops with the proof-texts used from the gospels. It is OFFENSIVE to suggest that Jesus’ so-called “presumption” of self-interest in Matthew 5 is a reflection of his philosophy in ANY WAY. Simply read the REST OF THE PASSAGE: Even the tax collectors and pagans act out of self-interest. It is a worldly, nonbiblical worldview. His whole point is to suggest that those who follow him must go down the narrow path of loving enemies and poor people – those who have no material benefit to offer in return. Please do not suggest otherwise.

    Jesus’ call is a radical subversion of self-interest (“take up your cross”), private property (“sell your possessions”), and objectivist phenomenology (raising and being raised from the dead – things are not what they seem!). Please stop trying to suggest that Rand resonates with Christ’s teaching in any way. The Gospel is anything but objectivist, capitalist, self-interested, or based on an epistemology of reason alone.

  • alex

    Anybody who reads “Atlas Shrugged” and sees a prophetic nature in it should also read “The Garbage generation” and “A case for father custody” (downloadable for free from fisheaters), in addition they should watch the “Demographic winter” documentaries, the economic decay has a spiritual root in the disorder of society.

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