The famous sporting goods company Nike began with a coach, his student, and a blue-ribbon award. The leading search engine Google began with two university students, some pizza, and a search algorithm called “BackRub.” International accommodation company Airbnb started with a whole lot of credit card debt, an air mattress, and politician-themed cereal. Before these multinational corporations became household names, they all had fascinating stories about how they came to be.
We love a good underdog story. We love to hear how rags turned to riches and how humble beginnings became something truly awe-inspiring. Where we came from shapes who we become; understanding our history helps us better understand ourselves and others.
We love to read and hear stories of triumph amid trial. Authors fill books with both true and fictional accounts of heroism in the face of adversity. Journalists hunt down the truth behind worldwide events—searching for the small beginnings of their big international stories.
Tales about origins are fascinating. They bring the human element into the larger-than-life story, and they bring the fanciful back down to earth. These stories are compelling and captivating.
Not convinced? Just take a look at the film and television industry. In the last 10 years, Hollywood has exploded with a new genre of multimillion-dollar fiction. The film industry, television, and streaming services have all tried to tap into this new genre: the origin stories of our favorite superheroes.
Avid superhero fan and clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg has written countless works on what we can learn from the psychology of superheroes. She suggests that “in one form or another the superhero origin story has been around for millennia”—the hero battles a supernatural or stronger opponent and returns home with the strength to protect and serve humanity. In Rosenberg’s analysis, there are three types of life-altering experiences that superheroes undergo—three key elements that we relate to: trauma, destiny, and sheer chance.
In real-life situations, many people experience growth as a result of a trauma or crisis, using their negative life experiences as motivation for social activism, for example. For many, a sense of destiny or meaning that relates to a higher purpose is what motivates them to assume greater responsibility and make a positive impact in the world.
These apparently random events confront us, forcing us to take stock of our lives and often leading us to choose a different path. The all-too-human elements of these fictional characters are often what captivate us as we learn their origin stories. In their ordinariness, they become role models for us. They show us how to cope with adversity, how to find meaning amid loss or trauma, and then how to use our newfound strengths for good.
Yet in the real world, while trauma and loss are something common to all humanity, perhaps the idea of destiny and sheer chance represents something much deeper.
myths about origins
The human fascination with origins is not a contemporary phenomenon. Throughout history, different religious and cultural groups have sought to make sense of the world by explaining its origin. For the ancient Greeks, Mother Earth came crawling out of the primordial chaos, giving birth to a bizarre menagerie of gods and monsters, one of which had 50 heads and 100 hands. These gods had complicated histories. One imprisoned his children in the bowels of the cosmos, while another cut his children into pieces and threw them into the sea.
The ancient Egyptians had several creation myths that are far less violent but just as confusing. They all begin with the swirling of waters out of which two divine siblings appear, and they are tasked with creating order out of chaos, separating the water from the sky, and forming the earth.
Similarly, the Babylonian creation story also begins with two gods emerging from swirling waters who go on to spawn many generations of gods. However, violence quickly ensues as these generations disagree. A thirst for revenge causes one of the families to create an even more powerful god to protect them. This god splits the dead body of one of the goddesses in half and uses one half to make the sky.
In the Japanese tradition, two divine siblings first divided the oceans to create modern-day Japan. Then a complicated marriage ritual is followed by a domestic dispute that becomes the catalyst for separating life and death.
A cosmic egg is at the center of Chinese mythology, from which, after eons of incubation, the god Pan-gu emerges. The shell of the egg separates, creating the earth and the sky. Pan-gu stands on the earth, holding up the sky, and at his death, his body becomes the different elements. Legend suggests that the fleas from his body are what became humanity.
The origin story of the Aztecs involves a type of brutal cosmic cesarean section. The Persian creation story involves cannibalism; and in Norse mythology, a cow licks a god into being, who then creates the earth from the dead flesh of his children.
If we are to take these origin stories as truthful in any meaningful sense, then violence, revenge, and death form the basic building blocks of the cosmos. Many people today, of course, accept the scientific consensus of evolution. But, unhappily, in this view, the scramble for survival results in the extinction of less-deserving species. The idea that we are the result of some interstellar conflict between gods and their offspring or even that we are just the product of blind, pitiless mutation has huge implications for how we view ourselves and the rest of humanity.
He declared it “good”
In contrast, the Bible has a vastly different story about the origin of our planet and the humans who inhabit it. The biblical book of Genesis starts with a formless, empty abyss into which God speaks, bringing form to the unformed and order out of the chaos, and turning darkness into light (Genesis 1:1–3).
Genesis tells us that the reason God created the world had nothing to do with conflict or retribution. His purpose was to provide an idyllic paradise for the human race. The earth, as described in the Bible, didn’t come about as a result of violence, jealousy, revenge, or sexual misconduct. Rather, it was the creative work of an intelligent, supernatural Being who looked at His creation and declared it “very good” (verse 31).
The biblical Creation account is quite simple: at God’s creative command, the “heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11) come into existence. Within six days, the earth is created, filled with every living thing. Each day sees the addition of another essential element to God’s creation, each of which is called “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
Then, on the seventh day, God does something that appears to be counterintuitive for an omnipotent God: He rests. Nestled within the Creation account is the substory of the origin of humankind, which gives insight into God’s desire to rest. On the sixth day, as the crowning act of Creation, God made humans “in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). But in contrast to the previous days, this particular creation is declared to be “very good” (verse 31). Perhaps this pause for rest was not for an imperfect Creator who grew weary. Instead, maybe it was the desire of an all-loving God to spend time with and enjoy His creatures and rest in the completeness of His creation. As one commentary on this momentous week phrases it, “Forever, the beauty and majesty of those six days would be remembered because of His stopping.”
what’s your origin story?
If stories about origins are indeed essential to our sense of purpose and place in the world, then what we believe about how humanity came about will have a profound influence on how we treat each other and our planet. Perhaps superheroes fascinate us not only because we see our human story in theirs but also because we long for a greater purpose in our own lives.
The earth and humanity’s origin from an intelligent, all-loving, all-knowing Creator God has a far deeper meaning than just a surface explanation for how life began. Instead, the Creation story provides answers to the elements of the superhero stories that we relate to so well. With origins in our Creator God and an understanding of the Creation story’s place in the broader biblical narrative, we begin to realize that there’s actually hope beyond the trauma in our lives. We understand that, yes, we do have a destiny, but it goes beyond this earth. Finally, we realize that our lives are not guided by mere chance but by Providence.
The realization that we are created beings, designed and handcrafted in the image of a benevolent God who desires a relationship with us, can change the trajectory of our lives. We are no longer uncertain about our value and importance. Where we are going is no longer a concern. We find our real purpose and identity as children of God.
Stories about origins fascinate us for a reason: they help us to make sense of who we are, and they give us an understanding of our identity. The origin story found in the Bible can do that for you. We all experience challenges and trauma, defining moments that change our life’s trajectory. But unlike the superhero stories we love to watch, there’s a God-breathed destiny and a divine providence to our existence that makes sense only in the context of a benevolent God who created us, who loves us, and who longs to spend time with us each Sabbath day.
Lyndelle Peterson is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and church leader in Melbourne, Australia, where she lives with her young and growing family.