Was I Meant to Be? Evaluating Egoanthropic Teleology

by Melissa Stewart

Both the Old and New Testaments provide numerous portrayals of individuals for whom God expresses a deep sense of intimate knowledge, an explicit hand in their formation, and a foreordained plan for their lives. Among them stands the oft-quoted depiction of God’s call to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”[1] Taken together with similar statements throughout scripture, some conclude these proclamations apply to each of us individually, meaning we are each foreordained creations of God. Said otherwise, “I” am meant to be, a concept I will expound upon and will refer to as egoanthropism. While compelling for some, the theological and societal implications of this view are stark. To illustrate the challenges of this view I ask whether we are to interpret such scripture as God exercising control over all fertility, regardless of how a child is conceived, and such that God is also responsible for infertility.

I will first depict the case made by those who affirm God’s control of fertility, and I will look at some of the impacts of this belief. I will next look at the theological heritage that animates this position. I will cast doubt on it by weighing the historic, cultural context that shaped the Jeremiah narrative and reach a different conclusion as to how we are to interpret such scripture presently. I will argue that egoanthropism misconstrues scripture to harmful effect and that we can instead interpret scripture in such a way as to preserve its theological insight while ridding ourselves of unnecessary attachment to ancient precepts. I will make the case that in doing so, we can more meaningfully support those suffering from fertility injustice and infertility. We can also advocate for beneficial reproductive policies with global impact.

If It’s God’s Will

As far removed as we are from the scriptural narratives of God’s control in matters of birth and as much as we know about the biomechanics of fertilization, these ancient Biblical narratives hold sway over many Christians’ stance on reproductive matters. Sermons abound proclaiming God’s providence at work for each pregnancy and God’s purpose being fulfilled when couples face infertility.

Now, to return to the issue of rape, pregnancy, and abortion, we must admit that we cannot simply say that rape is not part of God’s will without qualification…we cannot say that the rapist has thwarted God’s sovereign plan by his actions. Pregnancies resulting from rapes are not an accident, nor are they unplanned by God. Every human being exists because God wills him or her to exist, regardless of how young he or she is or how he or she was conceived. Chris Trousdale, October 24, 2012 (Covenant Baptist Church).[2]

Views such as those of Chris Trousdale are often espoused by those that encourage literal scriptural interpretation. They argue that though we may not understand the circumstances we can rest assured that God’s perfect will always prevails.

The sway is seen in studies that consider the effect of religion on the attitudes of the infertile. They are noteworthy and harken to religious extrapolations derived from literal interpretations of Jeremiah. In a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, when answering for what determines fertility (e.g., age, biology/physiology) all categories of respondents, even nonreligious, had some who consider “God’s will” a factor, with Catholics and Protestants most likely to include it as such.[3] Catholics and Protestants reported “violating religious beliefs” as an influential factor when considering fertility treatment.[4]

Religious beliefs also impact family planning decisions and views regarding access to birth control. Catholic doctrine stands as stated in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 “Humanae Vitae”, officially prohibiting all forms of “artificial” contraception, believing that intercourse should occur within the confines of marriage and that any resulting pregnancy reflects the will of God.[5] Catholic constituents must formally disobey church law to avail themselves of birth control. While Protestants maintain divergent views regarding contraception, Protestant seminarians reported a reluctance to advise birth control for married couples demonstrating an aversion to its use as it may interfere with God’s plan. Further, many Protestants reject all contraception for the unwed due to their opposition to sex outside of marriage.[6] The effects of religious belief on accessing infertility treatments or using family planning technologies shape the reproductive outcomes of many who say, “If it’s God’s will”, leaving their fate to what they believe is God’s providence.

Egoanthropic Teleology Explained

The notion that “I” am meant to be requires belief in divine providence and shares a common logic with the anthropic principle of cosmic fine-tuning for life. An egoanthropic teleology holds that God controlled both the unfolding of the universe for it to generate human life and manipulated my genealogical path because I was specifically meant to be. Cosmic anthropic fine tuning does not entail egoanthropism, but it shares the premise of God’s control and a human-centric view of God’s creative acts.

Egoanthropism necessarily rests upon divine providence. The “if it’s God’s will” philosophy draws upon conceptions of God’s perfect being, existing as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Thomas Flint states, “to see God as provident is to see him as knowingly and lovingly directing each and every event involving each and every creature toward the ends he has ordained for him.”[7] Since the early Church Fathers, debates regarding the extent and workings of God’s providence in contrast to that of our free will have resulted in numerous conflicting doctrines still deliberated today. In its strongest form, as reflected in the Westminster Confession, all is subject to God’s sustainment, foreknowledge, and will.[8] Psalm 139 celebrates God’s providence in David’s life and is often used to support the view that God controls fertility.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.[9]

It seems coherent that if one holds this view of God, they will conclude that fertility rests upon God’s will. When speaking about the life of a prophet or a King, or a child born into a loving home, it is easy to extol the virtues of such providence. The praise is harder to summon when we consider victims of rape or those suffering from infertility. Moreover, regardless of the circumstances of our birth which may be fortunate, our lineage likely suffered fertility-altering injustice. We are all likely the result of such acts, whether they be the rape of an ancestor, the family-separating practices of slavery, the atrocities of war, or disease and malnourishment that starve the womb. If holding that God’s will is manifest in every act, we cannot ignore charges that God is complicit in the injustice, using both the perpetuator and nonconsenting victims to achieve God’s ends. The theodicy to defend against this charge generally maintains that we are simply ignorant of God’s superior wisdom. This justification leaves the victims of fertility injustice and infertility revictimized, now guilty of doubting God.

While the lineage of divine providence is long and distinguished, anthropic fine tuning arguments are a more recent addition to the family of theological discourse. It may seem a stretch to address cosmic origins in an essay discussing God’s hand in fertility, but there is a striking parallel between anthropic fine tuning arguments and the belief that God creates each individual life. Fine tuning cosmology rests on our observation of numerous precise constant cosmic qualities that exist and are necessary for life in our universe. The anthropic principle holds that intelligent life, capable of making these observations, would not exists if any of these qualities were different or were not present. Those like Richard Swinburne and Robin Collins who adopt a theological framing regarding the anthropic principle (as opposed to a multiverse or other explanation) maintain fine tuning is evidence of a divine designer whose purpose was the eventual creation of humanity.[10] They assert that the teleology of the universe is thus demonstrated by its fine tuning to support human life, the pinnacle of God’s creation.

Just as some hold that a fine-tuned universe proves we were meant to be, those who advocate for God’s absolute control of fertility believe that “I” was meant to be. That is, not only did God create a universe with all its glories and mysteries so that we would exist, God also exercised fertility-altering control so that each and only every desired birth would be achieved. We can comprehend the dilemma a thus minded person would confront when considering the use of fertility treatments or family planning technologies that would impact fertility outcomes.

Understanding Jeremiah

We have noted that Jeremiah is often used to support this egoanthropic teleology by those who insist on literal scriptural interpretation. They believe that the divine providence portrayed in Jeremiah’s conception is the same divine providence that affects us all. They make no attempt to address the religious, cultural, or scientific knowledge of the culture that influenced Jeremiah’s narrative and therefore make no use of these insights in forming their conclusions. Reflection on these aspects of the texts allows us to place them in context and reevaluate their applicability for understanding fertility.

In her commentary on Jeremiah, Leslie Allen provides critical historical insight for this text. “Jeremiah’s call is strikingly presented as the culmination of long-term divine planning that antedated his conception and birth. Elsewhere in the OT this sort of statement is at home in special birth narratives. There is nothing special about the language of fetal development; the attribution to a divine creative shaping is glorious commonplace”.[11] Like the Ancient Near East (ANE) cultures around them, Israel ascribed events they did not understand to divinity, including fertility. Divine providence was not a radical belief.

Israel’s radical belief would be that one God had all control; one God controlled their destiny. Jeremiah pleaded with Israel to repent of their infidelity to Yahweh as they ingratiated themselves to Baal, Chemosh, Molech and others, performing ceremonies and sacrifices in their names. Divine providence was not in dispute; it was the shared view of ancient religion. The dispute was in reconciling Israel to the one true God, Yahweh. Jeremiah’s conception narrative simply conveys a contemporary understanding of divine control. His call and commissioning tell of God’s continued endeavor to reconcile with Israel.

We gain further understanding of the text by noting the extensive treatment of birth narratives in scripture and placing Jeremiah within the context of ANE focus on fertility. Children were a blessing from God and helped Israel satisfy the command to fill the earth and multiply. In addition to ensuring a continued lineage, children were necessary to assist with labor and viewed as an asset, not a cost.[12] To become pregnant, carry a child to term, and nourish the child to viability were crucial for the ongoing success of communities. These factors help explain why marriage, birth, and lineage narratives consume considerable portions of scripture. Consequently, fertility was vitally important to a woman’s marital and societal status. Fertility status is often the dominate consideration in Biblical female narratives.[13]

At the same time, the mechanisms of fertility were little understood. With no way to understand fetal development, it was easy to diminish a woman’s role in the process. There was no appreciation for her genetic contribution or her body’s ability to nourish the growing child. It was God who opened and closed the womb and the male who contributed the seed. The woman’s womb was considered akin to a field fertilized by seed.[14]

The numerous encounters with infertile women in scripture are also informative to our understanding of fertility at the time. They occur so frequently as to be identified as the barrenness motif.[15] This motif often features a woman whose infertility threatens the survival of an important lineage and culminates in the birth of a hero. God’s intervention to open the womb restores the woman’s fertility and establishes God as the keeper of the covenant. In her book Fragmented Women, J.C. Exum notes, “The most important use to which the repeated theme of the sterile matriarch is put, as patriarchal strategy, is to transfer power over their procreative power from the woman to the deity.”[16] The barrenness motif is another means to convey God’s singular providence.

While the reasons ascribed for barrenness differ across the scriptural narratives, ranging from past sin to incidents of God’s forgetfulness, the hoped-for solution was God’s intervention. Janice De-Whyte notes that “while it may have been the case that woman were not believed to contribute biological material to fertilization this did not in any way relieve them from the stigma…Infertility was largely conveyed as a woman’s problem and it was they who often sought divine intervention in the midst of sterility”.[17]

Consequent to our question, De-Whyte argues that portrayals of rape victims also belong among the barrenness narratives. The women were effectively “socially barren” because rape minimized their opportunity to remarry.”[18] Victims were less valuable than if they had not been violated and could either marry the perpetuator or remain unwed. Dinah and Princess Tamar remain unwed making their rapist “genealogical assassins.”[19] One cannot think of Old Testament rape accounts without considering the consequential rape of Bathsheba. Had she not married King David following her rape and the murder of her husband, she would have been socially barren from that time forward. Yet, reflecting on the story of Bathsheba provides us with a pointed tale to assess egoanthropism as we shall see.

Finding Timeless Theological Truth Within Ancient Narrative

It cannot be argued that literalists misinterpret the writers’ belief regarding divine providence in Jeremiah’s conception. That is what the writers believed. The argument instead is that these beliefs were based on the prevailing wisdom of an ancient culture who possessed no insight into the mechanics of reproduction. When we adopt the unchecked beliefs of an ancient culture without acknowledging the reasons the beliefs were originally embraced, we fail in our endeavor to make sound application of scripture. Careful study allows us to differentiate between the applicable theological truths of scripture and the remnants of culturally limited knowledge which they contain. An egoenthropism that makes God party to fertility-altering injustice and prevents men and women from availing themselves of reproductive technologies based on ancient conception narratives fails to do this.

It could be argued that our knowledge of reproduction is enough to divorce ourselves from the sentiment required to maintain this view of conception. We could simply acknowledge the great gulf of knowledge between now and ancient Israel as sufficient explanation to abandon this belief. Frankly, we could use this knowledge to adopt a completely naturalistic account of reproduction that offers no place for God in mating and fertility outcomes. To reach this last conclusion, however, would be to dismiss the broader and timeless message of scripture that God does engage with us and offers a plan for our lives. While God may not have foreordained each of us born, God loves each of us who are born.

Process theology offers an alternative model of God’s engagement worth exploring in relation to reproduction. In a process model, God is always present providing impetus for good, although each outcome is dependent on our decision and the relevant factors at play. “God seeks to persuade each occasion toward that possibility for its own existence that would be best for it; but God cannot control the finite occasion’s self-actualization.”[20] For reproduction, this means that God only lures us toward good, thereby never complicit in fertility-injustice. We maintain full agency over our decisions (good and bad) and the outcomes depend upon the relevant historical and environmental factors at play (matters impacting fertility).

Interpreting the narrative of Bathsheba offers a test for each model. An egoanthropic teleology asks us to accept that God was complicit in the murder of Uriah and the rape of Bathsheba. It would likely add that this was required because Jesus eventually emerged from the line of David. Process theology holds that neither assault was God’s will but the result of David’s free choice. Yet, the breach did not affect God’s faithfulness to David. The opportunity for divine communion and blessing remained.

How we interpret scripture has far-reaching implications for our view of God and our efforts regarding reproductive justice. The personal toll is high when we consider the grief-stricken infertile couple refraining from treatment or the rape victim whose anguish is downplayed by a church telling her the child is God’s will. Because these opinions affect reproductive policies the impacts are also global. Birth control is a primary means for combating poverty, yet it is fought by those religious and political groups committed to egoanthropic teleology and concerned to uphold rigourous sexual purity standards. Funding is withheld from organizations working to improve living conditions and health access for the impoverished. More discerning scriptural interpretations allow us to adopt scriptural practices that support fertility justice instead of dismissing them as non-Biblical.

Numerous closely related issues remain for consideration. For instances, if we are not each specifically ordained of God are there special cases of providential conception, most notably as in the case of Jesus? Also, we cannot ignore sanctity of life issues that should be weighed irrespective of views on egoanthropism. Finally, expanding fertility technologies, which include capabilities like gene selection and cloning, require careful ethnical analysis. Deliberations for each of these issues would benefit from thorough scriptural evaluation.


By understanding the theological and cultural influences present in scriptural text we can better interpret the narratives related to God’s providence regarding fertility. While some derive an egoanthropic teleology from these passages to harmful effect, a more in-depth evaluation of scripture allows us to separate the vestiges of ancient knowledge from the timeless theological messages scripture contains. God who does not control fertility is not complicit in fertility injustice. This view allows us to support the hurting and advocate more meaningfully for reproductive justice.


Allen, Leslie, (2008). Jeremiah: A Commentary, Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. ProQuest Ebook Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2022 from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ed/detail.action?docID-3416780.

Cobb, John B and David Griffin, (1976). Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. London: Westminster John Knox Press.

Collins, Robin, (2012). The Teleological Argument: An Explanation of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. (William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Eds.) West Sussex, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

De-Whyte, Janice Pearl Ewurama, (2018). Wom(b)an: A Cultural-Narrative Reading of the Hebrew Barrenness Narratives. Boston: Brill.

Ellison, Christopher G. and Goodson, Patricia, (1997). Conservative Protestantism and Attitudes toward Family Planning in a Sample of Seminarians, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36(4), pp512-529. Retrieved on November 15, 2022 from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1387687.

Exum, J. C., (2016). Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives. Cornerstones Series. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, eBook 2nd edition. Kindle Edition.

Flint, David, (2009). Divine Providence. The Oxford Handbook of Theological Theology, (T.P. Flint and M.C. Rea, Eds). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Isabel Galic, BA; Amelia Swanson, PhD; Christopher Warren, PhD; Olivia Negris, MA; Alexandria Bozen, BA; Dannielle Brown, MHS; Angela Lawson, PhD; Tarun Jain, MD, (2021). Infertility in the Midwest: Perceptions and Attitudes of Current Treatment, American Journal of Obstectrics and Gynecology, 61(e1). Retrieved on November 29, 2022 from https://www-clinicalkey-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/#!/content/playContent/1-s2.0-S000293782100096X?returnurl=null&referrer=null.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Tyndale Publishing House. eBook Edition: Kindle Edition.

Paul VI, (1968). Humane Vitae. Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI on the Regulation of Birth, The Vatican. Retrieved on December 1, 2022 from https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html.

Trousdale, Chris, (2012). Abortion, Rape, and the Will of God. Covenant Baptist Church Blog, October 24, 2012. Retrieved October 10, 2022 from https://www.covenantbaptistchurch.cc/blog/abortion-rape-and-the-will-of-god/.

Vivian, Eleanor, (2022). Human Reproduction and Infertility in the Hebrew Bible. Currents in Biblical Research. 21(1), pp 267-292. Retrieved on November 2, 2022 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1476993X221104182.

Wierenga, Edward, (2009). Omniscience. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, (T.P. Flint, & M.C. Rea, Eds.) Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

[1] (Jeremiah 1:5)

[2] (Trousdale, 2012, p. 2)

[3] (Galic, et al, 2021, 61.e7)

[4] (Ibid, 61.e4)

[5] (Pope Paul VI, 1968, p. 4-5)

[6] (Ellison, Goodson, 1997, p 512)

[7] (Wierenga, 2009, p.130)

[8] (Flint, 2009, p264)

[9] (Psalms 139: 13, 15-16)

[10] (Collins, 2012, p. 202)

[11] (Allen, 2008. p. 25)

[12] (Vivian, 2022, p. 268)

[13] (Ibid, p. 268)

[14] (Vivian, p. 271)

[15] (Ibid, p. 281)

[16] (Exum, 2016, Kindle location 2389)

[17] (De-Whyte, 2018, p, 36)

[18] (Ibid, p. 211)

[19] (Ibid, p. 241)

[20] (Cobb, Griffin, 1976, p. 53)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *