You’re a Rotten Person

Are people good? evil? or none of the above?

This question of human nature has interested thinkers since Socrates, and there has been no shortage of geniuses since who have tossed their hat into the ring in attempts at ending the debate. It should be clarified that the question is not concerned with human guilt—the religious idea that mankind is born righteous but inevitably falls or that humans are inherently condemned—rather, the issue is interested with the intent of the heart. Are people good? Are people bad? Or are people somewhere in the middle?

The optimist will opt for human beings being inherently good creatures. To make this case, they might point at humanity’s progression as we advance technology, explore the arts, fight diseases and hunger, and become more enlightened. One can easily identify some moral points that have seen significant improvement (e.g. slavery or treatment of women). A Christian might also stake our inherent goodness in our being created in the image of God or being born “innocent.” Anne Frank demonstrates this optimism most clearly: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

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On the other hand, there are plenty who think people are naturally evil, and unlike the optimists above who believe that we are good yet occasionally stumble, the pessimist believes that we are bad yet occasionally transcend our nature. This case is probably most easily made from the Bible starting with God’s summation of mankind, “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” and extending through the rest of the book. As seen in movements like Calvinism, historical theology has also highly favored this position.

And then there’s the middle view. For this neutral position, humans are tabula rasa with no inherent morality; we either are raised by the Spirit to do good or we fall into temptation. This seems to me the more scientific option. Our mind makes decisions, and their tendency toward evil or righteousness is relative to each individual. 

It’s hard for me to decide between these. I refuse to believe that humans’ progress is not for the better, but the scope of human history is almost too much. War. So much war. I also think of a claim I once heard, “No civilization ended morally better than when it started.” Surely, history is what speaks loudest on the nature of mankind. It is impossible not to see the evil in the world. And while I accept John Calvin’s famous words that all people have “some notions of justice and rectitude,” I think they also have a tendency—whether some metaphysical burden or some psychological shortsightedness—to choose injustice and wrong-doing.

However, this sad truth, makes Paul’s words ring with greater reality: “You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” Our total depravity does not defeat us; we are not condemned to our predispositions; our nature is not our will.

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7 Comments

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  1. Uh! Just another blog!

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  2. The nature of man in contrast to the original state of man. We can all agree that mankind is made in the image of God making him pure upon creation (conception). Where man goes from there is another story.
    I have concluded that man does not have a predetermined inclination to do good or evil, but rather is a product of their environment. I believe this is both scriptural and scientific. Mankind’s decision processes are formed from the teachings and examples they are exposed to. All people shows signs of wickedness and righteousness. An evil man can show love. And a righteous man can act out of selfishness.
    Paul does not ever state that humans are inclined to do evil. He rather identifies the state of those who are lost. There is no total depravity, no predisposition, and no nature to do evil. This would compromise Christ’s life lived.
    I like the quote regarding civilizations ending morally worse. 

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    • Since this is a comment disagreeing with my post, I’ll tell you why I disagree with this comment.

      First is the issue of the “Image of God.” By no means is there a consensus on what that means. Some posit that it is related to our human potential for rationality, others that it has to do with our physical shape. Since the word for image is the same for idol, I tend to think it means humans are God’s ambassadors to creation.

      Also, I think you could make the case that the “creation-state” is the same as our state at conception, but that case must be made.

      Regarding nature vs. nurture (and predisposition and all that), geniuses–people who know history, who know genetics, who know psychology–love to debate this topic and there is, again, no consensus. If anything, most would say there is an undoubted conglomeration of factors in human decision making.

      (I addressed briefly “All people shows signs of wickedness and righteousness” in fourth and fifth paragraph. People who claim we have a good or evil nature aren’t saying we don’t do the other.)

      Again, your confidence is contested; you seem too hasty. Many base their claim of an evil nature on Paul (see Romans 5:19, Romans 7:18) and elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Psalm 51:5). I do like your point that Paul may be discussing others when talking about something that sounds like a sinful nature. I will ask, though, wouldn’t those who are lost (“pre-salvation”) be the natural state of mankind?

      Lastly, I’m not sure that this would compromise Christ’s work–St. Augustine and John Calvin certainly didn’t think so. It simply means that he, like everyone else, had to surmount an inclination to do wrong in order to do right.

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      • Your argument about the image of God would have been better served to say that God’s visible appearance is like that of a man. Reference that God has a face, back, hands. But regardless the point still stands that humans are created as a clean slate with free will and have the complete power to live sinless lives and make the choice not to based upon their environment.
        I did make the case that we are created at conception.
        Genius is a meaningless term. It is man made and subjected to man’s interpretation. Whether or not men agree on the issue is regardless since scripture is the only relevant measure of legitimacy. Pointing to others interpretations does not make their opinions valid whatsoever.
        They contradict scripture, period.
        Romans 5:19 holds no weight on the matter. It is not dealing with this topic
        Psalm 51:5 is clearly talking about the writer’s mother.

        Romans 7:18 could be misinterpreted to say that it is dealing with his nature rather than his struggle to do what is right.

        A long winded response cut short is that Paul is dealing with the flesh vs the Spirit. We taint ourselves with sin (that comes from desire) and once that occurs we must have the spirit to gain life. God created good and there is the adverse. Desire is arguably part of the nature since it also in God’s nature. But taking it a step further to say sin is in our nature crosses the line, which assumes God created evil.
        I do not see any reason to connect pre-salvation with a “natural” state. If that is the natural state, then we should be baptizing babies and accept original sin.

        And obviously Calvin and St Augs didn’t think so and their beliefs are against scripture. Jesus surmounted desires, he did not surmount an evil nature. This too would go against the nature of God by saying that he was part evil and we know that God cannot have that dynamic be a part of him. He has existed among sin, but not as sin/evilness

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  3. Interesting, I didn’t realize that you are a Calvinist.

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