Are People Basically Good?

It seems like every time I turn around somebody is making a statement like, “I feel that people are basically good.” A statement which is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. Looking at the evidence around us, it takes a lot of willful concentration on the, popcorn, lollipops, gumdrops, unicorns and pots of gold at the end of rainbows in the world to determine Pollyannically that “people are basically good.” A simple, cursory review of the last 100 years of human history reveals how silly a concept basic human goodness is. It cannot explain genocide in Armenia, Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Rwanda, Central America or the Balkans. Basic goodness within people cannot explain hatred on the level of the PLO, the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Basic goodness within people cannot explain the millennia-old practices of slavery, indentured servitude and classification of certain groups of people as sub-human.

One can absolutely say that human beings are CAPABLE of excellent, breathtaking acts of goodness and that we have the CAPACITY for doing wonderful and excellent things. But making a case for basic goodness based on the capacity for good is akin to saying that the Pacific Ocean’s water is sweet because an occasional mango has fallen in. Thousands of years of human history has instead shown that the trajectory of morality is one of entropy not progress. And the few examples of wholesale change for the better have been through the tireless actions of individuals intent on changing the world, rather than a societal, collective and conscious decision by mankind to overthrow their own evil*.

This individual rather than societal example of goodness corresponds entirely with the Christian worldview of fallen mankind (collectively) versus redeemed persons (individually). And perhaps the reason some people tend to “feel” that people are basically good is because they’ve fallen into the trap of thinking about sin, redemption and the human condition in humanistic – rather than Christian – terms? Humanism tends to lean toward group doctrines, from demographic-level identity to group-redemption to anthropological evolution.

As an example of the incredible difference, Christian theology teaches that individuals are saved, not groups of people. In other words, you won’t be saved because you happen to go to First Church of the Mt. Sinai PresbyMethoLutheranists instead of the Second WesleyAdventistian’s Bethany Church of St. Peter’s Grotto. Nor will you be saved because of some specific, rote creed spoken at your first communion or baptism. You are saved by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ which cleanses you (not your sister, grandma, aunt or mother-in-law) through the grace and mercy of God the Father and continually renews you (not your brother, grandpa, uncle or father-in-law) through the powerful transformational work of the in-dwelling Holy Spirit. And nothing done by your father, much less your cousin’s uncle’s great-grandfather twice-removed, can separate you from that salvation when once you’ve obtained it. That’s why group salvation – and therefore group goodness – is a misnomer only accepted and perpetuated by humanists with a hidden agenda.

Do you want another example of possible humanist terms creeping into the thinking of someone who argues for basic human goodness? Okay, here you go: the idea that society is continually progressing, whether morally, intellectually or sociologically. I mentioned above that human history seems always to be on a trajectory of bad to worse, only interrupted by jarring moral corrections brought on by individuals who combined fortitude with virtue (and then, generally only when utilizing Judeo-Christian values). The only other positive adjustments in history have been wrought by the actual hand of the Almighty (consider the flood, the toppling of the tower of Babel, the exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the works of the Apostles on/around Pentecost, and the Christian Diaspora). But please notice something very important from these examples: whether in the cases of individuals empowered by God or actions taken by God Himself, in every case the positive tremors inflicted upon historical degradation have all been due to (in other words, required by) the degradation itself. Whether God chose to change things by condescending to make the changes Himself, or whether he worked through an inspired human agent, each time was required simply because man had messed things up through his evil and unrighteousness to begin with.

Which is the main point of any conversation about human goodness, isn’t it? If we are, as some people wish to think, basically good, we wouldn’t need God imparting Himself on our situation, would we? But ironically we also wouldn’t need some moralist to come along and shake history in order to re-impose some sort of societal virtue. We certainly wouldn’t need some power beyond ourselves in the form of prophets, preachers, police or politicians to perform a public prescription of disinfection. We could govern ourselves and we’d always be happy. Essentially, we wouldn’t need a savior … would we?

But we aren’t that way, are we? Instead injustice plagues us and every bad thing that happens is more evidence of humanity’s badness. It begins to dawn on us the true position of our mortality; a position of utter and complete rubbish. All of life becomes futile because, not only will we die one day – a fact over which very few people would argue – but we will die with sin on us. Not the sins of our fathers or brothers or cousins, but the sins we have committed. Sins which we may be blind to see because of proximity (you CAN be too close to see), because of faulty philosophy (you may not choose to believe that you are bad … just other people), or because of gradation (“I’m not bad because I’m not doing what THAT guy is doing.”).

Looking at humanity as a whole shows the total depravity of our personal condition, but looking at the individual person can reveal God at work. He changes lives of sin into lives of purity, He removes the scars of years of misuse, and He offers resilience and surety against the slings of the Devil.

But what God doesn’t do under any circumstance is quibble morally. He has given us an honest assessment of our state: we are sinners. His righteousness and goodness makes us look completely filthy with the pollution of our sin and to pretend that people are good apart from God is to not only make God out to be a liar, but to also make His sacrifice for us into a fool’s errand and His Spirit to be an unnecessary and unwelcome intrusion. On top of all of that, it removes from God the robes and scales of justice which are rightfully His as the originator of all things.

God as judge is the one thing that ties all of history together into a package that makes sense. If you believe that man is basically good, you must also believe that any evil that is committed by man can be explained away through external means. It requires the view that homicidal sociopaths are only that way because someone made them that way – ironically an explanation which somehow never gets around to asking, “Where did it all start?” It requires the view that hedonists are only a product of a hedonistic culture – as if culture arises and exists entirely apart from humanity. It requires an end-justifies-the-means philosophy because, apart from a God who will judge, there is no reason to hold back from self-gratification of the lowest, most degrading order.

The philosophy that says “man is basically good” may seem like an innocent, optimistic, positive, head-screwed-on-straight, warm, benevolent, charitable, and munificent philosophy, but it really reveals either a wanton disinterest in the record of sin through the ages, or a specific, deliberate, frontal assault on the realities God has revealed to us through His word, not to mention an undermining of His ultimate power to bring about justice. It is a philosophy which trades a short-term feeling of moral superiority for a labyrinth of hellish consequences.

And so it seems clear. You can believe that man is intrinsically good and take the philosophical consequences of no ultimate justice, or you can accept man’s fallen state … and with it God’s outstretched arm of rescue. I choose the latter.

My God, whom I praise,
Do not remain silent,
For people who are wicked and deceitful
Have opened their mouths against me;
They have spoken against me with lying tongues.
With words of hatred they surround me;
They attack me without cause.
In return for my friendship they accuse me,
But I am a man of prayer.
They repay me evil for good and hatred for my friendship.

May their sins always remain before the Lord,
That He may blot out their name from the earth.
For [the evil man] never thought of doing a kindness,
But hounded to death the poor and the needy and the brokenhearted.

But You, Sovereign Lord,
Help me for Your Name’s sake;
Out of the goodness of Your love, deliver me.

Help me, Lord my God;
Save me according to Your unfailing love.
Let them know that it is Your hand,
That You, Lord, have done it.
While they curse, may You bless;
May those who attack me be put to shame,
But may Your servant rejoice.
May my accusers be clothed in disgrace and wrapped in shame as in a cloak.
With my mouth I will greatly extol the Lord;
In the great throng of worshipers I will praise Him.
For He stands at the right hand of the needy,
To save their lives from those who would condemn them.

Psalm 109:1-5,15,16,21,26-31

[* As an example, think about the fall of slavery in the west: it was due to work by Wilberforce, Sturge, Newton and Lincoln; it was not replicated in Africa, the Middle East or the Far East (where it is still prevalent); it was not readily accepted by the majority of people at first; and it was decades before any sort of political equality was established.]

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