A few weeks ago, after the events at Charlottesville, former United States President, Barack Obama, tweeted out the following: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.” It received more likes than any other tweet on Twitter at the time. Obviously his message resonated with a lot of folks. The idea that hatred and prejudice must be taught, that we do not naturally do that sort of thing, was a message of hope in the midst of a lot of fear and frustration. The events in Charlottesville seem to have alerted a lot of people to the fact that hatred and racism are still a very present reality in the United States. (See my article on the church’s response to racism Racism is False Doctrine)
And this is disheartening because this flies in the face of the myth of progress we like to tell ourselves. We look back at the past and we believe, truly and honestly, that we are constantly getting better and better. Sure there are some setbacks here and there, but we believe that history has a direction, and the direction is progress. We believe that this is possible because we also believe things like Barack Obama tweeted, that we are all basically good inside. At least at first.
But Christianity presents a different picture of humanity. The scriptures teach that human beings are not born naturally good as Obama suggested. We are born naturally evil. It’s completely natural for us to hate other people. It’s natural for us to create groups and assert our own group’s dominance over against a rival group. It’s natural for us to always put ourselves first. It’s natural for us to participate, whether actively or passively, in all manner of evil. And as if this weren’t enough, we are experts at rationalizing our sin, justifying it, and creating habits out of it.
This is what is often called original sin or total depravity. It’s the recognition that as human beings we are naturally born sinful. We’re not a little bad and a little good. Rather we are totally depraved. As St. Paul says in Romans 3:
All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one; No one understands; No one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless. No one does good, Not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave; They use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; In their paths are ruin and misery, And the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
This all very true. And I think the doctrine of total depravity or original sin is one of those doctrines that is extremely counter cultural in our own context. People just do not think this way (as the response to Obama’s tweet demonstrates). However, I am sometimes concerned that we turn this doctrine into a bit of a caricature of itself. We sometimes misunderstand what this doctrine is actually saying and thereby get ourselves into some weird problems that need not be problems for us.
Ultimately, I think all of these problems boil down to us misunderstanding what it means to be evil.
Who Can Do Good Works?
Sometimes Christians have a problem with the idea of unbelievers doing good works. Sometimes people are confused as to why an unbeliever would want to or even be able to do good works. I’ve seen people feel it necessary to ascribe selfish ulterior motives to any unbeliever doing good works. And I understand where this confusion comes from. We rightly confess that believers are only able to do good works because of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, living and active in a believer that gives them the power and desire to do good works (Phil 2:13). So then, if this is true, it’s natural to wonder what’s up with unbelievers doing good works.
There are two misunderstandings here. The first is about different kinds of righteousness and the second is about what it means to be an unregenerate unbeliever.
One of the big distinctions of Lutheran theology is the two kinds of righteousness (see the introduction to Luther’s Galatians commentary). The idea is that there are two different kinds of righteousness. There is righteousness before God and righteousness before the world. Our righteousness before God is passive. It’s a righteousness that we receive freely because of Christ. God declares us righteous and so we are, end of story. What is separate from that is our righteousness before the world. This righteousness is active. We do it. This is where our good works come in. This is where we, living in our various vocations, serve our neighbor. That’s the purpose of good works after all, serving your neighbor. God doesn’t need your good works, your neighbor does.
Secondly, we misunderstand what it means to be an unregenerate person if we think it means that they are incapable of doing anything good or altruistic. Being unregenerate doesn’t mean that one is incapable of being kind or selfless ever. That’s absurd. Now, such a person is not going to have the Holy Spirit, which means they will not be guided or motivated by the Spirit in their doing of good works. Nor will they be as aware of their own sin as the Spirit would reveal to them. Most importantly of all, such a person does not possess passive righteousness before God.
Now it’s true that there is a sense in which one can say that only Christians can do good works. What’s meant by this is that only the good works of Christians are pleasing to God. The works of unbelievers are still tainted with sin and therefore not pleasing to God. The works of believers, while also tainted with sin, have been cleansed by Christ and are therefore now pleasing to God. And while this is true, this in no way means that unbelievers can’t do good things. It does not mean that they are incapable of choosing between murdering someone and helping someone. You don’t have to be a Christian to do that.
What Does It Mean to be Evil?
When we think of evil, we usually think of extreme examples: murderers, serial killers, rapists, and Nazis. That’s what evil looks like to us. And part of the radical nature of the doctrine of original sin is that it says that in a certain sense you are not really much different than those most heinous examples of evil, at least not before God. It’s easy to think that we are incapable of certain kinds of evil, but that’s just not the case. Given the right circumstances and motivations, there’s not much really stopping any of us from being those “monsters” that we find utterly unfathomable. Or at the very least the desires that motivate “evil” people are also present in us (see Matt 5-6). We’re just better at restraining the outward manifestation of these desires. That is, while you might not pull out a knife and stab someone, you may still hate them. According to Jesus (as well as the OT) this also breaks the commandment against murder.
Now this leads us into ways that we misunderstand what it means to be evil. We often talk as if evil is like a quality that someone can have more or less of. A Nazi has a whole lot of evil and Gandhi has way less. Except this isn’t really what evil is. Evil is not a substance. Rather it is a twistedness. It is a perversion of what is good. (thanks Augustine)
One of the remarkable things about God’s creation, especially as it is presented in Genesis, is how ordered it is. Everything has its place and everything has its purpose. Everything has been created purposefully and intentionally. Evil goes against this created order. It takes something and uses it in a way that is not part of the order of God’s creation. Adam and Eve’s sin was not that they broke the divine command that God arbitrarily gave them. Rather they desired to become like God and thereby reject what God had created them to be: his creatures. Their sin attempted to transgress the order of creator and creature. It attempted to twist the order of creation.
So, when we say that we are naturally completely sinful, this is not to say that we only desire evil things every day all the time. It means that our desires and actions are twisted. It means that every part of us is corrupted by sin. There is no pure part of us deep down inside somewhere. We’re totally twisted, from the top to the bottom. This doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t do good things, but it means that it’s natural for us to do evil things.
What was remarkable for many observing the Nazis in the early 20th century was how unremarkable they were. They weren’t all crazy sociopaths or radical ideological fanatics. They were all everyday people. They were fathers and mothers, bakers and doctors. They wanted their kids to go to good schools and get good jobs and be happy and all this sort of stuff. And yet they handed over their Jewish neighbors. Those who worked with the government participated in internment and slaughter of millions. It didn’t take much, they simply imbibed the rhetoric they had been given and followed orders.
In other words it’s not that we are really no different from monsters. It’s that the monsters are really no different from us. We are all twisted and we are all at odds with the design and harmony of God’s good creation.
This twisting might be slight. But it only takes a little bit to produce great evil. It’s like a ship at sea. A difference of just a few degrees in direction will in the end mean that the ship is massively off course. This is what happens with us. Our desires might be just the tiniest bit twisted. But given enough time and the right circumstances, we will find ourselves way off course from what is good.
This is why it’s so easy for the human heart to make idols out of good things. Few people make idols out of lust and murder. But many make idols out of their children, their own talents, their spouse, their particular religious tradition, etc.
Evil and idolatry are far more subtle that we often realize. This means that it often goes far more unnoticed or is more often praised as good than we realize.
But thanks be to God that He has loved us even when we were evil. The Son of Man came not for those who are well, but those who are sick. And we are sick. So let us turn to the great physician who is alone able to heal us and untwist us. To make us straight and ordered again.
For more on the doctrine of original sin check out the Formula of Concord (Epitome) Article I. (or look at Solid Declaration if you’re feeling ambitious) Legit one of my favorite articles in the Formula.