Why does human nature appear to be a mixture of good and evil?

The Judeo-Christian story of Genesis states that human nature was created perfectly good.  The Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin states that after the Fall, human nature became so sinful that even newborn babes were subject to divine wrath. Luther and Calvin revived Augustine’s ideas about Original Sin and depravity. The modern world is more inclined to think of human nature as complex, composite and contradictory.  All theories of salvation flow directly from our understanding of sinfulness and the human propensity for evil.


The Believer’s Dilemma interviewed theologians, priests, ministers and pastors from six major Christian denominations who offered the following views on the existence of evil.


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Paul Allen - Catholic

On the question of good and evil - why did God create beings who could rebel? - the insight that we need to take away from all of this is the nature of God. God is a being who wants to relate to humans primarily through love. God didn’t create robots because they are not interesting.  I do not believe in a literal, historical Garden of Eden but I do believe in the doctrine of original sin.  I can reconcile these two ideas in the way that Reinhold Niebuhr does, namely that original sin is a concept that pertains to human existence. Human beings have natures and/or wills in which we are inclined to sin. Not all the time, but the inclination is always there.


John Simons - Anglican

The mixture of good and evil can be partly attributed to choices that were made before we were born and before we were conscious of our own independent existence.  A Freudian interpretation of a lot of the human conflict would suggest that our thoughts and values were shaped by our environment and our families.  Because these influences affected us before we were conscious of them, because we inherited values and ideas very early without being able to be critical of them, we find ourselves in highly conflictual situations.  I believe that psychoanalysis can be a helpful therapy that enables us to bringing to awareness forces that shape us. Another insight of psychoanalysis is that when people are traumatized they try to re-live the trauma in order to get over it, or to master it. And that means sometimes getting yourself into situations where you become the perpetrator. We are fragile creatures and not entirely responsible for the way we behave, at least while we are barely conscious of the forces at work around us and inside us. As we become conscious, we can also become responsible.


Dale Woods – Presbyterian

Presbyterians would say there isn’t any part of life that is not influenced by sin. That would be a definition of total depravity. It doesn’t mean the absence of good; it means that nothing is unaffected by sin. I think that’s true. Our best attempts at anything – for example parenting – never quite get it quite right. That’s how I understand it and I think it’s helpful because it means we should tread carefully.  The general Presbyterian interpretation of ‘total depravity’ is that sin lurks closely in everything so we always need to be careful. That does not mean we cannot - or should not - help people in need.


Brian Talbot – Baptist

Sin is present in children, even young children. The Bible states that we are all sinners.  We are born sinners. We cannot escape sin. We cannot deny it.  Sin is a fundamental part of our fallen nature. Baptists use the term ‘original sin’ because there was no sin or death in the world prior to Eden. Sin is universal but it also originated in Eden. It was also part of God’s original plan for mankind, which is why we need a Saviour. 


Jordan Wood - Pentecostal

There is a distinction between total depravity and utter depravity. Total depravity means that the heart of man is, by nature, sinful, affecting all that he is and does. Although we are totally depraved apart from being born again, we still can do good things; an atheist can still love his children, etc. Utter depravity means absolutely no capacity for doing good. Although externally, human nature appears to be a mixture of good and evil, the heart of man, at its core is depraved and is in need of regeneration.  


Wendy MacLean – United Church of Canada

I believe human nature is basically good because we are made in the image of God. We find meaning and life in the Christ-spirit, and believe God is creating and re-creating in us and with us. This is good! as God said in the beginning. Our culture is more familiar with the concept of ‘ego’ rather than traditional theological language like ‘depravity’ and ‘bondage to sin’.  For me the choice is not between good and evil but between ‘ego of self’ and ‘surrender to God’. 


All six of these answers agree that our conflicted human nature, with its propensity to cause conflict and suffering, is a problem shared by the entire human race. The condition can legitimately be attributed to ‘Original Sin’ because it is as old as human nature. All six of these answers agree that there are solutions to the problem, although the proposed solutions differ considerably.


As we saw in Question 4 - Why did a God of perfect goodness create - or permit - evil?  - the traditional Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin attributes all evil to the fall of Adam and Eve in Eden. Augustinian theology identified Original Sin as the source of condemnation for all human beings.  Inherited sin from Adam and Eve meant that every baby was born under condemnation and it was impossible for an unbaptized infant to enter heaven.   


Augustine created an insoluble theological conundrum by making salvation from Original Sin dependent upon baptism.  What about the multitudes of babies who died before they were baptised?   The awkward compromise was Limbo.  Unclean for heaven, but undeserving of Hell, unbaptised infants would spend eternity in dismal non-mans-land.


Luther and Calvin based their Reformed theology on Augustine thinking about Original Sin and depravity but Protestants eliminated Limbo, Purgatory, and all Catholic notions of salvation dependent upon sacraments such as baptism. The God of Luther and Calvin had predestined the elect and the reprobate so neither personal sin, nor personal repentance, nor age at death could alter in anyway the eternal decree concerning who was saved and who wasn’t.


The Augustinian Gospel of Wrath is present in the modern world in slightly modified forms.  There is some debate about age of responsibility, but all adults are sinners who will spend eternity in Hell unless they are saved. There no exceptions to the rule. The fundamental human nature is depraved and sinful and will be condemned to eternal wrath unless the sinner is born again and washed clean in the blood of Jesus.  


Brian Talbot (Baptist) states that ‘Sin is universal but it also originated in Eden’. Jordan Wood (Pentecostal) states that ‘the heart of man, at its core is depraved and is in need of regeneration’.  The Augustinian Gospel of Wrath requires a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis and a historical Garden of Eden so that Adam and Eve can literally transmit their depravity to the entire human race. Modern disciplines of the Augustinian Gospel of Wrath are invariably Bible literalists.


Many modern Christians embrace a gospel of Anti-Wrath.  Paul Allen (Catholic) affirms his belief in Original Sin as sin that is universal and inherent in human nature, but he does not interpret the story of Genesis literally (see Question 1) nor does he believe that only Christians/Catholics can be saved (see his answers to Questions 9 and 10 concerning salvation).  Dale Woods (Presbyterian) recognizes sin as universal rather than ‘original’ as defined by Augustine.  John Simons (Anglican) sees sin as part of the ‘original’ human nature and human condition. The problem is both historical, in that we inherit corrupt values, and psychological, in that traumas of which we are barely conscious can influence our choices and actions. For John Simons the evil-doer is not entirely responsible or blame worthy.  Personal responsibility is directly related to our degree of consciousness.  Wendy McLean (United Church) replaces Augustinian Original Sin with a doctrine of original goodness.  For her the choice is not between good and evil but between ‘ego of self’ and ‘surrender to God’. 


The enduring power of the Gospel of Wrath is its simplicity.  God created a perfect universe. Two historical beings rebelled and brought sin and suffering into the world. Therefore we are all victims of sin and suffering, and objects of God’s wrath.  We need a Saviour. Jesus came into the world to be the Saviour of all mankind.  Everyone is invited to accept Jesus as his or her personal saviour.  All sins – past present, and future – will be forgiven, and a place in heaven is guaranteed.  Those who reject Jesus as their personal Saviour, and the free gift of grace, are stiff-necked sinners who have no one to blame but themselves for incurring eternal damnation.       


The Gospel of Anti-Wrath rejects the idea that all non-Christians are doomed to eternal torment and that ‘being saved’ is more important than being kind, generous, compassionate and Christ-like.  It is important to provide physical and psychological healing in the world as well as food, shelter and compassion.  But these are social solutions to social problems. Is there an ultimate solution to the problem of evil?  Denominations that dismiss literal interpretations of Genesis almost invariably dismiss literal interpretations of heaven, hell, judgement and any final, eternal resolution to the problem of evil. It remains a mystery which may or may not be resolved in eternity.  We will examine these views in more depth in Question 15 – The Eternal State.


The Gospel of Love offers a different perspective.  The story of Eden is a metaphor for freewill and the human propensity to learn through trial and error. The Gospel of Wrath is constructed on the principle of ‘one strike and you’re out’ which means that God is the wrathful Umpire and we are all out. The Gospel of Love interprets Eden as God’s warning that forbidden fruit will cause suffering. The God of Love is not angry that we learn by trial and error; that is the way we are made.  The God of Love constantly offers healing, and all religions understand this, although they restrict divine healing to an elect group which shares their specific beliefs.    


How is the unfinished business of this world to be resolved? How do damaged sinners transition into eternity?  The Gospel of Wrath draws a thick line between heaven and hell and is adamant about who will be saved. The Gospel of Anti-Wrath is not sure that there will be a heaven or hell or if there will be individual consciousness in eternity.   The Gospel of Love finds a resolution in the final book of the Bible.  The 1000 year resurrection described in the Book of Revelation is a perfect bookend for Eden.  The 1000 year resurrection is a time and place for the complexities of freewill and trial and error to be worked out.  There will be a literal heaven for those who ultimately choose goodness and righteousness.  This means of true salvation will become clearer as we work through the 15 questions.


Question six examines the nature of revealed religion and whether Christianity is the only religion that offers salvation. 


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