Are people basically good?

One Sunday while I was a student at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I arrived at a church to be the guest preacher.  I arrived so early that I had the chance to sit in on an adult Sunday-school class that was taking place before the worship service.  The leader of the study was the wife of the regular pastor.  The wife was well-versed in theology.  She posed this question to the group of young and middle-aged men and women sitting around the table:  “Are people basically good?”

Everybody in the circle insisted–yes!  People are basically good.  Several said that people are so naturally good, that when somebody does commit a crime, there must be some mental illness warping that person’s conduct.

The pastor’s wife was frustrated.  For she knew this was not the answer! That is, according to traditional Christian theology.

So, while everybody around the table was disputing the doctrine that human nature is basically not good, the pastor’s wife–thinking she was appealing to a higher court, I suppose–turned to me. 

“John?” she said.

She was expecting that I (studying the traditional doctrines in seminary) would display the trump card.

Indeed, I knew the normal answer–that human nature is basically evil.  But I hesitated to say it.  Because I knew what the others would say:

“How could an infant snuggling in a mother’s arms be regarded as basically evil?”

“How could my saintly grandmother who would do anything for anybody be regarded as basically evil?”

“How could a child born with severe cognitive damage who could not tell right from wrong but who can barely function be regarded as basically evil?”

The notion that human nature is basically evil is a religious doctrine.  In order to survive from one generation to another, a doctrine does not need merely to be memorized and repeated like a parrot.  The doctrine needs to explain reality!  The traditional doctrine about human nature being evil has been for a long time now losing an audience, because (I’d say) the doctrine fails to explain the reality of an infant curled up in a mother’s arms.  That baby is basically evil?

The doctrine of humankind’s evil nature arose from the way early theologians read the story of Adam and Eve.

Let us be clear about the story.  Nothing in Genesis 3 (where Adam & Eve eat the Forbidden Fruit) states that human nature is basically evil.  The consequences of their misdeed are that Adam and Eve–as the representatives of all of humankind–are cursed three times by God:

One curse is that death enters the human condition from now on:  “…for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19b, New International Version)

A second curse is that sharp pain will attend women when giving birth. (Gen. 3:16)

A third curse is that no longer will fruit trees be ready for picking as in the Garden of Eden; rather, the ground will be thorny and resistant to producing crops.  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food…” (Gen. 3:19a)

By the way, this was a favorite quotation of Abraham Lincoln in his debates about slavery.  Stephen Douglas would cite the lack of intellect among slaves, their coarse behavior, the horror that a black man would ask a white woman out on a date…and Douglas would say to Lincoln;  How can you conclude that blacks are equal to whites?

Lincoln would concede all of the common frightfulness about blacks of that day, conceding the apparent inequality between the races, but then he would add:  In the ability of a man to eat bread by the sweat of his own brow without anybody else’s permission, he is your equal and mine!

The introduction of hard work into the human condition in order to produce food was one of the curses.

But let us be clear what is going on in this story.  This is not reality.  That is, it is not factual.  The land has always had to be worked to produce crops.  The accompaniment of pain with childbirth has always been.  The incidence of death as part of life has always been.  We see the fossil evidence of prehistoric Homo sapiens.  They died long before the story of Adam and Eve was composed some time around 500 BCE.

ONLY if a person believes that human life on this planet began with Adam and Eve (and thus believing that the Earth is only 6,000 years old) would a person believe that there never occurred death until God cursed the First Family.  There never would have been pain in child-bearing, there never would have been the need to work hard to produce crops; rather, these hardships only began at that instance when God levied curses against Adam and Eve.

In other words, the story of Adam and Eve is a myth.  Myths explain life.  Why is there pain when doing something as blessed as giving birth?  Why is the ground so hard to till?  Why do people die?

These were philosophical musings by people of ancient times.

The result was:  a myth.  That is, the events happened first, and then the myth was devised to explain them.  Pain in childbirth was already happening–it didn’t begin with God’s curse; death was already happening–it didn’t begin only with God’s curse; hard plowing had already been happening–the ground didn’t suddenly become barren because of God’s curse.  But all are explained by myth.

Let’s take another example from more recent times.  There exist the Great Lakes.  How did the Great Lakes come to be?  Paul Bunyan dug them out as drinking troughs for his giant blue ox Babe.  This is myth.  People didn’t know about glaciers.  They didn’t know about an Ice Age retracting and leaving the Great Lakes.  People did not yet have this scientific explanation.

Myth helps unscientific people explain life.

The writers of the story of Adam and Eve were unscientific people.  They resorted to myth in order to explain puzzlements of life:  Why do people die?  Why is birthing painful?  Why do we have to work so hard to produce crops?

In other words, when we read the story of Adam and Eve, we are not reading facts; we are reading an interpretation of life.  We are reading how unscientific authors explained things like death and childbirth and farming.

Likewise,  when we read the theologians who studied Genesis 3, we are not reading factuality.  We are reading their interpretations of the myth.

It may SEEM that the fallen nature of our human nature IS what the story of Adam & Eve is about–because that HAS been the most common interpretation–for centuries.

In the First Century, the Apostle Paul wrote that human nature became warped in the person of The First Man, and his fallen nature has infected all of us as Adam’s descendants.

Paul’s take on Genesis 3 was backed up by the early Church Fathers like Augustine in the 300s, and for centuries thereafter (Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s, Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 1500s, the Westminster Confession in the 1600s…).  This became the doctrine of Original Sin.

Original Sin (originating with Adam and Eve’s disobedience) means:  Even before a person actually DOES anything wrong, one’s human nature itself is already leaning towards rebellion against God.  It is this leaning towards rebellion which results in the actual things we do wrong,

Traditionally, it was believed that the act of conception–attended by lust–introduces sinfulness into human nature from our very beginning.

The “cure” is Jesus.  Jesus is needed in order for not just our sins but our human nature itself to be forgiven.   Specifically, the belief in Jesus through the rite of baptism is said to remove Original Sin, though we continue to sin for the rest of our lives,  At least with Original Sin removed, we are thought to be “new beings.”  The traditional dunking of a person completely beneath water symbolizes a person being buried and then being brought back to life.  With a new nature, we have a better chance of accepting the influence of the Holy Spirit.

The importance of the doctrine of Original Sin is:  It made Jesus a necessity, not merely an option.   Jesus had to be accepted as one’s Savior–or else.  In the severest of Christian theologies (like Augustine’s), even infants would be unacceptable to God if they had not been baptized before death.  In a seeming nod of mercy to the suffering parents, Roman Catholic theology went so far as to say that unbaptized infants do not go to hell; but would not go so far as to say they’re in heaven.  Rather, they go to “limbo,” a condition of neither punishment nor happiness.

Getting pretty silly, isn’t it?

But let’s be clear:  All of these thoughts are merely interpretations of the story.  They are not the sole way of looking at our human nature.  In the Orthodox Church, traditional theology has been that we do not inherit a sinful nature from Adam.  Rather, we are born into a world where there is so much sin, we can’t help getting caught up in sinning ourselves.

These are interpretations–between mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox–and they differ.  Nothing in Genesis 3 specifically states that our human nature is fallen–we are basically evil.  The story does state that life East of Eden will be more difficult (pain in childbirth, hard work to produce food, and eventual death).  But Original Sin is not expressly stated.

The story is open to several interpretations.

But even with theology as harsh as Original Sin, there IS a basic truth about our human nature,  Are we born basically good?

In other words, before we learn politeness, before we learn rules of the household or rules of society, do we naturally, instinctively do good?

Do kids have to be taught to say “thank you”?  Or are kids naturally grateful?

Do kids have to be taught to share; or does sharing occur naturally?

This is what is meant by the word “basically.”  Are people “basically” good?  Without instruction, without adults telling kids how to conduct themselves–human nature raw and unchained–do we instinctively, naturally do good?  It doesn’t have to be taught.

Anybody with a 2-year-old knows the answer.

Still, would we call the human nature of a child “evil”?

Again, hard-liners about theology can sound pretty silly.  But such a doctrine is only good if it is useful–that is, if it explains life.  And calling an infant “evil” is no longer something people are willing to stomach as a way to look at life.

So getting back to the adult Sunday-school class, where I was asked to settle the dispute:  “Are people basically good?  Is our human nature basically evil?”

I prefer a different way of explaining our human situation.  We are basically neither good nor evil–rather, we are basically NEEDY.

It has been a delight reading the Facebook posts of new mothers and seeing photos of their infants.  But one thing new mothers write about most often is–sleep deprivation.  That’s because the infant does not know or care how much sleep the other needs.  The infants only know when they NEED milk.

From the very start, our human condition is:  needy.

Learning about the balancing of needs is what growing up is all about–a person’s need to take all the treats vs. the importance of sharing; a person’s need to devour a piece of cake vs. pausing to express gratitude…

It is when needs become imbalanced that what happens is what traditionally has been called “sin.”  There is a need for security, but going overboard to meet that need leads to–racism-fearing those who are different.

There is a need for food and shelter but going overboard leads to:  greed, hoarding more than what one actually needs.

There is a need for love.  But going overboard leads to  possessiveness.  The other person is not allowed to be one’s own self, but must always meet somebody else’s needs.

To me, this concept of “neediness” explains our human situation more accurately–and compassionately–than to dismiss human nature as “evil”, let alone regarding a helpless, gurgling infant as rebellious towards God.

Doctrine and theology survive only if they help to explain life.








One thought on “Are people basically good?

  1. Carol C

    John, Your answer to the ‘good vs evil’ question is so appropriate. I need to learn to respond this way in so many circumstances, whether by noting or responding to someone’s need, or by gently pointing out that maturity means balancing your needs with those of the other person. Thank you for this blog.



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