The Nature of Evil and the Human Condition

(this is a repost of a series I wrote last year for another website)

Some months ago I wrote a series of posts critiquing the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.  As a result, I was promptly accused, by some readers, of being a Pelagian.  It was then that I realized that I had made a rather notable mistake: I had failed to expound upon what I believed with regards to sin, the human condition, and man’s salvation.  Having failed to explain what I believe, some readers misunderstood my critiques of total depravity and jumped to some rather extreme conclusions about my theology.

In consequence, I have decided to write this post in an effort to further clarify my position.  This essay reflects, however poorly, what I believe about the depravity of man, the  nature of sin and evil, and, in an extremely limited way, salvation.  I will not discuss, in any detail, my theory of the atonement, justification, or sanctification; rather, I will simply emphasize man’s utter dependence upon God for life and his unavoidable dependency upon God’s grace and mercy to be saved.

I will begin by making several metaphysical observations.  First of all, it’s important to understand that everything that God has made is good and no matter how twisted or broken it becomes, it will never cease to maintain some vestige of its original goodness (Gen. 1:31).  St. Augustine understood this fundamental point of ontology and communicated it very clearly:

“All things that exist, therefore, seeing that the Creator of them all is supremely good, are themselves good.  But because they are not, like their Creator, supremely and unchangeably good, their good may be diminished and increased.  But for good to be diminished is an evil, although, however much it may be diminished, it is necessary if the being is to continue, that some good should remain to constitute the being.  For however small or of whatever kind of being it may be, the good which makes it a being cannot be destroyed without destroying the being itself.”

Please note that St. Augustine is speaking of the good in an ontological sense and not in an ethical sense.  Also note that, for him, evil does not  have a substantial existence, in and of itself, but only exists in the form of a degradation of or corruption of something which is substantial good.  Thus, when I say that human beings are by nature good I’m not claiming that they are without sin (i.e. ethically good) but that they are made in the image and likeness of God and, hence, in the image of Goodness and Perfection Himself.  Therefore, no matter how much sin twists and degrades us, we never stop being human–for if the image of God was completely eradicated the good which sustains our being would have been destroyed and we would cease to exist.

St. John of Damascus is also extremely helpful in clarifying this point:

“. . . evil is no more than a negation of good and a lapse from what is natural to what is unnatural, for there is nothing that is naturally evil.  Now, as they are made, all things that God made were very good.  So, if they remain as they were created, then they are very good.  But, if they freely withdraw from the natural and pass to the unnatural, then they become evil.  All things, then, by nature serve and obey the Creator.  So, whenever any creature freely rebels and becomes disobedient to Him who made him, he has brought the evil upon himself.  For evil is not some sort of substance, nor yet a property of a substance, but an accident, that is to say, a deviation from the natural into the unnatural, which is just what sin is.”

It’s clear, therefore, that sin is a corruption of what is substantially good and is fundamentally an ethical problem rooted in the will of man.  With his capacity of self-determination, man choses to act in a way which is contrary to his nature, to turn himself away from the Good, and thus, to subject himself to futility.  Hence, to speak of man being depraved, is to speak in terms of ethics and not in terms of ontology.  Nevertheless, it is also clear that our sin, our depravity has profound ontological consequences.  These truths are evident in Psalm 53:

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity, there is none that does good.  God looks down from heaven, upon the sons of man, to see if there are any that are wise, who seek after God.  They have all fallen away; they are all alike depraved; there is none that does good, no, not even one.”  (Psalm 53:1-3)

Further down the Psalmist continues:

“There they [those who have rejected God] are, in great terror, in terror such as has not been!  For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them” (Psalm 53: 5).

Having rejected God in their hearts (which is clearly an act of the will) mans behavior becomes corrupt and he chooses to live an unethical life.  His sinful choices, as the Psalmist makes clear, lead to his dissolution and destruction.  This point is also made by St. Paul in no uncertain terms, who proclaimed that:  “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Therefore, from a Biblical perspective, the depravity of man is an ethical problem with profound ontological consequences (1).

Furthermore, according to Psalm 53, this ethical problem is pervasive and universal; that is to say, every human being chooses, of his own free will, to turn away from God in order to serve his own self-interest; to worship the Creation rather than the Creator (this idea is more fully developed by St. Paul in Romans 1).

So, although man is by nature good, being made in the image of God, he suffers from the consequences of Adam’s sin:  namely, he is born outside the garden and, hence, estranged from God, he is subject to physical corruption and bodily death, he is tempted and manipulated by evil spirits, and constantly suffering from and profoundly affected by the sinful choices of others.  Consequentially, this Fallen environment, this twisted and broken world system, drives man to make unethical choices and so, he also suffers from the consequences of his own personal sin.

The Bible teaches that there is only One who can save us from this horrible mess–Jesus Christ.  For man, on his own, cannot save himself; he is utterly incapable of rescuing himself from this dilemma.  Let me repeat this lest I be accused, once more, of being a Pelagian: man, on his own, cannot save himself; he is utterly incapable of rescuing himself from this dilemma.  Salvation is an act of God who lavishes us with his love and grace. (2)  St. Paul, speaking to the Christians in Ephesus, states:

“and you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirt that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.  Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of the body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . for by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:1-8).

In summary, man is by nature good, being made in the image of God; thus, he is not totally depraved.  However, man is born into a broken and corrupted world, subject to the consequences of Adam’s sin, influenced by the sins of his forefathers and by the, “prince of the power of the air,” and, hence, he inevitably chooses to sin (i.e. to act in a manner which is contrary to his own nature).  In this way, in an ethical sense, man is radically depraved.  Trapped in a dying world and being guilty of personal sin, man is unable to do anything, on his own, to save himself.  He needs Jesus to pull him out of the mire, to give him life, and to fully restore the image and likeness of God which has been soiled by his sin and the sin of others.

(1) On this point, it should be noted, Reformed theology teaches the exact opposite of what we have just outlined; namely, it teaches that man has a serious ontological problem (being totally depraved or having a sin nature) with profound ethical consequences.  This notion, aside from being unbiblical, is also incoherent (see my previous writings on total depravity).

(2) This statement does not negate man’s responsibility or choice in the matter; nor does it deny he has free will.  Man must chose to participate in God’s work to save and restore Creation, he must chose to believe in Jesus; nevertheless, salvation is the work of God in man.

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Further Reflections on Total Depravity

(this is a repost of a series I wrote for another website last year)

In my previous post, Why I Don’t Believe in Total Depravity, I addressed some of the primary reasons I refuse to accept the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity.  This article generated a lot of interesting discussion, both on The Christian Watershed and on Facebook.  Sadly, due to time constraints, I was unable to interact, deeply, with many of the insightful comments that were made.  Hopefully, this article will make up for my lack of response.

Interestingly, virtually everyone who commented on my previous article focused, almost exclusively, on my first objection, which argued that if man is by nature a sinner, then God wouldn’t love him.  Hardly anyone addressed my second two objections: that Total Depravity is at odds with the Doctrine of the Incarnation, and that, for a totally depraved creature, sin would be a virtue.  Accordingly, I would like to focus on the first objection (for the sake of clarification) and from there build several more arguments against Total Depravity.

Most of the questions or objections to my first argument seemed to flow from a basic misunderstanding of the term “nature.”  In light of this, let me take a moment to define this technical philosophical term.

When we speak of a things nature we are commenting about that which makes it what it is.  In other words, the nature of a thing is the essential quality which makes it what it is.      So, for example, if we said that man (in the universal sense: all “men”, both male and female) is made in the image of God we are making a statement about man’s  nature.  We are saying that being made in the image of God is an essential/universal quality of what it is to be a man.  If being made in the image of God is a part of the nature of man then any creature which is not made in the image of God is not a man.  Hence, we see that by changing the nature of thing we are changing what that thing is.

With this fresh in our minds, allow me to restate one of the basic conclusions of Total Depravity; namely, that due to the fall there was an ontological shift (i.e. a change in man’s nature) in man.  According to this view, sin is now a part of man’s nature; in other words, sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be a man (hence, the term totally depraved).  If this is true, then any creature who is without sin is not a man because sin is a necessary part of what it means to be man.

With these definitions in place, let’s revisit my first contention:

(1) If sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then man is absolutely unlovable.

Put simply, a totally depraved creature would be unlovable because its very nature would be counter to God, who is the only being truly and perfectly lovable in and of Himself.

Several commentators actually accepted this point and argued that God loves what is unlovable; maintaining that this was simply a mystery.  However, to claim that God loves what is by nature unlovable is not “mysterious” . . . it is simply illogical.  Does it really make sense to claim that God loves a creature that we have established to be fundamentally unlovable?  Just think about this for a moment.  Saying that a creature is unlovable is claiming that there is nothing intrinsically lovable about said creature; can we then claim, with any consistency, that God loves something unlovable?

Furthermore, too say that a creature is unlovable is to say that that creature’s very nature is counter to THE GOOD (i.e. God).  But, how could God love what is necessarily counter to Himself?  Sin is not a substance it is a degradation of something good.  If, then, we accept that God is the Good, and that God has nothing to do with darkness, and that only good things come from God, and that God will never do anything which goes against Himself (i.e. the Good), then we cannot believe, coherently, that God could love a creature which is totally depraved.

Now that I’ve clarified this argument (I hope) allow me to address several other problems with total depravity which stem from this one.  In so doing, I also hope to address several other objections brought up by commentators.

(2) If sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then the image of God in man has been totally erased. 

Some commentators insisted, as most Reformed thinkers do, that man still maintains the image of God in spite of the fact that he is totally depraved.  However, like those who argue that God can love something which is by nature unlovable, this assertion is illogical.  It is simply incoherent to maintain that a creature is by nature a sinner and, hence, not good, while also maintaining that he is made in the image and likeness of Goodness Himself.  This is tantamount to claiming that you are by nature good and by nature not good which, of course, violates the law of noncontradiction.

To claim that a creature is made in the image of God is to claim that he is made in the image of Goodness.  There is no getting around the fact that such a creature, itself, would be good.  So understood, it is a matter of  necessity that any creature made in the image of God must lose this aspect of his nature in order to become totally depraved.  In other words, in order to accept the premise that man is by nature a sinner and unlovable  we must also accept that he is no longer made in the image and likeness of God.

However, as I clarified earlier, to alter the nature of a thing is to change the thing itself.  Thus, a man who was no longer made in the image of God would be no man at all.  If the image of God has been erased in a creature then so has that creatures humanity.

So, in order to be logically consistent with their beliefs, those who embrace total depravity must also admit that man no longer bears the image and likeness of God.  If this is true, however, we are no longer men but some freakish, unlovable, being which does not deserve its existence and, in fact, is by nature counter to Existence Himself.

(3) If sin was an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then man could not exist. 

This assertion ties in directly to the previous one.  It stands to reason that our existence, as creatures, stems directly from God who has revealed Himself to us as The Existent One (Exodus 3:14).  It is God alone whose existence is necessary and who exists in and of Himself; everything else, all of creation, is contingent; that is to say, its existence is dependent upon God.  To say that a creature is totally depraved is to say that it is, by nature, counter to the Good (i.e. God); which is also to say that it is by nature counter to Existence Himself.

For it is God who gives all things existence.  How, therefore, can we consistently maintain that a creature whose nature is totally corrupted, evil, and counter to God, maintain its existence without also accepting that God creates and sustains pure substantiated evil.  Christians, however, have never accepted the premise that God creates and sustains evil; for this would put God in league with evil and make him the source and direct cause of all evil.  Most Christians have also, in line with the early church Fathers and especially St. Augustine, rejected the notion that sin is a substance at all.

The problem is, if we believe that God is the source of all existence and accept total depravity then we are accepting that sin is substantiated, that sin is a substance–being a part of the fundamental nature of man–and that God creates and sustains the existence of pure evil.  Clearly, this is at odds with everything we know about God from the scriptures!  A good and loving God who is light and who has no darkness in Him at all could not give existence to pure substantiated evil.  Hence, if sin was an essential/universal quality of what it is to be man then man could not exist; for God would not bring such a being into existence.

Actually, it stands to reason that God could not bring into existence something which is counter to Himself–sense He is the source of all existence.  Therefore, something which is by nature counter to Him could not exist.

Why I Don’t Believe In Total Depravity . . .

(this is a repost of a blog series I wrote last year for another website)

To begin with, I believe human beings are horrendously depraved and prone to all manner of evil.  I agree with these words from St. Paul with every fiber of my being:

“all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of 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 gone wrong; 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 do not know.’  ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:9-18, 23)

I believe all of creation is in bondage to sin, and is experiencing corruption, decay and death, as a result of the Fall.  (Gen. 3, Rom. 8:19-23)  It is my contention that, from conception, man is born into sin (Psalm 51:5); he is deeply influenced by the sins of his parents, by a world system opposed to God’s will, and manipulated by evil spirits; he is subjected to spiritual corruption and decay, and suffers from various biological and physical effects of sin as well; he is born in the image of fallen Adam (Gen. 5:3) and is estranged from God (essentially, suffering the consequences of being expelled from Eden).

Having said all of this, you are probably wondering how it is that I reject the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity.  After all, the bleak picture of human existence I just painted sounds . . . well, totally depraved.  Allow me to explain this apparent contradiction.

The Doctrine of Total Depravity teaches that there was an ontological shift in the nature of humanity as a result of the Fall.  According to this view, man is now, by nature, a sinner.  In other words, sin is an essential part of what it means to be a human being.  Naturally, the idea that man has a sin nature is notoriously difficult to reconcile with the Bible’s teaching that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  While traditional Reformed theology has never denied the image of God in man (in an abstract theological way), there is a strong tendency among Reformed thinkers to downplay the image of God or even disregarded it.

A prime example of this is when Martin Luther compared humanity to a pile of dung.  According to him, the Fall had so corrupted and distorted man that he was no better than a heap of steaming animal droppings.  When I was in Seminary I had several Reformed friends who held this belief.  In my ethics class I remember one of them making the bold assertion that human beings were utterly worthless and were no better than a heap of garbage.  To this I replied:  “So, you’re arguing that the Father loves worthless piles of garbage?  He sent His Son to become a worthless pile of garbage, and to die for worthless piles of garbage?”

As these examples demonstrate, the doctrine of total depravity, which depicts man as a worthless pile of dung or a trash heap, construes a picture of reality in which the image of God in man seems entirely snuffed out; which logically leads to the conclusion that there is no intrinsic value or worth to man because of his sin nature.  If this view is correct, if man is totally depraved, if man is utterly worthless and valueless, and incapable of doing anything good, it is hard to understand why God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.  What exactly does God love about the world?

This brings me to my first problem with the doctrine of total depravity:

(1) If man is by nature a sinner, then God wouldn’t love him.

A creature who is totally depraved, who is a sinner by nature, who can’t help but sin, who always chooses sin, who has no intrinsic value or worth, who is essentially a piece of worthless garbage is not lovable.  The Psalmist declares:  “For thou art not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with thee.” (Psalm 5:4)  St. John affirms that, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5).  Over and over the Scriptures attest that God is Holy and Righteous; that God detests evil and darkness; that God is pure and has nothing to do with wickedness; that God abhors injustice and the shedding of innocent blood.  How, then, could God love a creature whose very nature was wickedness, darkness, and evil.  How could a Holy God truly love a creature that was totally depraved?

The answer, of course, is that He wouldn’t.  Therefore, if we are to take the numerous passages of Scripture seriously, which teach us that God loves the world, and that He especially loves man, we must reject the notion that man is totally depraved.  There is something lovable about human beings.  After Moses’ first account of the creation of man he says this: “God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”  Human beings are good because they are made in the image of God–no matter how twisted and warped they become because of sin.  Even the most depraved man reflects, however poorly, the image of his creator.

The other two problems I have with total depravity are as follows:

(2) If man is by nature a sinner then Jesus, who was without sin, was not really a man.  

This problem is rather significant.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that Christ is one person with two natures; that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.  This point was vigorously defended by both the Apostles and the Early Church Father’s and its truth is of primary importance.  Who we understand Christ to be has a drastic impact on everything we believe and do.  My aim, however, is not to explain the importance of the incarnation or to lay out the ramifications of denying the full humanity of Christ (I have written on this elsewhere if you are interested).  The point is, if you are an orthodox Christian, no matter what tradition you are coming from, the full humanity of Christ is of crucial importance.

With this in mind, it is terribly disturbing that total depravity is at odds with the Doctrine of the Incarnation.  According to the Scriptures, the eternal Word of God took on the full nature of man and lived and dwelled among us.  The Bible also teaches that Jesus never sinned and that he never gave into temptation.  But, if sin is a part of what it means to be human, if we are by nature sinners, if sin is an essential part of our being, as the Doctrine of Total Depravity teaches, then we are forced to draw one of two conclusions: (1) Jesus did not take on the full nature of man (i.e. he was not fully human), or (2) Jesus was not sinless.  Both of these conclusions are unacceptable.  Hence, it cannot be true that sin is a part of the nature of man.

(3) If man is by nature a sinner, then sin is a virtue and to sin is to align oneself with the Good.

This problem is significant as well.  The Good of something is directly tied to its nature and purpose; its telos.  For example, the purpose of a butter knife is to slice and spread butter.  It is not intended for or designed for cutting metal or cleaning your ears.  One could attempt to use a butter knife for these tasks, but would find it extremely difficult and inadequate.  The Good of a butter knife is to slice and spread butter; hence, a butter knife is only functioning properly, i.e. acting in accordance with its nature, when it is being used for this specific task.

The same is true for people.  If we believe that human beings are made in the Image of God; then we believe that man’s nature and purpose is to be like God; and that the Good of man is to conform himself to God’s image; to be in good fellowship with the One who created all things.  If, however, the image of God has been entirely snuffed out, if man is totally depraved and sin is an essential part of his nature, then we have major problems.  Suddenly, to sin is simply to act in accordance with one’s nature.  In other words, sin is the Good.  A totally depraved human being who sins is simply acting in accordance with his nature and is, therefore, functioning properly and achieving his purpose.  Strangely, sin, for the totally depraved human being, becomes a virtue!

If this were true, how could God ask His creatures to do anything but sin?  And why would God be upset with His creatures for acting in accordance with their nature—for functioning properly?

From this standpoint, the idea that human beings are totally depraved is terribly disturbing and, obviously, at odds with Scripture, which teaches that man is made in God’s image and likeness, that man is to be Holy as God is Holy, and that man is to conform himself to God’s will.

While I accept that we live in a desperately fallen world, that man is estranged from God, that men have a strong propensity to sin, and that all men do, in fact, choose to sin, I do not accept the doctrine of total depravity. I do not believe man has a sin nature; rather, I believe sin is completely at odds with man’s nature being made in the image of God; and that when man sins he misses the mark.  Sin is a corruption of and degradation of man; it is a lack of Good; it twists the image of God into something ugly and dysfunctional; it leads to death or non-Being.  Sin goes against God’s intentions and purposes.  It comes about when man, by his own free will, turns from the Good (God) and fails to live in accordance with his own nature.  For this reason sin is abhorrent, destructive, and leads to death.

Random Musings: the concept of a ‘just war’

(1) from a Christian perspective war is objectively evil–which is simply to say that it is a depravation of or corruption of the good.  It is also to say that war is always evil no matter when it takes place, who is fighting in the battle, what society it occurs in, what reasons are behind it etc..  On the other hand, from a Christian perspective, war is for the time being, necessary.  This is a paradox.

(2) unlike Christians, secular humanists have no grounds for the belief that war is intrinsically evil.  The closest they might come to supporting the notion that war is objectively evil is to build some sort of utilitarian argument.  For instance, one might argue that war is evil because it does not bring about the greatest amount of pleasure/happiness (and the least amount of pain) for the greatest amount of people or for a society.  Clearly, however, this type of reasoning does not support the claim that war is intrinsically evil.  One can easily think of a multitude of ways in which war might benefit a society or group and, in many cases, bring about the greatest amount of pleasure/happiness (and the least amount of pain) for the masses.  In point of fact, a secular humanist should embrace war as being an natural outgrowth of evolution.  It is natures way of weeding out the weak and ensuring the survival of the strong; of building new societies and stronger cultures.

(3) a secular humanist is not in a position to claim that anything is objectively evil . . . let alone war!

(4) anyone who denies that war is evil is truly naive.  I implore you to spend a week in the trenches; to see, taste, and smell the death and mutilation of human flesh; to watch as innocent lives are ripped apart; to experience the destruction of homes, of art, of culture . . . even a just war is a tragedy.

(5) justice without mercy and grace is warped . . . it is nothing more than cold revenge.  Mercy and grace without justice is heartless and unloving.

(6) a just war, if it is truly just, is allowable only as a means of preservation.

(7) shall a good God allow entire societies to engage in and endorse horrendous evils without end?  Is a God who allows such societies to flourish good?  Shall the wicked prevail forever?

(8) if Christianity teaches that war is always evil, why does God sanction war in the Bible?  The answer: we live in a fallen world.  People are evil–the world is not as it should be.  In such circumstances, war becomes a necessary evil.  In a world containing free agents, willing evil and injustice, a just and loving God sanctions war in order to preserve mankind from utter destruction and to exact justice.  However, this is only a temporary solution.  God sent his Son, to die on the cross; to trample death by death; to abolish death and killing and murder forever!  Through Jesus the battle has been won; war shall be no more.  In this sense, Jesus is the most successful pacifist who ever lived.