On Human Nature


Ben H. Swett

Some modern theologians are saying that all human beings are inherently good. This is a departure from traditional Christian doctrine. I do not find it among the teachings of Jesus, the rest of the New Testament, the Didache, or other writings of the early church. Until recently, Christianity has been consistent in saying that all humans are basically sinners in need of salvation: that is, inherently fallible, imperfect, with a characteristic tendency to go astray and miss the mark, and thus unable to save themselves solely by their own efforts. That is the basic tenet.

Granted, the doctrine of original sin has been interpreted to mean that humans are evil, and that unbaptized people, including infants, go to limbo or burn in hell. That interpretation provides a target for those who are now promulgating the opposite doctrine, but both sides of the argument are extremist positions.

There is one bit of truth in this new doctrine that was not emphasized previously: we each have within us a spark of the divine. However, that is not a sound basis for self-esteem or the exaltation of human beings, because it applies to every living thing, incarnate or discarnate, even the demons, devils and fallen angels.

The traditional doctrine that all humans are sinners produces feelings of guilt. Such feelings motivate people to repent whatever their church defines as sin, and to seek salvation however their church defines it--or to rebel against the church because it manipulates them. Thus, as the traditional doctrine built the church by increasing demand for its services, so this modern doctrine is destroying the church by reducing demand for its services and accomodating those who have rebelled against it. Whether that is a good thing or not remains to be seen.

Teaching people they are inherently good removes their feelings of guilt and need to repent: "You are good. You don't need to feel guilty. No one has the right to lay any guilt on you. God loves you just the way you are, so you ought to feel good about yourself." This is cheap, universal absolution, in advance, with no effort required, and that is precisely what a lot of people want. But it removes motivation for improvement, reduces inhibitions, anaesthetizes the conscience, and invokes no penalty for criminal behavior. If you don't believe me, take a look around.

As I understand it, the original sin--our basic mistake or fundamental point of departure from the will of God--is in thinking that we know what is good and bad for us when we don't. By personal observation, I find the notion that all humans are good (or evil) to be an over-simplification. Humans are diverse. I believe there is a natural, expectable, statistically normal distribution of attitudes and motives among human beings. Some are intentionally good; some are intentionally evil; and most are various (and varying) mixtures of good and bad. I think the vast majority are basically self-interested, short-sighted, confused about what is truly good and bad for them, and therefore milling around like lost sheep, not knowing which way to go. This view of humanity is consistent with the New Testament.

Jesus did not say all men are evil, and he did not say all men are good. He said that some are good, and some are evil, and we should know them by their fruit:

Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! how can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:33-37 RSV)

If we do what he said--judge the tree by its fruit--it is obvious there was an awful decline in the history of Christianity, all the way from the Sermon on the Mount to the French and Spanish Inquisitions and the burning of heretics all over Europe. The sins of the churches that bear his name have been many and grievous, but they are still recognizable as wrong-doing because of criteria that Jesus taught.

The least biased book on early Christianity I have found--Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to AD 325 , by Will Durant (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1944)--shows this decline did not happen all at once and is not attributable to any one person or group. So I do not blame it on Paul, or Constantine, or Augustine, or the Popes. Rather, I think it is an illustration of the general tendency of human beings to go astray, to miss the mark, to accidently or intentionally become a detriment to themselves and others.

So, consistent with the human tendency to miss the mark, some people say people are good, and some say people are evil, but neither of these notions addresses the truly fundamental questions: what is good? what is evil? why? and to whom? From as far back as I can trace these questions, I find simple duality (good-evil), and as Buddha said, "Until you escape the delusion of the duality of opposites, you cannot progress." In my attempt to escape that delusion, I use a thinking-tool that I call "complete axiological distribution" (best-better-good-neutral-bad-worse-worst). However, that tool is a bit more complicated than I really need, so let's start here:

In the foregoing quote from Matthew, the Greek word for evil (poneros) actually means "causing pain or hardship." It suggests that, based on what they produce, kindness is good, indifference is worthless, and cruelty is evil. That is a simple axiological distribution (good-neutral-bad). Who is actually helped, who is hurt, and who is not effected, in the short run and the long run? And take another look: I am not only speaking about effect on others. Our own motives effect us whether we act on them or not. For example: feelings of kindness benefit the one who is filled with them; indifference is boring, and if we hold a grudge, it eats at us.

When we set aside preconceptions and prejudices, we can look at people one by one in the framework of an axiological distribution. Does he usually help, neither help nor hurt, or hurt those around him? Does the centering tendency of his actions and reactions indicate that he is basically kind, indifferent, or cruel? wise, ignorant, or foolish? generous, supportive, self-sufficient, parasitic, or predatory? Thus, by the observable evidence of words and deeds, we can learn a statistical truth that sets us free from simplistic notions about the nature of human beings.