Is man inherently evil?

Well, here’s a light, breezy topic for us to tackle over a long weekend. Is mankind essentially good and noble at his core with a few outlying, sick individuals messing things up for the rest of us? Or is man prone to evil on a genetic level, only managing a facade of civilization and goodness through strained communal effort? Writing at The American Thinker, Mike Konrad thinks he’s onto the answer, and it’s not a very cheerful one. But he argues that the truth can be found right in the Bible.

What separates Christianity from all other religions is a hard truth: Man is intrinsically evil. This flies in the face of hyper-leftist dogma that man is essentially good; all that is necessary is an environmental tune up.

While it is true that crime is greater in poor neighborhoods — poverty can bring out the worst in people — it is equally true that that potential for evil has to be there. Increasing prosperity will lessen street crime to be sure. Well-fed people have less need to steal, but crime will merely blossom in other areas.

This doctrine is called “Original Sin;” and it has been replaced in our culture by self-esteem.

Konrad goes on to state that it is not the faith of Christianity which is dying, but the organized church and the clergy in general.

Men need to be told they are depraved, and they need free grace. It is not earned. Our churches do not teach this. This is why official Christianity in the West is dying. We need a restoration of humility and perspective to define our behavior and to define our goals in society.

If the churches, of whatever denomination, continue to ignore this, let them die out. What recent surveys show is that Christianity is not shrinking — just the 501(c)3 official corporation churches — but merely retreating to home churches and bible studies, which is how the church started out in the first century. Despite what clerics think, God does not need clergy.

I’m not going to debate Mike on biblical interpretation as I would be in far over my head. (Though if Ed wants to jump in on that score I’m sure he could speak to it with considerable authority.) But I do believe that even a cursory glance at the broader history of man, as well as the work of centuries of anthropologists, offers some proof of the fruit not falling far from that tree. (Pun intended… #SorryNotSorry.) Left unchecked, man has tended toward quite a bit of violence and aggressive behavior, whether you choose to characterize it as “evil” or not.

We are not born with any inherent sense of propriety, respect for property or the sanctity of the persons of others. These are things which are trained into us (hopefully) by our parents and the broader environmental lessons of civil society, assuming one is fortunate enough to be born into a civilized land. That’s why parents inevitably have to begin yelling at toddlers about why it’s wrong to take things that don’t belong to them and stop them from hitting their playmates. But if you were a son born into a tribe traveling with Genghis Khan, your parents would probably have been telling you, “the greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.” Anger, aggression and a desire to fulfill our own needs and desires, even if that comes at a cost to others, seems to be built into our hind brains in some fashion. The idea of organized societies which band together to enforce rules and maintain the rights of individuals is actually a fairly recent development in historical terms.

How did the practice of slavery arise early in man’s history and flourish right through to modern times? That’s got to be pretty much the epitome of evil, isn’t it? And yet it’s been ubiquitous around the globe, embedded right in the pages of the Old Testament. I believe it all comes down to something which anthropologists refer to as Kin Selection. We tend to exhibit empathy which relies on categorizing people based on whether they look like us or not. Family comes first, but given a choice between helping, ignoring or harming non-family members, we gravitate towards those who we recognize as being closely related to our genetic chain, likely due to some built in survival mechanism.

I don’t list war – at least taken as a general practice of nations – as an “evil” for purposes of this discussion because war is sometimes an unpleasant necessity agreed upon by members of a polite society as a means to a desirable end. But that’s only when we look at it from the ten thousand foot level. On the granular scale, as my Dad frequently would say, bad things happen in war. And he was right. Awful things are done by individuals when the restraints of decent society are far away and the watchful eyes of law enforcement are nowhere to be seen. It took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and World War 2. The horror stories which came out of the fall of Berlin and what happened to many of the civilians living there would curl your hair. Reaching as far back across the sands of time as you like, you would doubtless discover the same thing were you able to create a time machine and go back to watch the earliest tribes attacking one another.

We create societies such as ours not to celebrate our inherent peace and goodness, but to tamp down the beast. Is this original sin or just an inherited mechanism which maximized our chances of survival and procreation? Beats the heck out of me. But I am reminded yet again of a moment in the movie Leap of Faith, where Steve Martin plays a corrupt, fake revival tent preacher on the path to redemption. During one particularly inspired rant, he lets the mask slip a bit, looks to the heavens and cries out:

You say, ‘love never endeth.’ I say love never started. You say ‘the meek shall inherit the earth.’ And I say all the meek can count on is getting the short end of the stick. You say, ‘is there one among you who is pure of heart?’ and I say not one.

(As an aside, that’s a fantastic movie. If you haven’t seen it you should give it a look.) But anyway… food for thought. Your observations, as always, are welcome.

Update (Ed): I’ll address this from the Biblical perspective, rather than from the philosophical perspective, as Jazz has done. This debate has raged from the very beginnings of the Christian church, and resulted in forceful denunciations for centuries, until modern theologians revived a few old heresies.

To declare that man is inherently evil is to misunderstand the nature of original sin. God created man in His own image, as He created everything else in the material world. The original sin of Adam and Eve was to reject God and grasp for His status through disobedience, for which they were ejected from the Garden, but still remained in the love of God. Put more simply, “original sin” is the predilection toward sinfulness, but we choose whether to be evil or good. We are not inherently evil, or the sacrifice of Jesus would have been in vain. To consider mankind inherently evil would be itself a rejection of God’s work and His image.

The argument for mankind and creation as inherently evil, or at least of evil origin, was a heresy known as Manichaeism, as well as forms of Gnosticism (and its antecedents, such as Marcionism). Both strains of thought postulated that the material world either sprang from a lesser god (Gnosticism) or Satan (Manichaeism), and that God works to transform it to good. In both systems, God created only the spiritual realm. This, however, presents a particular problem for Christians, since the Incarnation of Jesus was that of a fully human man, as well as a fully divine consubstantial Son of God. It also can’t be reconciled with salvation and resurrection, or Jesus’ own teachings about corporal works of mercy, such as feeding and clothing the poor and sick. Why would Jesus have been resurrected materially if the corporeal form is inherently evil? Why not simply rise as a spirit instead?

Creation, as we see from Genesis, is indisputably good in the eyes of God. That is equally true of man, created finally on the sixth day (Gen 1:26-31): “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” To argue that God was blindsided by man and turned itself into an inherent evil is to deny the omniscience and omnipotence of God. We have been corrupted through original sin — which proceeds from the gift of free will but does not overcome it. We can accept the grace through the Holy Spirit to overcome sin and find our way to salvation because we are not inherently evil, but flawed and prone to sin. God loves us and wants us to come back to him as sons and daughters, which makes a pretty good argument that we are not inherently evil but inclined to waywardness. We choose evil, or we choose saintliness. That is the gift of free will.

Putting this in the context of contemporary political debate is, in my estimation, a tremendous mistake. The issue of “hyper-leftist” thought has less to do with theology than with the material world anyway, but the actual problem is that we tend to use modern theories as a way to explain away our own predilection to sin, and it’s not just “leftists” who do that, either. I think that’s what Konrad means, and he’s correct in that sense; sin exists, and isn’t just a choice between moral relatives in a philosophical sense. To argue that we are inherently evil is to deny the goodness of creation, and to provide yet another excuse for our choosing sin over God.

Anyway, that’s my perspective from my faith tradition.