Human decency and original sin

December 03, 2020

Human decency and original sin

Andrew Schmidt

William Golding’s famous 1954 novel Lord of the Flies tells of a group of British schoolboys marooned on a desert island. Things do not go well. Their separation from civilisation brings out the worst in the boys and they end up treating each other in some dreadful ways. I can still remember learning, in Year 8 English, that this book had been designed to express the view of Thomas Hobbes, that before civilisation mankind was naturally in a state of war.

Dutch author Rutger Bregman, in his recent book Human Kind, has drawn our attention to a real life Lord of the Flies situation: the marooning of six Tongan school boys in 1965. Unfortunately for Golding and Hobbes, they did not turn into monsters. They co-operated. They cared for each other. And they were in remarkable physical condition when rescued more than a year later.[1]

The big point of Bregman’s book is that ‘most people, deep down, are pretty decent’.[2] Against Hobbes, who believed that we are evil until brought under control by civilisation, he sides with another giant of political philosophy, Rousseau, who believed we are basically good— until corrupted by civilisation! In support of this, Bregman manages to debunk much of the evidence (especially from psychological experiments) that was supposed to show how we humans will so quickly turn ‘evil’ when given the opportunity.

These things bear an obvious relevance to the Christian view of human nature. The Bible teaches that we are sinful from birth, fundamentally evil (Genesis 8:21, Psalm 51:5, Ephesians 2:1-3). Yet surely if Hobbes was mistaken, some would say, so is the Bible.

The teaching of Jesus suggests we should not be quite so hasty. Jesus said,

‘If you, even though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father...’ (Luke 11:13).

Jesus knows very well that most people love their own children in an amazingly self-sacrificial way. Yet to him, this is not inconsistent with our evil sinful nature.

Sin does not mean that we do evil at every opportunity. We are full of motivations, like family affection, love of country, a desire to be helpful and an aversion to causing harm, which effectively restrain some of our baser tendencies. But whereas for Bregman this makes us basically decent, for Jesus it is not morally commendable that we love our kids; it’s just how God has made us. These natural affections are part of what theologians call ‘common grace’, that is the grace that God shows to his whole creation, whether Christian or not.

Sin is a failure to give God the glory due to him. It is essential for Christian faith to acknowledge this truth about ourselves. Christians gain a sense of their sinfulness through the work of the Holy Spirit. However, it does not follow from human sinfulness that employers, educators and lawmakers should adopt a cynical attitude to human nature, as though people must be controlled with carrot and stick. Because of God’s common grace to us, there is more than carrot and stick to work with. For example, as Bregman points out, an employee’s ‘intrinsic motivation’ to work effectively is a powerful force for a boss to harness. This insight is perfectly compatible with the Christian doctrine of sin. The Bible does not deny that sinful humans are capable of great good. What it denies is that we should get the credit.

Still, it must be said that Bregman goes too far in his support of Rousseau. (He is at his least convincing when trying to expand on Rousseau’s pre-historical speculation that we became corrupted as we began to gather into civilisations.) Contrary to the book’s title, the idea that we are fundamentally good is ultimately not a hopeful idea. In fact, it is a dangerous idea, as I will argue in the next issue. But if we are sinners, yet loved by God, there is hope.

ENDNOTES

[1] Rutger Bregman, Human Kind: A Hopeful History, translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore (Bloomsbury, 2020), p33.

[2] Ibid., p2.

 



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