Sometimes, the theological or scriptural assumptions we come to can have a devastating impact on our lives, the lives of others around us and generations to come. In my opinion, one of those assumptions that much of the church either fully adopts or ignorantly tolerates is the doctrine of total depravity.
This is the fundamental doctrine of the 5 key points of Calvinism, or reformed theology. Simply put, total depravity is the doctrine that after “the fall’ described in Genesis, we as human beings are completely evil. This sounds harmless enough right? In fact, many reading this article might be saying, “Isn’t that the gospel? Jesus is perfect, and we are evil, and He came to save us from our utter evil.”
But let’s step back a minute and ponder on this thought. When God creates humanity in the Genesis description of creation…well, when He creates everything, each scripture finishes with a statement something like this,
“God looked upon what He created and saw that it was good.”
Now, why is His creation good?
Because God is good.
In Genesis 3, we see the story of a man being deceived and following a different path than the one God laid out which results in a curse brought upon humanity. The two biggest results from following a different plan than God’s good plan was separation from God and death. These are the things Jesus came to resolve in the establishment of His kingdom on earth and in His death and resurrection. All of Jesus’ work is to reconcile man fully to God and to bring a final end to death in every sense.
What is not described is a fall to absolute evil. Now I will confess to you that there are passages that describe the evil of humanity, but there are also a great many that describe the righteous deeds of humanity. I will also confess that this article is not an exegetical exposition of any of the key texts on the subject; there are many people who do a better job at that.
So what should we see in the paradox of man’s possibility toward good and evil?
We should all find ourselves in this story. We should see that God is inviting us down a path that leads to life and that we are often tempted to go down a path that leads to death. Brokenness is certainly a part of our lives, but the good news of this gospel is that Jesus is the answer to man’s brokenness.
How can we truly believe that man’s act of rebellion is so powerful as to nullify God’s initial affirmation of goodness?
Interestingly enough, the question of man’s potential for evil and good is so fundamental that the tension between humanity’s potential for evil and good is seen in the very next story highlighted in scripture. Abel’s sacrifice is seen by God as favorable and good while Cain’s jealousy drove him to a violent act of evil.
Now as a pastor I have been exposed to some of the awful acts that human beings can commit. To not be aware of man’s potential for evil is dangerous and can get you seriously hurt. But, maybe even more foolish is to miss the goodness with which God blessed humanity, and not seeing that goodness might actually be the thing perpetuating the evil more than anything else.
God in Christ, calls us back to that original goodness. Through Jesus, we are given life and life abundantly. We are also called back into the fullness of relationship with Him. We are broken people, and the death and resurrection of Jesus make us whole. We are not beings born totally depraved. We are beings in need of healing.
Maybe now you are saying, “OK, there isn’t that big of a difference” – but quite frankly there is a massive difference. Let me highlight a few key points.
Firstly, as stated before, if a simple act of man’s sin can somehow undermine the entirety of God’s design, then we have a big problem on our hands.
Secondly, because of the view of total depravity, many people in the body of Christ think that any hope to change for the better in this life is virtually meaningless. They go on and on about how bad they are, which at times there is a place for – Paul did so in moments – but he didn’t always. Many times, he spoke of the great work God had done in his life and the good God used him to do.
The gospel is not just a promise for eternal life after this one. It is a promise that the power of God’s eternal act will transform everything about our lives and this world. All too often, I have seen this self-deprecating theological position wreak havoc on peoples’ lives, and sometimes it even becomes a pass to sin through some distorted logic that we can’t get free from evil in the end anyway.
We can grow, we can become holy vessels living out a life worthy of the calling He has given us.
Thirdly, somehow, we have determined that the only way to fully praise the beauty of Jesus’ holiness is to have at His antithesis an entirely evil humanity. Once again this is not the gospel. Jesus’ perfection, love, beauty and holiness are amazing entirely on their own without any stance on the status of humanity. In no way is His glory compromised by seeing people as capable of good.
You do not have to have a low view of humanity to have a high view of God.
To put it straight, God’s view of humanity is one of great value. This kingdom story is one of a loving father sending a willingly self-sacrificing son, because He saw that we were worth it, worth the price.
So back to the question: are we good or bad?
Well, a little of both is probably the best answer, while we are often prone to live in a way that does not bring life; the good in us is that we have been created in God’s nature, by His hands and His word.
So, let me leave you with some questions to ponder. Is the power of what Jesus did strong enough to transform your life? Even you? Can you live a life worthy of His calling? Could you stand alongside the heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11? What do you believe is actually possible for you, in your life in Christ?
Because maybe you are selling yourself short or specifically selling short the life that God has for you.
Photo by Toa Heftiba