The Reality Of Man’s Basic Goodness, Or Not So Much
–Continued From previous post–
Reality number 4, Man is not “basically good”
Years ago, while watching the evening news, I saw something that I’ll never forget. A woman in a courtroom had just received a verdict for something she’d been accused of concerning her children. I can’t remember what exactly it was, only that is was pretty rotten. But what struck me was her outburst in response. As they were taking her out of the courtroom she was in tears crying out over and over, as if defending herself against the real charge, “I am not a bad person, I am not a bad person!” Had she been living in reality it would have already been settled in her heart and mind that not only was she not a good person, the fact that she wasn’t was probably one of the few things that she had in common with every other person in the room. That word “good”, in her judgement of self, called forth a standard. This is true for all of us. Without first accepting that our judgments demand a basis, it is quite impossible for us to reside in the land of reality. This is certainly true if we are making moral judgements, and especially true if we are making them about ourselves.
When we are exploring the condition of man, you see, we are not so much attempting to answer the question, “Is man basically good?”, as we are attempting to define an all too common word in the English language. Man is by his nature quick to run to his own defense when his basic goodness is in question. He will in general declare it as a self-evident-truth in the same way the convicted woman did when she insisted that she was, in spite of and after all the evidence to the contrary, a good person. But is this reality? Is man really basically good?
When we hear someone assume man’s goodness, or appeal to it in defense of a popular sin, we can know that “good” was generally defined loosely by a bunch of assumptions that are as common as the word itself. But don’t you make those assumptions. Know that the word always necessarily refers to a standard. So to answer the question concerning our goodness, we must first seek the standard to which the word refers. The standard we humans usually appeal to is no standard at all but rather an emotional opinion, our own. “I am a good person. Why you ask? Because I think so, that’s why.” But the Bible presents us with another standard, the very standard as it turns out that God will measure us by, and so therefore the same standard by which we ought to measure ourselves while we can. And that standard is nothing less than perfection.
So if we use God’s standard, it is safe for us to realistically conclude that we, as human beings, are not basically good. So not only does reality match up with this truth, so does history; not to mention the last 2000 years of church doctrine, all of which are good indicators that we are on the right track for living in reality. And Indeed, not only does the Bible proclaim this truth once in some obscure passage, but throughout it drives the point home like a hammer driving a nail. The scriptures insists that man is fallen, that he is not basically good, that he is a law breaker, that he is at war with God and that he is inclined toward evil at all times. Unless we are masters of denial, it is impossible to read the Bible and conclude that man is basically good. We must therefore either reject the Bible, or confess what it says, which is that we not only need a savior, we are in a horribly desperate situation and in dire need of a savior. This truth, as you might guess, is not a popular one–not even among those who claim to love and know God. But that should be expected I suppose. Anyone, after all, even if they’ve done something horrible to their children, can appeal to the sliding scale of their social counterparts and come away content that they’re doing just fine, thank you very much.
So the reality of man’s true condition is an unpopular one, which is probably why the Bible, with all of its talk about love, is still very much hated and despised. Take Hell for instance. The Bible paints awful pictures of this place, and Jesus says Himself that, without an intervention,”good” demands that we are all condemned to go there. Now why would God respond so over-the-top harshly to people who are basically good? He doesn’t. If we think He does, then we don’t understand “good” in such a way that sheds true light on our “bad”.
The truth concerning our condition is a stark one. The standard against which we must begin our judgments of ourselves is a one that only Jesus has ever achieved. And that was what made Him worthy of a sacrifice on the behalf of those who are inherently bad. If I could never get you to understand anything else about the Gospel, I would that you understand this: It is in His righteousness, and in His righteousness alone, that any claim by anyone can be made to goodness. It is folly to compare ourselves to others for a basis of declaring ourselves good. It is worse than folly to appeal to our bearing of God’s image. It is also folly to define good according to a standard that we create for the express purpose of declaring ourselves good. No, the reality is that man is not basically good. To deny this is to deny reality. But to accept it is to open the door to the gospel, the very door that leads to repentance. We truly are in a bad way, but it is in the depths of our despair that we are finally able to, not only hear the good news, but to embrace it with great praise and thanksgiving.
I pray that you would never lose sight of these few of the many realities that you must accept and which you cannot change, that you would grow in righteousness, and be saved, and renew your mind. These are starting points; a place to begin. You need to know that you are living in a society that every day ventures further from reality, so it is of the utmost importance that, as you go out into this evil world, you not only have a place to stand, but that you are able to stand, and after you have done all, to stand.