Are People Basically Good or Bad?

For as long as I can remember, the idea that people are basically good has been taken to be a tenet of theological and political liberalism. The idea that people are basically bad has been presented to me as a tenet of Christianity—and this tenet has been held by both the Calvinists and the Arminians I’ve known. This is a conservative Christian meme, at least when we’re talking about political views. “If only liberals (or Marxists, etc.) could recognize that man is inherently evil, they wouldn’t put so much faith in people not to game the system!”

But are people basically good or basically evil? What does the Bible say?

It depends on what you mean by “basically.” At its most basic, human nature is something created by God, created “very good.” How could be otherwise when human nature was composed in the image of the divine nature? The Fall has twisted that goodness, bent it. But the goodness is ineradicable. It’s present in the conscience (Rom 2:14–15), written on every heart by the finger of God. Even the drunkest drunk and the lawyeriest lawyer has not fully erased God’s image in himself.

But ever since the Fall, this earth has witnessed no unbent human nature—except once, in a little international backwater 2,000 years ago. So it’s tempting to say that badness is “basic” to humanity. It is now, in any case.

But I’d rather guard that word “basically.” I suggest a new meme: humans are basically good and fundamentally twisted. Sin touches every part of us, but those parts aren’t “basically” evil.

One story: a Christian friend of mine who has since changed his mind once told me, “Our physical flesh [here he pinched some skin on his arm] is evil.” That’s a dualism foreign to Scripture Christianity. Jesus Christ has physical flesh.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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