Q: Are people basically good or basically evil? And if they are good how do we explain the bad things they do, and if they are evil how do we explain the good things they do?
It’s a big call
There’s no doubt that most individuals see themselves as basically good. But it’s a slightly different question to consider whether ‘people’ are basically good or evil. After all, everyone is different, and there will always be some extremely evil people as well as some extremely good people, plus all the people in between. How can you possibly say whether all humanity has a natural bias towards good or evil? That’s a big call. Thankfully I don’t have to make it.
God called it
Pretty early on in the Bible’s account of mankind, God made this assessment of the situation:
"The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time" (Genesis 6:5).
It wasn’t just a few bad eggs that spoiled it for everyone else. God looked at all mankind and saw that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts were only evil all the time. That sounds to me like a people who were basically evil. But was this just a particularly bad period in human history? Maybe we have improved since then?
David called it too
Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and King David has this to say:
"Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5).
This is not the self-assessment of the average western person. David is brutally honest about his basic condition: sinful. Despite his many good works, even David would fit the description that God gave around the time of the flood.
The 20th century
I’ve heard it said that the 20th century was supposed to be the most peaceful in history; that there was an expectation that humans were better than ever before. Obviously that wasn’t the case, the 20th century brought more bloodshed than ever before and shattered any hope that humanity had improved since the days of Noah.
So what about the good stuff?
If people are basically evil, then how do we explain the good things they do?
For Christians, we can confidently say that the good works are a result of the Spirit at work in their life. We are a new creation and the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us to produce faith, obedience, endurance and all sorts of other good stuff.
For non Christians, it’s a bit harder to say. Sometimes it will be out of a desire to feel worthy. Sometimes it will be for the public recognition. Sometimes it will be in return for something good someone did for them. Sometimes it will be because of a strong moral conviction from a religious upbringing. Sometimes it will be because it makes them feel good. Sometimes it will be because they think they should. I think it’s also possible that God could, at times, work through non Christians to do good things.
So it seems we all have the potential for good in us, but in reality, our hearts are more selfish than we think. The words of Psalm 51:1-12 show us how David responded when he realised just how sinful he was. It's a great prayer we could all use:
"Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me."