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Christian moral theory: people are not "basically good"

A cathedral
A cathedral
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

When confronted with the Christian claim that everyone needs God’s forgiveness, a frequent objection is to respond that “I’m basically a good person.” That is, they feel they both recognize the moral law and abide by it to a sufficient degree. Such a person is comfortable living in a world of moral gray areas, and is discomfited by a worldview of strict black-and-white.

The question becomes, how bad can one be before one is a bad person? Before looking at the answer to this question, consider the larger picture:

The human complaint is that the world is full of misery and suffering. Remove, for a moment, all natural evils such as fire, flood, cancer, weeds and mosquitos. Does the complaint cease to be? Not remotely. People continue to be a problem as they rape, murder, and destroy their way through the unhappy lives of those around them.

So now remove all of the “bad” people from the world. The world is now composed entirely of “basically good” people. Do humans now live in a paradise?

Unlikely. Because if most people are honest, it is not the natural evils and truly “bad” people that make their lives stressful and miserable. It is mostly other people who would consider themselves “basically good.” Both the divorced and the divorcee likely still consider themselves “good people,” all the while making each other’s lives miserable. The person who cuts another off in traffic causing their road rage to flair up probably considers himself a “good person.” The obnoxious customer and the unhelpful customer service representative, the mother who slaps her child, and the child who obstinately challenged her authority, the waitress who takes forever to attend a table, and the customer who leaves a bad tip; all of these are “basically good people.”

Left with only these kinds of people to deal with, the average middle-class life would not be greatly altered. They would still trod their way through a job they dislike, complain about the people around them and take medication for their stress while trying to drown their unhappiness in banal forms of entertainment.

And again, society tends to de-humanize people who commit truly despicable acts, calling a rapist a “monster” and a murderer “inhuman,” but these people are shockingly like any other human being. They may truly love their mothers and adopt orphaned dogs. They likely laugh at comedies and weep at tragedies. They may support the same political party as everyone else and for the same reasons. In fact their act of rape or murder may be a one-time event for which they feel deep remorse. Does this now make them “basically good”?

Any one of these “good people” could, at any moment, cross over the line to a “bad person.” If a person is selfish and immature all their lives, making the lives of those around them uncomfortable, would they qualify as “bad”? Where, short of absolute perfection, does one draw the line? And who, short of God, determines the final bad action that pushes a person over the line from being “basically good” to “basically bad”?

One common response is that all people are – at their core – good, and that the bad actions they commit are the unfortunate results of their genetics, upbringing, lack of education, and other forces over which they have no control. However this justification for bad behavior is of very little comfort when this person is actively stealing one’s wallet at gunpoint or kidnapping one’s child for some unspeakable reason.

The Biblical view is that there is no in-between. Moreover, the Bible states that no one succeeds in keeping the moral law:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.””

(Romans 3:11-18 English Standard Version)

At its root, every major world religion is designed to address this problem of evil, most specifically human evil. Each religion establishes a goal (nirvana, paradise, godhood, etc.) and establishes a system of moral behavior that is required to reach that goal (the eightfold path, the five pillars, the law of Heavenly Father, etc.). Even atheists appear to respect the virtues of ethical behavior. In their 2011 paper – titled “Morality Without Religion” - atheists Hauser and Singer put it this way:

“…there are no moral principles shared by all religious people (disregarding their specific religious membership) but no agnostics and atheists. This observation leads to a second: atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles. They often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone, including involvement in movements to abolish slavery and contribute to relief efforts associated with human suffering.”

Inherent in all of these views on moral behavior is a very basic observation: human beings recognize a universal moral principle - and they fail to live up to this moral principle.

The entire enterprise of religion and government spills forth from the belief – the verified fact – that individuals seem incapable of perfectly governing their own behavior. This is why whole institutions are established which found and police rules for behavior and penalties for disobedience. This is why these institutions are greater than the individuals that function within them, and why they operate by the “rule of law,” that is, that no one – including the law-maker – is above the law.

What could possibly explain both the shared instinct for good and the shared propensity for evil?

In her 2011 op-ed piece in the New York Times – titled “Good Minus God” - atheist Louise M. Antony said:

“We ‘moralistic atheists’ …find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.”

If morality is simply a recognized aspect of the natural world as Antony claims, why is it that the same humans that recognize these values overwhelmingly fail to act upon them?

Any sufficient moral theory must explain both the human obligation to good and the human capacity for the bad.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul explains his moral theory thusly:

“Yet if it had not been for the [moral] law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.

“I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (Romans 7:7-11 English Standard Version)

Lest one believe that Paul is creating a theology different than what the Old Testament teaches, look at God’s confrontation with Cain in Genesis:

“The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’” (Genesis 4:6-7 English Standard Version)

But, of course, Cain could not rule over it, and, as Jesus tells us, he was a slave to his sin:

“Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34 English Standard Version)

This spells out the Biblical explanation for human moral behavior. Humans have rejected God and live in de facto rebellion against him. Because of “The Fall,” they recognize the Moral Law, and in so-doing are slaves to sin.

The Apostle Paul masterfully encapsulates this struggle:

“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

It is, of course, the Biblical position that Jesus succeeded where humans failed. Because of his success, Jesus has credited his righteousness to all who repent and accept his forgiveness (though many are unwilling to do so):

John 3:16-21 (English Standard Version/ESV)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”