Are People Generally Good or Basically Bad?

Posted in book review, christian thought, theology by Nathan Creitz on June 16, 2009
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DSB Question 3 of 10

Michael Wittmer has asked some great questions in his book Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough. I’ve been reviewing this book chapter by chapter because the book closely identifies with the content of ChurchETHOS. I’ve been able to give away 5 copies of the book already and you can still get one for free here. So far, Wittmer has asked, Must You Believe Something to be Saved? and Do Right Beliefs Get in the Way of Good Works? In my posts I’ve tried to be fair to Wittmer’s thoughts and I’ve sprinkled the posts with some of my own responses to those questions as well. There have been some great comments so I hope you will go back and check out the conversation.

The Next Question

Today, I want to talk about chapter four of DSB. Wittmer asks, “Are people generally good or basically bad?”

The problem with this question is that we want to believe in the innate goodness of people. Since we want to believe it, we often do and we tend to ignore the more important  question of what God thinks about our goodness. This becomes a Big Assumption that holds us and keeps us from recognizing the truth that we are in desperate need of being rescued from ourselves (I don’t care how good you think you are).

There is certainly some goodness in our lives, but there is also some badness. In comparison to Bin Laden I’m a saint. In comparison to Mother Theresa I’m a sinner. But in comparison to God?

Universally Created By God to Enjoy Him Forever

The first question and answer of the Westminster Catechism is:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

There is something that all of us have in common: we were all created by God to glorify and enjoy Him forever. We were created in His image. Our first parents were placed in a beautiful garden. God looked at all that He had made and it was very good. Our common – and very human – love for life, for beauty, for creation, and for our fellow human are part of what it means to be human. Nothing we’ve ever done can remove those sorts of qualities (and others) from our human nature. I’m confident that I can find something good in ANYONE if I spent enough time looking.

Humans do good things. We write checks to charity. We help old ladies cross streets. We generally try and care for the defenseless, the helpless, the hopeless. People are generally capable of doing good.

Universal Rejection of God

We humans have all been created, therefore we are generally good, but we all have something else in common too. Wittmer writes, “Everyone possesses a relative goodness that enables us to help others. But when we lift our eyes above our natural level and compare our goodness with God, we confront a double problem: God’s higher standard and our sinful brokenness.” We were all created, but we also have ALL rejected God, something the Bible calls sin. Some do it willfully, some do it ignorantly, but the fact remains, we’ve all done it.

For those of us who have turned back to God and asked His forgiveness, we must realize that we are no better than anyone else. Wittmer encourages Christian humility and I strongly agree. Just because I’m forgiven and someone else isn’t doesn’t mean that that same grace and love and forgiveness isn’t extended to them by God too. God loves those He has created. He created all of us and He wants us to enjoy Him forever. He extends His grace to ALL who will receive it. He longs for us to be reconciled to Him.

The Fall is what happened when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Ever since then, humanity is living under a curse. Sure, we can do some good things every once-in-a-while, but we can also do some bad things. Some have more discipline than others and though they don’t know God they are able to listen more attentively to their God-given conscience and they restrain themselves from doing too much evil. But we all do it. We all have hurt someone. We’ve all let someone down. This world may be a better place thanks to you, but just barely. A lot of people feel like they’ve got to do more good to offset the bad that they’ve done. That’s noble and is advisable, but God is more concerned with your relationship with Him. You can make a bigger difference in the world if you obey Him.

Even though “obedience” doesn’t sound good what is God asking us to obey? Jesus summed it up into “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) If you could do that perfectly, then you would truly be good with no shred of evil in you. Jesus is the only one capable of that kind of obedience. When we confess our disobedience to God and ask His forgiveness, He begins the process of healing us from the evil that permeates our nature. He begins to show us how to be good again.

So What Is Good?

A lot of people don’t want us to bring up sin and the Fall. They want us to simply celebrate the good that we find in others and accept the bad that sometimes happens. This weakens the need for forgiveness and lets us just live our lives however we deem best (and that’s often not as good as we think). That kind of goodness will never measure up.

Wittmer gives a good example of this:

Yesterday my six-year-old pounded out his first recognizable tune on the piano, and I made quite a fuss about it. “Landon, that is ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’! You are playing the piano! Good Job!” And it was – especially good for a beginner and far better than anything I can play. But compared to my wife or a concert pianist, it was not very good at all. Goodness is a relative term. It depends on what we are talking about.

Again, when we talk about good things people do, I think we can all agree that we are generally good, but in comparison with the God who created us, we all fall short. There is a chasm that we ourselves have dug with our sin that separates us from God, not because of God, but because of us! That’s not good.

Picture 1Wittmer quotes Tony Jones, another “postmodern innovator” who said, “a common metaphor showed God on one side of a diagram and a stick figure (you) on the other; the chasm between was labeled ‘Sin,’ and the only bridge across was in the shape of Jesus’ cross. But emergents ask, ‘What kind of God can’t reach across a chasm? Chasms can’t stop God!'” Wittmer replies brilliantly to this naive comment: “I am not sure what Jones is objecting to here, for the metaphor’s point is that while the chasm prevents us from coming to God, it does not stop God from reaching across. Perhaps he means that God should be able to reach us in some other way besides the cross? Or perhaps that our sin does not separate us from God?”

For those of us who believe the truth of the Bible, we can already see how God has reached across the chasm. Hey, I don’t like simplistic, cartoon versions of the gospel either but the basic truth is that we ARE sinful and we ARE separated from God. Thanks be to God that He HAS reached across the chasm to reconcile us to Himself!

Is Our Good, Good Enough?

We have to realize that we may do some good things but when it comes to loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, we just aren’t cutting it. We are in need of an overhaul of our sinful system and God lovingly provides the answer through His Son Jesus. Our good may help a person in need, or bring a smile to someone’s face, but our eternal relationship with God depends on our willingness to give up and confess that we can’t do it without His help.

Wittmer writes, “People are created, and so we may unreservedly love them. People are fallen, and so there is a difference between those who are running their own lives and those who are striving to follow Jesus. Our common creation enables Christians and non-Christians to cooperate, and our response to the Fall explains why we often compete.” Let’s learn how to love each other God’s way. He is the only One who is ultimately Good. We need to be restored to Him and that relationship with Him will help us love others and enjoy Him forever.


5 Responses

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  1. Mark| said, on June 16, 2009 at 10.33 pm

    We are generally good at being bad. 🙂

    We think we’re so good that we often miss the stain of sin we wear.

  2. Chris Kape said, on June 17, 2009 at 12.12 pm

    For a strong perspective on the same subject, you can try my novel, “A Diary of Wasted Years,” just published by Eloquent Books. I welcome any potential reader who might enjoy it. Although it will come to grab you by the throat, be sure it’s worth it.

  3. jeremiah17 said, on June 17, 2009 at 11.24 pm

    Jesus said…”none are good”. Pretty simple really.

  4. Jason said, on June 19, 2009 at 7.11 pm

    No, not so simple…really.

  5. Jon Reid said, on June 25, 2009 at 11.44 pm

    My answer to the question: “Yup.”
    But my answer has nothing to do with salvation. The whole good/evil thing? That was the wrong tree.

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