Monday, October 11, 2021

Anonymous Asks (166)

“Are people born good?”

Aristotle argued that men are born amoral and morality is learned, while Rousseau insisted men would be gentle and pure without the greed and inequality promoted by the class system. The philosophical debate has gone on for centuries, and “science” has contributed little to finding an answer.

So then, expert opinion on the question averages out to something like “We’re not really sure.”

Assigning Responsibility for Evil

Here at street level, post-moderns don’t like the word “evil” much. Like Rousseau, they prefer talk about inequities, injustices and systemic corruption to frank discussions about individual responsibility, let alone a sinful nature. Nature is occasionally assigned responsibility when we act out on what appear to be genetic predispositions, but these are not considered evil so much as unfortunate (in the case of things like alcoholism or depression) or even praiseworthy and “authentic” (in the case of sexual preferences, which are either viewed as hardwired or completely malleable, depending on the situation).

Oddly, the Bible, often accused of promoting a primitive and outmoded worldview, depicts good and evil with far more sophistication and insight than the philosophers, in whose writings perceptive observations and confusion mingle freely and about equally.

Beyond Good and Evil

However, poring over the pages of scripture it quickly becomes evident that describing men as “good” or “evil” is both overly simplistic and a category error. The worst men and women occasionally do affectionate, loyal, responsible things. And, if we are honest, so-called “good” people do more selfish, hurtful, cowardly and irresponsible things than we care to examine. Good and evil are choices men make, not adjectives that adequately sum up their lives. In the ultimate sense, as Jesus put it, “No one is good except God alone.”

The question, of course, is how we got that way. The Bible’s answer is that human beings are naturally predisposed to evil rather than good. James writes that sin is a product of human desire, a process which starts early. “Each person is tempted,” he says, “when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin.” For example, Cain grew up and found himself tempted by envy. God told him, “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Cain failed to rule over sin. His desire got the better of him, and he became humanity’s first murderer. It was not that Abel was born good and Cain born evil, but that Abel managed his desires and Cain didn’t.

Nature and Nurture

Moreover, our surroundings contribute to making us worse. Because other individuals around us have different levels of maturity and different experiences, they encounter temptations we do not; and, like Eve with Adam, the very first thing a sinner always wants to do with his new favorite sin is share it with someone else. Thus, from the earliest years of our lives we are tempted by others. It is straying far from our subject to get into supernatural temptation, but the Bible tells us this is part of our problem as well. Even those who blame “the system” for evil in the world are not far wrong. Get enough men and women together in one place, and they can institutionalize evil in such a way that it is difficult to pin responsibility for it on any single individual. “Temptations to sin are sure to come,” said the Lord Jesus. Truer words were never spoken.

So then, it is not nature OR nurture that makes a man what he is, but rather nature AND nurture conspiring together.

Locating the Source

Knowing these truths changes a great deal. The first step in dealing with the consequences of sin is to shut off the sin at its source; to deal with it firmly and conclusively. In order to do that, we have to know where the sin is coming from. If we recognize our own capacity for evil and our own inclination toward it, we have a chance of submitting ourselves to God in order to have that sin dealt with. However, if we refuse to acknowledge our own innate capacity for evil, and insist on viewing ourselves as victims of a corrupt system, abusive parents or disloyal spouses, we will always be attacking one aspect of the sin problem while steadfastly ignoring its biggest contributing factor, which is ... ourselves.

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