More than the supernaturally created universe, the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Jesus, or the Resurrection, the most audacious claim of Christianity may be human depravity. For many, a fundamentally flawed humanity is one of the most difficult Christian teachings to believe.
Depravity is the theological word used to describe people as inherently flawed not because of our actions or experiences but because of our conception as human beings. It is the teaching that in and of ourselves we are not okay, we do not start with a blank slate, and our nature is corrupted from the first day of life. It is important to point out that depravity was not a part of the original creation. The first man Adam had a clean slate and there was no corruption in him. But he decided to reject God and suffered the first consequences of sin that have now been passed down to all of humanity.
What makes the claim of depravity so bold is that it contradicts the notion of secular humanism that people are basically good. Humanist ideology permeates modern Western culture today. It fiercely values and emphasizes the potential of people as rational and essentially good beings who may find meaning and purpose in life through natural means such as science or the arts.
Because of humanism, the concept of a flawed individual from birth is essentially absent from our culture. That is why we consider being “born that way” an ultimate argument for certain lifestyles. If babies are born good, are not their natural tendencies also good? We find other examples in media. From the failure of society depicted in the recent Joker movie to the shortcomings of a mother in the more lighthearted Despicable Me franchise, on screen villains are often viewed as a product of their experience rather than acting from their own natures. Whether in entertainment or the real world we seek explanations such as abuse, illness, or indoctrination instead of nature when it comes to bad behavior. Few would dispute that immorality is common, but we quickly search for an experiential event that corrupted the innocence and goodness a person is supposedly born with. In doing so we seek to preserve our claim to basic goodness by placing the impetus for corruption at some point after birth. The solutions are aimed at whatever the corrupting influence is determined to be rather than addressing the nature of the individual person.
Jesus powerfully confronted this way of thinking in what is called, “The Sermon on the Mount.” He challenged His audience by saying things like,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
The religious leaders’ solution for immorality was the keeping of the law. To be free from adultery was to avoid the outward act. Jesus showed them that a person could keep the law to the letter on the outside but still be rotting with evil on the inside. That is why He described them as whitewashed tombs. Beautiful on the outside, but filled with the stench of death on the inside. The difficulty they had is the same we have today. They failed to see the real problem with humanity is not primarily in our behavior but in our hearts. It is not primarily in what we do, but in who we are. It is not that we fail to live good lives, it is that we cannot. Jesus was showing us our depravity . . . and more importantly our need for a Savior.
It is not that we fail to live good lives, it is that we cannot.
Without the bad news, there is no good news. If you are not sick then you need no physician. And that is the problem we face. We want to believe that we are well. We deny the illness that infects our very being. Why? In part it is pride that makes depravity one of the hardest aspects of Christianity to believe. It is humbling to admit that we are a flawed people. Pride also results in a high view of human understanding to the point where we confidently deny the supernatural. We prefer our own authority and our own “truth” rather than submitting to a higher power. It is because we imagine ourselves to be the end of all things that God, miracles, creation, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection are dismissed as fairy tales. The other part responsible for our denial of depravity is depravity itself. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). In our natural state, we are opposed to spiritual truth and so we suppress it, and that includes suppressing the idea that we have a corrupted nature.
But how can we know this is true? Unlike the Resurrection of Jesus, that none of us living today witnessed first-hand, human depravity is readily available for direct observation . . . and the view is best as we search our own hearts. When the plumb line for goodness is set, as Jesus set it, in the heart rather than solely on outward behavior we all come up crooked. One helpful method for evaluating any worldview is to examine how it lines up with your everyday experience. Does it fit what life is actually like? That is one of the failures of humanism. An honest examination of the heart debunks it. Have you hated? Then you are like a murderer. Have you lusted? Then you are an adulterer. Have you coveted? Then you are a thief.
Some may object by saying, “But there are a lot of good people out there who do a lot of good things.” That is true, but our view is not entirely clear. From our perspective there is a relative moral goodness where one person is judged to be better than another. “At least I’m not as bad as that guy” we quickly point out. But God does not use human perspectives to measure goodness. He uses the soul splitting, facade piercing, purest and brightest of all lights to open our innermost being, exposing the truth of our shortcomings compared to His unapproachable perfection. He compares us, not to our neighbor, but to His own standard of holiness and by that measure everyone falls short (Romans 3:23). Because He is just, perfect and righteous judgement awaits everyone who misses the mark.
If that is true then we are in deep trouble. God wholly knows the darkest part of us and He knows we can never approach His perfect holiness. But that is not the end of the story because God loves us. God loves not because we are deserving, but because God is love. And He does not just love us from afar but He actually comes near to demonstrate His love for us. Despite our stubbornness in denying Him or worse yet despising Him God moves first to enter into our world in order to bring us near to Him. While we were sinners, and had done nothing to commend our lives to Him, Christ Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8). The wrath that I deserved was poured out on Him, a perfect and spotless sacrifice who stood in my place. Because God loved the world, even in its depravity, He sent His Son Jesus to live and die and be raised again to new life so that all those who look to Him in faith may not face judgement but instead live eternally in His glorious presence (John 3:16).
Now that is good news indeed! And the light of the good news shines the brightest for those who realize that they are in the dark.