“I pay my taxes like everybody should…”
“Just because I’m not perfect…”
“Well, I didn’t mean to shoot him…”
Maybe you have defended or justified yourself with one of the above lines. I have to hope you didn’t use the third one (I’m talking to YOU, Dick Cheney). It is comforting to externalize evil, to believe it an out-there force embodied in terrorists and abusive parents, while our families and friends are flawed but basically good people.
That belief is wrong.
There are no good people. Truly. And I’m not speaking on my own authority here.
Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” a familiar line, but earlier in the chapter, Paul writes more shockingly, “…We have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God’” (v. 9-12).
This is a hard saying, to use the words of Jesus’s first listeners. But Jesus himself affirmed that “no one is good but One, that is, God” (Mark 10:18) in answering a man who called him “Good Teacher” (v. 17) in merely human terms.
I have only defended this view as scriptural so far, and not used reason to support it. So for those of you who disagree, and believe that people are fundamentally good but just sometimes misguided, I have a question: Where does evil come from?
You might say it grows out of wrong societal arrangements or bad ideas, but if people are good, then how do societies and ideas become corrupt in the first place? Satan, perhaps? Remember, the devil only tempted Eve to take the apple; he didn’t tear it off the branch and force her to partake of rebellion.
You might deny that evil really exists, and say that right and wrong are simply words for what is desirable or not, but in doing so you trifle with a deeply ingrained part of the human moral experience. You reduce the truth to something ephemeral and individual that will never be sufficient for guiding us to self-giving decisions of integrity and love.
Good is whatever ought to be, regardless of our own desires or inclinations. Everything about God ought to be as it is, and therefore he cannot be evil. But people are limited, and so also is their goodness; therefore the potential for evil permeates our being. Reformed theology calls this total depravity—this doesn’t mean that good is absent from us, but that we are incapable of saving ourselves from selfish ruin. No one enters heaven or gets his prayers heard by being a good person. Only Jesus achieved that, and our sole recourse is to bow in the shadow of his cross.
But here’s why this is all good news: we can quit deluding ourselves.
If we realize no one is a good person, we can quit punishing ourselves for the moments in which we fail. When we curse, or say a venomous word, or have a selfish thought, we no longer have to be surprised and disgusted at ourselves. We can quit living with the expectation that some hidden goodness waits within us, and begin relying only on God’s goodness as our foundation for morality and love.
Peter was prideful.
Moses was doubtful.
The woman thrown at Jesus’s feet in the temple was unfaithful.
And I am a sinner like them.
What are you? God knows. But whatever your particular evil, thank him that we can stop living with this illusion, and start living in greater dependence on him.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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