Friday, July 31, 2009

Are People Born Evil?

There are quite a number of Christians who believe that humans are born evil. Several prominent doctrines emphasize this belief and attempt to support it with Scripture. Though there are elements of truth in these sorts of doctrine, it seems clear that the Bible certainly does not take such an extreme stance. In this essay, we will examine some of the evidence and see what doctrine is actually consistent with Scripture. By the end of this essay we should be able to answer two different questions. Are humans born evil? Do people sin because they are sinners, or are they sinners because they sin?

To properly begin our inquiry, we must determine what the initial state of mankind is. Going back to the creation story in Genesis is the best way to clearly see how God made the universe, and what are the most important intrinsic qualities of humans. Near the end of the first chapter we see that God creates people in His own image. After blessing them and giving them a purpose in the world, He steps back and looks at all of His creation. "Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good." (Genesis 1:31a) God is a skilled craftman who is quite capable of creating everything exactly how He wants it; the pages of Scripture clearly declare that everything God created was very good. At the beginning of the universe, people were intrinisically good, naturally righteous, and perfectly formed in the image of God. Originally, all humans were completely righteous.

If there is any merit to the claim that people are born evil, it must be proven that some form of radical change has taken place. This radical change must be one which alters the very essence of human nature, so that each new person who is born is intrinsically evil. If no such change can be proven, then it would be unreasonable to assume that mankind is evil, since there is clear evidence that God created humans naturally good. If one searches the pages of Scripture, there is no place at all where the Bible says that people are born evil. There are many references to people being sinners, but shockingly few references to people being born into sin and no references to people being born sinners. One commonly cited verse, Psalms 51:5, says, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." This suggests that a person is conceived in sin and is born in the midst of iniquity but not that a newborn baby is yet sinful. Since there is no verse that specifically says humans are born evil, or even that people are born sinners, then we must more clearly determine why people are sinners.

While the idea is that people are sinners is an incontrovertible truth, what it means to be a sinner is not as well defined. Are people sinners because they have sinned? Or, do people sin because they are sinners whose nature prevents them from behaving righteously? When we say that someone is a thief, we mean one of two things. Either we mean that the person in question stole something at least once in their life, or we mean that the thief is someone who engages in thievery regularly. But, a person who has never stolen anything could not possibly be considered a thief. Likewise, when we say someone is a murderer we either mean that one time the murderer killed someone, or we mean that the murderer lives a life that is characterized by murdering people. However, regardless of which way we use such a term, there is no murderer who has not committed at least one murder. To be a murderer, you must have committed murder. To be a thief, you must have stolen something. To be a liar, you must have told a lie. To be an adulterer, you must have committed adultery. In the same manner, when the Bible says that someone is a sinner, it means one of two things. Either a sinner is a person who committed one sin at some point or a sinner is someone whose life is characterized by sinful actions. If a person has not sinned, there is no possible way that they can correctly be referred to as a sinner. When a newborn baby enters the world, is the baby already a sinner? Only if the baby has already sinned.

What is sin? Sin is any personal action that is contrary to the revealed will of God. Some would contest that sin also includes actions that contrary to the unrevealed will of God, but this is not Biblical; Romans 5:13b says, "Sin is not imputed where there is no law." Also, sin is a personal action and not a communal action. Some would argue that all humans bear the guilt and penalty for Adam's sin. After all, speaking of Adam's sin, Romans 5:18 says, "...through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation..." However, this is not how God works. God's judgment is based on the actions of each individual person, and no person bears the guilt for another's sin. Revelation 20:12-13 says, "And the dead were judged according to their works... each one according to his works." Ezekiel 18 makes this even more clear. "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." (Ezekiel 18:20) Therefore, it is clear that until a sin is committed by a specific person against the revealed will of God, no such person is a sinner.

Has a newborn baby committed any actions? No. Therefore, a newborn baby cannot have sinned. If a newborn baby has not yet sinned, then clearly the newborn baby is not yet a sinner. On the basis of this argument, it logically follows that people are not born sinners. But, whether or not someone is a sinner does not determine whether or not they are evil, since the the two are not synonymous.

What is meant by saying that a person is evil? This is where a distinction must be made between intrinsic human properties (such as being sensory beings, having parents, possessing a body, capacity for some measure of intelligence, having eyes of a certain color...etc.), extrinsic human properties (such as being an American, working as an author, labeling oneself as a Democrat, belonging to a particular family...etc.) and temporary states of being (such as being hungry, having clothes on, feeling hot, having a disease, visiting India...etc.). Therefore, when we say that a person is evil we must mean one of three things. Either we mean that being evil is an intrinsic human characteristic which is true of all humans, at all times, in all places, or we mean that a specific person or group of people is characterized by evil, else we mean that a person is in an evil sort of a mood. Clearly evil cannot be an intrinsic human characteristic because we have established that at least newborn babies and Jesus Christ are not evil. Likewise, we are obviously not referring to a transitory state of being, since otherwise we only mean that people are born being in an evil mood, in the same sort of a way that a baby would be born hungry, thirsty or tired; this is not what is meant at all. Evil, then, is an extrinsic characteristic that applies to some people and not others; also, it is a long-term characteristic rather than a mere momentary whim or instinct. Some people are Americans. Some people are tall. Some people look attractive. Some people are evil.

What sort of people can be accurately described as evil? The Bible is very vocal about what sorts of people are good and what sorts are evil. Abraham was a righteous man who lived by faith and pleased God. David was described as a man after God's own heart. Moses was a righteous man whom God appointed to lead His chosen people, Israel. None of these people were perfect and none of them were sinless. Two of them were murderers. Two of them had extramarital sexual trysts. Yet, God calls them righteous. Why? Because their lives were consistently characterized by righteous actions and hearts that were committed to following God. Contrarily, Ahab was an evil king who rejected God's ways and sought false gods. Ahaziah offered his own children as offerings to idols and burned them on altars. Pharoah enslaved God's people and refused to let the Israelites go. These men God considers evil because their lives were characterized by opposition to God, a refusal to listen to the voice of the prophets, and hearts that were set on rebellion. Ezekiel 18 offers lots of clear examples of the sorts of things that characterize righteous people and wicked people. People are considered righteous or wicked based on what sort of actions they consistently take.

Therefore, what can we conclude? We know that all people are sinners because all have sinned. We also know that some people are righteous and some people are evil. It logically follows that not all sinners are evil. Are people born sinners? No. Are people born evil? For two reasons we can answer with a resounding no. First of all, one cannot be considered evil if one has not sinned. Secondly, one cannot be considered to be characterized by a lifestyle of evil until one has lived a while and made a series of decision. Only after looking at a series of choices made by a person can someone be described as good or evil. People who are just born do not meet that criteria. We see then that no person is born evil, though all have a tendency to choose to act sinfully.


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  5. We may be uncomfortable with the term sinner and the idea that we are essentially sinners but this is what scripture teaches.Psalm 51:5 states that we all come into the world as sinners: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Ephesians 2:2 says that all people who are not in Christ are “sons of disobedience.” Ephesians 2:3 also establishes this, saying that we are all “by nature children of wrath.” If we are all “by nature children of wrath,” it can only be because we are all by nature sinners; God does not direct His wrath towards those who are not guilty. God did not create the human race sinful, but upright. But we fell into sin and became sinful due to the sin of Adam.