Human Nature and the Future

Is human nature essentially good, or bad, or a bit of both?  It is in answering this question that the differences between Christian and secular thought often come into sharp focus.  The choice one makes here influences nearly all of one’s thinking, whether in the area of education, psychology, sociology, politics, or even economics.  It also shapes the way one thinks about the future.

The Christian narrative maintains that God first created human beings as “very good,” but sadly this goodness was seriously tainted by the fall of Adam and Eve.  The fall did not, however, entirely eliminate the goodness of God’s creation, including human nature. The original goodness of human nature still shines through.  But our sinful nature is still very real.  So the correct answer to the question I started out with is that human nature is both good and bad. There are some people, including Christians, who want to downplay the badness of human nature.  Others forget about the goodness that remains in human nature despite our tendency to sin.

Jesus had this to say to some religious leaders of his day who had difficulty admitting their own sinfulness:  “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-2).  I like to quote Jesus’ words when dealing with the problem of human nature in my ethics courses at college and university. But my students seldom appreciate this rather bleak assessment of human nature.  Why?

The view of human nature held by my students, along with many people in our society, has been shaped by the Enlightenment.  Eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant said, “In man there are only germs of goodness.” This kind of optimism about human nature continues to this day, and is expressed so well by A.S. Neill, influential British educator, who founded the well-know Summerhill school, based on the principle that children should be allowed freedom to be themselves.  Neill too is perfectly clear:  “Self-regulation implies belief in the goodness of human nature; a belief that there is not, and never was, original sin.”  Neill here reflects the orientation of many today who do not want to face up to the evil within them.  In fact, this refusal to face up to our true nature is simply one more indication of our evil nature.  We prefer to deceive ourselves about our moral condition rather than face the truth (see I John 1: 8).

Christians are always in danger of betraying a biblical understanding of human nature.  This danger is also present when interpreting the future.  We are tempted to become what R.M. Weaver calls, “hysterical optimists,” where our faith in human nature makes us believe that things will get better and better in society.  Evolution is always seen as upwards.  This faith in man’s goodness also makes it difficult for us to acknowledge the reality of the deepening moral crisis in our society, and the possibility of complete moral disintegration.

Os Guinness, in his book Unspeakable: Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror (HarperCollins, 2005), suggests that Americans were unprepared for 9/11 because of a failure to appreciate the sinfulness of human nature.  They have been influenced too much by the liberal progressive idealism that has been so pervasive over the past 200 years, Guinness argues.

Some time ago, I read Dietrich Neufeld’s A Russian Dance of Death: Revolution and Civil War in the Ukraine (trans. By Al Reimer, Hyperion Press, 1980).  Reading this diary, describing the terror and suffering inflicted on the Mennonites in 1919-1920 by anarchists, Reds and Whites, all of whom were still ordinary human beings, is a healthy antidote to any hysterical optimism.

Of special significance is the fact that the Mennonites were totally unprepared for these events.  They “remained blissfully unresponsive to the danger signals around them.”  I would suggest that in part, their failure to read the signs of the times was due to their not fully acknowledging the evil nature of human beings.

Neufeld goes on to describe the Mennonites themselves as “complacent and self-centered.”  “They understood the Revolution only insofar as it was advantageous to them.”  In other words they were also blind to the evil within their own hearts, which was in fact part of the cause of the suffering inflicted on them by others.

Jesus encouraged us to be careful to read the signs of the time correctly (Matt. 16:3).  Are we doing this, or are we letting false doctrine blind us to the possibility of imminent disaster?  There are some voices suggesting that we are just a step away from moral and economic chaos and collapse.  Will our society then also be transformed into a dance of death?  Or, will our supposed civilized decency prevail and prove to be more than just a thin veneer?  The answer to these questions again depends in part on our answer to the question as to what is in the heart of man and woman.

Proper discernment will make possible adequate preparation.  Here we would do well to examine the Old Testament prophets, many of whom predicted times of crisis, urging the people of God to repent of their own greed and injustice which was the cause of the ongoing judgment. At the same time the prophets kept reminding them that God was ultimately in control.  They also kept appealing to a remnant to remain faithful to God.  The prophetic message then and now is that there is still hope even in the midst of chaos and crisis.

(This blog is adapted from an article that first appeared in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Aug. 27, 1982)

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