Are Human Beings Essentially Good or Evil?

elie-wiesel1Are human beings essentially good and only become bad when placed in the wrong kind of environment or given the wrong role models?

I’ve been thinking about that question with the death of Elie Wiesel the survivor of Auschwitz, Nobel Prize winner, and advocate for the Jewish people. Wiesel was a giant. The identification number the Nazis tattooed on his arm served as a rebuttal to the holocaust deniers. He was a fearless voice refusing to let us forget the depravity of human beings.

His most well known book is Night which the The New York Times calls “A slim volume of terrifying power.” The book is Wiesel’s personal account of the evil that he encountered in Germany’s concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Being subjected to the horrors of human cruelty, it is in the camps that he lost his faith in God.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. (Night, 34)

Although there are plenty of reminders of the evil that human beings are capable of, even the most hardened can still be surprised. Thomas Friedman, the Foreign Affairs Columnist for the New York Times, was interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show. Friedman, a supporter of the Iraq war and a critic of its execution, was asked what mistakes he made, if any, when he offered his support to the plan to oust Sadaam Hussein. His answer was startling. Friedman, a well traveled, historically aware man if there ever was one, replied that he wrongly underestimated the depravity of those who would send suicide bombers into funerals and cut off the heads of innocent civilians.

It seems that Friedman is not alone. Many people get lulled into believing the 21st century dogma that we are all essentially good people and that our sinfulness is more of a product of our environment than our nature. Sure, we affirm that evil is real and dangerous but it remains distant and far off – something other people do. Simply put: there is a severe disconnect between the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves.

I used to listen to the Flaming Lips although I confess that I don’t know how well known or popular they are presently. Known for their outrageous lyrics, startling videos, and circus like concerts, one of the Lips most downloaded songs is (was?) The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song. The lyrics make the universal personal.

The Yeah Yeah Yeah SongIf you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch
Would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich
Would you do it?
If you could watch everybody work while you just lay on your back
Would you do it?
If you could take all the love without giving any back
Would you do it?
And so we cannot know ourselves or what we’d really do…

With all your power
With all your power
With all your power
What would you do?

If you could make your own money and then give it to everybody
Would you do it?
If you knew all the answers and could give it to the masses
Would you do it?
No no no no no no are you crazy?
It’s a very dangerous thing to do exactly what you want
Because you cannot know yourself or what you’d really do

With all your power
With all your power
With all your power

The truth is that sin isn’t someone else’s problem. Sin is our problem. The same sins that we rightly find repulsive when we see them in others are in our own heart. Are we honest enough with God and ourselves to admit that?

Any explanation of human beings that doesn’t satisfactorily explain this corruption and evil must be rejected as naïve and incomplete. Say what you want, the Bible explains the evil we see in the world as well as in ourselves.

Back to Elie Wiesel’s story. The thing that I most respect is his honesty. He confesses that he too “didn’t pass the test.” In his account we see the ways that the Jews, the victims, mistreated each other. Will we be as honest?

Where does this discussion about our own sinfulness lead us? It should lead us to the cross.

In perhaps the most well known passage in the book, Wiesel recounts how the prisoners were made to watch the hanging of a child. As each man was forced to walk by and look at him at close range he heard a man behind him ask…

“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…”

Now I don’t want to pretend that I know what the author meant. Perhaps, Wiesel was saying that his God was dying as a result of what he was seeing. If so, he isn’t alone. Many people leave their faith because they are unable to reconcile their view of God with their experience in the world.

But I can’t read those words without thinking of Jesus who “became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” The Christian answer isn’t to deny evil or to minimize its brutal effects. The Bible simply points to Jesus and says that on the cross he bore our sins, he became sin for us, he took the wrath of God that we deserved upon himself, he paid the penalty for sin. And not just the sins of others. He died for my sin. My pride, my gossip, my anger, my selfishness, my greed—the wrath I deserved for these sins and countless more was poured out on Jesus.


  1. Jack Bragg said:

    Excellent points. How a good and powerful God can allow the existence of evil may be the most difficult question Christians have to provide an answer for. The fact is we really don’t have a complete answer. As Thomas Friedman underestimated the depth of cruelty in Iraq we underestimate sin in general, and as you note above, our own. We don’t have any conception of how much God hates sin and what it does to people. Consequently, we may be truly shocked when we see such horrible evil, though we shouldn’t be since sin is a form of evil.

    If we can appreciate, at least to some degree, sin’s seriousness and what God thinks about it, certain facts and events are a bit easier to understand. The elimination of the Canaanites is one example. God ordering their destruction isn’t about genocide. Genocide is about racial or ethnic hatred. The destruction of the Canaanites is about judgment for their unimaginable depravity.(Lev.18:30, Deut.18:9) that God put up with for hundreds of years before he acted. Being the Creator it is always his right to do with his creatures as he sees fit (Rom. 9).

    Understanding the horror of sin also explains much about human nature and why people do what they do. We should never be surprised by human actions if we understand the depth of sin in our minds and hearts and its destructive power. Knowing all of this helps us grasp a little bit more why hell is a just penalty for offending a holy God and most of all how much of a price was paid at Calvary for us to be not guilty for our crimes.

    When talking about sanctification Keith is fond of using the phrase “fighting sin” which is what we seldom do and what we ought always to do. A keener understanding of all that sin entails and how great God’s grace is gives us the desire and the power to keep up the “fight.”

  2. Phil said:

    If you change the question just a bit and ask are people inherently “selfless or selfish”, I think the obvious answer is more readily apparent. If love of God and each other are our highest calling, then a failure to love is at the root of all our sinfulness. It is interesting, that our society generally defines a good act as the act of doing no harm. That wasn’t Christ’s standard. Doing no harm, while better than screwing each other over is an improvement, it still is a failure to love the way He loved us.

  3. Kyle said:

    My guess is that when you use the words “good” and “bad” in the initial question, you are talking about behaviors (perhaps thoughts too). If so, then the answer to the question is obviously “no,” as you show in the post. If being “essentially” good means that humans do not or cannot do bad things, unless made to by their circumstances, then that seems wrong.

    If, however, we are talking about ontology, about humans as beings that God created, then I think the answer is that humans are essentially good. Afterall, God made us, and God only makes good things. This essential goodness, however, does not mean there there isn’t a defilement or corruption in us. After all, “defilement” and “corruption” imply that there is something good there to be defiled or corrupt.

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