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“Are People Basically Good?” by Todd Hampson

by | Aug 14, 2018

Before you answer “yes”, “no”, “not sure”, or “is this a trick question?”, let me define the term “basically” as I think most people understand it. “Basically” is naturally, inherently, intrinsically. So you could carve a penguin sculpture out of ice but it is still basically ice and not penguin.

I don’t believe the question “are people basically good?” is a trick question, but it seems to trip a lot of people up because they often think first about their family, their friends, and of course, themselves.

Could there be bad consequences of believing that people are basically good? Well, here are a couple:

  • The evening news or your app’s news stream is bewildering. Why are all these things bad things happening, most of which are caused by basically good people? One argument is that the media serves up bad news which is consumed by us. But the media and news consumers are all basically good people too, so why would they focus on it while we read, listen to, or watch it?
  • The “basically good” standard is actually a tough one to live up to. There is nowhere to go but down. Even those who maintain that people are “basically good” are still disappointed, embittered, and hold grudges because of broken promises, lies, betrayal, cheating, theft, etc.
  • Parents are confounded that their children do things they were never taught to do – temper tantrums, lying, taking things, screaming, hitting, kicking, biting.
  • Finally, but most importantly, if people are basically good, there is no need for God or Christ’s salvation. You know the saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

The first description of man’s nature before the Mosaic Law and the Gospel is described in Genesis 6:5:

“God saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”

King David had lots of experience with human nature. He had a son, Absalom, start a military coup against him (2 Sam 15:14) as well as a close friend and army commander, Joab, execute that same son for treason against David’s explicit instructions (2 Sam 18:14). David penned these words under God’s inspiration:

“All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Psalms 14:3

Jesus confirms this in Luke 18:19: “No one is good—except God alone” and Paul echoes David in Romans 3:12 “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

The nature of man goes by several different terms: original sin, the sin nature, the flesh, the old man, the old nature, the natural man, the Adamic nature. We could add to this list “the basic man”.

But there is good news even if people are basically bad. Our pastors have taught us about the concept of “imago Dei”, the image of God, which is present in every person, believer or not. We have a reflection of God in us, but it is imperfect. Think of a broken mirror with scattered shards and missing pieces or a jigsaw puzzle without the box and where several pieces have been eaten by the dog.

But what if people are basically bad – is that a terribly depressing idea? Not necessarily – for example:

  • We realize our need for God and salvation. Jesus rather wryly states in Luke 5:32-33 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” I say “wryly” because he is implying that all are sick, all are sinners.
  • The evening news and the news stream are no longer bewildering. Of course, we can still show sadness, grief, empathy, and concern with appropriate action, but we don’t have to waste time or energy wondering “how in the world could this possibly happen?” It is the basic nature of people.
  • There is hope! In Paul’s list of love’s attributes in 1st Corinthians 13, he says that agape love always hopes and perseveres. The world rejoiced when multiple nations worked together to rescue the Thai soccer team from that flooded cave. We can hope for others to say or do the right thing, but be free to let them or ourselves fail.
  • There is nowhere to go but up! There is room for real personal change and growth when the “basically good” standard is abandoned and God’s perspective is revealed to us.

So even if we are basically bad, we still possess the imago Dei. We can encourage each other to change and grow and with God’s help through Christ the shattered pieces can be re-assembled and the missing ones found or replaced.

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