Search Site

"Aren't people basically good?"

The Sanhedrin, the ruling coun­cil of the Jews, wanted Jesus mur­dered in the worst way. Jesus made the Jewish rulers look bad. Pontius Pilate declared Jesus an innocent man before satiating the rulers’ hunger for an execution—to keep them happy.

So it was that first century Israel and first century Rome—crowning human achievements in ethics and morality, politics and law—conspired in humanity’s gravest atrocity. Witness the cruci­fixion of Christ, who had never done any harm, who only healed, only helped, only loved. His only crime was speaking the truth. But don’t lose any sleep over what the people of Israel and Rome did, our brightest and our best. "People are basically good."

So please excuse Judas Iscar­iot. When he surrendered his teacher to hellish agony, he was a confused and complicated man. Peter was under a lot of strain when he denied even knowing his truest friend’s name. Soldiers only followed orders when they stripped the world’s best man, flogged him, beat him, tortured him, ridiculed him, and nailed his flesh and bones onto the boards. Don’t be too tough on the ordi­nary folks who clamored for these things—this was an iso­lated incident in their otherwise decent lives. So their leaders were laughing a little bit. Don’t let it trouble you. No need to challenge your moral ambiguity or let a little thing like reality shake up your view of human nature. It was everything these people did or said or thought or felt that was bad. Not them. "People are basically good."

Please read Luke chapters 22 and 23.

I know of a psychologist who customarily asks new patients this question: What is it about yourself that you are least willing to share with other people? The two most common answers he hears are: “I feel utterly worthless” and “I don’t love anyone as I should.” Naturally, he considers it his primary task to contradict them. I’m not so sure.

There is nothing so bad that we Christians won’t say it about ourselves, that is, who we are by birth and who we would remain if God left us to ourselves.

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.”

You wonder how we can say such things. I wonder how you can deny such things in the light of such humanly authored disasters as the one we call 9-11. The successful terrorist attack involved a thing so awful it never even entered our minds: the diabolical conversion of passenger airliners, filled to human capacity, into guided missiles. These slammed into the fragile lives of thousands of inno­cent bystanders. All around the world people clapped at the thought that finally we Americans would know. We would know what the world is really like. But how could it have happened? Journalist Tom Friedman makes a compelling point that the failure on the part of America was not so much a failure of our intelligence services or national secu­rity, foreign policy or immigration law.

It was a “failure of the imagination.”

We had failed to imagine the depth of human hatred. We did not fully plumb the evil of human intentions or conceive in advance the inhuman brutality of the act. Because people are basically good. Everyone knows this.

If I work now to shake off that blind faith in the inherent goodness of humanity—for it is blind to history, to psychol­ogy, and to the truth hiding in our own worst moments of the last few days—part of that shaking comes from observ­ing humanity at its worst.

This particular objection to our faith—people are basi­cally good—had more wind in its sails before 1945. What happened in 1945? Auschwitz. Bergen-Belzen. Piles of gold fillings and women’s hair. Photographs of emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood rocked the optimistic view of humankind to its very core. These were things about which we vowed “never again.” Should we now try to forget? Should we determine not to see the evil that ordinary human beings are capable of, from the millions starved at the whim of greedy third-world bureaucrats to the millions upon millions murdered on the empty altar of communism? Were these events aberrations on the human landscape?

Or were they horrifying epiphanies? Were the thousands upon thousands of people involved somehow of a different category than the rest of us or made of different stuff? Someone has said, “In an avalanche, every snowflake pleads not guilty” . . . but does that really work? Is the cowardice of individuals exonerated by the fact that they were merely swept along in the cascade of human events?

Though you and I have not been party to such overt evils as those I’ve just mentioned, the disturbing truth is that we have each done the evil we are capable of. I may be no Hitler. But do I really get credit for not being as evil as Hitler if I have avoided some outward expression of evil simply because I was too timid or not talented enough? if I didn’t have the same opportunity as someone else or was fearful of the consequences to my life or to my conscience? I have done the evil that was within my reach. I have made my wife cry. I have betrayed my friend’s trust. I have thought thoughts that would kill me if you knew them.

We must not evade the real question: Just where does evil come from in the first place? Where does it originate? The answer is the worst possible news from the best possible Man:

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Evil comes from the heart, which is to say, from an inex­haustible supply. It comes from us. Where else? In his novel The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien commented, “It does not do to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” The dragon is human evil. On a large scale, think of what has happened to every human attempt at a utopian society built on naïve ideas about human nature. Disaster. On a more personal scale, think of what happens in an inti­mate relationship when people are unable to repent and when forgiveness—the inevitable need—is given no room. The intimacy just dies. The result has always been disillu­sionment, cynicism, and heartache when human selfishness and prideful competition were not taken into account.

Perhaps an analogy will help. Consider a watch, expen­sive and pretty, that just doesn’t happen to tell time cor­rectly. Would you consider it a “basically good” watch anyway? I doubt it. How “good” it is must be measured according to its purpose. The watch may have many pleas­ing aspects in its design and appearance, all of which carry a certain promise of what it might have been . . . yet the watch, as a watch, is worthless. Once we realize that wor­ship and selfless love are to us what telling time is to watches—the very things we are for—we can hardly call ourselves basically good when every inclination is leaning the other way. Our inborn hatred of God is aroused as soon as we find out from his Word who he really is and what he really wants of us.

I should add that I personally like people a great deal. As with the broken watch, you can still detect in broken, fallen people the mastery of their original design, the capacity for relationship and beauty that the Maker intended. The pleas­ing aspects of surface personality whisper in heartbreaking times about what might have been if we really were as good as we tried so desperately to appear. Indeed, if our private thoughts were all broadcast out loud, I think you know this chapter would not need to be written.

Earlier I asked you to consider humanity at its worst. Now think about us at our best. Even the best of human love is more clearly seen as the consuming desire to be loved. Human love is a hunger to have not to give, which is to say it is not love at all in the highest sense. The drive of one per­son to find another is powerful and the satisfactions of human connection are intense. Take a mother and her new­born child. Her heart is full with the euphoria of a relation­ship in which every human boundary seems to have fallen. The mother is so needed and so accepted. But what is a mother capable of when this need is no longer being met? A woman sends a car full of her children to the bottom of a lake. The horror is that she looks just like one of us. . . . She is.

But “people are basically good.”

You see, the dragon inevitably wakes up in miserable self-absorption that excludes real happiness, anger that destroys relationships, and pride that turns worship into a self-flattering sham. For we are, by nature, worthless.

Now make it personal. Where, really, should my thoughts run if I want to know what sort of person I am and of what quality? Should I think of myself at my best, the person act­ing well in pleasant circumstances? Is that who I really am? Or must I shudder to remember myself at my worst, when pressures and problems conspired to reveal me to me? Which is real, my well-crafted public persona or my private ugliness? Which colors are my true ones? Do I love anyone as I should?

I suppose the way to avoid seeing the badness within us is to concede it might be true for those who think that way or to say that there is no such thing as morality so as to dis­tinguish real good from bad. But the cost of moral ambigu­ity is too high. If we have no ear for the wrong notes in the human song and no longer wince at the discordant noise, then we cannot discern the right notes in our music or in anyone else’s.

Don’t you see? The woman who tells you there is no such thing as truth is really telling you not to believe what she says, because she doesn’t believe it herself. The man who tells you there is no such thing as morality is only telling you that he is not to be trusted with anything tender you care about, or with anyone, because he holds himself to no stan­dard higher than himself. The people who say there is no such thing as God are telling you that they are their own gods, though they are not qualified for the job. Those who reject the concept of guilt as too inhibiting or destructive are only telling you that they are not willing to feel within themselves the pain they cause others.

And those who say that “people are basically good” only admit that they never dare to look in the mirror. They admit that their company is not safe in the long run because their own shabbiest instincts remain alive and well and are not dealt with in any serious way.

The reason I take such pains to point to such awful truths, indeed, the reason I dare to distinguish “psycholog­ical need seeking satisfaction” from actual love is quite sim­ple. There is such a thing as love.

Watch Jesus. Listen to him gasp out words like “Father, forgive them” as men sit on his chest and pound spikes through his wrists. Jesus alone fully saw the horrible nature present in humanity and sacrificed himself to it. When he was crushed, when he was broken, the fragrance of who he is was released. This is when he was best revealed. “Father, for­give them.” To hear such words is to know that they are not of this world.

“Love comes from God . . . because God is love.”

When the holy wind blew around the gruesome hill, a Roman centurion and an outcast of the Jews saw such Good in Jesus they knew it could only be the mark of God. Here was a different kind of life, revealed in the great crushing.

Out of his heart proceeded forgiveness, mercy, goodness, compassion, truth . . .

I think I’m a pretty nice guy doing well . . . until I see him. Then I repent in the presence of one so good. Let him break our hearts and shine his light inside them. Let us admit that our need for God was not for a helping hand or a gentle nudge in the right direction. We needed him to save us. So he did. Beyond any explanation, we are worth some­thing to him. And now . . . there is nothing so good we will not say it about Christ, who sees us as we are, who loves us and makes his home within us.


It would not have been his last word, the one that called you bad. But this did not occur to you. It was beyond your wildest dreams, a willing crucifixion by the very maker of iron and wood and men.

And you never thought he would rise.

It was wholly unforeseen that his kind of life, his res­urrection life, would spark alive within you, leading you to repent and turn toward him. It was unforeseen what that turning was supposed to mean to you forever. “No mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

If it should happen to you, that unnecessary disaster of losing God forever, it will not be a failure of his goodness or justice, not a failure of his mercy or of his love.

Call it a failure of the imagination.

The truth of the dying, rising Christ never entered your mind.

From More Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: "Dragon Carving" by Peter Griffin is licensed under CC0 1.0.

More Prepared to Answer Image Map