The Undeniable Ugliness of Human Nature

In Joseph Conrad’s classic novel The Heart of Darkness, Marlow, a steamship captain, journeys up the Congo River at the end of the 19th century to bring home the sick and dying Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is a station chief renowned for his command of language, his intelligence, and his ability to generate large quantities of ivory. Yet when Marlow pulls his boat up to Kurtz’ residence, he is shocked to find the yard decorated with severed human heads on poles. Marlow observes:

…there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which, when the pressing need arose could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say.

The lawless jungle had taken a civilized man and turned him into a brutal savage. Conrad sharpens the picture when Marlow goes to visit Kurtz’ fiancé after he dies. In the midst of her grief, she says, “…of all his promise and of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remains – nothing but a memory.” And again she says, “Men looked up to him – his goodness shone in every act.”

Classic literature digs deep into human nature including its often brutal ugliness – something lacking in many present-day novels. Whether it’s Melville’s Moby Dick, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, many of those who wrote in the past were well acquainted with the ugliness of human nature when the restraints of law and society were removed.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a small piece of a much larger tragedy. When the Congo was taken by King Leopold II of Belgium as a colony in 1885 he grabbed as much profit as he could in the form of ivory and rubber. The Europeans who went there found no restraint – governmental, social, or religious – to their behavior in gathering ever greater profits. Murder, starvation, disease, and a plummeting birth rate combined to cut the native population of the Congo in half in just 23 years. The good, noble, civilized men – like Kurtz – were responsible for the deaths of over 10 million.

The story of Ilanga – one woman who experienced the brutality personally – will illustrate its ugliness. Her village was busy with crops when soldiers came and pulled them from their fields and homes. She reports:

When we were all collected the soldiers brought baskets of food for us to carry, in some of which was smoked human flesh… We then set off marching very quickly. My sister Katinga had her baby in her arms and was not compelled to carry a basket; but my husband Oleka was made to carry a goat. We marched… each day until the fifth day when the soldiers took my sister’s baby and threw it in the grass, leaving it to die, and made her carry some cooking pots. On the sixth day we became very weak from lack of food… and my husband, who marched behind us with the goat, could not stand up longer, and so he sat down beside the path and refused to walk more. The soldiers beat him… Then one of them struck him on the head with the end of his gun, and he fell upon the ground. One of the soldiers caught the goat while two or three others stuck the long knives they put on the end of their guns into my husband. I saw the blood spurt out, and then saw him no more… Many of the young men were killed the same way, and many babies thrown into the grass to die.

These events in the Congo vividly display the depravity of human nature. Yet though they are not even a hundred years old they are nearly forgotten. We have moved on to the depravity of the latest pop star and convinced ourselves we aren’t so bad.  Yet 10 million killed in the Congo, eight-hundred thousand dead in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Holocaust under Nazi Germany, present day killings in the Sudan and Syria, and the empty eyes of millions of children sold into sexual slavery remind us there is something ugly in human nature. Laws restrain it, society pressures it, religion commands it, yet it remains.

We may protest, “Not me! I wouldn’t do those things!” Can we be so sure? It’s easy to believe in our goodness from the comfort of a suburban American living room. But what if we experienced real horrors in our life? What if the restraints on our various lusts and desires were suddenly removed?

Wrestling with his wicked deeds as he floated down the Congo River, Mr. Kurtz offered a final assessment with his dying words – “The horror, the horror!” If we were to be confronted with the sum total of all of our sin and its horrifying consequences our assessment may not be much different. All of us have inherited a corrupted and sinful human nature. Wayne Grudem writes:

This inherited tendency to sin does not mean that human beings are all as bad as they could be. The constraints of civil law, the expectations of family and society, and the conviction of human conscience all provide restraining influences on the sinful tendencies in our hearts. Therefore, by God’s common grace, people have been able to do much good… But in spite of the ability to do good in many senses of that word, our inherited corruption… which we inherited from Adam means, that as far as God is concerned we are not able to do anything that pleases him… every part of our being is affected by sin – our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts, our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies.

When surveying the havoc wrought by his own sin, the Apostle Paul exclaimed in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He looked into his own heart and was left with despair. Yet he goes on to write: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus Christ was the one who could deliver him from the ugliness of human nature he saw within himself. Only Jesus can repair the corruption of the human heart.

Our hope isn’t found in a 6 step plan to be better people. It isn’t found in small lifestyle changes. It isn’t found in learning from the consequences of our actions. It isn’t found in progressively better laws with a big enough police force to enforce them. It isn’t found in foolishly patting ourselves on the back for being better than Hitler, the guy on the sex offender registry, or that crazy uncle on his fourth marriage.

The only hope for the ugliness of human nature is a Savior.


Information on the events in the Congo including Ilanga’s story comes from: Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

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We Aren’t Good People

Are people good or bad?

Or to put the question another way, are people basically good and righteous or basically sinful and morally corrupt?

I used to walk around the neighborhoods surrounding my church in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina and ask that question. The homes were filled with an intriguing mix of atheists, agnostics, Protestants, Catholics, young and old, conservative and liberal. It didn’t matter. Everyone from the Presbyterian woman who claimed to believe in both predestination and reincarnation to the agnostic mother watching her child play on the porch agreed we are basically good. Except for Hitler. And maybe terrorists.

We tend to believe everyone is basically good because then our shortcomings aren’t so bad. There is a world of difference between a good person who occasionally does bad things and a bad person who occasionally does good things. One just needs some tweaking – perhaps a little more instruction, self-esteem, and a healthy environment. The other needs a radical change at the core of their being. It’s easier to modify one’s behavior than to change the nature of one’s being.

We tend to underestimate the number of bad people in the world. The fewer bad people reduces the chance we might be one of those bad people. If the world is more evenly divided between good and bad we might end up on the wrong side of the divide. Better that we’re all basically good except a few obvious examples like mass murderers, child molesters, and politicians who cheat on their spouses.

We minimize our moral failures and exalt our moral victories. I may have cheated on my taxes but I gave thirty dollars to Relay for Life. I may be harsh with my children but I drive a planet-saving Toyota Prius. We constantly compare our “goodness” to others in such a way that we come out on top: I may have cheated on my spouse but at least I’m not on drugs. I may be on drugs but at least I haven’t killed anyone. I may have killed someone but at least I’m not a genocidal maniac. I may be a genocidal maniac but at least I’ve been faithful to my spouse.

What would happen if we removed all the restraints on our bad behavior? What if I wouldn’t go to jail for killing my enemy? What if there were no social or relational consequences to cheating on my spouse? What if my lies would never be uncovered? Would we spare the person who wronged us, stay faithful to our spouse, and tell the truth?

What if our goodness is only selfishness? As much as I want to kill someone, I love myself too much to bear the condemnation of society and friends. As much as I want sex with someone who is not my spouse, I love myself too much to endure a bitter divorce and custody battle.

This is what Jesus is getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. He says in Matthew 5:21-22:

You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘Do not murder,’ and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.

And again in Matthew 5:27-28:

You have heard that is was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

This is profound. If our hate could have its way we would be murderers. If our lust could have its way we would be adulterers. If our pride could have its way we would be oppressors. If our greed could have its way we would be enslavers. If our envy could have its way we would be thieves.

And why can’t these things have their way? The laws of our land prohibit them. Social pressure keeps them at bay. We don’t want to lose our freedom in jail. We don’t want to be a social outcast and end up on the sex offender registry. We don’t want to lose our jobs. We don’t want to disappoint our family and friends. So we shelve our hate, lust, pride, greed, and envy and pat ourselves on the back for being good people for purely selfish reasons. Jesus refuses to give us any moral points for our wicked hearts being restrained by circumstances.

The Apostle Paul makes this point in Romans 3:10-12:

There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.

Stunning isn’t it? No one does good. No one seeks God. We are not good people who occasionally mess up, we are bad people in need of a radical change. This is the foundation of the gospel. If we are good people, we only need the latest twelve step plan to fix our lives. If we are bad people, we need a Savior.

Does this mean we would all be Hitler if given the same background and opportunities as he had? Not necessarily. But it does mean we might not be Mother Teresa either. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of your own goodness. Our sinfulness is far deeper than our circumstances reveal and our need for a Savior is far greater than we imagine.


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