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.