One of the first things young Christians (or Christians-to-be) learn is what their faith teaches about the human person, human nature, and our standing before God. This anthropology usually falls under the categories of "Creation" and "Fall." However, it also covers the entire history and essential understanding of what it means to be a human person created by God as creature and servant. This standing is relational, and that means a thorough grasp of what Christianity has to say about the human person is relative to what it believes and says about God. In other words, unlike modern anthropology which attempts to understand persons apart from any divine revelation, and only can deduce humanness from the standing of the secular, the biblical viewpoint is enriched with, and dependent upon, the relational dynamism between creature and Creator.
And that means when we talk about the human person we are, always in some sense, also talking about God. Not because God is "in" the human person as the pantheist confesses, but because to "be" a creature is to possess already the signature of divine intention, the gift of existence, which situates and is relative to the providential care of God. Further still, whatever one believes about the Image of God and its existence after the Fall (scarred, damaged, hidden, lost), any such qualifiers betray the necessity of having to speak about humanity with some reference (also) to God.
Grasping this, we can begin to think about what the Scripture teaches regarding sin and sinfulness in the human being. Problems here abound because Christianity's view of sin is often received as pessimistic, repressive, authoritarian, dystopian, and oppressive. Thus we must interrogate the accusation that Christians think humans are totally evil and bad (often mistakenly called “Total Depravity”). The stakes of such a claim are high because Total Depravity sounds like Christians are to view themselves and their neighbors as essentially evil beings whose motives and actions are all so deeply corrupted that no good remains.
Is there any point in encouraging the pursuit of justice if we, being totally evil, cannot do it?
Such a claim appears to spring from Scripture. We read things like, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We could paraphrase St. Paul in Romans 3, “No one is righteous, everyone has chosen poorly, no one seeks God, all have turned away, there is no one who does good, no not even one.” Such passages (and there are many more) seem to say that the human person is totally and utterly evil. But if that were true, how do we make sense of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Can purely evil people produce any good works? Can a poisoned well produce freshwater? Or take the advice of Isaiah the prophet, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17). Is there any point in encouraging the pursuit of justice if we, being totally evil, cannot do it?
Classic Christian theology leaves us with a more serious and more optimistic view of the human person than many have been taught.
In fact, no. The view of Total Depravity as it is usually understood by outsiders (and even many insiders), is often misunderstood. Despite appearances to the contrary, Total Depravity does not mean totally evil. What it does mean, and what Christianity confesses, is that there is no part of the human person (body or soul) not totally affected by sin. Sin's power is all-reaching; it goes totally down into all our parts. In other words, sin’s effects are like a bad case of leprosy—there is no place on the skin where the leprosy is not. And yet, leprosy needs good skin to be corrupt. You can never have a totally, purely-evil thing because in classic Christian theology, evil is a privation, a lack, a corruption of the good. Even the Devil is not "totally" (i.e., purely) evil, for if he were purely evil, he would not exist (remember, existence itself is a good which God providentially sustains). Thomas Aquinas went further; he observed that if evil existed in the same way goodness exists, evil would even destroy itself since evil's nature is destruction. No, classic Christian theology leaves us with a more serious and more optimistic view of the human person than many have been taught.
Another reason we cannot say that Total Depravity means totally evil is that God remains the Creator. Ever since the Fall, God continues to create bodies and souls through the act of conception. If humans were totally evil, God would be the author of evil in any creative act involving them. Instead, the Church has taught that God’s creation of humanity remains good, but that Adam’s sin is passed onto us at conception so that we are conceived apart from God’s creative act.
When one believes that either they, or their neighbor, are purely evil, one descends into self-hate, smugness towards others, or hatred of God.
Secondly, the Reformers were careful to make the distinction between human nature and original sin. Human nature was originally created perfectly good. Through original sin, human nature became corrupted. But Christ received our human nature, for this was necessary in order for him to be fully human and divine. But Christ’s human nature is uncorrupted because he was not born in original sin. This distinction holds because it shows that God creates human nature good, but sin has a corrupting effect. Thus, if humans were totally evil, even their corrupt nature would cease to exist, for the evilness of our nature is only parasitic on the giftedness of God who provides such a nature that can be corrupted.
When we meditate on the classic understanding of Total Depravity, we find, hidden behind the corrupted flesh, a gracious God who provides and sustains for his people. Christians have tended to take Total Depravity to such lengths that they have done psychological damage to themselves and others. When one believes that either they, or their neighbor, are purely evil, one descends into self-hate, smugness towards others, or hatred of God. This is the unfortunate trauma, spiritual crises, and mental breakdown the young Martin Luther experienced. So deeply did he believe himself sinful and rotten that he actually came to believe the only way he could have assurance that God loved him would be if he attempted to hate himself as much as he assumed God hated sin. That meant wishing to be punished in hell:
“We need to flee good things and take on evil things. Not by words alone or in pretense of heart, but in a full feeling we must confess and wish ourselves to be destroyed and damned. We need to act toward ourselves like someone who hates someone else. He doesn’t just pretend to hate him, but seriously desires to destroy and kill and damn the person he hates. So if we also in a true and heartfelt way destroy and persecute ourselves, and offer ourselves to hell for God’s sake and his righteousness, then we have truly made satisfaction to his justice, and he will have mercy and deliver us.” (Luther’s Works 25:383-384)
Augustine's maxim, "love the sinner, hate the sin," which has come to be abused at times, still remains apt.
Such a view is sadistic and unsustainable. God does not ask us to think this way or to hate ourselves because of our sin. Luther eventually came to see that God's orientation towards sinners was one of love, not damning hate. Augustine's maxim, "love the sinner, hate the sin," which has come to be abused at times, still remains apt. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and repent of our sins, we must have a self-love that understands our redemption is also God's will. God chooses to redeem us because God loves us, and if God loves sinners, so should we, including ourselves. This self-love is not the therapeutic or romantic love of modern import. Rather, it is a self-giving, generous, ever-flowing love that is permissible because the God of love first loves, loves, and keeps loving. It is a love that gives permission to embrace the guilty. The Christian perception of sin, far from being a threat to mental health, in its appropriate expression is more optimistic. Optimistic because it does not require self-hate. Optimistic because, despite sin's totalizing corruption, a loving God continually invests, sustains, and blesses his fallen creation.
But such a view of sin is also more serious. The sadistic view of human sin cannot account for Christ’s saving act, because it cannot make sense of a God who would redeem pure evil (wouldn't such an action be itself evil?). Furthermore, Christ’s motivation to be the propitiation of our sin is also a human motivation insomuch as his human nature, acting with his divine, moves him to action. Though Christ’s nature is uncorrupted, it manifests the best capabilities of human nature’s potential had it not fallen. Thus we can hear, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). Christ died for us, and part of the reason he did so was that he was being very human—human nature as it was supposed to be.
Lent is a season to reflect on our sin and to practice repentance. It is a season designed to prepare us for Christ’s resurrection by showing the full display of human culpability put upon and through Christ’s suffering. But in this reenactment of Christ's sufferings, we are invited to put our self-hate upon him. We are invited to hate God because we hate him and ourselves. We are invited to pick up whips, thorns and nails and to shout, "Crucify him!" We are invited to do this, not because we wish to be blasphemous. We are invited to do this so that we can remind ourselves that our total depravity means we are angry, scared, revenge-seeking people. Lent gives us permission to confess who we are at our worst, who we don't want to be. It is for those who find themselves at the end of another empty bottle, a floor of syringes, an undeleted history, a cold bed, an empty wallet, foreboding loneliness, a hatred of the body in the mirror. Lent says to throw it all at the boy from Bethlehem. Be fully this kind of human because that suffering servant is another kind of human. And he has come, for this reason, to let you be human to him.
Christ’s crucifixion is both a window and a mirror.
And when we sit there, on Good Friday, and see the work of our hands, the naked, eagle-splayed and bloodied body of God, emaciated, punctured, covered in spit, despicably gaunt. Then what? Then the mountain of human hate will have reached its apex and our shame will sit heavily upon us. “What have I done? My God, my God, what have I done?” It follows, “How could anyone love me when I do things like this?” That is what Lent does. It takes you deeper and more fully into the reality of human depravity. It wants you to see not that humans are pure evil, but that they are good people corrupted with an inescapable inability to please God or themselves. The good we have is never good enough to manifest the good required.
Instead, Christ’s crucifixion is both a window and a mirror. A window because we see Christ there, dying for our sins. But a mirror because reflected back at us is our own death too: "If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now, if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom. 6:5-8). That’s what we do. We crucify others because we can’t crucify ourselves. We are too cowardly to die in such a way and too arrogant to try. But Christ came to be the Crucified One. God sees your total inability to make yourself right or happy. He sees you're lost. So he comes. And now is not the time to be pious. Take up the hammer, grab the nails. Do what's in your nature. He will take it and take it away. You'll get a new nature, a new life, a new love. You'll learn to love God, to love your neighbor, even, we dare to say, to love yourself.
This is Lent. It’s not a time for pride. Pick up the nails and drive them in--“do what you came to do” (Matt. 26:50). Then repent and believe because Lent is for sinners. It is for bloodied hands, which are sin-soaked and sordid. Our problem is not that we are a totally evil creation, but that we are a good creation that cannot meet the standard of acting out our goodness and remain lost to sin. Blessedly, another has done for us what we could never do. His obedience has become our obedience, his death, our death, his reward our reward, his life, our life.