As we said in the previous chapter, a common point of debate among theologians focuses on the question, are human beings basically good or basically evil? The hinge upon which the argument turns is the word basically. It is a virtual universal consensus that nobody is perfect. We accept the maxim “To err is human.”
The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Despite this verdict on human shortcomings, the idea persists in our humanistically dominated culture that sin is something peripheral or tangential to our nature. Indeed, we are flawed by sin. Our moral records exhibit blemishes. But somehow we think that our evil deeds reside at the rim or edge of our character and never penetrate to the core. Basically, it is assumed, people are inherently good.
After being rescued from captivity in Iraq and experiencing firsthand the corrupt methods of Saddam Hussein, one American hostage remarked, “Despite all that I endured I never lost my confidence in the basic goodness of people.” Perhaps this view rests in part on a sliding scale of the relative goodness or wickedness of people. Obviously some people are far more wicked than others. Next to Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler the ordinary run-of-the-mill sinner looks like a saint. But if we lift our gaze to the ultimate standard of goodness—the holy character of God—we realize that what appears to be a basic goodness on an earthly level is corrupt to the core.
The Bible teaches the total depravity of the human race. Total depravity means radical corruption. We must be careful to note the difference between total depravity and utter depravity. To be utterly depraved is to be as wicked as one could possibly be. Hitler was extremely depraved, but he could have been worse than he was. I am a sinner. Yet I could sin more often and more severely than I actually do. I am not utterly depraved, but I am totally depraved. For total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin.
Perhaps radical corruption is a better term to describe our fallen condition than “total depravity.” I am using the word radical not so much to mean “extreme,” but to lean more heavily on its original meaning. Radical comes from the Latin word for “root” or “core.” Our problem with sin is that it is rooted in the core of our being. It permeates our hearts. It is because sin is at our core and not merely at the exterior of our lives that the Bible says:
There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one. (Romans 3:10–12)
It is because of this condition that the verdict of Scripture is heard: we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1); we are “sold under sin” (Romans 7:14); we are in “captivity to the law of sin” (Romans 7:23) and are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Only by the quickening power of the Holy Spirit may we be brought out of this state of spiritual death. It is God who makes us alive as we become His craftsmanship (Ephesians 2:1–10).
- Humanism sees sin at the edge or periphery of human life. It considers human beings to be basically good.
- Biblical Christianity teaches that sin permeates the core of our life.
- Total depravity is not utter depravity. We are not as wicked as we possibly could be.
- Radical corruption points to the core sinfulness of our hearts.