New Research May Change Your Views on The Depravity of Man

Donald Miller

Not long ago I saw a tweet from a Christian leader saying something like, “Watching the news feed. Lots of horrible things happening. Do we need more to prove the depravity of man?”

I get where the guy is coming from. It would be easy to watch the news and believe people are evil. But there are three immediate problems at play in the simple tweet:

    1. Theologically, the problem is both out there and inside me. So if we are all depraved, I should just have to look in the mirror, not the news.

    2. The news looks for horrible stories because it increases ratings. So, it’s a skewed view of life. Our neighbors, hopefully, aren’t making bombs. The overwhelming percentage of people we know aren’t murderers or rapists or thieves. So what does Total Depravity mean to us?

    3. What do we do when we read stories about people who are doing good things in the world? Does this disprove the theological proposition of Total Depravity?

Now I have to confess something. I believe the concept of Total Depravity is completely true, and is perhaps, as G.K. Chesterton said the only bit of Christian theology we can actually prove.

To be sure, people can be very evil. I’ve a friend at the Justice Department who prosecutes sex traffickers and says he’s seen evil first hand. He’s met monsters. They all have horrible stories about how they got that way, but they are monsters all the same. They need to be locked up. And a recent interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor revealed her perceptions were the same. When asked what had been the greatest paradigm shift she encountered during her rise to the Supreme Court she responded by saying, “the existence of evil. I didn’t want to believe anybody could be purely evil, but I know now they can. Evil exists.”

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But what about the rest of us? What about the confusing middle where we both love and hate, lie and tell the truth, pursue justice but also ignore it? What does Total Depravity look like for us?

A recent book by Dan Ariely called The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, is, in my opinion, the best book about Total Depravity written in years. And he doesn’t even mention Total Depravity. He’s not a theologian and likely not a Christian, and yet he delves deep into the hidden heart of man – a heart that is rarely pure evil, but always interested in protecting its own interest.

Ariely conducts experiment after experiment to find out if people will tell the truth or lie. And what he finds is very interesting.

He finds that people will lie to suit their interests until they lie so much they feel like they are becoming a liar. At the point in which they feel like they are becoming a liar, they start telling the truth.

*Photo by Hugh Kretschmer, Creative Commons

In other words, being Totally Depraved (that is acting always in one’s own interest) can also mean we start to do the right thing because the right thing may, in fact, start becoming what’s best for us. We will lie, but we won’t become liars. Both motivations are selfish (and even the terms are spun to bolster the view we are good. Aren’t we liars the first time we lie?)

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God’s definition of evil then is anything that isn’t in line with Him. Or, more accurately, anything that isn’t Him or anything He hasn’t redeemed in relationship. He is the only good and so He defines good through communion with anything else (theologians kindly clarify this in the comments if you will). So the truth is, evil people are capable of very, very good deeds if those good deeds are in line with their own interests.

What was more interesting to me than this finding was that everybody’s belief about truth changed depending on what suited their interest. As soon as somebody became rich, their right and wrong views about money, poverty and economic justice changed to suit their interests. If somebody could profit from a morally questionable practice, their views on that practice would change.

What this means is very few people are thinking objectively about anything. Our own theological views are often subscribed to, not because they seem objectively right, but because our community espouses them and if we agree, we are better accepted into our community.

All that to say, the issue isn’t so simple, and it certainly can’t be framed in a “look how depraved they are” mentality.

People who see the world this way are certainly depraved. Unlike me.

I may lie, but I’m no liar.

Total Depravity indeed.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He helps people live a better story at creatingyourlifeplan.com and grow their business at storybrand.com. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.