Human Nature: Good or Bad?

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In September 2006, passersby found a family murdered along an interstate highway on the Florida gulf coast. The father, mother and two boys, ages two and four were lying on the ground outside their vehicle when they were murdered, indicating an execution.

What causes some people to commit such cruel, remorseless crimes? The New Testament says much about the capacity for sin caused by “carnal nature” and “the flesh.” Scripture states in Jeremiah 17:9 that the human heart is “desperately wicked.” Some people believe that our nature was passed from Adam and Eve—that we are born evil from birth.

This idea has seeped into how we treat children. We know of an evangelical who has marketed a parenting program for Christians in which he tells us that babies are self-centered to the core. He advises parents to put them on rigid feeding schedules and let them conform to the parents instead of the parents conforming to them. Better to let them cry a while, he advises, so they get used to the idea that they are not the center of the universe right from the beginning.

However, there was something else about that media report that passes by most of us. When people are deeply angry or afraid, they tend to go into what could be termed “low mode functioning.” The intellectual systems shut down, leaving only the deep core of the brain operational. When we are terrified, pretense goes out the window: Who we truly are tends to come to the fore. In the execution-style murder, the victims knew they were about to die. They would have been terrified, and consequently, operating from their core just before they died. It was in this mental state, that the mother, lying on the ground, tried to shield her two sons from the perpetrator’s gunfire with her own body.

Is that mother’s protective effort a mystery to us? No. We all understand motherly love. What is a mystery to us, instead, is the action of the perpetrator. How could he shoot anyone, let alone two little children in cold blood? The fact that we understand what the mother did and can’t connect to the actions of the perpetrator says a lot about our hearts—about our nature. The Apostle Paul tells us that in the last days people would be without natural affection. The perpetrator did not have natural affection. The mother did have it. If there is an affection that is natural to humans, then it follows that there is at least one aspect of human nature (what is natural to us) that is good. Maybe we could say in this case that the murder didn’t have enough of the mother’s kind of human nature.

Going back to the idea that humans are evil from birth, let’s think about Jesus taking a little child to himself and telling the disciples who were disputing over power as he spoke. He tells us that we all need to be like little children. If children were rotten to the core, why would He use them as a model of spirituality for us?

When an infant comes from the womb unaffected by anesthesia, it immediately begins to search for a human face. Babies come hard-wired for connection. Who else is like that? “My father and I are one,” Jesus tells us. Babies are relational beings in the image of God. Babies seek love from parents. They have built into them the ability to attract adult love and care. When it is given, children naturally respond with love. It is only when parents don’t give them the care and love that they are wired by God to need that things begin to go awry.

I recently worked in family therapy with a mother and daughter. The mother was convinced that her twelve year old daughter had Oppositional Defiant Disorder. This “disorder” is a serious set of behaviors. The girl ran with a gang at school and would jump other girls, beating them up. She would not obey her mother’s commands unless it suited her. She was hanging out with guys who were older than she. On one occasion she stayed out all night. Her own misbehavior was putting her at risk. Children who act this way are often diagnosed, when they are older, with Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Many of the criminals filling our prisons qualify for this diagnosis. These people don’t trust others, have no conscience, and are extremely self-centered. Treatment is difficult.

Was this girl a “bad seed,” rotten from birth? Her mother thought so. She was weary with all the disrespect and frantic with worry that her daughter would end up in prison or dead. As time passed, I saw that this child came every week to therapy without resisting her mother. She desperately wanted their relationship to work. She did everything I asked her to do. She worked more diligently in the therapy than her mother. She felt remorse for some of the bad things she had done. She was able to trust me to help her. She was always polite and respectful to me. Sometimes she would give me hugs after our sessions were over to express her appreciation. These behaviors are not associated with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Her mother, on the other hand, could not find anything good in her daughter, had difficulty expressing love to her, and the resisted respectful, consistent boundary setting I was attempting to teach her. If I had let her, our sessions would have consisted entirely of complaining about her daughter’s faults.

It wasn’t hard to see how the child grew to be so hateful. Her mother didn’t know how to treat her properly. In spite of it all, the child’s resilience enabled her to respond with love and respect when she was shown the same. Her response is a monument to the ability to love others (natural affection) that God has build into us.

Please notice that the title of this article is a question. That is because I don’t know the final answer to the question that I have posed. The more I look into it, the more complex the issue appears to me. While we do all have a carnal element to our thinking and behavior, it also seems evident that there are good things about us as well. When God created Adam and Eve, we are told he created them in His own image. He said His creation was “very good.” Because He is a good parent, God knows how to focus on the good as well as the bad.


Bill Jacobs

Bill Jacobs is an ordained minister and currently serves two Sabbatarian fellowships. He is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor in New Mexico. Bill and his wife Elaine are the founders of LifeResource Ministries, a ministry providing resources to help Christians become stronger spiritually, more unified in the faith, and more able to pass their faith to their children.

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca