A continuous trend in the history of philosophy has been deciding whether or not humans are entirely good or entirely evil. Some philosophers believed that we are basically good, but are corrupted either due to society, family, lack of family, lack of society, a bourgeois lifestyle, or so on. Other philosophers believed that humans are basically evil, but will act “good” when it works to our advantage, that we’re really selfish and so no true altruism exists. Recently there have been philosophers who say there is no good or evil, that humans have acts and simply exist.
Christianity has traditionally held that humans are paradoxically good and evil. It’s not that we’re mostly good or mostly evil, it’s that each individual chooses which direction he will take. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been some extremes, even some so extreme that it steps into the shallow waters of heresy. Some, such as the Pelagians, taught that humans were good and could live perfect lives. Others, such as extreme Calvinists, teach that humans are evil from the moment of conception and can choose to do no good in any sense of the word (any act of good was determined by God). Yet, at its core, Christianity teaches that humans are good, but fallen creatures.
In short, we are a paradox; we are both good and evil. We are capable of bringing about immense good in the lives of others in the most mundane of ways. Whether it be from thousands of Reddit users sending letters to a terminally ill man with down’s syndrome to a New York City police officer buying shoes for a homeless man, we can inspire hope with the smallest of things. Even if our actions don’t make national news, we can impact people’s lives with what we do. For some, it’s as simple as having a smile and being friendly to someone who’s had a rough day. As a people, we are capable of accomplishing great things.
Yet, we are equally capable of doing atrocious things. Yesterday, an insane man murdered multiple people, the majority of whom were children. What is sad is that while this event is tragic, it pales in comparison to the millions who are murdered around the globe each day by their brothers. Whether it be through forced starvation because of an evil dictator or through a vicious civil war who’s purpose has long been forgotten, millions are killed each day. But the evil is compounded by the indifference of the entire world. We care about the shooting of these children because it is a horrible thing and happened in what was supposed to be a “safe area.” Yet, where are the television cameras for the inner-city 6 year old who witnesses rape, drug use, gang beatings, and shootings as a way of life? Or why haven’t we seen outrage over the United States’ predator drone strikes wherein hundreds of children have been killed? It is one thing for an insane man to walk into a school and mercilessly shoot down the innocent, but it’s another when hundreds of insane men launch a taxpayer funded missile at foreign children all in the name of patriotism. Both acts are insane, but we have made one socially acceptable. While capable of great good, we are capable of great evil, most often through our apathy.
We are a people that built the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, beautiful gardens, and incredible architecture that has withstood the test of time. Within a century, we created vehicles to get us from one spot to another, took these vehicles to the sky, perfected them, and eventually took them to the moon. At the same time, we created new ways of killing each other, we opened Pandora’s Box with nuclear warfare (and it seems inevitable that it will occur, killing billions), and took our creations and used them to destroy the earth.
Are we basically good? If so, then how do we explain yesterday’s actions? Perhaps we can give the shooter a cop out by saying something snapped. But then how do we explain the mass neurosis of a society that ignores the pain of those around them? If we are basically good, then our existence should be basically good as well. We shouldn’t see the crime, the war, the troubles in this world. Yet we do see them.
Are we basically evil? If so, then how do we explain the outpouring of sympathy towards the victims in Connecticut? The root of all evil is the desire for autonomy, which manifests itself first in narcissism. All acts of evil occur out of narcissism, thus empathy and altruism are completely incompatible with evil. Yet, here we are feeling empathy towards the victims. All the time we see acts of altruism where benefactor gets nothing out of his act of kindness. If we are basically evil, we shouldn’t see altruism or empathy or anything good. All that is good should be an accident.
Why is it that we are a paradox? Why is it that, on a universal scale, we’re capable of good and evil? Why is it that, on an individual level, we can always find dirt even on the best people? Why do we seem to be great and insignificant? This, in my opinion, has been the source of existential angst in the past one hundred years; once we did away with the Christian answer to this question, we were forced to face this question again. Facing the question caused angst, leading to apathy towards the question (after all, it’s much easier to be entertained) or, alternatively, to deducing the question to scientific explanations. Both attempts have been a failure, even if the apologists for each approach have yet to realize their failure.
We are a paradox because we are in the image of God, but not in His likeness. We are in the image of God in that we have a conscience, can rationally choose good or evil, and we have the freedom to choose good or evil. But we are not in His likeness in that our wills are turned away from Him and we do not always desire to choose what is good. We act like God in that we reason, but we act nothing like God in that we sin. We are all children of God, made in His image, but we have run away and are lost in a cold and unforgiving world. We are capable of good because God is still our Father, but we are capable of evil because we have left His house. In walking away from God we are left with nothing and so we try to fill that nothing with anything. But in the pursuit of anything, we will do horrible things to achieve it, because our goal is not love, it is not holiness, it is not mercy, it is not grace; when we pursue a chief end other than God, we pursue something of our own creation, meaning we pursue our pride. The pursuit of pride, the desire for autonomy, is the root of all evil.
Yet, in a plot twist that would make Christopher Nolan blush, the paradoxical Trinitarian God sent His Son into our world, to paradoxically remain fully God while also being fully human, all so He could fix the paradox that is us (yes, a paradox within a paradox within a paradox). The irony is that we are a paradox out of rebellion, but one that can be fixed; God is a paradox to us by His nature, and one we will never solve (because He is above us). The paradox that is man is the cause of our pain, but the paradox that is God is the solvent. By taking on human nature, Christ eradicated evil from it and showed us the way back to wholeness and fulfillment. The goal of following Christ is to become less of a contradiction, to abandon evil and to follow the good.
We are a paradox, but we don’t have to be. By growing in Christ, we can accomplish so much more. We can tap into the image of God, but also become more like Him.