Are People Fundamentally Good or Evil?

Good-and-evil 31 years ago, Los Altos Church of Christ began serving Thanksgiving dinner to the needy at the Long Beach Senior Citizen’s Center.

I was 4.

I’m so glad the Lord has granted me the opportunity to be part of such a thing nearly every year. We arrive early in the morning, and work until about one o’clock. We serve about 150 people, most of them elderly, all of them in poverty and/or abandoned by their families.

When dad put the idea forth 31 years ago, people said it wouldn’t work. The thinking was, “People don’t want to have to work on Thanksgiving. They want to relax.” In classic dad fashion, he thought better of people than that and put the wheels in motion. Truth be told, he probably would have done it himself if he needed to. However, he has always had a relatively high view of people’s attitudes toward service. He is the kind of guy that’s crazy enough to believe that if you call God's best out of people, they will not only serve but experience God’s blessing.

Over the years, God has blessed the event richly. Alumni like myself continue to come back year after year. The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and other community groups have helped out—without being asked to. They just come. Random people from the community looking for a place to serve on Thanksgiving have pitched in. As it turns out, even people who aren’t invited to help always show up to do so. And, we’re glad to have them. As it turns out, at least some people weren't as selfish as some thought.

This got me thinking about the great philosophical/theological question: Are humans fundamentally good or evil. Some ministers preach to the church as though all present are greedy, out of touch, or apathetic to the plight of the poor. This same conviction leads them to believe people must be forced (or at least strongly goaded) into doing the right thing or they won’t.

I don’t believe that.

I believe that if in fact human beings are created in God’s image, they intrinsically sense and desire to do what’s right. I also believe they will feel blessed and fulfilled as they serve God’s mission. This doesn’t mean people don’t act selfishly or apathetic or greedy. It simply means that something about serving, generosity, sharing, etc., "feels right" to people, and their greatest potential as a disciple is unleashed when we appeal to the saint, not the sinner in them. That is to say, when we appeal to the God-image in them, not the sinful nature. There is such a thing as a “sinful nature,” but there is also such a thing as creation in God’s image. God's power and presence is a stronger force than sin. This is obviously a much bigger discussion than one paragraph in a blog post can cover, but it's a really important discussion with huge implications for ministry.

I know many ministers who feel the need constantly to jar what they believe to be a lazy and sinful people out of complacency toward what God wants them to do. They must do it, or the people won't do what they're supposed to. They believe we are all sinners and we sin, we sin, we sin. Jesus atones for it all, but our battle today is a fundamentally a battle against sin. They seem to believe that the goal of the church is to help people be less bad, not more good. My experience is they are rarely effective. A better approach is to cultivate the God-life within them which includes holiness, but focuses on cultivating life in the Spirit

If we think lowly of people or don’t like them very much, we’ll have a hard time leading them. Why? Because we won’t be able to envision or truly hope for God’s best for them–and neither will they. We will simply try to get people to be less evil–which is OK but not exactly a lofty goal. In addition, we may not really believe it’s possible for them to become what God wants them to become. People won’t follow such an approach…because we will not have helped them see God’s hope for them and the church. We will have helped them see Satan’s activity clearly, but only an impressionist painting of God's. Lastly, they will sense our low view of them, and return the favor…putting the church's ability to do much of anything on God's agenda at risk.

Some will ask, “What about the prophetic word?” The prophetic word is reserved primarily for those in power, and is generally occasional, not status quo. It’s also nearly always concluded with words of hope. Much of what is labeled "prophetic word" today is simply the bloviation of personal agendas by the frustrated. Don't get me wrong. There are some churches that need far more of the prophetic word. Sometimes people need a tooth-rattling word from the pulpit. Most of the time they need someone to help them see how God is working, and who God created them to be. They need someone to challenge them toward Christ-likeness, but they need to hear the truth about their sinfulness in love from someone who loves them. We preachers must remember to speak truth in love, for when we do not speak in love, we don't speak for God.

I'm thankful for churches like the Los Altos Church of Christ who have enough vision to live out the truth of Acts 20:35—it is more blessed to give than to receive. And, I'm thankful that even last Thursday, they gave me the chance to teach my children that what Jesus says is true. It is more blest to give than to receive.

Which is a bigger problem, lack of true prophetic word, or human words masquerading as "prophetic word?"

Do you think people are fundamentally good or evil? 



Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Are People Fundamentally Good or Evil?

  1. You got me with that word bloviation. Had to do a little looking and thought this was an interesting find:
    “Of an interesting bloviator, President Warren G. Harding:
    He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”
    One thing that is axiomatic for me is that we all are truly a pretty scary mix of good and evil. I on the one hand accept Paul’s description in Ephesians 2 “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” On the other hand I take great comfort and hope in Paul’s words in Philippians 2: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” I think it is God’s active working in our world and in people, that is the most amazing thing. Evidently God is unwilling to give up on humanity, as evil as we have become, and makes sure that there remains something redeemable. Knowing He is at work, helps me to look for those trophies of His goodness in myself and my fellow man, and I find them regularly. Is man primarily good? It’s hard for me to say yes to that, but there is gold in them hills, and I am thankful for my prospecting forefathers.
    I like the words of Justin Hayward of “Moody Blues”
    You and Me
    There’s a leafless tree in Asia
    Under the sun there’s a homeless man
    There’s a forest fire in the valley
    Where the story all began
    What will be our last thought?
    Do you think it’s coming soon?
    Will it be a comfort
    Or the pain of a burning wound?
    All we are trying to say
    Is we are all we’ve got
    You and me just cannot fail
    If we never, never stop
    You’re an ocean full of faces
    And you know that we believe
    We’re just a wave that drifts around you
    Singing all our hopes and dreams
    We look around in wonder
    At the work that has been done
    By the visions of our father
    Touched by his loving son
    All we are trying to say
    Is we are all we’ve got
    You and me just cannot fail
    If we never, never stop
    All we are trying to say
    Is we are all we’ve got
    You and me just cannot fail
    If we never, never stop
    You and me just cannot fail
    If we never, ever, never, ever stop…

  2. I acknowledge the presence of evil. However, God is not far from any of us. In Him, we live, move and have our very being. One should not be surprised to see the nature of God in settings of darkness and sin. Much of ministry is helping people recognize God at burning bush, hospital waiting room, divorce court, etc. I accept that folks are evil but I also accept that God shines through–even if my sin blinds me so I don’t recognize Him in you.