What kind of creatures are we humans, anyway? Even if you’ve never asked the question quite as I have here, I know that you have assumptions about human nature. If you’re someone who generally likes people, who believes that most folks are basically good and that the bad apple is a rare occurrence, you have a certain view of humankind. If you live behind an eight-foot electrified chain-link fence with six locks on every door and guns where you can easily reach them, that betrays another, quite contrasting view of humankind.
Fifteenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes is still remembered for a decidedly pessimistic evaluation of human nature. In his seminal book Leviathan, Hobbes states his belief that people are basically antisocial and violent. Human beings are by nature in a state of war, “where every man is enemy to every man.” We live, said Hobbes, in “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes thought that a person has no capacity for governing himself: he must rely upon a strong, overbearing, and (if necessary) cruel, government to keep his chaotic instincts in check.
The view of humankind of his fellow philosopher John Locke was as different from Hobbes’ as an attack dog is from a pet pooch. Locke saw human beings as social creatures who are basically good, honest, and kind. Even without government, religion, and society—what philosophers of the time called “a state of nature”—peace is normal while conflict is episodic. Locke believed that human beings are capable of true altruism and sacrifice, at least partially because there is a natural law that human beings instinctively understand, even apart from written revelation.
The degeneracy of humankind
But can we safely fit the definition of human nature in a box—be it inherently good or bad? Not so, according to the Bible, which tells us that who we are as humans has gone through one change, and we’re awaiting one more.
It starts with the story of a family created by God, a man and a woman who were absolutely perfect in an absolutely perfect world. By nature they were kind, unselfish, honest, and at peace with one another and the rest of creation.
But God added one quality when He created them that eventually proved their undoing: He gave them freedom to choose their own moral path. The reason isn’t hard to discern: If we couldn’t choose for or against our Creator, then we would merely have been robots. If God was going to have us as friends rather than highly skilled biological machines, He had to make us capable of failing.
And fail is precisely what our first parents did.
Critics sometimes say that allowing human beings to suffer the way we have because Adam and Eve ate a bit of fruit sounds decidedly unfair. But the fruit itself wasn’t the problem. Willful disobedience was. The event is called the Fall, and it was the moment when sin came to define our human nature.
Our first parents realized immediately that everything had changed. They experienced shame and regret (Genesis 3:7, 10). From that, point on nothing in life went quite as nicely as it had in Eden. They had to toil for their food. They got sick, grew old, and died. The first murder happened in their family. And it only got worse after that. The entire Hebrew Bible is the story of God trying to keep humanity from destroying itself.
If you were to read only the Old Testament, you could be forgiven for thinking that misanthropic Thomas Hobbes got it right. While human beings weren’t antisocial, they were constantly hurtful toward one another. Hobbes believed people were so incorrigible that they needed heavy governance, and for millennia God provided just that: laying on the children of Israel precise and specific rules, from the moral principles of the Ten Commandments to civil, health, and social laws. Later, when they proved intractable, God allowed them to be taken into captivity by heathen nations, which, according to the prophet Habakkuk, was a divine punishment (Habbakuk 1:5, 12).
And after a while, those who were spiritually sensitive began to feel they weren’t of much consequence to the universe. “What is mankind that you are mindful of them,” asked the psalmist, and “human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4).
Without God, we humans would, I suspect, self-destruct. But the vital truth here is that we are not without God. He has always been with us, and He always will be with us. Though His methods have changed throughout the years, His influence has remained undiminished. And about 2,000 years ago His relationship with us took a dramatic leap forward.
The Old Testament had not only described a promise to redeem humankind; it acted out the promise in ceremonies, especially the sacrifice of animals for sin. The promise itself came true when God sent Jesus, self-described as God’s Son, to demonstrate His love for humanity. Christians have spent centuries trying to unpack the meaning of this event, but our interest here is in what it says about us as human beings:
- We are tremendously valuable to God. “For God so loved the world,” said Jesus, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We are not rejected, not cast away, but so valuable that God intervened personally in the human world to save us from the consequences of our sins.
- Jesus expects us to love others. He said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). The rest of His ministry demonstrated in action just exactly how to do that, from telling the truth about God to healing and feeding people and to demonstrating God’s power over death. And in this last event, He demonstrated that human beings are capable of altruism. “Greater love has no one than this,” He said, than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
- Though all people sin (Romans 3:23), God regards us as sinless because of Christ. He who “trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” wrote Paul (Romans 4:5). Even if our human nature isn’t quite pure enough for God, we get credit for Christ’s goodness.
- We followers of Christ become better people than we naturally are. There’s a dramatic change in human nature when we accept Christ. The rule of behavior in the Christian era is empathy: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). This is proof of John Locke’s theory that God has given human beings at least a little instinctive understanding of right and wrong, for without this insight we would know neither how to be happy ourselves nor how to unselfishly act on behalf of the happiness of others. God assists us with power to resist temptation and become kinder, gentler people. We are, said Paul, “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
All of this leaves human nature in much better shape than we would be without Jesus. But it doesn’t mean we’re yet all that we can be. Just “what we will be has not yet been made known,” says the apostle John. Except for this: “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2)—sinless in character and inclination.
What we’re talking about is a restoration of ourselves to what God intended us to be in the first place. “We will all be changed,” wrote the apostle Paul, “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52). And “the dead will be raised imperishable.” So much for death! But beyond that, our human nature will be cleansed of its violent tendencies. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 11:9).
John Locke’s assessment of human nature was more optimistic than Hobbes’s. Yet even Locke’s natural man falls far short of what God intends for us, which is nothing less than a return to the human nature that we were created with and that we lost with the disobedience of Adam and Eve. And that’s precisely why we expect to spend eternity praising Him! (Revelation 4:8–11).