Is “Total Depravity” Descriptive or Prescriptive? A Look at Evil and Experience

Evil is a big question, especially when we consider how much evil is present in the world. There appears to be so much evil present in the world, both moral and natural, that it defies any belief in a moral, personal God who is supposedly good and desires good for the people he supposedly created. If you wrestle with the problem of evil in any sense, be it in the theoretical as those in philosophy or in personal experience, you recognize that evil is a problem that requires some use of the reasoning faculties but, at the same time, most incidences of evil defy any application of reason. So, rather than deal with a particular instance and try to make sense and apply some theoretical nonsense to it, because that does no one any good, I will take a moment today to look at two competing theories of operation that come in conflict and inform two competing worldviews: those of atheism and those of Christian theism.

There are those in atheism who want to imply that at its base, humanity is basically good. There is significant evidence to support this basic assumption. The overwhelming majority of people keep to themselves, live quiet, and unassuming lives. Most examples of evil are obvious and rare and pawned off as anomalies that are rare and isolated and easily accepted as part of the human experience. But how does this compare with what the understanding is in Christian theism?

If the understanding, often a mistaken notion, that in Christian theism purports to insist that humans are essentially evil. This flies in the face of most people because they look at themselves in the mirror everyday, they scale the claim by experience and laugh it off as implausible. The problem is that the charge is a mistake of terms, probably brought about a misunderstanding inherent to one of the structuring doctrines of what has consumed modern Christianity: that of Reformed theology. This is not meant to disparage my brothers of that persuasion, but to highlight the inherent problem of the term described as “total depravity“. This is to be taken, I assume, as a broad statement, a descriptive of the general condition, rather than a railing accusation, which would make it prescriptive. I note this when I look at humanity that lies in the rear view mirror of experience: most of the incidents of evil, those things which confirm the theory, occur when a person loses their fear of the God who can hold them responsible for their actions. Most people, even the most ardent atheist, harbor a notion of punishment for their actions, either limited to this life (the atheist) or the next (the theist). I notice then that it is an inherent fear of repercussions that ultimately restrain people from any remarkable act of evil that people consider worthy of some manner of punishment or repudiation. I spend so much time on this understanding because it really ought to be considered, so I direct my reader to pause for a moment and consider what I suggest to see if that assessment fits with their experience before continuing.

If fear of punishment is the only thing that restrains anyone, then the difference between these two camps is not one of great distance, but of subtlety. But what does experience again tell us? The resounding answer is that actions have consequences, even the ones seen as inconsequential. The problem is that evil lies at our doorstep, to paraphrase an ancient passage. When we step out in our minds to face the day, the question is do we restrain ourselves from disturbing that rabid creature, or do we aggravate it or invite it inside our lives allowing it to infect our existence. Most of us open our door and tip-toe past, hoping to not disturb it. A few of us invite it in and allow it to consume our existence. Even fewer take bold steps to not only wake it, but wrestle with it in order to put it in chains, chains that once held us, empowered by something outside of ourselves because we have been filled with power so that it is not us who wrestle with it and subdue it, but that which empowers us. Christian theism is based in that last understanding, not that we conquer evil, but that evil is weaker than the power that emboldens us.

“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils, they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”
–G.K. Chesterton


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