Why Is the World Such a Screwed Up Place? Here’s How Ancient Christians Tried to Answer that Question
We can feel it. We know that this is not how things are supposed to be, but we can’t explain what the problem is.
Morpheus in The Matrix put it this way:
You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave… Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.
Of course this is real life, not a movie. The matrix is not our problem. The ancient Christians said the problem goes much deeper than that.
Why should we care what ancient Christians said?
The views of the ancient church are recorded in the Bible. I have close friends who don’t accept the Bible. They believe they have good reasons for rejecting the Bible. Why, they ask, should we take the time to listen to what the Bible has to say?
I would give two answers.
For one thing, even if it was merely written by men, it is a classic of Western literature. Until a couple hundred years ago, it served as the foundation for the fundamental ideas of the leaders of our society. That alone should count for something.
Beyond that, there’s the fact that countless Christians, both modern and ancient, have had their lives completely transformed by it. It’s worth looking at.
The Bible consists of 66 very diverse books written by multiple authors and complied into the book we have today. The statement of the problem is surprisingly consistent. Consider the following sampling of verses from nearly every strand of biblical material:
- Genesis 8.21: “[T]he Lord said to Himself, ‘…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth…’”
- 2 Chronicles 6.36: “…for there is no man who does not sin…”
- Isaiah 53.6: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…”
- Rom 5.12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
- 1 Cor 2.14: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
- 1 John 1.10: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”
The ancient Christian believers taught that the main problem is that humans are dead in sin. The conventional name for this doctrine is Total Depravity.
Loraine Boettner, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, describes the doctrine of Total Depravity in his book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (X.2). Though he is from a stream of the Christian tradition that I would disagree with on many points, I agree with him on this point:
…since the Fall, man [sic] rests under the curse of sin, that he is actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation.
How bad is it?
It is somewhat unfortunate that we have inherited this particular term in the Christian theological tradition because the word “total” would seem to imply that humanity could not be any more depraved, and that we are as wicked as we can possibly be.
Boettner says that the doctrine, “does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that any one is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is evil… His corruption is extensive but not necessarily intensive.”
Total Depravity means that every aspect of our character has been infected by sin, and on our own we can make no decision apart from its influence.
Anthony Hoekema suggests that the alternate term, “Pervasive Depravity” would be more appropriate. But that would spell complete and utter disaster for the five points of Calvinism, which would become PULIP instead of TULIP. For the sake of continuity, and so as not to tick off the AAAAA (American Association Against Acronym Abuse), it is perhaps best to retain the traditional term.
The doctrine of Total Depravity sums up several key themes. Humans, in their natural state, are dead in sin, unable to obey God, unable to please God, unable to free themselves, and unable to understand the things of God.
The doctrine of Total Depravity is another way of stating the need of every single person to be transformed. It is the doctrine that is necessarily entailed whenever someone says you should be “born-again.” The ancient Christians believed that this could only happen through the power of Jesus.
Before you write it off, ask yourself: Are you disagreeing because you have evidence that it’s not true, or are you disagreeing because you don’t want it to be true?
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