My Shadow Days Are Over: Rethinking Total Depravity

shadow daysAre people good? Or are people bad? 

It seems like a simple question until you get into it. Christian Theology often talks about “original sin” and “total depravity” in regards to what took place after the fall of Adam in Eden. We say that since Adam fell in the garden, the human race fell into sin and evil.

Growing up in a Christian church my whole life I was a borderline fundamentalist at times, and therefore I wouldn’t have seconded guessed this question for a minute. I would have said right away that humanity is bad. 

There’s no question as to whether mankind can do bad things, but it’s more about asking ourselves: are we really inherently evil? 

Theologically, there are different positions on this. Total depravity is one of the five points of calvinism. Total depravity is also held in Arminian theology, but to a lesser degree then calvinism. Depending on who you ask definitions of this term will differ.

Some will say that because mankind is totally depraved, we desire that which is evil over that which is good. Therefore, total depravity is a pull towards evil, and a rejection of good. (i.e. the in ability to choose God, in Calvinism)

Within this definition, while there may be good acts, fundamentally human beings are evil and sinful to their core. There is nothing good in them, although they try and cover up their sin with good works.

I think the best argument I’ve read against this notion of total depravity comes from St. Paul in Romans 7. I was reading through Romans 7 one day trying to figure out who Paul is talking about (his present self vs. his former self), when it dawned on me that if he is talking about his former self, he is also making a clear case against total depravity.

Romans 7 essentially is where Paul makes statements about himself as someone who desires to do good, but remains unable to do good. This chapter is often used to talk about how Christians have a dual nature, that of sinner and saint, but as I’ve written here and here I don’t think a Christian has two natures.

Therefore, this leaves us with the conclusion that Paul is talking about his former way of life. So when we read statements like this, we need to rethink some things: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” 1

If this is a pre-Christ Paul, then total depravity is not as we once thought. Mankind is still good, desiring good things, yet unable under the law to perform them.

I do believe that sin has corrupted our nature, but I don’t think sin has ruined our nature. I’ve been rethinking the doctrine of total depravity lately, and so that’s where all this is coming from. I’m not trying to say that total depravity is wrong, but perhaps it’s not as true as we once thought?

Much of this started for me when I read an interesting statement about how Eastern Orthodoxy understands total depravity. Check it out:

The Orthodox tradition, without minimizing the effects of the fall, does not however believe that it resulted in a ‘total depravity’… The divine image in man was obscured but not obliterated. His free choice has been restricted in its exercise but not destroyed. Even in a fallen world man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God and can enter by grace into communion with him.

…The doctrine of original sin means rather that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt others, and hard to heal their wounds; easy to arouse men’s suspicious, and hard to win their trust. 2

So if we go back to our original question, “are people good?” what should we say?

Perhaps the world isn’t evil?

Perhaps mankind really is good? Maybe we aren’t able to act on our goodness without the empowerment of grace?

I was thinking about all of this while walking home from work on day listen to John Mayer (which happens often). All of a sudden his song “Shadow Days” came on. It’s not my favorite song from John, but the chorus felt like a smack in the face from on High. It’s a challenge: are we able to look ourselves in the mirror, and say “I am good”?

Here are the chorus lyrics:

I’m a good man with a good heart
Had a tough time, got a rough start
But I finally learned to let it go
Now I’m right here, and I’m right now
And I’m open, knowing somehow
That my shadow days are over
My shadow days are over now

When you see yourself, can you see yourself as someone who is good?

I think it is important to. “I’m a good man with a good heart…”

When you see another human being, can you say that they are good? Even when they do bad things?

Can we see the goodness of God in all people, including ourselves?

It’s something I’ve been challenging myself with lately.

What do you think about “total depravity”? Am I on to something here? Leave me a comment below!

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  1. Romans 7:19 ESV
  2. Met. Kallistos Ware on God as Creator’; The Orthodox Way [p. 62,63] seen here

3 thoughts on “My Shadow Days Are Over: Rethinking Total Depravity

  1. Are we good? Not compared to God. But if God is supremely good then that would necessarily mean he is good to the ungood. His Supreme goodness is the hope of all we lesser good. For if our goodness is oriented towards mercy and kindness, how much more is God’s?

    Yet somehow goodness gets turned photo negative by theology when we are talking about God’s goodness. Mans goodness manifests in mandated kindness and mercy even to the undeserving. But the funhouse mirror of theology tells us that God’s goodness owes none anything and can be withheld on the basis of our inherent ungoodness alone. In fact Gods goodness demands we the ungood suffer eternal torment for our ungoodness.

    So don’t bother trying to be good because it’s useless without Jesus. Even if you managed to do good for someone else in a way for which they are truly grateful, it is never good enough in the eyes of God because without faith in Jesus you are incapable of being given credit for good actions.

    Just don’t tell that to Jesus. He might have to rewrite the parable of the Ungood Samaritan. He might have to rewrite the parable of the sheep and the goats. We dont have any idea what those people believed about God. All we know is what they did for others. Evidently that was good enough for Jesus.

  2. Ok I thought of something else.

    If man was incapable of seeking God then there should be only two religions in the history of humanity. That would be the Jewish and the Christian religions. For they alone are the only two religions whereby the true God has revealed himself thus making himself accessible.

    Yet many religions have emerged in the absence lf these two. Are not these religions, however false, not attempts by man to seek or find God? The Inca and Mayan and Native Americans all called out on God(s). Thus this inclination to want to know the creator or the powers of heaven seems quite demonstrable.

    To disqualify these on the basis of being pagan errant results is circular reasoning. How would anyone call out to the correct God, being that God has never revealed himself to them in his correctness? The question total depravity puts forth is not “can man find the correct God?” That would be the answer to the question of total ignorance not total depravity. Total depravity demands we conclude man has never sought God at all. Then Paul should have been preaching to atheists on Mars Hill, No?

    And yet listen to Paul lay waste to total depravitys claims:

    [Act 17:22-24, 26-27 NASB] 22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; … 26 and He made from one [man] every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined [their] appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;

    Total depravity…busted.

    But what does that mean? Does it mean we are complete without God? No. In Him we are made complete, But note Pauls approach to the pagans. Not the utter devaluation of their life and being which would insult them before we could even introduce them to Christ. Total depravity has sired all sorts of insults and face slaps towards people who might otherwise show respect to the gospel. But the purveyors of total depravity seem bent on gathering only those who would tolerate being denigrated before being regenerated.

    No where did Christ demand any convert accept the doctrine of total depravity to enter the kingdom. All they needed was to accept the loving intent of Christ to gather them to the Father. This is why I tell sinner there are three things God wants you to know. 1. He is real, 2 He loves you 3. You need him.

  3. We are most definitely inherently bad. See the verses where David talks about being sinful at birth. Also, if you really think about it, what happens when we are little? When we were kids, our parents never had to teach us to lie, get into fights, throw tantrums, etc. We did those things by nature. They did have to teach us to be respectful, tell the truth, use words instead of fighting, etc. If we were good by nature, we would naturally do what’s right and wouldn’t need anyone to teach us what to do.

Tell me what you think