Christian theology has always been a hotbed of controversy. This is not surprising, for the one thing theologians do agree on is that God is incomprehensible. No one has the last word on God. No one has the last word except God.
Most theological controversies revolve around the nature of God, but one revolves around the nature of humans. Americans are used to hearing that people are “basically good,” but theologians are used to saying that they are “totally depraved.”
If someone were to ask me if I believed in total depravity, I would want to ask them what they meant before I answered. If they meant that there is no goodness in human beings, I would say that I do not believe in it. History, and the evening news, for that matter, record breathtaking acts of love and sacrifice, which only a fool would deny were good.
The great English apologist and man of letters C. S. Lewis rejected the idea of total depravity thus understood. He wrote: “I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature.”
Lewis’s reasoning was, as usual, spot on. But I, who have quoted Lewis more often than any other source, save the Bible itself, am forced to admit that the premise on which he founds his argument is faulty. He is assuming that total depravity means absolute depravity, which is not what most theologians mean by the term.
By “total depravity” few serious theologians mean that there is no good in humans. The “total” in “total depravity” does not mean that everything human is as bad as it can be but that nothing human is as good as it was meant to be.
Could human beings be worse? Yes, unimaginably, and horrifyingly so – the stuff of nightmares, the stuff of hell. Could they be better? Yes, equally unimaginably so – the stuff of dreams, the people of heaven.
Theologians believe that our reason is not reliable, our will has been compromised, and our feelings distorted. The highly integrated organism we know as the human being has experienced – and continues to experience – a system-wide degradation. Our bodies, minds, and spirits have been diminished to such an extent that we require outside help – God – to set us right again.
This is not to say that human beings, created in God’s image, are void of any goodness. It is to say that God’s image has been marred and humans are less good than they were designed to be. They do not always recognize the good and, when they do, they sometimes do not desire it. Even when they desire it, they frequently find they cannot carry it out.
But this diminishment of the human being is not only about recognizing and doing good; it is also about being well, about functioning (as it were) according to spec. Theologians not only say that we cannot save ourselves but that we cannot be ourselves, at least, not without God’s intervention.
The theological irony is evident. It took the Son of God to live a fully human life and to open the way for others to do the same. The rest of us have lived far below our potential.
Sin has distanced us from the Creator and that distance has diminished our capacity to think, feel, and love, in much the same way that distance from a radio station diminishes the quality of the music coming from our radio. As the distance increases, the music fades, becomes distorted, and devolves into mere static. Distance from God causes a similar breakdown in humans. Hence, “Christ died…to bring us to God.”
Humans are capable of profound love and sacrificial goodness even in our current diminished state. What, one wonders, would they be like if they were operating according to spec? It is open for anyone to find out, for that is the future of a redeemed humanity. The biblical witness is that those with faith in Christ are already being “renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” and eventually will be transformed in body as well.