The Gospel as Apologetic – Part 3

Christianity is unique among world religions in claiming that we are radically sinful? But is this claim true? Let’s address that question next.

The Bible teaches that we are all radically corrupted by sin. The word ‘radical’ here is not merely being used as an intensifier; in other words, I am not primarily saying that we are ‘really, really, ridiculously morally corrupt.’   Instead, ‘radical’ should be understood to mean ‘at a fundamental level.’  At our root, we are morally corrupt.   Sin is like an infection or a poison that has tainted all humanity and expresses itself in our thoughts, words, and actions. 

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Consider a few of the candid, but depressing assessments of the biblical authors. According to the Bible, our primary problem is not a lack of self-affirmation, a bad environment, or even material poverty; our primary problem is our sin.

If human nature has been fundamentally corrupted by sin, then we’d expect to see its traces all over human history.  Similarly, we’d expect to see sin infecting every part of life, every strata of society, and every culture.   Finally, we’d expect that honest self-reflection would show us a bent in each of our lives towards self-absorption, wickedness, and willful blindness.  So what do we see when we turn over the pages of human history, or current events, or our own lives? The answer is not pretty.

We can see the depth our human evil in history. We all know about the Holocaust. What we sometimes forget is that the Holocaust was only one genocide among dozens, perhaps hundreds, that occurred throughout human history. Here’s an excerpt from Naimark’s Genocide: a World History which describes some of the atrocities committed against the Mayans: “killing defenseless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of the victims who were still alive… the opening of wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts.”

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What makes human beings engage in such acts? Perhaps Rousseau was right and civilization corrupts us? Unfortunately, that idea is empirically false. Here’s a graph of the percentage of male deaths due to warfare in various cultures. The top 8 bars, which range from 8% to 60%, are for pre-industrial indigenous people groups throughout the world. The bottom bar, at 2%, is for Europe and the U.S. during the 20th century, the bloodiest century in modern history. The death rates from warfare in indigenous cultures dwarfs those from the modern, industrial societies.

What does this data tell us? Civilization does not create murderous desires in our heart. Civilization restrains it. We’re afraid of the government, of the police, of losing our property, of losing our reputation. Civilization keeps the evil in our hearts from spilling out into death and murder. But it’s still there in our hearts all the same.

Surely, though, most people wouldn’t engage in such behavior, right? It’s just a few bad apples, isn’t it? No. Consider the famous Milgram experiments conducted at Yale in the 1960s. Stanley Milgram recruited subjects to participate as ‘teachers’ in what he claimed was an experiment on learning.  In the presence of a supervising ‘experimenter’, a ‘teacher’ was told to read a list of word pairs to a ‘learner’, who had been strapped to an electric chair.  If the learner answered questions incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock, increasing the voltage each time a mistake was made.  Unbeknownst to the teacher, the shocks were fake and both the learner and the experimenter were actors.  The real experiment probed what percentage of teachers would be willing to apply potentially lethal voltages to the learners.  As the experiment progressed, the teacher could hear the learner uttering cries of pain, complaining of a heart condition, and begging to be released.  Eventually, the learner fell completely silent and stopped answering questions.  In spite of these deterrents, 65% of the participants were willing to administer the highest voltage.  A 2006 experiment replicated Milgram’s results, finding very little change in the compliance rates.

I could go on and on, citing other psychological experiments, rates of sexual abuse, domestic violence, childhood development studies. Sin is real. It’s radical. It’s deep. It’s exactly what we’d expect based on the biblical assessment of our condition.

However, we haven’t yet touched on the key point in this discussion, which is the difference between our internal attitude versus our external behavior. Of course, we should behave morally. But Jesus always went beyond the external and pointed back to the internal: we can behave morally and still have filthy hearts that are motivated by selfishness and pride rather than love. Like Jesus, we can ask: “Do we commit adultery? Not just with our bodies but in our thoughts? Do we commit murder, not just in our external actions, but in the hatred we feel towards our rivals?”

Imagine that you had an app on your phone that could hear all your innermost thoughts and broadcast them on full volume throughout the day wherever you went. Where would you go? To the mall? To the grocery story? To church? Would you even leave your house? This example shows not only that our thoughts are dark and filthy, but that we know that they are dark and filthy. We are ashamed of what goes on inside of our hearts. But God knows what’s there. We can hide it from other people, but we can’t hide it from him.

Sin is just as radical as Christianity claims. We see it in human history. We see it in psychological studies. We see it in our own lives. We see it in our thoughts. Premise 3 is true. But what about Premise 4? What about our need for rescue? Let’s address that question next.

Previous: Part 2 – Is Christianity unique?

Next: Part 4 – Do we need rescue?


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