David Stokes

G. K. Chesterton used to say that the idea of “original sin” was “a fact as practical as potatoes” and “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

As the nation-at-large wrestles with monumental problems, there are many who advocate strategies that rely on what is often referred to liberally as “the essential goodness of people.” The idea being that given a fair choice and level playing field people will generally do the right thing.

As Dr. Phil might ask: “How’s that working for you?”

I certainly believe people can rise up and do good things following what President Barack Obama, quoting Abraham Lincoln, is fond of calling our “better angels.” But the truth is that the default position of human behavior actually falls short of the ideal. Various forms of theology explain this propensity in terms of “original sin” or “total depravity” – that we are wired with a spiritual-genetic flaw.

In other words, the very suggestion of the existence of “better angels” in our nature implies other “less-than-better angels” – putting it mildly; or maybe “fallen angels.” The mention of better begs the question: “Better than what?”

Some people will dismiss this kind of thinking as puritanical. But it’s sort of like a paraphrase of that old Marxist line (Groucho, not Karl): Are you going to believe them or your own two eyes? Empirical evidence abounds that people tend to follow paths of least resistance and worse.

We are in this mess now because many people either made unwise choices (rejecting personal responsibility or deferred gratification), or they were manipulated and deceived by predators. Others on a certain street in lower Manhattan exploited everything. All of this while Barney Frank kept an eye on things. Clearly, any angels in attendance weren’t of the “better” variety.

People harm and take advantage of others because it is part of human nature. People pollute the planet because it is part of human nature. People lie, cheat, steal, and commit adultery, because humans (all of us) are sinners. And sometimes a toxic storm is at work in a life and monsters emerge to do despicable things. We are tempted to call them insane, and maybe they are by some psychological standard, but they are also very depraved.


David Stokes

David R. Stokes is a best-selling author, pastor, columnist, and broadcaster. His latest book is a novel: CAPITOL LIMITED: A Story about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Based on a true story, it's about a unique moment in 1947, when Kennedy and Nixon shared