Total Depravity: Evil & Desire

June 8th, 2010 § 1 comment

[NOTE: I welcome criticism and even rejection of these ideas, particularly from those of you who are more theologically schooled, though I’ll listen to anyone to some degree. I definitely don’t want to be a hyper-Calvinist.]

In the first post in this series, we surveyed the accepted meaning of “total” in total depravity. Typically, this “total” is thought to imply the extent or breadth of the corruption, that depravity has corrupted every part of man. (The extension, or the set referred to, is complete and total.) This view also seems to explain why man is not as evil as he could be, for his corruption, though extensive, is not intensive, not corrupting him as deeply as possible.

In the previous post, we discussed why depravity might not be total in extent. I proposed that the will is singularly uncorrupted, a presumed exception to the totality of the extent of the corruption. That argument is intended to demonstrate that the corruption may not be total in extent.

In this post, I will investigate our notion of evil to lay the groundwork for the claim that man actually is as evil as he can possibly be. I will show that this evil implies the full corruption of desire, a corruption that is total in intension.

To understand evil properly, we must understand this mysterious notion of “good.” There are many “goods” in the world, most of which are only relatively or contextually good. For example, Jones and Smith are both be farmers. A terrible flood comes along and wipes out all of Smith’s crops. Supply is constrained; prices go up, and Jones profits handsomely. The flood was good for Jones’s bank account but not for Smith’s. Another example: A knife or a piece of wood can be good things, used for art or creativity. They can also be very bad things, used very wickedly to hurt or destroy. Most thing in the world are this way: they don’t have inherent goodness or badness, but to those who stand in proper relation to them, they are good; otherwise, they are bad.

However, there is one thing in the world that is absolutely good in an inherent, unmitigated sense: God. To consider something other than God to be absolutely good is to believe a lie. To please God is absolutely good, for God only desires good and only is pleased by good. To desire to please God is (by derivative) an absolute good. An absolute evil is anything that is opposed to the absolute good.

It should be easy to see ways that one could be doing relative good while engaging in absolute bad. For example, let’s say that Jones, an atheist, embarks on a charitable mission to Africa with the primary desire of proving to his friends that God is not necessary for moral goodness. Indeed, this is the worst evil imaginable because it is intentionally spitting in the face of what is really good and attempting to set up something else as the one true Good. Or what if one decided to use church as a way to get something: professional contacts or a relationship. This is making God into a means to an end instead of the End. This is setting up something else as the Good and demoting God to a method by which to get to that other good.

And this is how we humans are. We constantly, though engaging in relative good, immerse ourselves in absolute evil, because our desires are for something other than God. This is the essence of idolatry: treating something other than God as though it is the Good. To set up an idol is the ultimate act of wickedness: It is dishonest, not recognizing goodness. It is prideful, not recognizing the lofty nature of God over humankind. It is insulting to God, a demotion of uncreated Goodness to a level below corrupted creation. Because other things are not Good like God, our entire life becomes a lie, the living out of an untruth.

Biblically speaking, this is the nature of every man. Genesis 8:21 says, “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” What we desire and naturally seek after is evil. There is a wealth of additional verses showing that our desires are naturally opposed to God, that we seek things other than God, even if these things are relative goods. In the Bible, this fact about our desires becomes especially clear if we read “heart” to mean the seat of human desire. Even in children this is evident: “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecc. 9:3). Any self-respecting theologian who ascribes to total depravity will cite Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately; wicked, who can understand it?” Mark 7:21-23 says, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual imorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” John 3:19 gets to the point with clarity when it says, “And this is judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” What is it the people loved? Not what is good; they loved darkness. Romans 8:7-8 says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” All these verses, in their different ways, point to this one fact: that our desires are wicked (i.e. our hearts are set on wickedness). The objects of our desire are the not-Good, even if sometimes they are little-“g”-goods.

Thus, that we seek something other than God as the Good shows us ultimately to be evil. This is not a partial but a complete bend: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” (C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity.) The goodness that we have is an illusion. We really are as evil as we could possibly be.

To some, this notion—that idolatry is the worst evil and that unregenerate man is as evil as he could possibly be—must seem ridiculous. In recent generations, our culture has begun to ascribe to what I will call “the ethic of harm.” We consider evil to be that which causes harm to others. What harms no one is permissible. What harms one (maybe even one’s self) is impermissible. From this framework an idolatry of cars, for example, or a green lawn seems utterly harmless, innocent, an very un-evil. It is inconceivable to understand how that “harms” one’s neighbor. Thus, to those whose highest ethical goal is to avoid harm, it is impossible to see how man is naturally as evil as he could be. He has a capacity to harm far beyond what he typically does. That he does not harm as much as he can shows that he is not as evil as he could be.

This view of morality is unbiblical. We are not called to figure out whether or not something is harmful or permissible, but whether it is right and good. These are radically different categories and priorities. When we talk about evil, we must make sure that we are not confusing it with harm. Evil is the opposite of Good, not the presence of harm. We must understand good to understand evil. Good is not not-harm. God is a positive thing to be pursued, not a negation.

But if we must debate in terms of harm, we must see that idolatry is harmful to others in every possible respect, for it is from this fount that does flow all the evil alluded to earlier. To make the approval of people an idol can lead to reduced sharing of the Gospel, and nothing can be more harmful than that. If my car is more important to me than my friendship with another human, who can say what harm will result? Moreover, as unregenerate man, our idolatry stands between us and life eternal with God, the ultimate harm beyond any harm that could happen to us in this short time on earth.

The primary problem of man, then, (what depravity is) is that we want little-“g” good things as if they are the Good. When we do this, we end up making the good into a bad (the way that a knife used to carve is good but used to kill is bad). Most simply, we end up wanting bad things. There is an almost magical sort of metaphysical miracle that is accomplished by the twisted heart of an idolater that turns a good thing into a bad thing. This, then, is the essence of depravity, that man wants bad things.

I argue that our desires are the seat of corruption, the ground zero of human evil. These desires are inevitably, helplessly, and necessarily pointed toward not-God things. This is not a partial or a majority corruption, but a total corruption. Where our desires do seem to be for a God, they merely are for God as a means to some not-God end. The fullness of this corruption is signified by the “total” in Total Depravity.

Next time, I’ll talk about where this leaves us with the original “extension/intension” question. Maybe I’ll even draw some more fancy diagrams for DTH.

§ One Response to Total Depravity: Evil & Desire

  • David says:

    Three days ago, I did have a really good conversation about depravity with a respected seminarian. Although I did convince him of some points of my view and showed the incompleteness of his (he viewed depravity primarily as an epistemological deficiency), I came away with a realization that I may be overly systematizing a tricky and nuanced topic. In the case of my ongoing monologue concerning depravity, this leads to such severe statements as: “The goodness that we have is an illusion. We really are as evil as we could possibly be.”

    [I do hold to that view, but I hold to it with a 10-foot pole, recognizing that it is pretty strong, mildly radical, and requires numerous caveats and qualifications. And I’m open to changing my mind on it.]

    This over-systematizing tendency that I have can be bad. Truth may be ordered, but its order is quite a bit more complicated than I can perceive. It is better to look for truth and see how it is ordered than to look for the order so you can figure where the truth is.

    Still, I hold somewhat to what I would call “The Elegance Principle”—that theological truth is often elegant in the way that it all ends up fitting together into a beautifully coherent system. Just as God is beautiful, so is truth, for it comes from God. So I hope to find a concise coherence, but hopefully not at the expense of missing the truth in the real concise coherence.

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