Human Nature: What You Need to Know

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Human Nature

What You Need to Know

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Albert Einstein once said regarding the threat of modern warfare: “It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man” (“The Real Problem Is in the Hearts of Men,” New York Times Magazine, June 23, 1946). That is, it would be easier to alter the key element in nuclear weaponry, rendering it harmless, than it would be to change what people are in their inner core and render destructive human nature harmless.

But is man’s inner nature really evil? It’s a long-debated subject. For many centuries in the Western world, Catholic dogma taught that man is inherently evil—even born with the stain of “original sin” passed down from Adam and Eve. Many Protestant churches persisted in this view.

Enlightenment philosophers brought new ideas, some espousing that man is inherently good, like Jean-Jacques Roussseau’s concept of the “noble savage” corrupted by civilization into unnatural wants. But so-called “primitive” cultures were wracked with war and atrocities. John Locke advocated for an empiricism or nature developed through experiences, arguing that in terms of character man is not born sinful but with a clean slate and is later corrupted into wrongdoing.

Later psychologists would argue that human character is a product of biological urges, mental health issues and social dynamics, dismissing the issue of morality as bringing harmful stress and guilt. Yet understanding morality and the biblical topic of sin is vital to understanding human nature.

Indeed, it’s critically important that, to understand human beings, we look to the Creator of humankind. Through His Word, the Bible, He gives us understanding of our basic human nature and thereby provides essential wisdom in dealing with the world around us and our own problems.

According to the Bible, is human nature good or bad?

In Jeremiah 17:9, God declares: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (emphasis added throughout). The word “heart” refers to man’s thoughts and spiritual nature. People try to hide this nature, even from themselves, but it nevertheless gives rise to wrong thinking and action. As Jesus Christ stated, “For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22, New Living Translation).

The apostle Paul explained that all flesh-and-blood human beings share this nature: “The mindset of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it is unable to do so” (Romans 8:7, Christian Standard Bible). God’s law is the expression of His perfect righteous and good character of love or outflowing concern toward others—the way of giving, helping and caring. The opposite of this is the evil selfish and self-promoting way of vanity and taking for self. Man has a nature set on the latter—being hostile to God.

Yet don’t people give and share? To an extent yes. But are they fully in line with God in all they think and do? Jesus remarked of average, everyday people: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11). “Being evil” is a problem that besets everyone to varying degrees. But notice that those Jesus addressed also knew how to give to their children.

The Bible makes it clear that all human beings have a spiritually downward pull away from pure godliness. And none of them has lived without sin, the violation of God’s law or way of life, except for Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23; 1 John 3:4; Hebrews 4:15).

So how is it that many people are kind and decent in character? Each person has a unique temperament, personality and set of past experiences and future goals that have helped in shaping his or her life. People are shaped by many influences, both good and bad. Development of thinking and behavior is influenced by parents, family, teachers, friends, religion, etc. The Bible greatly emphasizes that parents must continually teach their children God’s laws and values (see Deuteronomy 6:6-9). People also learn from cause and effect—the consequences of our actions leading to some needed reforms.

We must further realize that God made people as social beings who need to be able to get along with each other to certain extents for the sake of human survival. Paul also mentions that even gentile nations apart from God’s law had a sense of conscience about right and wrong (Romans 2:14-15), though that would not always steer them right and could be suppressed (compare Proverbs 14:12; 1 Timothy 4:2).

The origin of human nature

God did not create man with an evil nature. In Ecclesiastes 7, where Solomon is lamenting the sinfulness of people, he makes this comment: “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes”—or inventive ways to be bad (verse 29).

This did not mean that Adam and Eve had godly righteous character when they were formed in the Garden of Eden. Rather, they were in a state of innocence—having as yet made no moral choice against an alternative way. God decreed their creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But righteous character was to come through right choices yet to be made. God had made them to be initially responsive to Him and to get along with each other. So they started in the right way. They had certain physical needs and desires that were being met, so there was as yet no temptation toward selfishness.

But then came direct temptation from Satan the devil as the serpent in the garden. Eve succumbed to deception and the enticement to disobey God’s command. Adam wasn’t deceived but he also ate the forbidden fruit (1 Timothy 2:14). In partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, man effectively chose to determine good and evil for himself, submitting to Satan’s influence and rule. Here was the beginning of the nature of man being corrupted. But the corruption did not stop with them.

As noted earlier, many have taught the idea that all people are now tainted with “original sin” through descent from Adam and Eve—born condemned in sin. Quoted in evidence is Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—” Why did death spread to all? Not because of Adam’s sin but “because all sinned” (same verse)—and in different ways from Adam (verse 14). It was not from being tainted with Adam’s sin.

God says people are only condemned for their own sins, not those of their forefathers (Ezekiel 18:20). It’s true that consequences of sins are passed down generationally (Exodus 20:5; Numbers 14:18), but that’s because of life patterns, teachings and altered circumstances being passed on and having long-term effects.

There were major consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin for their descendants to follow. These included being largely cut off from God and living in a cursed world subject to the malignant influence of Satan and his demons.

Growing up in Satan’s world

Until Jesus Christ returns to earth, God is allowing Satan to continue as the “god of this age” and the “ruler of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4; John 12:31). Satan is a vicious liar who “deceives the whole world” to believe and “call evil good, and good evil” (John 8:44; Revelation 12:9; Isaiah 5:20).

At times he misleads people directly, but he promulgates his deception further by letting it spread, with many acting as his unwitting agents. Satan and his demons operate behind the governments and other institutions of this world. They control the media, education, religions. They operate among the masses and in individuals.

Ephesians 2:2 explains that the course of this world is set by Satan as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience.” Evidently, Satan has what we might call a spiritual “broadcast” of wrong moods and attitudes going out to the world to which human minds are attuned. So there’s far more to all the moral ills of the world than just competing self-interests. Rather, people are stirred up to live sinfully—and this starts early.

People are not born with sin, as many assume. Babies begin with a clean slate, as Locke maintained. Jesus used the innocence and teachableness of little children to illustrate the proper attitude for receiving God’s Kingdom (Matthew 19:14). But at some point in early moral development, corruption sets in. We don’t know when this happens except that Genesis 8:21 says of people that “everything they think or imagine is bent toward evil from childhood” (NLT).

Obviously, babies need to be self-centered so they will let parents know when they are hungry, hurting, need changing, etc. (Even when we’re older, a degree of self-concern and self-care is appropriate.) But at some point toddlers will start exhibiting some measures of selfishness and greed.

As children are growing up, they need lots of good influences to counteract the many bad influences of Satan and society and the urges to gratifying self without proper consideration for others, and for God above all. They must be taught the Bible and biblical values. And all of us need to continue in these through life.

Those who believe human nature is basically good come up with many excuses for people’s destructive behavior. They often blame circumstances like poverty or race rather than holding each evildoer personally accountable, promoting a victim mentality among perpetrators. Elitists seeking tyrannical power over others reason that the inferior ignorant masses need their wise guidance.

Recognizing the deceitfulness of human nature, avoid putting too much trust in leaders, in other people and in yourself (Psalm 146:3; Jeremiah 17:5; Proverbs 3:5). Satan’s world is arrayed against us—and the chief agent in that is our own human nature. We are our own worst enemy!

Dealing with this ingrained corrupt nature

As we’ve seen, since the sin of Adam and Eve humanity has been subject to the sway of Satan. His spiritual broadcast and societal influences permeate people’s thinking from a young age, so that man’s innate nature is gradually dominated by what we refer to as human nature—really a corrupted human nature taking on Satan’s nature.

Yet we might wonder why God would allow Satan’s continuing influence over the earth and his ongoing work in human nature to pull people downward. We’re told that God allows temptations and difficulties as a means of testing and strengthening us (James 1:2-3). We can compare this with physical exercise. We need resistance such as weights to pull and push against to better strengthen our muscles. And so it is with building spiritual character.

What’s the remedy for human nature? It’s to “be transformed” spiritually (Romans 12:1-2). The apostle Peter explained: “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, NLT).

God’s Holy Spirit heals our spiritual blindness, enabling us to understand spiritual truth! (Matthew 13:16; 1 Corinthians 2:9-12). And Galatians 5, after relating the “desires of your sinful nature” (verses 19-21, NLT), tells us the wonderful “fruit”—the holy and happy virtues—of the Holy Spirit (verses 22-23).

However, having God’s Holy Spirit does not completely remove one’s ingrained human nature. In Romans 7, Paul, even though an apostle, describes his ongoing “war” with his “carnal” or fleshly human nature. He wrote: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate” (verse 15, NLT). Happily, in the next chapter, Romans 8, Paul explains a lot about how the Holy Spirit transforms and empowers a person!

Human nature is like a magnet. The closer one gets to a temptation, the stronger is the pull of that temptation. So don’t rely on only “resisting” temptations. Several scriptures urge us to avoid them and “flee” from them! (e.g., Proverbs 4:14-15; 1 Timothy 6:9-11; 2 Timothy 2:22).

We need to be drawing near to God (James 4:8)—and should do so every day through prayer and Bible reading and striving to live by every word of God (Luke 4:4). If we do, we can thoroughly enjoy the power and pleasure of God’s nature at work within us! (2 Peter 1:2-4). And then after we’re ultimately transformed in the Kingdom of God, we will no longer be burdened with human nature—for we will be filled completely with the pure and wonderful nature of God!