Susan C. Anthony

The Bible: Sin and Evil

I once believed people are basically good. I loved Anne Frank's quote, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart." Now I wonder if she herself would have written that a week before her death, or if it was a naive expression of the same youthful idealism that collapsed beneath me as I grew older.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularized the idea that people are good by nature in the 16th century. He believed that society, with its notion of property, was the root cause of corruption and unhappiness. Primitive people and societies, he thought, were pure and undefiled. Yet he himself acknowledged that "the principles with regard to which I differ from other writers (i.e. innate human goodness) are not matters of indifference; we must know whether they are true or false, for on them depends the happiness or the misery of mankind."

If people are not naturally good, we need to face the fact, like it or not.

I was extremely reluctant to abandon the premise that people are naturally good, that I am naturally good. It was a central, core, foundational belief and it helped me feel good about myself. But all my efforts could not keep truth at bay. I knew I fell short; I "missed the mark." The word "sin" is an archery term meaning just that, "missing the mark." Though the word has taken on heavier connotations over time, it basically means any failure to fulfill our potential, intentional or unintentional. It includes anything motivated by greed, selfishness or laziness. I came to realize that humans are sinners by nature, just as the Bible claims. We don't relish doing things for others when there's nothing in it for us. It's easier to gain weight than to lose weight. It's easier to sink into an easy chair and watch TV than to reach out and help a neighbor in need. It's easier to take a nap than a hike. For most of us, the effort to consistently do what's good and right feels like swimming against a current. Our nature pulls us the other way.

We secretly enjoy pointing out the shortcomings of others, but excuse our own because we're aware of our good intentions. We notice when other people hurt our feelings or offend us, fail to do what they promise, let us down when we're depending on them, or otherwise "miss the mark." It's much harder to acknowledge that we hurt others and let them down. From early childhood, we naturally long to be the boss, to call the shots, to find someone else to blame or pick up pieces when we err or things don't go our way. It's natural. It's not evil, but it is sin.

Evil is sin as well, but there's a difference. Evil is intentional. Sin harms; evil seeks to harm. Sin misses the mark; evil doesn't even aim at the target. Lack of consideration for others is sin; maliciously lying about others is evil. Wrecking the Exxon Valdez was a mistake, a sin. Crashing jets into the World Trade Center was intentional, an evil. The consequences of accidentally crashing jets into a building are much the same as the consequences of intentionally doing so. To the individuals harmed, the difference doesn't make much difference.

Like many people, I was contemptuous of Christianity because of horrible hypocrisy and acts attributable to Christians in the past and present. Until I came to terms with that, I was not willing to even look at Christianity. I wanted to stay as far away from it as I possibly could. Scott Peck's book, People of the Lie, helped me gain the perspective I needed to take a second look. The following quote was an eye-opener for me:

Since the primary motive of evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one's evil from oneself, as well as from others, than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture? In India I would suppose that the evil would demonstrate a similar tendency to be "good" Hindus or "good" Muslims. I do not mean to imply that the evil are anything other than a small minority among the religious or that the religious motives of most people are in any way spurious. I mean only that evil people tend to gravitate toward piety for the disguise and concealment it can offer them.

It occurred to me that if there is actually a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and if the front line of the battle is the Church, evil could invent no better strategy than to infiltrate and discredit Christianity. Ironically perhaps, this insight convinced me there may be more validity to Christianity than I'd previously suspected! I decided to ignore the people and focus on what the Bible itself had to say.

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