Are Humans Basically Good?

Some believe humans, deep down, are fundamentally good. Dutch freedom fighters in World War II might disagree with that sentiment.

 
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A few summers back, my wife and I hosted a reunion. We had all met many years earlier as young married couples, having moved to a large city and living within a few blocks of each other. Plus, we all attended the same church. While living in such close proximity, we did many things together and were in each other’s homes regularly. We camped together, had board game nights and had a weekly Bible study. Then, almost every weekend, we served in our local church. It was fantastic. But, as time wore on, each couple moved away to pursue new jobs, start families and adjust to the changes in life. We had drawn close over those early years, so we always tried to catch up when our paths crossed.

Finally, all of us were able to get together for a reunion. It was great meeting the children, hearing stories and enjoying the familiarity of old friends. As the pastor in the group, many had contacted me for spiritual advice over the years. I had spent hours on the phone with one of the couples as they navigated challenges in their new church. I gave them advice on what to focus on, how to talk to the pastor, when to bring things to the church board and so on. But, things did not work out and they ended up leaving that church.

As I sat in the backyard enjoying the reunion under the summer sun, I discovered that they had not only left the church but were no longer Christians at all. In fact, they had come to the conclusion that there was no God. It was a heartbreaking moment. As I listened to them recount how they came to their decision, our former time together flashed through my mind—studying the Bible, singing campfire songs, planning church events and experiencing the spiritual journey together. For them, it was no longer of any value. One thing they said to me really made me think. “What do you need saving from?” they asked. “Everyone is a good person deep down.” As I pondered that, an old story came flooding back to my mind.

A lesson from World War II
On June 5, 1953, the SS Sibajak sailed into Wellington Harbour after departing from Rotterdam, Netherlands. The Royal Rotterdam Lloyd Shipping Line Sibajak passenger liner transported Dutch migrants to New Zealand and other parts of the world. When the ship made port, the Vyver family disembarked, looking to start a new life in New Zealand. This family was made up of the father and mother, Jan and Jitske, and their children, Jelte (John), Pier (Peter), Hobbe (Harry), Gezina and Elizabeth. Gezina is my mother. In 1953, she was five years old. The Vyver family were survivors of World War II, having lived in Nazi-occupied Friesland in the city of Leeuwarden. My grandfather Jan was part of the Dutch resistance—the undergrounders.

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In 2002, some confidential World War II-era papers were declassified. I saw in an April 1945 report (a month before the liberation of the Netherlands) that the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) observed: “The underground has concerned itself chiefly with obstructing German administration, obtaining military, political and economic intelligence, and caring for the so-called onderduikers (undergrounders) and their families.” My grandfather Jan was a print compositor and had skills that were useful for disrupting the German administration. Because of his involvement in the undergrounders, there came a time when German officers pounded on the door of the Vyver home. My grandfather surreptitiously removed a panel in an upstairs closet and stealthily hid in a small compartment made for this exact purpose. My uncle Peter answered the door and, in what has become part of family lore, told the German soldiers that his dad was “hiding in the closet!” The only thing that saved my grandfather was that the soldiers did not understand Dutch well enough to know what Peter was saying in his childish innocence. They searched the house and found nothing. My family was saved that day.

When I was born in 1979, Jan was only six years from his death. As a child, I had no knowledge or particular interest in my grandfather’s experiences in World War II. My eldest brother is eight years older than me and he convinced my grandmother to record an interview. Now that I am older, I would cherish the opportunity to sit down with my grandparents and talk with them about those days. Yet, my grandmother has also passed away, and in the foolishness of childhood, I recorded over the cassette my brother made of this interview. Her perspectives are now lost to time and the stories shared at family gatherings are all we have left.

Despite that, I remember one thing on the tape that my grandmother said and it has stuck with me ever since. It is what I shared with my friends when they told me that deep down, we are all good.

My grandmother said of that time in the Netherlands, “You didn’t have to worry about the Germans that much. It was your neighbours you had to watch out for.” In an effort to save their own lives, neighbours would turn against neighbours. As the basic human desire for survival came to its fullest depth of need, goodness disappeared. What surfaced was betrayal, violence, fear, dishonesty and selfishness. We discovered that the German soldiers were at the door of my grandfather’s home that day because one of his neighbours had turned him in. A neighbour they had lived next to for many, many years.

We are not good, but Jesus is
Many people today hold the same belief that my friends expressed to me. Why do we need saving if we are all basically good people? What do we need saving from? If I answer that question honestly, I need saving from myself. I know that deep down, I’m not good. I believe if the pressure were to get bad enough, as it did in World War II, that evil would likely come out. I am also certain that any pure goodness we can attain today can only come from God’s grace.

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The Bible talks about the nature of humans at the beginning of our history. After our first parents ate the fruit of the tree from which they were told not to eat, enmity entered the human experience. “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers” (Genesis 3:15), God said to the serpent who tricked them. The goodness of God’s traits that He had placed within us was changed. Evil began making its way to the surface. It wasn’t long until the first act of violence brought the first human death—Cain murdering his own brother Abel. That selfish, hateful nature, passed down from our first parents as if coded into our DNA, has transported the problem of evil through many generations. Humans do awful things to each other daily. Accounts of the atrocities committed by people against others are pervasive in our society, showing that humans are not basically good.

Yet, there is hope. Just as my grandfather did, there is a resistance, a present-day, worldwide underground movement. It’s happening right now in many lives through the power of Jesus Christ. He defeated evil by taking it on Himself, as Isaiah 53 describes:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering. . . .
. . . He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed (verses 4, 5).

Jesus took the punishment for our evil actions. “He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (verse 12).

I get to have a new nature because Jesus defeated evil forever so that I could exchange my evil for His goodness. If you look carefully, you will see that goodness is all around you, even amidst the darkness. It’s because of Jesus and I’m alive because of it.

Tony Parrish is a pastor, husband and dad living in Dunedin, New Zealand.

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