We have studied the two views of the nature of humanity. We have examined the doctrine of sin and how it relates to our being made in the image of God. Now we are ready to take up three views of what it means for human beings to be sinful.
Be careful at this point! Do not confuse these three views of man and sin with the two views of the nature of humanity that we already have considered (the dichotomous and trichotomous views).
Two of these views of sinful humanity, always have had defenders, but they are not widely held today. The first we shall call the optimistic view, and the second we shall call the pessimistic view. The third view, which I favor, we shall call the realistic view of man.
The optimistic view, the predominant view of 19th century liberalism, was a kind of naive optimism. It said that man’s sinfulness is a matter of ignorance and evolutionary lag. Because of their commitment to evolution, they believed that humanity was continually getting better and better. Supposedly we are gradually evolving into more civilized and better educated creatures.
In this view every person has a free will that is not depraved, which means that each individual can choose not to sin. This view suggest that depravity (sinfulness) affects every part of a human being except the will, and even those parts that are sinful are not totally so. That is, the sinfulness touches every aspect of man’s being, except the will; but it does not totally dominate any aspect. It is because the sinfulness does not affect the will that a person can choose not to be a sinner.
Therefore those who hold this view believe that as we humans evolve into mature and better educated beings, we will choose to not sin. Thus sin eventually will be overcome, and we will have heaven on earth. That is the optimistic view.
The pessimistic view of humanity and sin was typical of the Protestant Reformers. The Westminster Confession, the famous Presbyterian confession of faith that was rejected by the Presbyterians in the 1960’s, states the pessimistic view quite well. It says that human beings “are utterly indisposed, disabled and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (West. Conf., vi. 4).
In this view, the sinfulness extends not only to every part of our being, but it also extends throughout each part in a total way, corrupting everything; leaving us completely helpless apart from the grace of God. Only God can turn our situation around by choosing to extend his grace to us.
The realistic view says that humanity’s sinfulness does affect every part of our being, including the will; but, this sinfulness does not extend throughout each part in a total way. In this view the sinfulness is a kind of total depravity, but not in the same sense as the pessimistic view.
Note that the stream of human existence, though corrupted (perhaps polluted would be a more meaningful term) in every part of its course, is not absolutely bad. Though even the purest ideals and the highest achievements of individuals and societies are tainted by sinful self-interest and pride, we humans still accomplish some good, undergo some moral growth, and make some good choices.
Now then, there are several non-biblical explanations of sin. We will quickly survey them (Purkiser, pp. 201-207). The first is that sin originated in an Eternal Principal of Evil. This is the idea of “dualism.” It means that there are two gods, a good God and an evil god.
A second view is that sin originates from the Limitations of Finite Being. That is, human beings are finite; and sin is a result of that. Sin has no moral force in this view. And it cannot be eliminated, or even avoided. It simply is a result of our finitude.
Third is the view that sin is a Necessary Antagonism. The idea here is that all of reality is best explained by a rule of necessary opposition or antagonism. That is, every natural law is balanced by an opposite law. There must be obstacles to strength for strength to develop. There must be fatigue for rest to be needed. There must be death, if life is to have meaning. In the moral realm, it is the same. There must be sin, if virtue and morality are to have any meaning.
The fourth view is that sin originates in Man’s Sensuous Nature. This is the idea that the human spirit is in conflict with the body. And the body, which is the seat of the sensuous nature that causes sin, predominates over the spiritual. Thus sin arises.
Fifth is a view Purkiser called The Socratic-Deweyan Theory. This theory says that sin is due to ignorance. Socrates and Plato believed that one develops virtue or morality by means of education and personal development. John Dewey developed a theory of education in the twentieth century that says the same thing. Therefore education is the solution to sin in this view.
A sixth view carries the name of The Evolutionary-Lag Theory. This theory suggests, on the basis of evolutionary theory, that there is a carry-over of animal qualities from lower stages of existence. That is, our physical and mental abilities have evolved faster than our moral and spiritual capacities, which has produced a “lag” in development, which in turn causes sin.
The seventh and last kind of the non-biblical theories are Social Theories of Sin. The French philosopher Rousseau advanced an idea called the “noble savage.” He suggested that we humans were ideal creatures in our primitive state. We became perverted (sinful) when we abandoned our primitive “free” ideal condition and organized ourselves into complicated societies.
Another kind of social theory to explain sin was set forth by Karl Marx. Marx blamed sin on social exploitation, or other forms of social injustice. For him sin was the oppression of the “have nots” by the “haves.”
You can see why all of these views were under the heading “Non-biblical.” The biblical perspective is very different from them all. It defines sin as “missing the mark” in one’s relation to God. Thus sin in the biblical perspective is a personal, relational matter, rather than a lack of education, or evolutionary lag. etc. It always is a rupture of our relation to our Creator, due to our free willful choices.