The Fall of Man and “Total Depravity”

Does God view me as "inherently evil?" I recently heard a pastor use this phrase in a sermon on the doctrine of "total depravity." It's been bothering me ever since. In the first place, I think it's unbiblical. Scripture says that God made mankind in His own image, and that everything He made was inherently good. I know that the fall has "stained" this goodness, but I don't believe it has removed it entirely. Also, if this pastor is right, how am I supposed to have any kind of self-esteem? I've been feeling worthless ever since hearing his sermon.

The Christian Gospel isn’t meant to be a “downer.” It’s good news. At the heart of this good news is a positive hope that every believer will one day be a creature of unimaginable beauty, majesty, and holiness. Even now we have the promise that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is the foundation of your self-image as a Christian. God loves you. He has created you in His image. Even now He is in the process of re-making you after the pattern of grace and glory revealed to us in His Son.

At the same time, the concept of “human depravity” does occupy an important place in the message of Scripture. In fact, we can’t fully experience the joy of new life in Christ unless we understand this teaching correctly. Let’s take a closer look.

You’re right to insist that God made us in His own image (Genesis 1:27). You’re also on target in suggesting that, for this very reason, man is in some sense “inherently good.” Your pastor might have made this clearer by choosing his words more carefully. He could have handled this side of the question with greater sensitivity and nuance. In any case, we’d like to set the record straight. The biblical doctrine of the fall doesn’t assert that human beings are totally evil. It doesn’t even claim that man is as bad as he can possibly be. Instead, it says that all aspects of human nature – mind and spirit, soul and body, reason, affections, emotions, and will – have been equally infected with sin. As you’ve pointed out, man continues to bear the image of God in spite of the fall. Nevertheless, the image has been marred. It’s like a mirror with a big crack right down the middle.

We dare not miss the significance of this last point. If we downplay the seriousness of the crack in the mirror, we risk minimizing the desperateness of the human situation. If we minimize the desperateness of the human situation, we discount the necessity of Christ’s incarnation and death. Jesus didn’t go to the cross simply to wipe away a small “smudge” from the surface of the human soul. His mission was nothing less than that of bringing the dead back to life. As Paul tells the believers in Ephesus, “You were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In another place he expresses the same thought by saying, “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10-12; see also Psalm 14:1-3 and Psalm 53:1-3).

The dead can’t raise themselves. In the same way, there is nothing fallen man can do to save himself. He is absolutely helpless. He can’t expect his rational mind to help him overcome moral or spiritual corruption. His thoughts, like his will and emotions, are not naturally directed toward God. In a strictly theological sense, he is “totally depraved.” He bears the stain of sin in every part of his being. Ultimately, his only hope is in the redeeming grace of God. This is what the apostle means when he says, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find” (Romans 7:18). This may be what your pastor had in mind when he said that people are “inherently evil.”

If you need additional help understanding these concepts, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


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