In a recent article in the Guardian, Ijeoma Oluo wrote on behalf of her fellow atheists that, “our belief that we are right while everyone else is wrong; our belief that our atheism is more moral; our belief that others are lost: none of it is original. Perhaps this is not religion, but human nature.” Later in the article, she referred to the “atrocities we commit as human beings,” and pointed out that atheists and people of faith are alike in the need to “free ourselves from the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic tendencies of society.”
Ms. Oluo has discovered sinful human nature. It is the most fundamental truth about human beings. She looks around, examines the behavior and attitudes of atheists, people not corrupted by believing that some god actually exists and cares about them, and she observes, “Look through new atheist websites and twitter feeds. You’ll see the same hatred and bigotry that theists have been spouting against other theists for millennia.” Her conclusion that belief in a god (theism) necessarily produces hateful, venomous rhetoric may be questionable, but there is no question that human beings, both theists and atheists, are born with sinful human nature.
The word sin is anathema in contemporary cultural conversations, or in any other context, for that matter. There is widespread cultural scorn for the Christian teaching that everyone is a sinner. Film critics love a film that makes fun of Christian abhorrence of sin. Hardened atheists tell stories of how the hypocrisy of church members drove them out of the church their parents forced them to attend as children Social workers accuse parents of child abuse for telling their children that they are born sinful. Yet Ijeoma Oluo has discovered the fact that being an atheist does not keep that person from a congenital propensity for greed, selfishness and hatred.
Ms. Oluo is fully convinced that her discovery is a truth hidden from others. Whenever we human beings discover truth, it feels so good and seems so unlike the world around us that we are sure we have found something others have missed. I applaud her intellectual honesty, but Ms. Oluo needs to recognize that this truth about human beings has been known for thousands of years. Jeremiah, who lived about 2500 years ago, said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)
Atheists often reject the Bible as a source of truth, because they reject the whole notion of any spirit realm. Some atheists do recognize biblical truth in an abstract way and set the Bible on a level equal with the Tao Te Ching or a Hindu Veda. Perhaps Ijeoma Oluo could accept Jeremiah’s statement as truth if she could see it presented in parallel with her own observation. Yet Ms. Oluo still needs to see this truth in the revelation of God’s whole truth. Unfortunately, the isolated observation that human beings are inherently evil could drive anyone, including Ms. Oluo, to utter despair. If everyone is bad and nobody is good, where do we find any hope for the human race?
Christians answer that concern by first accepting the truth about human beings and then pointing to the answer: the risen Christ. The truth about humans is well documented in an ancient letter to Roman Christians written by the apostle Paul. He said, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Fortunately, Paul’s statement does not really end that way, mired in the fall. It continues seamless to the solution–“and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Christians know the solution; people are sinful, and they need to be redeemed. Paul wrote the coherent explanation, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).
Ijeoma Oluo believes that human beings need to do something to fix the broken elements of human nature that result in evil behavior. In her view, if people start thinking more about themselves, they can evolve into better human beings by willful choice, and she suggests some choices for people—things like service to others and kindness to all. While Ms. Oluo recognizes the universality of sinful human nature, she does not recognize the futility of any attempt to improve on human beings by an act of will. That particular fallacy was revealed as an utter failure during the same era in which the apostle Paul lived. In fact, the apostle Paul subscribed to that theory himself before he became a Christian. He writes about his own experience at length in the book of Romans, saying,
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin [or sinful human nature] that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? –Romans 7:16-24
Paul could see the good things he ought to do, and he could want to do the good things he ought to do, but he was fundamentally incapable of doing every one of those things every time he needed to do it.
The hypothesis that human beings can improve themselves by simply practicing good moral behavior was the entire underlying thesis of Pharisaism. The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism in the first century AD, and they believed that a person could become perfect if he could obey a set of more than 600 individual laws. The fact that Pharisees took their laws from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures does not invalidate a comparison between Pharisaism and Ijeoma Oluo’s suggestion. God himself was actually no more real to them than he is to Ijeoma Oluo, and Jesus pointed out that fact more than once. One day during a teaching moment on the subject of prayer, Jesus compared the prayers of a Pharisee and a tax collector:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:10-13)
Jesus praised the tax collector, because the tax collector prayed to God, but Jesus said that God would not even hear the Pharisee’s prayer, because he was praying to himself. Read the Pharisee’s prayer closely, and you will see that he believes he is perfect. He believes he has done every possible good deed, and he believes that he never does anything bad. He is not praying to God; he is telling God that he does not need God. The Pharisee may not have chosen the good deeds Ms. Oluo proposes, but the Pharisee and Ms. Oluo both believe that human beings can perfect themselves.
The whole Bible is evidence that human beings cannot perfect themselves. They are born with sinful human nature, just as Ijeoma Oluo says, but the message of the Bible is that no human being can perfect himself and overcome sinful human nature by simply deciding to do so. Every human who tries it will quickly discover that it is impossible. Promise yourself that, like the Pharisee, you will fast twice a week, and then see how quickly your mind excuses a bite of someone else’s donut—just one bite!
Ijeoma Oluo is a brilliant writer, much to be admired for her skill. She is a deep thinker, willing to face hard truth. Ms. Oluo is admirable in every way, and God loves her very much. He is pleased that she uses his gift of intelligence with such power. There is just one thing she needs to do. Ijeoma Oluo needs to do the same thing Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do: she needs to stop being her own God. Ms. Oluo needs to understand that Jesus Christ died precisely because of her sinful human nature, and she needs to accept his forgiveness. She must recognize that the power that raised Christ from the dead is powerful enough to save her from the evil that is sinful human nature. Then she will discover exactly what she is looking for—the redemption of human beings.
By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the winter of 2016.