The Myth of Human Goodness

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In 1993 Chuck Colson gave a speech upon receiving the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion because of his work with Prison Fellowship entitled, “The Enduring Revolution.”[1] Colson spoke of the four horseman of the present apocalypse, four great myths that define our time. The myths are the widespread belief in the goodness of man, the belief in a coming utopia, the relativity of moral values, and the myth or radical individualism. Concerning the first of these, that humanity is basically good, Colson says that this myth denies evil and turns those who do it into victims of their circumstances. Or when bad things happen to us, we think, “How can this happen to me?” That is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Colson illustrates this with a sobering and perhaps outrageous, account of Yehiel Dinur, a Holocaust survivor and witness at the trial of Rudolph Eichmann, Hitler’s man in charge of organizing the Holocaust. Dinur was brought into the courtroom. The room was silent all eyes fixed on Dinur, waiting to see how he would respond.

Then suddenly Dinur began to sob, and collapsed to the floor. Not out of anger or bitterness. As he explained later in an interview, what struck him at that instant was a terrifying realization. “I was afraid about myself,” Dinur said. “I saw that I am capable to do this…Exactly like he.”

What did he see? Was he flooded with emotions as he remembered all those Jews who were killed by Eichmann? No, he saw a normal looking man and that! unsettled him.

“Eichmann,” he concluded, “is in all of us.”

The myth of man’s goodness is not that we don’t think we are capable of making a mistake or a little wrong here or there. Many people will accept this assessment, after all, nobody’s perfect. This cliché is more denial of reality than affirmation, however. The myth of humanity’s goodness is the widespread refusal to believe that we are capable of great evil.

On July 13 1942 the German Reserve Police Battalion 101 shot and killed 1500 Jews in groups of forty in the woods outside a Polish village. It took seventeen hours, with cigarette breaks along the way. Men, women, and their children were shot at point blank range. Yet this battalion was not the SS nor composed of Nazi ideologues bent on cleaning out Europe of the lebensunwestes leben (those unworthy of existence)? It was comprised of middle aged, working-class citizens of Hamburg. And here is the kicker, not one of them were coerced into killing Jews. Some of them (there were 500 in all) did refuse to join in. And some departed after the killing began. But the rest remained on even though they would not have been punished if they refused. So why then did they choose to participate? The answer is strikingly simple and unerving. Their decision lay in realities like “peer pressure and a natural propensity for obedience and comradeship.”[2] They were moral monsters but ordinary guys going along with their buddies.

Now you might think, “Well, I would never do such a horrendous thing.” Really? Do you cave into peer pressure in your life? Have you done something wrong because you wanted to be liked? If you cave now, then why wouldn’t you have caved then had you been there? Don’t be so sure. We are capable of great evil.

My bigger point with this example is this: these were ordinary, normal people. Yet they were capable of great evil. And under these circumstances they are did what they were capable of doing even though they probably thought they were above such things.

One of the modern barriers to faith in God and Christ is the belief that God’s anger or wrath is unpalatable—it is distasteful to contemporary attitudes about life and God.[3] But if we are capable of great evil, and it only take the right pressures to bring it out, then why wouldn’t God be righteously angry?

This capacity for evil is in all of us. And God’s judgement is fitting. Who, then will rescue us from ourselves? The answer is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He died for sinners to obtain our forgiveness. Believe on him, repent of a wayward life and you will be forgiven.












[2] Andrew W. Roberts The Storm of War.

[3] Jason B Hood in The Pastor as Public Theologian by Kevin J Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan.

Author: Tracy Gruggett

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