Are People Basically Good or Basically Bad?


By: Rev. Dr. Nathan Hart 

Twelve years ago, on a cold winter morning in New York City, my son Riley was born. My wife Nancy had labored painfully through the night, but suddenly at daybreak, she looked beyond my shoulder toward the window behind me and said, “The sun is rising.” In that moment, her face transformed from writhing discomfort to total relaxation, even awe. Seconds later, Riley entered the world. His birth, like a sunrise, felt to me like a revelation. He is still a bright light in our lives.

In the hours after his birth, we learned how to swaddle and comfort him. But we could never seem to do it just right—he cried incessantly. Nothing seemed to soothe him. He cried and cried and didn’t stop unless he was eating or sleeping. We learned the word “colic” and for the next three months, colic was our reality and it almost drove us mad. Any parents who are currently living through the nightmare of having a colicky baby, I see you. Don’t give up. It eventually heals.

My son’s magical birth-at-sunrise, followed by three months of maddening colic, causes me to wonder about the basic nature of all humans: are we born perfect or flawed, innocent or guilty, righteous or sinful? A recent study conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences suggests that people have a lot of good in them even from birth. It claims that altruism—when a person sacrifices his or her own needs for the sake of someone else’s—is present in infants. In the study, 100 babies who were around 19 months old were given a blueberry snack, only to have one of the blueberries drop in front of them when a researcher goes to grab the blueberry while pretending not to be able to reach it. Some of the babies were hungry during this test, and even among those ones, thirty-seven percent helped the researcher obtain the fruit instead of grabbing it themselves. That’s good!

On the other hand, it was only 37 percent. If 100 percent of the hungry babies gave away their snacks, an argument could be made that humans are born totally good. But are there any parents of toddlers who need proof that children are also capable of great selfishness? There’s a reason not many scientific studies have needed to be conducted on this question. Spend an hour in a room full of babies with not enough toys to go around, and the proof is self-evident: selfishness comes naturally to humans.

Most U.S. Presidents call upon the “good of the American people” when making appeals for unity or mission, but Philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The Bible says that every human is “created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) but also that, as a result of sin, “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil.” (Ecclesiastes 9:3).

So, are we basically good or basically bad? We are both. Indeed, throughout history, humans have created and accomplished things that are both wonderful and terrible. We have walked on the moon and we have enslaved entire races.

There is a temptation to think that there are good guys and bad guys, that “people like us” are good and “people like them” are bad. But in reality, each one of us is a blend. “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart,” observed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Sin is pervasive—”No one is righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10)—and yet God’s grace can bring good out of us. Even a crooked timber can bear fruit. With God this becomes possible: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). In this way, we are unrighteous and righteous, sinners and saints, selfish and altruistic. My son is a beautiful amalgamation of revelatory sunrises and colicky cries, and so are we all.

What is the implication of this truth? We should expect that we will disappoint others and ourselves. And when we do, let us generously forgive each other; for we all need grace. We should also expect that people will wow, bless, and impress each other. When we do, let us praise God whose good fruit has been borne on our crooked branches.