In my last article, we posed the question: To what degree does God exert control over your life? I argued that, if you believe in a God of unconditional love, then one cannot believe that God exerts any control over our lives. Assuming that God is like a chess player moving pieces on a board is not only illogical and inconsistent with our day-to-day reality, but such a belief has truly negative consequences for our lives.
On a personal level, this belief prevents one from believing they have the autonomy and choice to change their lives for the better. On a societal level, it causes people groups to believe their suffering is inevitable and, even worse, part of God’s plan. Therefore, I concluded that God gave you freedom of choice. God does not interfere in your decisions. If your life is going to change, you can’t wait for God to change it for you. Change only happens when you take the initiative to alleviate suffering and transform the world into a better place by spreading God’s unconditional love to everyone you meet.
In this article, I want to tackle another belief of the Christian faith that I perceive to be equally as harmful as the belief that God controls your life—the doctrine of Total Depravity. This doctrine came out of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago and was first promoted by Martin Luther and John Calvin. Indeed, the theology of Total Depravity became a sort of rallying cry of the Reformation that has infected our churches ever since.
Although many people have never heard of this doctrine, in my opinion, the vestiges of Total Depravity have not only infiltrated our society, but is a big reason why people are abandoning the Christianity in the 21st century. Therefore, in Part 1 of this article, I want to walk you through a little bit of the history of the theology behind this doctrine and in Part 2 we will explore the real-world consequences of where all of this leads because I can guarantee you that this doctrine has negatively impacted your life in more ways than one.
Welcome to the Garden of Eden
In order to understand the doctrine of Total Depravity, we have to turn back the clock more than 1500 years and talk about Augustine of Hippo, who lived from 354-430 C.E. Augustine was a genius who shaped the church in dramatic ways. In particular, Augustine’s reading of the story of Adam and Eve has become the gold standard for how Christians have interpreted the story ever since. If you are not familiar with story, let me provide you with a brief summary.
After creating Adam and Eve, God places them in the Garden of Eden. They are given one rule by God that states they are allowed eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden, but they are not allowed to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. One day, Eve is walking in the garden and is approached by a serpent. This serpent convinces Eve that there will be no repercussions if they eat of the forbidden fruit. After eating the fruit, Eve convinces Adam to partake. This action is considered to be the first sin ever committed by humans against God.
When God finds out that Adam and Eve broke the single rule governing their existence, God becomes super angry. Not only does God expel the couple from the garden, but God also punishes Adam and Eve with curses. From this point forward, women will experience pain during childbirth; men will have to work to provide food for their families; and humans will live a finite existence. The implication of these curses is that, prior to eating the fruit, childbirth was painless, men didn’t have to work hard to gain access to food and humans lived forever.
Augustine was intrigued by these three curses because it was clear to him that they didn’t just affect Adam and Eve. Every person since Adam and Eve has had to deal with the consequences of those curses, particularly the curse of death. Therefore, Augustine came to the conclusion that Adam and Eve’s sin had permanently corrupted human beings. Indeed, this corruption seemed to be passed from one generation to the next. Not only did every human being inevitably face death, but Augustine felt that every human being was prone to be sinful. Therefore, it made sense to Augustine that each subsequent human born after Adam and Eve was inheriting their original sin.
As a result, every bad action from white lies to genocide can be traced back to this one horrible mistake made by Adam and Eve. Thankfully, God devised a way for humans to escape this endless cycle of bad behavior. His name is Jesus of Nazareth and he was born outside of the loop of original sin thanks to the virgin birth. God impregnates Mary through the Holy Spirit, meaning Jesus will not inherit Adam’s soul and has the possibility to live a life free of corruption. According to Augustine, Jesus lived a life completely free of sin from birth until his death on the cross.
So even though the rest of humanity was born inside the loop of Adam’s original sin, we can be freed from our depravity thanks to Jesus’ perfect life and sacrifice. All we need to do is believe in Jesus, and this will cause God to overlook the sin we have inherited from our birth. Indeed, through our belief in Jesus, we are restored and our actions can finally align with God’s will and purposes for our lives. Through Jesus, God can direct our lives in ways that were previously impossible.
Total Depravity – The Great Advertising Campaign
As I stated earlier, Augustine’s interpretation of the Adam and Eve story has been the gold standard for hundreds of years. When Martin Luther began his campaign to reform the Roman Catholic Church in the early 16th century, he made reference to Augustine’s interpretation more than once because, even if the Catholic Church disagreed with Martin Luther, it would be much harder for them to disagree with Augustine because he was so influential in shaping the Christian faith. In the end, it didn’t matter. Luther and the Catholic Church were focused on two different things. Luther cared about changing Catholic theology, while the Pope cared about maintaining power.
Ultimately, when Luther realized the Catholic Church was never going to adopt his theology, he reluctantly broke apart from Catholicism and created his own version of the church, which today is known as Lutheranism. At the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church owned nearly a third of all the land in Europe. Once the political leaders realized they could reclaim that land from the Catholic Church by joining the reformation churches, they quickly abandoned the Catholic Church.
After Luther began the Reformation and several European countries converted away from Catholicism, the reformers faced a new problem: By emphasizing that a person simply needs to believe in Jesus to be forgiven rather than receiving that forgiveness from a priest or paying indulgences, what incentive does a person have to regularly attend church? Enter John Calvin who picked up the baton from Luther and further developed the doctrine of Total Depravity. Basically, Calvin takes Augustine’s thinking and moves it one step further.
Since everyone is a product of Adam’s original sin, we can never really achieve goodness on our own. We can try, but we will always fall short. Our ability to do good will always be inhibited by our selfish desires. Even acts of generosity and altruism are egocentric at their core. Moreover, there is no amount of personal refinement that will change this state of being. You can never become a good person on your own. Consequently, any good a person can muster is derived from God alone.
In other words, you need to Jesus in your life if you are ever going to be able to move past your original sin and do anything of worth in your life. With Jesus, you can make a difference. Without, you will be like a blind man in unfamiliar surroundings. Even when you try to do good, you will be fumbling around, bumping into things and breaking them without any real sense direction. Following Jesus gives you the sight you need to make a discernable difference in the world and the best place to follow Jesus is within a church community.
This advertising campaign was so effective that Calvin was able to establish a theocracy in Geneva. People became quite scared that they would succumb to Adam’s original sin. The fear induced by this doctrine organically seeped into the population enough that it inspired a large proportion of the population to attend church and take belief in Jesus seriously. If you wanted to be a good person, you needed to be a Christian.
Rethinking Total Depravity
As much as Augustine was a brilliant theologian, his interpretations are not flawless. In fact, I would argue his reading the Adam and Eve story is not just flawed, it’s patently wrong. Part of the reason why Augustine is wrong is because he never read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew. He read a Latin translation of the Bible, which means he missed some of the important nuances the Hebrew language reveals about the story.
For example, the text says that God forms Man, or in Hebrew, Adam, literally from the dust of the earth. (Gn. 2:7) The word adam in Hebrew is what is known as a collective noun, best translated as humanity. This means that Adam is not so much the first human being to walk the earth, but, in this particular story, Adam is representative of all human beings. If the word adam represents all people, then it seems unlikely to me that the authors of this story ever intended it to be a historical treatise on the first human being to roam the earth. Indeed, the more we delve into the context and language behind these verses, the more the literal meaning of this story falls apart.
According to Genesis, Adam and Eve have a direct relationship with God. The story portrays them as engaging in a verbal dialogue with God. They speak with God and God speaks back. Augustine believed this story was literally true, whereas, most Christians and Jews prior to Augustine understood the text to be metaphorical. The difference between reading the story as a factual account of history and as a metaphor is enormous, because the true beauty of the story is revealed through the metaphors.
Let’s recap the details: Adam and Eve have been given one rule—they can eat of the fruit of any of the trees in the garden with one exception: They are not allowed to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s at this point that the serpent enters the story. The serpent is described as being craftier than all the other animals. Christians have often interpreted the serpent in this story as the devil or Satan, but that was not the original intent of the authors.
First of all, at the time when this story was formulated, the concept of an evil angel Satan didn’t exist in Judaism, so let’s just set that idea aside. However, snakes were considered to be evil creatures. In the Middle East, snakes are everywhere. They are essentially silent as they move and, unlike other predators, they have the ability to sneak up on you without your knowledge. This is why the authors use a snake as a metaphor for temptation. Temptation can sneak up on you without you being aware of it and, like a snake, temptation can kill you.
In the story, the serpent can speak and tells Eve that God was not being truthful about the consequences for eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gn. 3:5) I think the best way to understand this interaction with the serpent is to read it as though she is having a conversation with herself in her head, which is something we’ve all done. There’s something that we’re told we shouldn’t do, but we nevertheless rationalize to ourselves why we should do it. So much evil in the world results from humans convincing themselves that their actions are inconsequential or worth the risk. The current war in Ukraine would be a good example of this.
The second key aspect of Eve’s interaction with the serpent is what the serpent says at the end of its statement: “…when you eat of [the fruit], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This statement indicates something interesting to us—Eve doesn’t know the difference between good and evil unless she eats from the tree. This begs the question: How is Eve supposed make an informed decision about whether it is good or bad to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, if she doesn’t know the difference between good and evil? Kind of a paradox, don’t you think? She has to eat from the tree to figure out that she shouldn’t have eaten from the tree.
This might seem trivial since the story is fictional, but this paradox tells us a lot about how the authors understood Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. There is a commonly held interpretation of this story that God had an expectation that Adam and Eve were going to remain perfect forever. But in order to remain perfect, you have to know the difference between right and wrong, and, as we just discovered, Adam and Eve don’t know the difference between right and wrong because they haven’t eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the one thing they are not allowed to do.
Does it make any sense that God had no expectation that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit? As far as I’m concerned, God never had an expectation that Adam and Eve would be perfect forever and God never had an expectation that you would be perfect forever. Why? Because life is a matter of contrast. You cannot know what is truly good unless you have experienced evil.
Some of the best people I’ve met are people who have made many mistakes and endured much evil. I’m not trying to say that God wants us to hurt ourselves and others. Rather, I’m saying that God expects that we are going to make mistakes. My entire life I have heard preachers drawing on the doctrine of Total Depravity saying that God can have nothing to do with us because we are sinful. The implied message being that if we were perfect, God would love us. But if I’m reading this story correctly, then that line of thinking makes no sense. If God created us knowing that we would make mistakes, why would God abandon us for doing what we were designed to do?
Even Jesus seems to affirm this understanding that God created humans to be flawed. Jesus says that “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” (Mt. 18:7) In other words, it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes. Obviously, Jesus knows mistakes are bound to happen because without mistakes we never learn and, ironically, it is our mistakes that bring the most meaning to our lives. Mistakes make life both amazingly beautiful and stunningly sad.
Thanks to Augustine, Luther and Calvin, so many Christians live under the false assumption that they can never live up to God’s expectations. Thankfully, the beauty of the Adam and Eve story is how it relays the message that God never expected you to be perfect. God loves you for who you are and that includes all of your imperfections. More importantly, if God embraces and loves your imperfections, then the doctrine of Total Depravity makes no sense.
Conclusion for Part 1
If you take nothing else away from Part 1 of this article, I hope you will understand that Luther and Calvin developed the doctrine of Total Depravity from Augustine, which is based on a faulty interpretation of the Adam and Eve story. This also means that the solution to the problem of our depravity is also flawed. To recap the solution, we overcome our depravity by turning to God and following Jesus. Through our belief in Jesus, God’s Spirit will help us to overcome the evil inclinations that we inherited from Adam and Eve so we are capable of performing acts of love in the world. In some ways, this is a beautiful idea. Simple and easy to follow, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t add up in the real world.
In Part 2 of this article, we’re going to explore the practical ramifications of the doctrine of Total Depravity. We’re going to discuss one of the most famous psychological experiments of the 20th century and how it informs our understanding of why humans are prone to commit heinous acts of evil versus heroic acts of good. Most importantly, we’re going to discuss how this doctrine has infected the minds of so many Christians to the point where it has inhibited their ability to make a positive difference in the world.
Note: A lot of the theology in this article is derived from my book Restorative Faith. If you enjoyed reading about these ideas, please consider reading the book!