In the fourth century B.C.E., Diogenes the Cynic carried a lamp in the streets of Greece in search of an honest man. Similarly, about four centuries earlier, the prophet Micah was looking for at least one honest person in Judah. Unfortunately, like Diogenes, he could not find any. Micah 7:1-7 states the following:
“Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered, after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger. The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright; they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household. But as for me, I will look to the LORD, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (NRSV).
According to this passage, Micah is hungering to find just one righteous person in Judah, but he can’t, for everyone around him is murderous, conniving, and skilled in evil. Justice is perverted, as corrupt judges accept bribes and allow the rich to run roughshod over the poor. And things are so bad that people cannot trust their friends, even the people in their own immediate families. Micah concludes that God is the only one he can really trust.
Psalm 14:2-3 presents God himself as failing in his search for an honest person. The passage states, “The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”
The apostle Paul quotes Psalm 14:2-3 in Romans 3:10-11 to support his argument that all people are sinful. In Paul’s thought, that reality sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who died to redeem and transform corrupt humanity.
My reaction to Micah 7:1-7, Psalm 14:2-3, and Romans 3:10-11 is mixed. Can I truly say that I’ve never met a righteous person, not even one? No. Not everyone I meet is bloodthirsty, dishonest, or thoroughly selfish. Sure, there are times in my alienation when I have a “nobody loves me” attitude and feel that all human beings are cold and uncaring. When I am in this state of mind, I scoff whenever I hear the word “community,” for I have a hard time developing warm feelings towards other people. “What have they ever done for me?” I think. But my impression is not entirely accurate, for there actually are good people out there who really do want to help others. And these people can be found among both Christians and also non-Christians, so I have a hard time accepting the notion that unredeemed human beings are more corrupt than those who have been transformed by Jesus Christ. There are good people and there are bad people in both camps.
I know how many evangelicals would respond. “Sure, there are unbelievers who do good things, but they are not perfect, and God only accepts perfection.” Part of me can see their point on this, since God in Leviticus only accepts unblemished sacrifices. At the same time, however, Paul does not present human beings as slightly less than perfect. Read what he says about the human race in Romans 3:12-18: “All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one. Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Can you honestly say that you have never met one non-Christian human being who shows kindness to others? Is every human being you encounter a liar who is quick to shed innocent blood?
Also, how would the idea that all human beings are corrupt affect my interactions with them? I think it would do so rather negatively. How are you around people you cannot trust?
Did Micah or the author of Psalm 14 figure that all human beings are inherently corrupt and incapable of goodness? Would they agree with the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity? I am hesitant to answer “yes.” Why would Micah and God even look for a righteous person if they thought that human nature precluded the existence of such a one? Psalm 14:5 says that “God is with the company of the righteous.” So now there are righteous people, Mr. Psalmist? And there was a time when God was not completely unsuccessful in his search for an upright person: he spared Noah because he alone was righteous in his generation (Genesis 7:1).
But I said that my reaction to Micah 7:1-7, Psalm 14:2-3, and Romans 3:10-11 was mixed, so there is a sense in which I can identify with those passages’ utter despair about humanity. For one, Jonathan Edwards noted in his book, Original Sin, that virtually every historical attempt to reform society has failed. Like Edwards, I attribute this to inherent flaws in human nature, such as selfishness and greed.
But I also think that human beings are getting worse. One of my favorite blogs, Things on Bryan’s Mind, has an interesting post entitled, “Does this Mean that Patristic Writers Disconnect Human Redemption from the Cross of Jesus?” In the “Comments” section, Bryan states that “humanity has grown more and more corrupt, in Athanasius‘ view, subject to a kind of epidemic of evil.” In many respects, I agree with that assessment. Humanity has become worse and worse as time has progressed. At one point in American history, there was a greater sense of community, as people actually looked out for one another. But that does not exist as much today. In their desire to make more and more money, insurance companies often deny coverage to certain individuals, showing a lack of concern about whether they live or die. Marital infidelity is rampant, to the point that it is glamorized on television and in movies. School shootings have occurred with greater frequency over the last decade than they ever did before.
A counselor of mine once told me a story that further confirmed my belief in the degeneration of humanity. He said that he has a granddaughter who is bullied in school because she is overweight. One time, she made an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself. Shortly afterwards, she received a number of messages from her classmates expressing their wish that she had succeeded.
That is shocking. There were bullies when I was a kid, but I can’t think of anyone who wished for another person to die. Things are worse now than they were when I was a kid, and I’m only 31. Jesus said in Matthew 24:12, “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.” Are we seeing that today?
I have a hard time saying that human beings are totally bad, but I’m not about to suggest that they are inherently good. I’m not like Anne Frank, who could actually write that all people (even her Nazi captors) were good at heart. And I see both good and bad in myself. The question that faces all of is us, “To which will I yield?”