Is Human Nature Good or Evil?

A Christian considers this age-old question by interviewing Holocaust survivors—and turning the mirror on himself.

Gabriella Karin, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, sits opposite me at a trendy Italian restaurant across the street from the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “Human nature is basically good,” she says, digging into a Caesar salad.

I ask the question again. She doesn’t bristle. It’s a question that I’d wanted to ask a Holocaust survivor my whole life: What is the true nature of humankind? Are we inherently good or evil?

As a Christian, I’ve always believed humankind is primarily corrupt. We turned from God, sinned and now need a Savior to bridge our separation from Him.

In fact, in Matthew 7:11, Christ even says that we’re evil.

But I wanted to hear it from those who’ve probably thought about that question more than anyone else.

What do you mean? I thought to myself. You’re a Holocaust survivor. Most of your family perished in Nazi Europe. Of course man is evil.

What if there were a decree in America that for 24 hours, you could do anything you wanted—murder, robbery, rape—and not have any consequences?

Karin continues: “Circumstances sometimes make people do bad things.” She explains that Hitler was an agitator who helped ferment a latent anti-Semitism in Germany. “But God didn’t do it [the Holocaust]. People did it.” Karin’s melodious Slovakian accent gives no hint of a woman who has experienced one of humankind’s worst genocides.

It takes a moment for her words to sink in. They echo my Christian belief in free will: Our choice to do bad or good. She also tells me about Karol Blanar, the Christian man who saved her life and eight others—including her mother and father—by hiding them for nine months in a floor of his apartment, across the street from the Gestapo headquarters. “I owe him so much for giving me a chance to live,” she says.

As the sun dapples our faces on the patio of La Piazza Ristorante Italiano, I think that maybe man is not as bad as I thought. After all, Karin says that many people during the Holocaust chose to risk their lives to save Jews. How do these good deeds factor in?

The next day, I sit with Peter Daniels, who has lived through 76 years and a genocide, in a little café at the top of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Daniels tells me to imagine: What if there were a decree in America that for 24 hours, you could do anything you wanted—murder, robbery, rape—and not have any consequences? “What do you think the increase of crime would be for that twenty-four hours?” he asks.

Here’s someone who has pondered human nature, I thought. “What would you do during those 24 hours?” I ask.

“I would lock myself in my room and not let anyone in for those 24 hours,” he says.

Daniels knows evil. At four years old, he was kicked out of school for being a Jew. He remembers the yellow star pinned on his shirt and jacket.

From 1943 to 1945, Daniels and his single mother were at Terezin, a Czechoslovakian concentration camp. Of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin, only 100 survived—and Daniels was one.

I ask Daniels why humans have an inclination for evil.

“If I were on the other side ... would I risk my life and endanger my family and come to my own rescue? I don’t know. It’s a terrible thing to live with.”

“Misguided idealism,” he says. Daniels explains that the Nazis believed they were doing the higher good, by getting rid of the “subhumans”—including Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals—that didn’t measure up to their Aryan ideals. Daniels says the Nazis were masters of propaganda.

As I stroll through the halls of the Museum of Tolerance and pass exhibit after exhibit documenting human cruelty, I think about “misguided idealism.” I think of all the injustices that have been committed in the name of my faith, like the Crusades, the Thirty Years War and the Salem Witch Trials. These wars and acts of violence might have seemed like a good idea for many “believers” at the time, though they were deeply and destructively misguided.

With my righteous belief that man is evil, I begin to wonder if I’m misguided—like the accusers in Salem—projecting onto others what I fear is in me.

It’s night. I’m tired. I have more interviews tomorrow, but I check out the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust website. A sidebar question on their site catches my attention. It asks: “If you were told to join the German army or risk imprisonment and endanger your family, would you: A.) Refuse to join and risk imprisonment in a concentration camp. B.) Flee or go into hiding. C.) Join the army. D.) Don’t know.”

I don’t like the question. I turn off my laptop and go to sleep.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for good people,” Betty Hyatt, 77, tells me in the library of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Born in Belgium, Hyatt escaped from the Nazis in the early 1940s with her mother, grandmother and brother and fled into the forests of southern France. For years they survived in the woods, often battling rats for chestnuts.

During Nazi raids of the area, Hyatt says she hid behind trees, close enough to hear the crunch of Gestapo footsteps in the snow, and fearing that the white of her misting breath might betray her.

Of human nature, Betty says some people are good and some people are bad—and you never know who will do the good. Betty says when she visited the region of France where she hid during the Holocaust that the people who risked their lives to help save her family were simple farmers, still working the land, who just chose to do good.

Choice? There was that concept again, I say to myself. Maybe humans weren’t bad or good, I think. Maybe humans had a choice? But what did humans choose?

But then Betty shocks me. She says something that I never thought a Holocaust survivor would ever say.

“I often sit and wonder, if I were on the other side, if I were a French Christian, would I risk my life and endanger my family and come to my own rescue?” she asks. “I don’t know. It’s a terrible thing to live with.”

I’m surprised, but impressed with her honesty. I’m reminded of Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” I wonder what I would do if I had to face such moral dilemmas. How would I choose? I hope I would not fall “short of the glory of God.”

That night, I visit the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust website again. I stare at the question: If you were told to join the German army or risk imprisonment and endanger your family, would you …

I click my answer, and check the results.

The majority responded that they would flee, that they were unsure what they would do, or that they would go into hiding or join the German army. Only a courageous minority said they would “Refuse to join and risk imprisonment in a concentration camp.”

I wasn’t one of them.

34 Comments

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Anonymous commented…

This is profound.

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LT commented…

Have you not read from Holy Scriptures (from Romans, chapter 3), the Word of God, this?

None is righteous, no, not one;
11no one understands;

no one seeks for God.

12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good,

not even one.

13 Their throat is an open grave;

they use their tongues to deceive.

The venom of asps is under their lips.

14Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.

15Their feet are swift to shed blood;

16in their paths are ruin and misery,

17andthe way of peace they have not known.

18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.

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Derek Rishmawy commented…

Interesting article. The project is definitely worth the effort. I think the basic question needs to be nuanced, though. In what sense are we good and in what sense are we evil? The classic Christian answer, certainly in the Augustinian tradition, is to understand these things in a Creation, Fall, Redemption schema. We are created basically good, in the Image of God. We sinned bringing corruption upon ourselves. But, again, we need to realize that corruption can only be corruption if it is corrupting a good thing. Humans are created good, but are born corrupt. The Image of God is not destroyed, but it is defaced. Add to this the Reformed doctrine of common grace and you realize that God is at work, even in those who do not recognize him in such a way that restrains evil and enables them to act of the original goodness of their created nature, even if all of their actions are tainted by sin.

So, in a sense, yes, we're good, and yes, we're corrupt, and yes, we can do good things even if we're corrupt, as long as we realize that even our best is still going to be tainted by sin. If this is unclear, well, sin has never been a simple affair.

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Damilola commented…

Hi Lonni,

How did you differentiate between Adam being made in the image of God and yet the angels that fell not being made so? Did Adam not fall just the same as they did?

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Dude commented…

The Bible tells us that only God is good and can do good things. The choice to partake of God's nature is a good deed originating from a good intention. The Bible says that all are evil, all have sinned and gone astray, there are none who are to be found righteous not one, we're all Adam's kids etc. When he wanted to restore goodness to the earth he had to do it himself. Human nature is evil. It's not a choice between God and Satan - Satan is not an opposite of God's and your blasphemy is rancourous if you hold that view. You can do good things and be good if God empowers you to goodness and His spirit dwells in you. He does not dwell in everyone. So you are absolutely and devastatingly wrong.

To respond to Peter Daniels, people will not tear each other to pieces if there is an amnesty because it's in their own self-interest not to. The best self-protection is a cohesive society. Hobbes 101. Like the International Relations doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, you don't usually kill people because you don't want it coming back on you. Unless Mr Daniels wants to tell me that inherent selfishness is good, then his proposition is untenable. Romantic, but untenable.

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