Goodbye, Faith in Humanity

“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” (G. K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy)

When even Holocaust historians are shocked at their own findings, you know the picture is horrifying. After 13 years of research, a group of historians studying at the Holocaust Memorial Museum released new estimates about the extent of human brutality and wide-scale involvement in the enslavement and degradation of their fellow humans in Nazi Germany. The New York Times details:

The researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler‘s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945. . . .

The documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel. . . .

When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing—first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.

The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.

It must be noted that the unbelievably high number of camps consist not only of large-scale ones like Dauchau and Aushwitz, but also of smaller work camps with as little as 12 prisoners located in small towns. The punchline to this increasingly disturbing account comes at the end:

Dr. Dean, a co-researcher, said the findings left no doubt in his mind that many German citizens, despite the frequent claims of ignorance after the war, must have known about the widespread existence of the Nazi camps at the time.

“You literally could not go anywhere in Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps,concentration camps,” he said. “They were everywhere.”

It takes a moment to sink in. “They were everywhere.” Everywhere. Everybody knew. In one of the most enlightened, intellectually accomplished, progressive societies in the world, you had widespread cultural corruption on a level that staggers the mind. Either by direct involvement or culpable acquiescence, they all knew. Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” doesn’t quite capture it—the “ubiquity of evil” seems more appropriate.

Our culture has trouble knowing what to do with this. One of the remarkable things about the American spirit is that even after two world wars, Vietnam, the 1970s, global terrorism, and three Transformers movies, optimism and progressive ideologies still shape our basic outlook on human nature. Faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity is still our basic credo—with enough time, money, energy, and education, the future is bright. For this reason we are, for the most part, utterly incapable of coping with the reality of human evil. Unless we’re stuck in some dark, hipster cynicism about life, most Americans upon reading this will scramble to find an explanation—and by “explanation,” I mean a way of explaining it away.

When faced with evidence to the contrary, we try to tell ourselves: “But, people are basically good. It’s just those German Nazis and their particularly evil ways. That culture at that time and that place was just particularly messed up. It was the work of some particularly wicked people and some people just got carried along through fear.”

Except that based on this new research, it wasn’t just the soldiers following orders, or the masterminds, but the everyday people: husbands and wives; hardworking fathers and mothers providing for their kids; good neighbors; decent, regular folk.

And honestly, shouldn’t our own recent history have disabused us of this naïve faith? Have we forgotten that just a few generations ago, a large portion of our own culture functioned on the premise we could legally own people? Or consider the present reality that right now in the United States—on a scale too large to be called an aberration of the few—some of our neighbors still illegally do? Truly heinous evil isn’t far from any one of us. The very best of us can be hopelessly implicated in any manner of horrors. Evil isn’t something we can keep at arms’ length—it’s something that lives in all of us.

And this is what terrifies us most.

One of the reasons I’m a Christian is that, to my mind, only the Christian story makes “sense” out of the world for me; it’s heuristically useful in that it helps me interpret the various natural, and especially human, realities I encounter. The first time I really noticed this was reading Blaise Pascal on the doctrines of the fall and original sin. These are often seen as inherently negative and pessimistic doctrines implying a low view of human nature. But Pascal noted that, in fact, the situation is far more paradoxical. Christianity teaches we’re all like deposed kings—made in the image of God, capable of brilliance, love, beauty, nobility, decency, technological advance, destined for knowledge and communion with God himself. And yet, due to inborn sin and corruption, those same qualities are intermingled with a beastliness so dark at times it can, in truth, only be considered demonic. In fact, the greatness is what makes the wretchedness so terrible—the greater the height, the more catastrophic the fall.

That paradox makes sense of news like the recent Holocaust report. Given the reality of the fall and original sin, I’m horrified but not shocked. There’s still a sense in which we can say, “It’s not suppose to be like this. People are not supposed to be like this.” And yet, given the right conditions, they are. Given the right conditions, we all are. Any view of human nature unable to account for this kind of gross, systemic, personal, and institutional evil isn’t worth the name.

Thankfully, the gospel teaches neither the blind human optimism looking ahead to an inevitably bright future nor a resigned cynicism leading to despair about human history. Christianity teaches both the greatness and the wretchedness of humanity in such a way that neither puffs up nor crushes. As Pascal writes in the Pensées:

Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in him we find both God and our wretchedness.

In other words, Jesus shows us both how wretched we are in that nothing less than the murder of God’s Son could put right all we’ve put wrong, and that we’re valuable enough that he was willing to endure it (Heb. 12:2).

Reports like these ought to crush any blind faith in humanity we might have left and point us to the only true hope for our wretchedness: the gospel.

Editors’ Note: This article originally appeared at Christ and Pop Culture

  • Mike

    Great article. I needed a good reminder of total depravity and God’s grace this morning.

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  • Charles Kim

    Well done article on the whole. I totally agree with blind progressivism does not take into account our proclivity towards evil. More than that, how our complicity in it leads to greater blindness and greater evil.
    However, I wonder how far we are to take “inborn” sin? While I agree that the world has been corrupted by the sin of Adam, I wonder how deep we are going to take this statement. The world does eventually stand up against the Nazi shoah. These researchers desiring to uncover the depths of it to lay it bear before society which shows the depth of human rejection of evil. I think humans are awefully more complicated than just “pure inborn sinners.” There is enough of the divine spark left in us that absolutely rejects this, even without the regenerating grace of Jesus Christ.

    • Jonathan

      That’s called common grace. The image of God is in every person. God gives us grace to do good things regardless of our motive. Total depravity- corrupted. utter depravity- sinning all the time. Obviously, the latter is false. God restrains evil many times.

      • Lee Furney

        Agreed. Total depravity, as is oft said, does not mean that we are as bad as we could possibly be, but that every part of our being is affected by sin.

        • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

          As I always say to people, ‘even Hitler could have kicked his dog once more’.

          Total depravity always needs to be explained and then re-explained so people don’t get confused when see the good and beauty in (still sinful) people.

          The truths of ‘image-bearing’ and of common grace need to be articulated along with total depravity so we can the full picture of fallen but redeemable humanity.

          All that to say, I agree with Jonathan and Lee above!

    • Derek Rishmawy

      I’m gonna agree with the rest of the responders on this. Common grace and the Image of God are still affirmed even when we talk about inborn corruption. The premise of the idea of corruption is that the thing corrupted is still, at some level, good. Thanks for the comments!

  • the Old Adam

    I remember going to my pastor, dejected after a very rough day at work, and telling him that I had lost all faith in humanity.

    He said, “Good. it should never have been to begin with.”

    People are capable of a great deal of good. But they will let you down (ultimately), every time, even if it’s only when they die.

    • Derek Rishmawy


  • Kyle Mueller

    Great article. I’ve had this discussion with one of my friends many times. He thinks people are inherently good, and I just don’t see how anyone can think that. The article makes a great point with that Pascal quote too… “Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in him we find both God and our wretchedness.”

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  • RWZ

    The fact that people do these types of things does not prove original sin. It is no more evidence of a perfect world that came crashing down when someone bit into a mystical apple, than it is evidence that things just are (and always have been) this way, as biology would naturally predict.

    • Derek Rishmawy

      I’m not saying this is “proof” in the strictest sense, but a piece of evidence that, a feature of life, that is best explained in the fashion I’ve described. Biological evolution might explain a number of features of human life, possibly the possibility of brutality, but it does not explain our sense that these things are actually and truly wrong, not merely evolutionarily advantageous. It has no way of affirming that our horror is righteous, and that Nazi depravity really is depraved and not just morally ‘icky’ to us.

  • Patti Weaver

    The only way to OVERCOME EVIL is with good!!! ( Bible) So do we ring our hands and do NOTHING… KNOWING this? No, we pray, obey scripture in doing good. ” I personally think that the church of Jesus Christ needs obey!”

  • Steve Cornell

    Yes, telling the story of humanity requires contrasting terms. It includes a narratives of goodness and evil; love and hate; beauty and cruelty; life and death. Themes of human dignity and depravity are relentlessly recurrent in all cultures – at all times.

    One ought to ask why it is that we need words of sharp contrast to explain ourselves. Wouldn’t it be nice to only need terms of honor and dignity to tell our story? But the required vocabulary for a truthful account must also include descriptions of depravity.

    Ever since the ambition of angels led to the suspicion of Eden (the delusional fantasy of self-rule), we’ve cycled through one stage of corruption to another. The cycle continues.

    This is why a vocabulary of salvation suits us. Salvation is not some quaint invention of religion. We need intervention, rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

    Yes, our only hope is in the two exclamations of the gospel:

    1. Romans 7:24 – “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
    2. Romans 7:25 – “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

  • April Erxleben

    I agree as well. And,seeing it from this approach shows how horrible we all are and how we all need to open our eyes. Trust in the Lord. However, let us not forget that the Germans were brainwashed by Hitler and his regime. He started with the youth of Germany. Innocents brainwashed into believing that the Jews were inferior. Their little minds weren’t mature enough to grasp the awful concept. As they grew into adults it became ingrained in them. Also, let us not forget the allies who came and helped. Few are meant to be heroes and many are meant to be witnesses. What is to be of our own destinys? Only God knows. We should not judge those who did nothing,but learn from their mistakes and our own.

  • Wesley

    Derek –
    followed you at Reformedish for a while now. so pleased to see a brother-blogger of your calibre and winsomeness here on the TGC blog. Great post as always. I appreciate your insights very much.
    Pax Domini.

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  • Debbye Tate

    I have no problem in accepting that the horrors of the Holocaust were even worse than reported. After all, look at the continual shedding of blood in America’s abortion mills. I see no difference.

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