Rationalizing Human Behavior

By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

Are human beings responsible for their personal conduct? Some contend they are not. Others, though claiming that people are morally responsible for their actions, teach ideas that are inconsistent with personal accountability.

Evolutionary Dogma

The theory of evolution alleges that human beings are descended from brute beasts, hence supposedly have derived violent inclinations from an animal ancestry. Clarence Darrow, the renowned attorney, subscribed to this view. In 1902 Darrow was invited to address the inmates of the Cook County Jail in Chicago. He began his lecture in the following way:

There is no such thing as crime as the word is generally understood. I do not believe there is any sort of distinction between the real moral conditions of the people in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other. The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside. I do not believe that people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control for which they are in no way responsible (Weinberg 1957, 3-4).

Darrow defended Richard Loeb (nineteen years old) and Nathan Leopold (eighteen years old) in the brutal murder of Bobby Franks (fourteen years old) in the famous 1924 Chicago trial. Darrow argued that these youths were not to blame for the crime because “infinite forces . . . were at work producing [them] ages before [they were] born,” thus depriving them of “emotional feelings” (Weinberg, 55). He contended that one’s actions cannot be helped any more than “any other product of heredity that is born upon the earth” (65).

A few years ago two evolutionists produced the book, A Natural History of Rape. The authors alleged that evolutionary theory “applies to rape, as it does to other areas of human affairs, on both logical and evidentiary grounds. There is no legitimate scientific reason not to apply evolution or ultimate hypotheses to rape” (Thornhill and Palmer 2000, 55). They contended: “Human rape arises from men’s evolved machinery for obtaining a high number of mates in an environment where females choose mates” (190; emphasis added).

A while back an issue of TIME magazine had the front cover headline, “What Makes Us Good/Evil,” with this subscript: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures—and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” On either side were photographs of Gandhi and Hitler—suggesting contrasting examples of human specimens. The author wondered why people behave so adversely. He asserted: “Brain scans are providing clues. Animal studies are providing more. Investigations of tribal behavior are providing still more” (Kluger 2007, 56). The caption for the following paragraph was very revealing. It was labelled: “The Moral Ape”. Is there any question about the thrust of this misguided journalistic fiasco?

Supposedly, one really is not accountable for his conduct. If both murder and rape can be rationalized under the guise of an anthropoid ancestry, can one be held accountable for any crime? Is Hitler now sanitized? Should prison doors be opened? And how can confidence be placed in literature composed by educated “apes”?

Flawed Theology

The doctrine of original sin or hereditary total depravity is common in the world of “Christendom.” The term “original,” suggests that current human sin is both actual and inherited. The latter is traced back to Adam’s “original” sin. The expression “hereditary total depravity” carries the following ideas: (a) Not only has humanity inherited the effects of sin (e.g., physical death [Romans 5:12]), each person also has inherited a corrupt nature as the consequence of Adam’s rebellion. (b) Human depravity is total in that there is nothing within the person that has not been affected by Adam’s original sin. (c) “Depraved” has to do with the corrupt, evil nature that has resulted as a consequence of having contracted Adam’s transgression.

The seeds of this dogma are found in the writings of several of the early “church fathers”; Augustine (A.D. 354-430) is given the credit for formalizing the theory. It was subsequently popularized by John Calvin (1509-64), and has been adopted (with varying modifications) by Roman Catholicism and many Protestant denominations. This teaching finds no support in the Scriptures.

The Roman Catholic position is expressed as follows: “Adam’s transgression was not confined to himself, but was transmitted, with its long train of dire consequences, to all his posterity” (Gibbons 1917, 266).

The Westminster Confession of Faith (A.D. 1643) contains the following descriptive:

Our first parents . . . so became dead in sin and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity . . . whereby we are utterly indisposed, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil (Bettenson 1961, 348).

The doctrine of original sin, whether intended or not, implies that human beings are not responsible for the evil they do. It was Adam who made the original choice to sin. Men have inherited that inclination to sin from him. Supposedly, then, one is not responsible for the urge to do wrong. Human inclinations are traceable to an ancestor. If we were void of this disposition to sin, we would not sin. We are not void thereof, hence we sin—and it is Adam’s fault!

The teaching is false for the following reasons:

First, Christ was descended from Adam (Luke 3:23-38); if Adam’s descendants inherit a corrupt nature, then Jesus “was wholly defiled in all [his] faculties.” Catholicism attempts to remedy this problem with its doctrine of the immaculate conception, but there is no basis in Scripture for that theory.

Second, the Bible teaches that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21, ESV). Children are not biblically viewed as evil (cf. Deuteronomy 1:39; Matthew 18:3; 19:14; 1 Corinthians 14:20).

Third, certain passages which profess to teach the dogma of inherited sin, upon closer inspection, do not. Psalm 51:5 is used to suggest that David was literally conceived in sin. If the language is viewed literally, then it conflicts with Psalm 58:3, which declares that the wicked do not “go astray” until after birth, when they then “speak lies.” But the language is poetic, in the format of the synecdoche (in this case, the whole stands for a portion), suggesting that viewed on the whole, human life in the majority is marred by sin. This figurative generalization is common in the Scriptures (cf. Job 31:18; Psalm 22:9-10; 71:5-6). The Bible clearly places the responsibility for going astray upon each person individually, not upon Adam (cf. Isaiah 53:6).

Fourth, but what shall we say of Paul’s declaration that we are “by nature children of wrath”? (Ephesians 2:1-3). Several things must be noted to put this text into focus: (a) The apostle begins by stating that, in their pre-Christian lives, these people had been “dead” as a result of “your trespasses and sins,” not those of Adam (v. 1). The pronoun “your” is in the better Greek texts (contra KJV; see Salmond 1956, 283). (b) The term “nature” (v. 3b) has to do with a mode of action “which by long habit has become nature,” i.e., natural (Thayer 1958, 660; emphasis added). (c) The text is clear: the Ephesians, in their pre-converted state “were [past tense] by nature [habit] the children of wrath” because they were “doing [present tense—sustained activity] the desires of the flesh.” (d) The consequence of the doctrine of original sin, if this text supports it, would be that infants who die in sin will be subjected to the wrath of God, for they are characterized as children of wrath. This expression “is a Semitism to denote those who deserve God’s punishment” (Wood 1978, 34-350).


What is the point of this discussion? Simply this: each human being must accept responsibility for his own sin. He must not rationalize evil actions by appealing to an evolutionary past, or to the choice that Adam made several millennia ago.

  • Bettenson, Henry. 1961. Documents of the Christian Church. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Gibbons, James Cardinal. 1917. The Faith of Our Fathers. Baltimore, MD: John Murphy Co.
  • Kluger, Jeffrey. 2007. What Makes Us Moral. TIME, Vol. 170:23, December 3.
  • Salmond, S. D. F. 1956. Ephesians. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 3. W. Robertson Nicoll, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • Thornhill, Randy and Craig T. Palmer. 2000. A Natural History of Rape. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Weinberg, Arthur. 1957. Attorney for the Damned. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • Wood, A. Skevington. 1978. Ephesians. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 11. Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.