Tuesday, May 1, 2007


I grew up in the days when everyone seemed to know who the good guys and the bad guys were. I loved the “cowboy movies,” as we called them then. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were the good guys. They wore white hats. They wore clean (though gaudy) shirts. They were clean-shaven. They always caught the bad guys and could always whip them in a fight. The bad guys usually wore black hats and had black mustaches. We also could recognize the bad guys by the sinister sounding music that played whenever they came on screen.

America was at war. We were fighting the bad guys. And again, everyone knew who they were: Hitler with his little black toothbrush mustache and his straight hair draped over one side of his forehead; Tojo with his buck teeth and his evil looking squinty eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses; and, Mussolini with his huge bulging jaw.

Many of my contemporaries mourn the passing of those good old days, or at least the mentality of the times. I don’t.

For one thing, it’s just not that simple and never has been.

Yes, there are horrid acts of evil. Anyone could make a list of the unspeakable atrocities of our lifetimes, beginning with the latest horrible slaughter at Virginia Tech.

I think we kind of like that killer. He fits our idea of what a bad guy is. He seems to be the embodiment of evil – angry, vicious, two guns pointed at us in his pictures.

But there are others. Look at Timothy McVeigh, a gentle appearing, soft-spoken young man. Look at many of the suicide bombers: many of them look amazingly normal. Or the nice folks in Rwanda, who one day went on a rampage hacking up thousands of their neighbors. Or Adolph Eichmann, a bland looking bureaucrat. Or the Enron executives. Evil doesn’t always have an evil face.

Why is this? We’d like to classify people in two groups, the good guys and the bad guys. We’d like an “axis of evil” that sets them apart. But it’s not there. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been quoted as saying, “The line between good and evil passes not between nations, classes and religions … but through every human heart.”

When I first became a believer in Christ in my late teens, my sweetheart (now my wife) gave me a Bible. I consumed it. Though I was familiar with many stories in the Book, I was a bit surprised at how flawed and human the characters in it were: Adam and Eve lying to excuse their disobedience; Cain who murdered his brother; his descendant Lamech glorifying murder in what may have been the first rap song ever composed (check it out: Genesis 4:23, 24); even Noah, who “found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 5:8), the man God chose to save the world, getting drunk, committing some perverse act and cussing out his grandson; and all that in just the first few chapters.

Then someone in our little church asked me to teach 5th grade boys. Our semester’s topic had to do with the heroes of the Bible: Samson, David and Solomon. But these characters weren’t heroes. At least not like the ones I grew up admiring. These guys would be analyzed today as having sexual addictions. Some would even be analyzed as having sociopathic tendencies.

What’s my point? There just aren’t any good guys. And there are very few totally bad guys. We are all tainted with what theologians call “total depravity.” Now this doesn’t mean that we are all guilty of the same atrocities that Eichmann or Jim Jones or Timothy McVeigh committed. But we are all capable of sins like theirs. Berkhof in his Systematic Theology, defines it thus. “ … Negatively, it does not imply: (1) that every man is as thoroughly depraved as he can possibly become; (2) that the sinner has no innate knowledge of the will of God, nor a conscience that discriminates between good and evil; (3) that sinful man does not often admire virtuous character and actions in others, or is incapable of disinterested affections and actions in others, or is incapable of disinterested affections and actions in his relations with his fellow men; nor (4) that every unregenerate man will, in virtue of his inherent sinfulness, indulge in every form of sin. … Positively, it does indicate: (1) that the inherent corruption extends to every part of man’s nature; … (2) that there is no spiritual good that is, good in relation to God, in the sinner at all, but only perversion“ (pages 246, 247). (Also see WHAT HAPPENED?)

Perhaps we want there to be “bad guys,” so that we look like “good guys.” But God doesn’t see it that way. “All have sinned and keep falling short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And when we admit that we are bad guys, then we’re able to take advantage of God’s free grace in Christ, the only Good Guy who ever lived.

Bill Ball

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