American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that the doctrine of original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” He meant that you can’t look outside and verify that Jesus died and rose again. The world doesn’t naturally inform us of Christ’s second coming. We rely on revelation from God to know those things. We don’t need revelation, however, to show us the deep wickedness of the human heart. We just need to look outside our windows.
I thought about Niebuhr’s comment last week as news reports broke verifying that the Russian army is guilty of heinous war crimes in Ukraine. Videos and photos reveal that hundreds of innocent civilians have been murdered and left for dead. Mass graves have been discovered, and the Russian army has left dead bodies strewn in the streets of abandoned cities—some with bound hands.
When Russia first invaded Ukraine, I heard comments like, “I thought we were past these kinds of wars over land.” And truthfully, it seemed bizarre. Not since World War II had one nation started a land invasion of another sovereign nation in Europe. It was tempting to conclude that humanity had regressed, that some level of progress had been tragically frustrated. It seemed like we had lost moral ground gained over the last century.
But I’m past that. The Darwinian lie of progress doesn’t make sense of what is obvious for anyone who has eyes to see. The world has never been in a state of gradual moral improvement. Sure, we’ve developed technology that improves quality of life. We’ve made huge medical progress that enables us to treat disease and lengthen life spans. We’ve stumbled upon government that guarantees inalienable rights for citizens. But we’ve done nothing to fix what’s really broken. We’ve made no gains in discovering a cure for the human heart.
Here’s the truth, plainly written in the Bible for anyone who cares to look. There will always be people like Hitler and Stalin and Putin because there will always be people who place no value on human life and who have power to treat others as tools to accomplish their own debased fantasies. There will always be war and murder and slavery. No amount of human “progress” or education or moral reform is going to eradicate what ultimately ails us.
Before I go further, let me clarify one thing. I’m not arguing here that we shouldn’t work for the improvement of our world. We have certainly made great gains in a lot of areas. We’ve seen racial slavery end in our own nation. We’ve worked to secure civil rights for more people. We can do a lot to help a lot of people, and we should continue to work to eradicate injustices like abortion, abuse, racism, and human trafficking. We should continue to fight for God-given justice.
But don’t mistake those gains for ultimate cure. James diagnoses our problem: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2a). James, deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus on the human heart, tells us that the root of our problem isn’t policy or poverty or education. At the core, our greatest problem—and the reason for the wars and the fighting and the murders—is that we want things we are not supposed to have.
What ails Putin is the same thing that ails us all. The difference between Putin and the rest of us is that Putin’s power goes unchecked. Putin wants Ukraine; he has power. He hurts people who get in his way. We want something else; we have less power. We hurt people who get in our way, too. Analyze any human travesty, any debased action, whatever makes your stomach churn the most, and you will inevitably find human desire gone awry. Our world does not reveal a story of inevitable evolutionary progress; our world tells a consistent story of human beings trying to play God and willing to dispose of anything or anyone who gets in the way. That story is as old as life itself.
We’ve ruined ourselves beyond the point of return, but there’s hope. If the main problem is the heart, the solution must treat the heart. There’s only one person who can change the human heart—the One who made it. The prophet Ezekiel foretold, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
That prophecy is fulfilled in Christ. He alone can remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. He alone can cure our greatest problem. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).