Good and Evil in Degrees

By Robin Schumacher

How "bad" are the things that you do — really? Dr. Michael Welner wants to be able to tell you.

Welner, a leading forensic psychiatrist who has testified in some of America's most infamous violent crime cases, is looking for yours and other's input on creating a human depravity standard with the end goal being to codify the concept of evil for the justice system. What Welner and his associates at the Forensic Panel in New York are attempting to do is formally draw up lines of demarcation between poor-bad-worse-heinous behaviors so those prosecuting crimes and juries that hand down decisions can have guidelines with which to work for properly assigning judgments.

Welner says, "In criminal courts today, the decision to charge a case as heinous, atrocious, cruel, depraved or vile rests with the prosecuting authority but, [only] because the law does not include a standard to what constitutes an evil crime. That decision is either visceral, or one that may be driven by political considerations, bias, or sensationalism. A Depravity Standard that is rooted in specific hallmarks of intent, actions, attitude and victimology keeps prosecutors accountable to fully investigate a crime for these unique qualities so that evidence informs decision making." [1]

In the end, Welner states that he wants to be able to "actually determine the level of evil in a crime." [2]

In today's culture, it's rather refreshing to hear Biblical and moral terms like "depravity" and "evil" used to describe the source of wrong behavior vs. the usual banter of liberal psychologists who label such activity as being a sickness and parrot assertions by their predecessors such as Maslow and Rogers who say, "I do not find that...evil is inherent in human nature." [3]

But can Welner and his team actually come up with a scale and unchanging standard for immoral conduct? Further, will it represent anything along the lines of the standard the Bible sets for sinful actions?

What is Depravity?

The term "depraved" occurs five times in the Bible; two times in the Old Testament (and in the same book — Hosea) and three times in Paul's writings (Romans, 1 & 2 Timothy). In the Old Testament the Hebrew terms šǎ·ḥǎṭā and št are used, which literally mean to "ruin", and be corrupted.[4] Romans 1:28 uses the word adokimos for depraved, which means "not standing the test; worthless", while the term used for depraved in 1 & 2 Timothy — Diaphtheirō — means "to spoil or destroy like rust eating into iron; to cause someone to become perverse, as a type of moral destruction; to cause the moral ruin of." [5]

Both the Old and New Testament definitions of depravity dovetail perfectly with Scripture's definition of evil (ʿ in the Old and ponēros in the New), which is something that is "worthless"; a thing that used to be good, but is now lacking its prior excellent qualities.

Just as rot on a tree ruins a good tree and rust on a car eventually renders the vehicle incapable of performing as it should, depravity and evil rob a person of their ability to do good in the eyes of God. Or as Paul says, a person becomes "detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed" (Titus 1:16).

The bad news for all of us is that the Bible states we are all depraved and capable of terrible things. Scripture says everyone is born in this condition (Psalm 51:5), and that our heart is "is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). But that said, is one person really worse than another in God's eyes where depravity is concerned?

Is All Sin the Same?

Most believers will tell you that a mantra they hear repeated often in sermons and other Christian gatherings is something along the lines of, "all sin is the same to God."

No it isn't.

While the effect of each sin is equal where a person's eternal standing before God is concerned (as James says, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all" - James 2:10), the Bible says that the degree of sinful actions differs.

Proverbs calls out seven particular evil actions that God despises (Proverbs 6:16-19); Jesus said that the person who had delivered Him up to Pilate had committed a "greater sin" (John 19:11), that there are "weightier provisions of the law" (Matthew 23:23), and that people who had witnessed His miracles and refused to repent were on the hook with God for more than those who had not (Matthew 11:2022).

So while every sin is the same in that it causes us to fall short of God's perfect standard, every sin is not the same in God's sight where the seriousness of the offense is concerned. Proof of this is seen in the oftentimes misunderstand Old Testament principle of "eye for eye" (Exodus 21:23-25), which simply means a punishment should fit the crime — an easy way of articulating what Welner is trying to devise with his depravity standard.

The Grace Standard

It is interesting to contrast Welner's future depravity standard of separating the various degrees of heinous actions and their punishments with the good news of God's "Grace Standard" found in Scripture. The best explanation of this that I've heard comes from one of my favorite Christian apologists, Michael Ramsden, who is a part of Ravi Zacharias ministries.

Ramsden asks us to imagine a good/bad person hierarchy much like that being devised by Welner where the top of the hierarchy contains morally exemplary people like Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and similar individuals. The next level down might have people who have lived a sacrificial life for their country or families. The next would have "decent" people who are trustworthy and helpful to others.

The subsequent planes in the hierarchy would contain individuals who either covertly or overtly exhibit signs of depravity. The initial depravity level might contain those who are creative with their taxes. They might be followed by those who openly steal. They, in turn, would be followed by truly "evil" people who harm others in serious ways.

Ramsden then asks us to take a pen and draw a single horizontal line of judgment between the levels that represent those who will spend eternity with God and those who will not. This is how most people determine good from bad and how they believe God will act where a person's eternal destination is concerned (i.e. if you are a "good person," you go to Heaven).

After that, Ramsden describes the true way God will draw His line on judgment day. The line will not run horizontal but vertical through the hierarchy. On one side will be people who are infected with sin and depravity, who committed sinful acts whether small or great, and who repented of those actions and received God's gift of forgiveness granted through Christ's work on the cross.

On the other side are people who are infected with sin and depravity, who committed sinful acts whether small or great, and refused to receive God's gift of salvation.

This is the Grace Standard and accurately describes how God overcomes our built-in law of moral failure. It is His good news that says it doesn't matter what you've done, My grace is greater than your past sinful actions.

While Welner's work in constructing a depravity standard may be useful for deciding judgments in human courts, I find it very comforting to know that God's Grace Standard allows all to receive a pardon for our sins if we will simply receive Christ as our Lord and Savior, which then enables us to live in the way God intends.

The question is: what side of God's judgment line are you on today?

1. Steven Edwards; "Measuring evil: Noted psychiatrist seeks tool to quantify wickedness"; Fox News.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M., & Stamm, J. J. (1999). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed.). Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.
5. Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.) (409). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Published 12-9-14