January 6, 2014

Despicable Me? The Doctrine of Total Depravity

by Clint Archer

Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s psychological tour de force, which deals with some of the deepest philosophical and anthropological questions in life. What is man? Are we innately good, or evil? What drives us? What curbs us? What is the reason for us to be or not to be? These are the questions the pensive Danish prince Hamlet muses about throughout the haunting story.despicable me

The play touches on one of the enduring debates in psychology—whether humans are born with a good nature or an evil one.

Many popular Oprah-esque paradigms today surmise that the reason people do bad things– the reason for the crime rate, the genocide, the atrocities we see on the pages of history– is because people have been infected with evil by their environment. In fact, they warn that viewing yourself as innately evil is harmful to your self-esteem.

The solutions proffered to cleanse the human stain of violence and wickedness, is a concoction of better education systems, a more stable economy, improved healthcare and welfare for the poor, etc.

Basically if everyone were nourished, healthy, and literate, there would be a sharp decrease in war, crime, depression, stress, pollution, corruption, and foolish decisions that ruin the economy and individual lives.

And this is what Hamlet seems to feel early in the play, as he regales Rosencranz with these words:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.”  (Act 2, Sc 2)

And if the play ended with Act 2 it wouldn’t be designated as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. You see, as the story unfolds, Hamlet discovers the forces of evil that are at work in his kingdom, his family, and his own soul. He discovers that indeed there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. His mother and uncle killed Hamlet’s father the king, which initiates him into a course of dark emotional turmoil and an unquenchable desire for revenge.


After realizing the darkness that inhabits all of humanity, he rebuffs his poor putative love interest Ophelia, with these remarkably cynical words:

Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all. Believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery….”

Wow. Hamlet is saying, “I’m the good guy in the play and I’m so unfathomably wicked deep inside—just imagine how evil the bad guys are! Don’t marry me or we will only breed more sinners. The only way to rid the world of wickedness is for women to become nuns.

Yikes, Shakespeare.

Well, is Hamlet right?

Are humans all born so evil that there is no hope for humanity? To breed or not to breed, that is the question.

Welcome to the doctrine of Total Depravity. It is important to understand what is being claimed by the term Total Depravity. As author Roger Nicole puts it…

The adjective ‘total’ does not mean that each sinner is as totally or completely corrupt in his actions and thought as it is possible for him to be. Instead the word total is used to indicate that the whole of man’s being has been affected by sin. The corruption extends to every part of man: his body, his soul…his mind, his will.’

 So it’s not that everyone is as wicked as they can be. People can restrain their behaviour if they fear consequence, education, etc. Some people are incredibly evil, sadistic, murderous. But some people are very sweet and kind and loving.

But even in “good people” sin has tainted every single part of your being at some level, including your thinking.bad

Anything you give God is imbued with a twinge of sin. Like moneybags with ink bombs in them. When the robber opens the bag, the ink bomb, stains the bills so they can be traced. Even a tiny spec of ink corrupts the cash.

That’s Total Depravity. Every part of everyone has some trace of sin. Some more than others, but no one is spotless.

Westminster Confession:

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man…is not able by his own strength to convert himself or prepare himself thereunto.’

So sin is universal in extensiveness and intensiveness: it has spread to all people, and to every part of each person.

Rom 3:10  as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;  11  no one understands; [mental/spiritual ability] no one seeks [will] for God.  12  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one…  14  “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”  15  “Their feet are swift to shed blood…   17  and the way of peace they have not known.”  18  “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” …23  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Rom 8: 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

If I offered you 10 million bucks to stop speaking, it would be difficult, but possible. If I offered you 10 million bucks if you stopped thinking, you could not do it. Or if I offered you salvation if you stopped sinning, you could never do it. Why? It’s your nature.

Jer 13: 23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

Jer 17:9 the heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick, who can understand it?

If you wanted to stop sinning, what part of your being would you employ? Your heart/thinking/will.  But Jeremiah is saying you can’t use your heart to clean your heart. Because it is tainted by the sin too. That is like trying to wipe a spot of gravy off your couch with an oily rag.

1 Cor 2: 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand [complete inability] them because they are spiritually discerned.

It’s like trying to pick up cable TV without a decoder. Or play a CD on a record player. A sinner does not have the mental equipment to believe the gospel in a saving way.


When you evangelize, you don’t try to appeal to the person’s reason alone. Proof alone will never convince anyone. It is God’s power that will make them believe.

When someone comes to Christ, we give God all the glory. We don’t congratulate them on making the right choice, we glorify God for changing their mind and heart.

We can make this world better by education and police and democracy. I agree. But we cannot make people better. Only the gospel can do that. And that is the doctrine of Total Depravity.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Marsha Fisher

    Great post

    • Great comment.

      • Mike

        Even greater comment on her comment.

  • Good post. Misleading title, though; I thought it was a commentary on the movies.

    Romans 1:16

    • The movie “Despicable Me” featuring the voice of Steve Carell is a touching exploration of the goodness that resides in the worst of villains when they are effected by the love and acceptance of innocence and beauty. There you go.

    • Mike

      Despicable Me 3: Total Depravity

      Hey, I can rhyme and didn’t even know it!

  • Kofi Adu-Boahen

    Minions + Cripplegate = Awesome!

  • Mary Fournier Hooley

    This explains quite well the condition of man, including his inability to use his ‘will’ to choose God. If sin prevents him from even “seeking”, how can he choose?! I have had this conversation many times with those who believe in ‘free will’. Thanks for the post!

    • Well said. This is the foundation stone one which the doctrine of election rests.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    What is the connection between the Doctrine of Total Depravity and the Doctrine of Original Sin?

    I’ve been hearing or reading objections to the Doctrine of Original Sin. And I’m wondering that if folks stipulate to Total Depravity, then it won’t be much of a hurdle for them to accept the doctrine of Original Sin.

    • Alex

      Original sin was when sin (and consequently death) was first brought into the world, and so that is when it all began, right? Since the fall it has been virtually impossible to live a sinless life, with the exception of the Lord Jesus.

      As Pastor Archer wrote above;
      But even in “good people” sin has tainted every single part of your being at some level, including your thinking

      It is so important to humbly look at this topic, and fearlessly look at oneself in the mirror, not shying away from the ugliness that may be there by giving sin a pass. If you vigilantly strive to “walk in HIS Spirit” you will be loving God and trying to rid yourself of sin. However, never forget where you started, that ugly face in the mirror, the man who has been dead an buried, lest you fall back to square one. To GOD be the Glory!

      As Pastor Archer wrote above;
      When someone comes to Christ, we give God all the glory. We don’t congratulate them on making the right choice, we glorify God for changing their mind and heart.

      Thank you Pastor Archer for the most interesting post

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