Are People Basically Good or Bad?

Five minutes spent watching or reading the news will cause some serious question about the basis of humanity. Are we a “good” people or are we “bad”? It’s a lot easier to reconcile the Aurora Colorado theater shooting last month by coming to the conclusion that the shooter was/is a bad person. The word “bad” is a category or label we ascribe to those who cause harm. It’s a label to justify our judgement.

We know what to do with bad people: we can hate them. We can judge them, sentence them to prison, put them in confinement, and ultimately be rid of them. Compassion is not needed, grace and mercy are enablers, and pardoning their actions will only cause more hurt in the long run.

If people are generally bad, who can we trust, rely on or believe? The human condition isn’t a selective epidemic that is based on race, socio-economic, or religious people groups.

If I believe myself to be “bad” at my core, I’m going to see others as the same. That is true for viewing oneself as “good” as well. How can I trust someone, be married, or be open with someone if I believe myself and them to be “bad?” The only way that we build relationships is at some point we believe and see the good in the other person. If you risk this belief enough times with people, you’ll be hurt.

Each time we get hurt, we start the process over again. Do I believe the best, or the worst about people? If I have any amount of hope in the goodness of humanity, I’ll try again. But each successive time I get hurt by another, I’m faced with the question: What will I do with my pain?

Will I blame others, myself, or the “human condition” for why I was hurt? Neither of these areas of blame provide movement towards open relationships.

The question I think we don’t know how to answer is:

How will I grieve this loss, this pain, this reality that what I wanted didn’t happen?”

We are not a people that knows how to grieve well. And this is why I don’t think the categories of good and bad are helpful. It’s black or white, either or, and rarely if ever both and.

Good and bad are shame-based categories that keep us in hiding. We hide because we are afraid to reconcile our pain and suffering. Afraid of hurting or being engulfed by sadness. We don’t want to invite judgement or rejection, so we hide.

I don’t think we are either good or bad, we are both, and we are confused. Confused about how to handle our own dignity and depravity. There’s a conflict that resides in each of us, and unfortunately love suffers because of it. The tension exists between our God-given dignity, that part of us that was created in the image of the trinity, and the desire we all have to be God. The tension is too much for some to handle. This is how genocide, murder, massacres, and hate happen.

Ghandi once said that it’s not our darkness that terrifies us, it’s our brightness. We are terrified of allowing our dignity to be shown, because it is us, and at the same time it’s not. Humanity is not well adept at humility.

Viewing people as bad will keep me safe from being hurt by them, or by anyone for that matter. It’s a safe and comfortable way to live. But it’s isolating, lonely, and dark in that world. Gollum from Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite characters in any story. Very rarely do we get a picture from Hollywood that so clearly depicts the fight with evil and humanity than in Gollum’s character. The ring leads him to believe that anyone will kill him for it, because he killed for it. He hides, isolates, and keeps himself from being human. Yet as the story progresses, we see that hundreds of years in isolation has not ridded himself of his humanity.

The poignant scenes of Gollums “good” side talking to his “bad” side are both comical and frightening. We can relate because in each of us lies a similar conversation between what we know to be true about us, and what we fear is true. This conversation can go both ways. We can fear that we’re good inside, and the guilt/shame in us will argue otherwise. Conversely, we can fear that we’re bad inside, and enter the same conversation.

The question of “are people good or bad” is misdirected. The question we need to be asking of ourselves is:

How do I suffer the tension of holding both the blinding goodness from my creator, and the suffocating darkness of my arrogance?”

The way we treat ourselves and others lies at the crossroads of lightness and darkness.


Samuel Rainey is a professional counselor primarily working with couples, men, and women addressing issues of sexuality, emotional health, relationships, and spirituality. He is the co-Author of So You Want to be a Teenager with Thomas Nelson. He earned his Masters in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology in Seattle, Washington. When he is not roasting coffee, tending to his garden, or playing golf, he blogs about life process, parenting, and relationships at He can also be found on twitter @SamuelRainey. He and his wife reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee with their four children.

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