Most of the times I've heard that statement, it was presented as a commonly-held idea that must be refuted while sharing the gospel. The Christian would ask, "If you died today, would you go to heaven?" and the non-Christian would say, "I'm a good person, so... I guess I would" or "people are basically good" or something like that.
And then the correct Christian response is to say no no, people are not basically good, not by God's standard. Here, look what it says in Romans 3:23, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." And here in Psalm 53:3, "Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one."
Basically, the message is, "No matter who you are or what you've done, you're a failure and a bad person and you deserve nothing good- you deserve hell. But Jesus can get you out of that so better sign up with him."
And yes, the message typically comes with some more positive statements about God's love and having one's life transformed- but so much emphasis is on SIN and how we must be on guard against this fallacy of "being a good person." No one is good. The bible says so.
It's not true. It's just not. It's not true that SIN is the defining characteristic of any random stranger you meet, it's not true that SIN is all we need to know about human nature.
Because reality. Because I know a lot of genuinely kind and good people who really love helping others and want to make the world a better place, even if it's not easy. Some of these people are Christians, some are not.
How do you explain that, if people are basically bad?
The image of God. And it was very good.
But then in chapter 3, there's sin and the fall and the curse. So humans are basically good, created in the image of God. But humans are also basically bad, with a sinful nature.
Basically good. People have a natural capacity for love and empathy and compassion. A conscience and a general understanding of right and wrong (though we may disagree on some details). Many many people work so hard to help others. And also, people are pretty freaking awesome! Intelligent, creative, fun. Humanity is so good!
Basically bad. People have a natural tendency towards selfishness. Taking advantage of others. Judging and rejecting others. Pride, hatred, anger. The world has so much violence and injustice. Humanity is so bad.
So are people basically good or basically bad? Well, both. And I'm very suspicious of any philosophy that emphasizes one over the other. It's both. We have so much capacity to do good, and we have so much capacity to do evil.
And one more thing I'll say about some Christians' over-emphasis on sin: They are making the point that we cannot earn God's love through our actions. Yes, I agree with that. We do not earn God's love through what we do. We already have God's love through who we are.
Are people sinners? Yes. But far more important is God's love. God does NOT believe we are worthless because of sin, deserving of nothing good. No, God loves us and valued humanity enough to send Jesus, God in human form, to live with us and die and then rise again, can I get an amen?
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) Love. God so loved the world.
We bear God's image, and we are loved and valuable.
This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 53. To read other people's posts, click here: Reading from a Place of Privilege.