John Wayne Gacy was put to death by lethal injection in the early morning hours of May 10, 1994 for murdering 33 young men and boys, 29 of whom he buried in the crawl space beneath his own Chicago home between the years of 1972 and 1978. After Gacy’s death, he was delivered into the hands of Dr. Helen Morrison to perform a very unique autopsy. Dr. Morrison had previously interviewed Gacy, along with many other serial killers, in an attempt to isolate personality traits that were common among such ruthless murderers. Now at the request of Gacy’s family, Dr. Morrison was going to remove the brain of the notorious serial killer in hopes of discovering some sort of physical abnormality that would provide answers for why Gacy destroyed so many innocent lives.
In her book, My Life Among the Serial Killers, Dr. Morrison commented on what she believed to be a genetically predetermined factor in people like Gacy: “He is a serial killer when he is a fetus, even as soon as sperm meets egg to create the genes of a new person.” In other words, according to Morrison, there was no hope for Gacy; his genes determined his actions and his behavior. In some sense, Gacy could be excused for his behavior if there were no laws prohibiting his actions. Morrison did not see any separation between the natural ability in her patients and their moral ability.
Is such a thing true? Or is there instead a division between each person’s natural body and their intrinsic essence or nature—that which makes them who they are from a moral standpoint? Atheists and naturalists say ‘no,’ but the Bible counters with the reality that there is a spiritual and moral side to every person that is distinct from their physical body. And Scripture also states that it is this component of a person who has inherited what is called a ‘sin nature’ that produces everything from white lies to atrocities such as those committed by John Wayne Gacy.
The Reality of the Sin Nature
Some psychologists and scientists have attempted to deny that humanity is inherently sinful or ‘bad.’ For example, the founder of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow, said: “As far as I know we just don’t have any intrinsic instincts for evil.” Agreeing with Maslow is noted psychologist Carl Rogers who stated, “I do not find that…evil is inherent in human nature.” Both Maslow and Rogers dismiss sin and instead say if a person is committing evil acts, then the ‘patient’ is psychologically ill and must be brought back to mental sanity through medication and therapy.
However, history has shown that the evil actions of humanity transcend mere mental disorders. Commenting on the Nazi atrocities, Catholic monk and priest Thomas Merton observed, “One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. . . . And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.”
Various philosophers have also tried to either deny a sin nature or explain it away through various means. One example is Jean Jacques Rousseau, an 18th century philosopher, writer, and composer of Romanticism, whose political philosophy heavily influenced the French Revolution. He believed that mankind was naturally good and that each person was born an ‘innocent savage.’ If each person was born innocent, how did Rousseau explain humanity’s evil actions? Simply put, Rousseau claimed that society corrupted people, and that is why they end up exhibiting bad behavior. However, as various opponents of Rousseau’s claims soon pointed out to him, societies are comprised of people, and are therefore only a collective manifestation of individual wickedness.
Even some theologians have tried to deny an inherent sin nature in humanity, with the most famous being the Culdee Monk Pelagius who rejected the notion of a person being born anything but perfect and innocent. Pelagius’ theological wrestling matches with the famous Augustine resulted in the condemnation of Pelagius’ teaching in the early church, although it still lives on in various places today.
The fact is that the reality of a sin nature is clearly seen in human behavior. Such truth caused Reinhold Niebuhr to comment, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Expounding on Niebuhr’s statement in more detail, R.C. Sproul describes the situation this way: “If each one of us is born without a sinful nature, how do we account for the universality of sin? If four billion people were born with no inclination to sin, with no corruption to their nature, we would reasonably expect that at least some of them would refrain from falling. . . . But if everybody does it, without exception, then we begin to wonder why.”
The Bible provides the answer as to why every person sins. Scripture says that God created humankind originally good and without a sin nature: “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. . . . God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). However, Genesis chapter 3 records the fall of Adam and Eve, and with that fall, sin entered into the two previously sinless creatures that God had made. And when they, in turn, had children, their sin nature was passed along to their offspring. That sin nature immediately manifested itself in the very first man born from Adam and Eve, a man named Cain who became a murderer (Genesis 4:8).
Instead of only the image of God being passed down through the human procreation process, a sin nature was passed as well: “When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth” (Genesis 5:3, emphasis added). The fact is that each and every person born from the beginning has inherited the sin nature of his parents, with both the Old and New Testaments speaking to this fact. For example, David says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). In another Psalm, David states: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth” (Psalm 58:3). His son Solomon wrote: “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
The Old Testament prophets also affirmed that a sin nature exists in everyone born of human parents. Jeremiah said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). The prophet Isaiah stated: For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6).
In the New Testament, Paul affirms an inherited sin nature when he says, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). And the Apostle John says this to his readers: If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Students of Scripture have all reached the conclusion that the Bible teaches each and every person possesses a sinful nature, with Charles Spurgeon summing up the reality when he said: “As the salt flavors every drop in the Atlantic, so does sin affect every atom of our nature. It is so sadly there, so abundantly there, that if you cannot detect it, you are deceived.”
In one sense, Dr. Helen Morrison was right in her assessment of human nature. When children are conceived, they are predetermined—not to necessarily become a serial killer like John Wayne Gacy, but to sin in some form or fashion.
Misconceptions about the Sin Nature
Although the biblical teaching of a sin nature is clear, there are a number of misconceptions that both Christians and non-Christians have about it. First, some people think that a sin nature means that a person cannot tell right from wrong or behave in a ‘good’ manner towards someone else. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus acknowledged that someone could perform good acts and yet still have an evil sin nature when he said, “What man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9–11, emphasis added).
In fact, the Bible says each person is equipped by God with a conscience that instinctively knows right and wrong. Paul confirms this truth when he says, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:14-15).
Next, some believe that a sin nature means that every person will eventually end up a like a Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy. However, this isn’t the case at all. A sin nature does not mean that every person will be as bad as they can possibly be, but rather than each person is as bad off as they can possibly be from a spiritual standpoint. Every person is spiritually dead and cut off from God, but the degrees of wickedness in each person will vary.
Lastly, some Christians have been taught that they lose their sin nature once they receive Christ as their Lord and Savior. But Scripture says that the sin nature remains after a person becomes a believer in Christ and that a struggle with that sin nature will continue until they are glorified in eternity. Paul bemoaned his struggle when he said, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. . . . But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Romans 7:15, 20).
The struggle between the sinful and regenerated spiritual nature in a Christian will be quite evident to a person who has been born again, but such a battle will not occur in a person who has not become a believer in Christ. They remain spiritually dead and are not sensitive to sin as a Christian is.
The story is told of a man who once came to a preacher and said, “You talk about how heavy sin is, but preacher, I don’t feel a thing.” The preacher thought for a minute and then asked, “If we put 400 pounds of weight on a corpse, do you think he’d feel it?”
The Consequences of the Sin Nature
The reality of the sin nature brings with it many disappointing consequences. The first effect is that each and every person in born spiritually dead. That is, they are devoid of any spiritual life or desire for the things of God. Jesus affirmed this condition when asked by a person if he could first go bury his father before following Christ. Jesus responded by saying, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul (describing his readers’ condition prior to being born again) says simply “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
The lack of spiritual life in a person results in behavior that is both hostile toward God and mindfully ignorant of His truth. In Romans, speaking about the hostility and inability of spiritually dead people to respond to God, Paul says, “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:6-7). The Apostle underscores the same fact in his first letter to the Corinthian church: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
The final and natural consequence of the sin nature is eternal death—an eternal separation from God. God’s wrath remains on those who are not born again (John 3:36), and so their destiny is only one of judgment, which is spelled out in the book of Revelation: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14-15).
The Cure for the Sin Nature
Fortunately, there is a cure for the sin nature and a way to escape the judgment of God. The cure is the new birth, which is described by the Apostle John in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again. The Spirit breathes where He desires, and you hear His voice, but you do not know from where He comes, and where He goes; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit’” (John 3:3–8).
The good news is that Christ’s sacrifice supplies spiritual life for any person who calls on the name of the Lord for salvation. Paul says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10). The Apostle also highlights this spiritual regeneration when he writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The Spirit of God takes up residence in each person who is born again and supplies the power to not only defeat the effects of the sin nature, but to supply strength to defeat the old sinful nature’s pull to do wrong in God’s sight. Paul says it like this: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16–17).
The great news is that the sin nature can be defeated by the One who did not inherit a sin nature from His earthly parents (Jesus was born of a virgin). Through His finished work on the cross, Jesus, being sinless, satisfied God’s wrath for sinners and rose again to offer life to those devoid of spiritual life.
The fact that each person ever born possesses a sin nature is verified by human experience and the Word of God. The good news is that Christ provides a way of conquering the inherited sin nature and a victory that can be experienced both in this life and the next. No matter how bad off the person is, Jesus can defeat the sin that enslaves him. As John Calvin put it, “For certainly, Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.”