We are not beings born totally depraved. We are beings in need of healing. – Jordan Sutton
In the 2017 sci-fi thriller “Life”, a space crew fights to survive an alien creature that is both hostile and seemingly impossible to destroy. As the film reaches its climax, however, there the viewer can discern a rising tension between nihilism and humanism. One of the films characters, exobiologist Hugh Derry, appears to mourn the crews demise while at the same time embracing the inevitability of their death as nothing more than a natural part of the life-cycle. “Calvin” (the name given to the alien) “doesn’t hate us,” he says, moments before his death, “But he has to kill us in order to survive”.
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Derry’s defeatist perspective is grounded in what is potentially the films ideological drive which he unveils the moment he concedes that “life’s very existence requires destruction”. During this portion of the film—arguably its most existential segment—the characters speak of the difficulty of watching humans die while, much to the remaining crews horror, they discover the alien has hidden itself under Derry’s trousers, devouring him as he speaks. Derry never warned his friends almost as if to say, “don’t fight the inevitable. It is what it is”. Thus, over against the theme of human value, we find a contending motif of human futility.
As the final two of the original seven-man crew face the undeniability of their approaching death, the crews’ physician, David, reads through a poem that adds to the nihilistic weight of the film: “Good night, room. Good night, moon. Good night, cow jumping over the moon. Good night, light and the red balloon. Good night, nobody.”
The cold temperature of outer-space fuses with the cryptic touch of the poem’s indifference. Here they are: hunted, devoured by a being with no self-consciousness—just a cell that has morphed into a killing machine and in the end, none of it seems to matter. But the tension in the film, heretofore explored, now emerges with even greater force, for in a moment of epiphany, David and his fellow survivor, quarantine officer Miranda North, concoct a plan to prevent the alien from entering earth. A plan which involves self-sacrifice for the continued survival of humanity which, in varying degrees, the film itself has suggested, has no objective significance. In the end, the alien manages to enter earth and the film ends leaving the viewer with the possibility that beyond the credits lies a story of the complete annihilation of the human race.
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And herein lies the tension in the film, or should I say, it’s absurdity. A seeming mockery of the value of human life on the one hand and an instinctive struggle to preserve it against all odds on the other. In light of this tension, we are forced to ask—is human life valuable? And if so, why? And in our quest to discover a why, we are once again reintroduced to the timeless question—what does it mean to be human? Does it mean anything at all?
It is in the tension created by this very question that I believe authentic Adventist theology provides us with a vision that is both compelling and beautiful. Beginning with the Imago Dei and moving into the limitlessness of man and his eternal potentiality, Adventist theology has the capacity to interact with the absurdity of human ontology in a fundamentally meaningful way because it can both interact meaningfully with the cynicism of the nihilist and the enthusiasm of the humanist while contending with the mistaken presuppositions that undergird these secular perspectives on human existence.
The Imago Dei
The concept of the Imago Dei is ancient in that it simply refers to the biblical view that mankind is made in the image of God. However, where we go from there is a matter of debate. In classical evangelical thought, the fall completely obliterated the image of God in man thus rendering him so utterly depraved that even God’s word, self-disclosure, and Holy Spirit is incapable of turning man from his sin. Thus, the only way men can be saved in this scenario is if God pre-selects those whom will be saved and then regenerates them. Once regenerated, the man is now capable of responding to God’s voice and is able to enter into a relationship with him.
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Other perspectives have arisen throughout history. Thus, while this view maintains that God saves only the ones he has elected by regenerating them through his grace, another view insists that God does not preselect whom he will save but he does, in fact, sanctify the souls of those whom he later saves. Those who experience this sanctification are therefore in a place where they can now receive justification.
In this view, sanctification precedes and opens the way to justification because God cannot declare holy what is unholy. Then there is the view that God justifies before he sanctifies but since man is so depraved and unable to respond to God’s justifying grace, God must first awaken the sinner with “prevenient grace” (a grace before grace). This prevenient grace is like a booster shot from heaven that awakens a man long enough to freely choose whether to receive Jesus or not.
And then of course, there is the view that God simply justifies with no sanctification in view because the truth is—men are so deplorable they can never hope to be changed. So God simply declares us righteous and leaves it at that. Sin, in this view, will always have dominion over us and so we surrender ourselves to its unending regime. God forgave us and so now, we can go to heaven and that’s all that matters.
Lastly, there is the view that justification is not enough. It might do some of the saving, but man is so overwhelmingly corrupt that we must put forth a considerable amount of effort to self-cleanse the soul temple or else, we will have our justification revoked at the judgment. In this view, man must accomplish a work of perfecting the self in order to be allowed into eternity. This is, once again, rooted in the idea that we are so deplorable that God simply cannot stomach our filth.
Each of these views exist within the Christian world today—many of them in Adventism. They do not always exist in clear cut lines. Many times, church members adopt a bit from each of them and manufacture a sort of composite view. But the foundation tends to be the same no matter which view you embrace or what cocktail you create from the diverse positions you interact with. And that view is essentially this: that mankind is, well… indecent to put it nicely—reprehensibly fetid to be more precise.
This view, therefore, when presented without nuance or care to a secular world is itself reprehensible. It has all the hallmarks of an abusive husband who controls his wife by destroying her self-value with mantras like, “no one will love you”, “you are ugly” or “stupid”. Controlling, narcissistic spouses have been known to use these phrases to exert dominance over their partner by eroding any sense of self-confidence or autonomy in them. Consequently, the victim finds themselves in a mental cage which they cannot escape. On the one hand, the abuse if unlivable but on the other hand, where can the victim find acceptance if they are truly so undesirable?
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This view is also seen with suspicion by a skeptical world fed up with how religion monetizes psychological guilt for its own self-perpetuation. You tell people they are horrible and that their destiny is eternal death thus creating a deep existential hole in their psyches. A hole which the church is then more than happy to fill. In a sense, the secular world sees Christianity as a manipulative ideology that has created a pathological need in society which it, in turn, promises to resolve. And of course, sooner or later that resolution will involve money. Is it no wonder our neighbors want nothing to do with our faith?
A more meaningful place to begin our journey with a secular world is not with fallen human nature in need of redemption but with the image of God inherently ours. Jefferson Bethke refers to this as beginning the journey in Genesis 1 instead of Genesis 3. Thus, contrary to the old Baptist approach of “get them real lost so you can get them real saved”, the call is to “get them real loved” instead. That is, to offer the culture a vision of humanity that interacts meaningfully with the pillars of nihilism and humanism, but which also transcends those ideologies and offers people a real foundation for loving their essential selves in a way only a biblical worldview can substantiate.
But is such a position justifiable? After all, doesn’t the Bible explicitly declare that man is sinful from birth—schemers, immoral and evil? The answer is undoubtedly, yes. But the Bible also declares that we were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), that even in our fallen nature we still know “how to give good” (Matt. 7:11), that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, known from our mother’s womb (Psa. 139:13-14), that God delights in us and sings over us (Zeph. 3:17), and that we are loved—so loved, in fact, that God would give his only son for our redemption (Joh. 3:16), not when we got our act together but in the very midst of our darkest days (Rom. 5:8). In the midst of our fallenness, God declares our limitlessness when he says, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible” (Gen. 11:6) and of mankind it is said, that God is “mindful” of us, has “crowned” us (Psa. 8:4) and given the earth to us to rule (Psa. 115:16).
It appears then, from the narrative of scripture, that there is something about us that is inherently beautiful, valuable, and redemptive. Thus, pastor Jordan Sutton could state,
We are not beings born totally depraved. We are beings in need of healing.
The difference being that this “self-deprecating theological position” can lead people to believe that any true metamorphosis of being is “virtually meaningless”. Consequently, they go “on and on about how bad they are” instead of the “great work” God has done and is doing. Sutton goes on to mourn how such a low view of man also leads us to forget that “the power of God’s eternal act will transform everything about our lives and this world” and that all this is possible because, rather than contemptible creatures, we are beckoned in Christ to our “original goodness”.
Scripture captures this vision beautifully as it compares us to a pearl of great price buried in a field (Matt. 13:45-46), which God gave everything to purchase. Or as wandering children coming home—not to a disgusted reception, but to a father longing to have us with him (Luk. 15:11-32). For every person who returns, the Bible says there is a feast in heaven (Luk. 15:10) and when Jesus came to the earth, it was not the religious whose presence he enjoyed, but the outcasts and misfits (Matt. 9:11). And the gospel of the kingdom he entrusted to the church, not angels (1 Pet. 1:12)—an act which speaks highly of God’s respect of man.
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None of this denies the reality of man’s fallen nature and our inability to save ourselves. But what it does is invite the secular seeker into a narrative that interacts meaningfully with their language of being—particularly the heroic vision of man and its inherent appreciation of autonomy, self-determination, and affirmation—all while prodding at the false assumptions of humanism and its altogether exaggerated anthro-enthusiasm that sees mankind as essentially good, or neutral at worst.
Thus, the Biblical narrative—especially as understood by Adventism—does not see man as a “worm” in any ontological sense but rather, as royalty created in the image of God—an image which sin will never obliterate. We are fallen, yes, we are incapable of self-redemption, yes. But we are not loathsome. There is something beautiful about us—not so much within or in our possession—but essentially us.
To put it simply, there is not a thing “within” man that is to be considered valuable but that man, in his essential self, is the valuable thing itself. When we begin the story there, in Genesis 1, we naturally unfold a different kind of narrative where rather than starting at how bad we are so we can convince people of how much they need salvation, we begin at how incredibly gorgeous we are in order to awaken within our audience the very real call that they were made for more than this world and its amusements, duties, and ideologies can ever offer.
The Limitlessness of Man and His Eternal Potentiality
From this enthusiastic starting place, Adventists can then interact more convincingly with reality. One of the phrases I have often heard in traditional Adventist churches is that “man, without the Spirit of God, can do nothing good.” There is, of course, theological accuracy to this. However, people don’t often use those words with their inherent theological nuance but rather, use them as a means to attack and demonize culture. In this sense, the phrase becomes a way of saying that unless you belong to my church and believe as I do, you cannot do much good in the world and even if you are a nice and ethical person, you are still evil.
The problem with this view is that it is both uninformed and entirely outlandish to a secular mind. A brief look at history shows that mankind is certainly capable of immense good even without faith in Jesus. And to a secular world reeling from the scandals of child abuse within the church itself, the proposition that one must belong to the church and be a Christian to produce incredible good is frustrating.
While far from perfect (a value which seculars do not embrace) most people today admire the likes of Hindu Mohandas Gandhi, Muslim Malala Yousafzai, and the Buddhist Dalai Lama as pragmatic examples of human goodness. In his news report “The Joy of Giving”, wealthy chef turned social worker, Narayanan Krishnan speaks of how he turned his back on his own religious identity in order to serve the needs of the outcast, rejected, and despised of India. Krishnan is himself, not a follower of Jesus and yet exemplifies the spirit of giving in a way that puts most Christians to shame.
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None of these people are perfect of course, but the culture regards them as inspiring and real—not the photoshopped (and phony) version of saintliness the church often portrays. And when I look at scripture, I don’t find this a difficult notion to appreciate. Not only did Jesus speak highly of the faith of a pagan centurion (in fact, he said his faith was greater than in all of Israel) but scripture itself strongly alludes to man’s limitlessness and eternal potential for self-advancement in the very doctrine of worship itself.
Recall from the articles on God and absurdity that an important element to maintain when exploring God with the secular world is his differentiation. That is, God approves of himself, glorifies himself, and exalts himself. He does not need us to feed his ego or stroke his sense of self-importance. This naturally leaves us with the question—what then is the objective of worship? The reason for the tension is we are used to thinking of worship as something we do for God. However, what if worship was something God does for us?
Many years ago, I noticed a secular contact struggling with the idea of worshiping God or having to depend on God for anything. The whole thing just seemed unfair. In order to navigate the experience with him, I shared what psychiatrist Timothy Jennings had referred to in one of his talks as the “other-centered motive of worship”. In this sense, rather than seeing worship as a divine ego-trip, Jennings suggested that it is an act of other-centeredness. From there, I challenged my contact by asking him what made God, God? Among the answers, there emerged this idea that God is inherently self-existing. That is, he does not derive his existence from anything. I then asked him, “Can God create another God?”
We eventually agreed, no, he cannot. For if God is inherently self-existing then the moment God creates another God, that being is by nature not self-existing. If he were, he would not need to be created. Therefore, we concluded that a created being simply cannot be God.
Because mankind is created, this means he is not self-existent which means, he necessarily derives his existence. As a result, man can never be God for God’s existence is inherently non-derivative. Thus, the moment God creates, the created being is by definition not God and neither can he ever be. In order to be God, your essential self must be underived. Thus, there can only be one God and all created beings are, in their very reality, a derived life. But if you are a derived life and not a non-derived life, then that means you derive your life from a source that provides you with that life. And if that source, which we know to be God, created you out of love (which we saw in the Trinity and Absurdity) then it logically follows that God wants you to grow, advance, and evolve.
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But how can a man grow, advance and evolve? The only way to do this is if he sets his eyes on the non-derived essence from which he derives his being and invests his eternal existence in pursuit of relationship with that essence. Because man is a derivative life form, he will naturally seek to derive meaning and transcendence from somewhere. It’s a part of our reality.
But if we turn to an animal, an experience, a chemical, another human, or an inanimate object as the god we worship we stunt our development of being. The reason is simple—we were created to advance into limitless and eternal potential because that’s what God is. We might never be God ourselves, but our developmental capacity is infinite. However, that capacity is stunted if the object of our worship is either less than us (an animal, chemical, experience, or object) or equal to us (another human being). Even spiritual beings like angels do not qualify for worship for scripture tells us that we have been crowned higher than they.
This means that if you want to advance to the fullest level of human development, it can only be done if the object of your highest admiration is God himself. With our psyche locked into his, we become more human. With our worship of anything else, we become less so. Thus, God declares he will not share his worship with another because he is a jealous God—not jealous for himself as some needy boyfriend, but jealous on our behalf like a mother who wants her daughter to reach the stars and resents anyone’s efforts to dissuade her from her noble birthright.
Summary: The Supreme Value of Man
To summarize, a more meaningful approach to human nature as it relates to secular outreach is one that embraces the tension between the very real fallenness of man while simultaneously celebrating what Ellen White referred to as the “beautiful chambers” of the human mind. We are broken and bent to evil, yes. But nevertheless, we remain “the noblest of His created works” and the objects of his supreme desire whom he looks upon with “unutterable longing.”
These truths, White viewed as foundational to what she referred to as “respect for the dignity of man as man”—a view grounded in the “precious material” that make up who we are. Best of all, White writes that in Christ we are “not degraded, but raised, ennobled, refined…” Thus, White contends that “it is not pleasing to God that [we] should demerit [ourselves]”. To the contrary, we must “cultivate self-respect.” These two perspectives—the fallenness of man and the nobility of man—must be held in tension and carefully presented when interacting with a culture that is either steeped in a cynical vision of man’s futility, or the false enthusiasm of human virtue.
As we conclude this segment on the nature of man and absurdity, my encouragement to Adventists everywhere, particularly preachers and evangelists, is to reject the classical evangelical view of human depravity. Not only is it unbiblical, it is also highly pathological and fails to interact with the secular language of being. A better approach is to celebrate the beauty of the human spirit and its moments of historical grandeur while demonstrating that we are indeed fallen and in need of redemption if we are ever to attain to our maximal potential in both individual and collective expression. And if we are to reconnect to the source of our being, eternity will afford us an unlimited progression so infinite, our imaginations can scarcely grasp its magnificence.
 The view expressed here is the Calvinist/Reformed view.
 The view expressed here is a summary of the Jesuit perspective on prevenient grace.
 The view expressed here is the Classical Arminian and Wesleyan view on prevenient grace.
 The view expressed here is commonly known as Once-Saved-Always-Saved or the doctrine of “eternal security”.
 The view expressed here is known within Adventism as Last Generation Theology.
 Jordan Sutton. “Are We Good or Evil? The Problem with Total Depravity.”
 Ellen G. White. “Testimonies, Vol. 6” p. 375.
 Ellen G. White. “Faith I Live By” p. 29.
 Ellen G. White. “The Desire of Ages” p. 517.
 Ellen G. White. “Mind, Character and Personality, Vol. 1” p. 255.
 Ellen G. White. “Selected Messages” vol. 3, p. 135.
 Ellen G. White. “Mind, Character and Personality, Vol. 1” p. 260.