What is human nature? At first, this question would seem to be rather simple, in that it refers to the nature that human beings possess. But like most questions, the answer to this question is more complicated, not least when we realize that in certain circles human nature has a meaning not far from the Calvinist conception of total depravity, itself something that is not always easy to understand and possessing several ambivalent meanings as well. When we deal with a subject like human nature, it is easy to jump to questions about how it can be overcome. But before we can discuss what can be done with human nature, we need to discuss what human nature is. And one of the things about human nature that is complex is that we can mean several different things by it. Let us look at human nature in at least two dimensions, as there are at least four different senses by which we can refer to human nature.
First, we can mean by human nature those aspects of existence that form part of being a human being. For example, we can reflect on what qualities and facets are involved in the life of people. This would include basic human drives for food, water, shelter, as well as emotional longings for love and intimacy and concerns for honor and respect. They would include some poignant aspects of human existence like our longing for eternity when we are mortal beings with short lives. This aspect of human nature, in its morally neutral and abstract and ideal sense, is not particularly difficult to understand. It may not get to many of the fundamental problems of being a human, but even at this initial level, we have enough to recognize that human existence is full of tensions between our desires to maximize ourselves and our own enjoyment and possessions and achievements while simultaneously building connections with family members, loved ones, and communities based on blood or faith.
An obvious expansion of this particular question as to what human nature is is the question of what makes human nature distinct from other natures. What makes human beings different from other orders of being. For example, the mortality of human beings and the possibility of being adopted into God’s family differentiate human nature from angelic nature, even though angels are not mortal and therefore to do not suffer physical decay and death in the same way that human beings do. On the other hand, human beings have a spiritual and mental life that far exceeds that of other creatures, even though human beings share basic drives with animals as a whole and a certain degree of emotional lives with mammals, who share our limbic system as part of the brain. In this particular level of discussions, we are still seeking to categorize human existence by its relationship with other categories of existence.
Yet these aspects of human existence are not generally what we mean by human nature. Most of the times one hears human nature spoken of in a pejorative sense. And this makes sense when we look at human nature as it exists for fallen mankind. When we reflect on dysfunctional and fallen and corrupt human nature, we can think of genetic predispositions to various addictions, family and cultural and societal sins that influence us so negatively. In addition to that that there the question of the vulnerabilities that human beings possess as a result of the way that our basic drives and longings have been twisted and perverted through thousand years of sin and rebellion against God and God’s ways, rebellion that clearly exists in the present day. In looking at this aspect of human nature it is easy to ponder what influence on human nature is due to the demonic realm or corrupt human institutions like schools or gangs. Obviously, by the time we get to this aspect of human nature it is clear that we are not looking at an ideal or abstract human nature but rather human nature as it exists for us and as it is impacted by the evils of our world. At the same time, this aspect of human nature is not always viewed negatively, as those who view reality and actuality as being justification for the way things ought to be can point to this part of human nature as being legitimate because something cannot be wrong for such people who conflate the real and the ideal if it comes naturally, whatever it may happen to be.
And there is a further way in which we can look at human nature, and that is the gap that exists between human nature as it was created and our own natural, unrestrained behavior here and now. Obviously, this definition of human nature would be identical with the conception of total depravity that refers to the corruption and decline that has taken place in all aspects of humanity as a result of the influence of pervasive and long-term sin within human beings and human experience. Here we are dealing with human nature from a strictly negative experience, and it is this aspect of human nature, as the distance between the way things are and they way that they could be and should be, that is usually meant by the term when it is used by people who have negative views of humanity as it now exists.
Each of these different aspects of human nature or meanings of human nature offers worthwhile questions to examine. When we look at human nature in its abstract and ideal sense, we are left with the sorts of dilemmas and problems of human existence that exist even in the best possible world where mortal human beings exist. Regardless of how good our society and culture are, no matter how morally upright we are and no matter how well-adjusted we may be, we still face certain problems and difficulties as a result of being human, namely how we are to fulfill our longings and drives in a way that brings happiness to ourselves and does not imperil our union with other people. Likewise, when we reflect upon how human beings are a different order of creation than others, we can better understand what it is that makes a human being a human and not something else. Still more distinctly, understanding humanity as it is and not as it could or should be gives us an understandings of what human beings have to wrestle with and what we are vulnerable to and struggle against. This is important to know as well. Finally, when we reflect upon human nature as the gulf that exists between what was created good originally and what humanity is after so many generations of sin and rebellion, we are left with a picture of the restoration that must take place for humanity to achieve its God-given purposes, and the sort of repair that we long for God to create in us. Whatever we mean by human nature in a particular situation or occasion, it is worthwhile for us to be clear about what we are talking about, since ample occasion for confusion exists when the term is used without qualification or specification.