Why Do “Good” People Do “Bad” Things?
Some years ago a prominent Jewish scholar wrote a book titled, When Bad Things Happen To Good People. Though the book was not totally void of merit, it was flawed seriously in that the author suggested that whereas God might wish the situation were otherwise, he is powerless to remedy the problem of evil. The writer’s solution was a classic example of the old saying, “the cure is worse than the ailment.”
There is a question that is equally gripping. “Why do good people do bad things?” Of course all of us sin, and we daily need the grace of God (1 John 2:1). Occasionally, though, we are stunned, sometimes traumatized, when people we have known for many years, and for whom we have entertained the highest regard, do outrageous things that seem so terribly out of character for them. What has happened? We thumb through the pages of our minds trying to make sense of seemingly senseless deeds. Is there any answer? Let us briefly, and with reverence, explore this issue.
In the first place we must concede initially that only God knows the inner recesses of a person’s mind. “Jehovah sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but Jehovah looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7; cf. Luke 16:15).
Experts may study a person’s past, pursue physiological and psychological tests, and engage in prolonged interviews with the “evil” person himself, and yet the causes of what appear to be random acts of wickedness may never be known completely. Paul contended that no person can really “know the things” of another (1 Corinthians 2:11), and sometimes it is the case that not even the “bad” person knows why he did what he did — though perhaps that “non-explanation” is more frequently than not a rationalization for not wanting to reveal the actual problem.
In this article, we would like to suggest some possible explanations for why “good” people do “bad” things.
At the very start of this discussion we must concede that it is possible for a “good” person to slip into a state of irrationality (i.e., become incapable of reasoning, hence, be mentally irresponsible), and thus do things he would never do under normal circumstances. The causes triggering such aberrant behavior may be varied, and in some cases entirely unknown. If one has become irrational, therefore, and is not morally culpable, while the act itself technically is “bad,” it is not so for the perpetrator, for he does not comprehend the nature of his act.
A very fine Christian man, an industrial painter by trade, committed suicide in a most horrible fashion. When many of his acquaintances heard the tragic news, they were dumbfounded. How could a gentle, caring person possibly do such a thing? An autopsy revealed that over many years noxious chemicals within the paint were absorbed, which seriously damaged his brain. His faculties for making spiritual decisions had been nullified.
I knew a deeply spiritual man who was as close to the Lord as anyone within my acquaintance. As he grew older he became consumed with cancer, his brain being seriously damaged. He gradually turned into a stranger, using the vilest profanity, and occasionally making lewd suggestions to ladies in his presence. The body was that of a good man; the words were from his pre-Christian past — still in the brain’s storage, but not issuing from his godly soul!
Varying circumstances may alter a person’s clarity of mind; they could be genetic, environmental, disease, etc., and consequently illness could lie behind his/her inexplicable conduct. These would be deeds for which one is not accountable. Unfortunately, this rationale is probably used to justify the person in more cases than is warranted. But God knows the truth and will do right by all (Genesis 18:25).
The Facade of Goodness
Some “good” people, who do bad things, actually are not good people at all. They have feigned goodness out of various motives, but inwardly they have been corrupt for a long time. Though Judas Iscariot obviously had some good traits initially (otherwise he would not have been chosen as an apostle — see Acts 1:17), there were hints of his spiritual depravity before his actual betrayal of the Lord (cf. John 12:4-6).
Dennis Rader became known as the BTK serial murderer (BTK was a self-adopted code title for “bind, torture, and kill”). For some 30 years Rader appeared to be a model citizen. He was a Cub Scout leader, was active in his church, and had the respect of his associates. All the while he was periodically committing the most atrocious brutalities in the annals of American criminality. His arrest February 26, 2005 left numerous friends and associates in a state of absolute shock. He was a “good” man who wasn’t!
It is not unusual for some prominent religious leader to be exposed as a deviant. Those of his religious fellowship are terribly traumatized by his exposure, only to learn that his perversion spanned several decades. The term “hypocrite” seems almost too tame for such creatures.
Here is an important point. A good person can never go through the motions of evil, for such would be evil itself, and therefore contrary to the principles of truth he holds dear. But a wicked person can mask himself in the disguise of goodness with little, if any, pangs of conscience. One more deception is scarcely a bother.
The Power of Choice
Some good people do bad things simply because they can! One of the marvelous gifts of God is the power of choice. It is one of those aspects that is a part of the blessing of being created “in the image” of God (Genesis 1:26-27). However, the Lord, as a Being who is without limitation in all his attributes, which includes being infinitely good (Psalm 33:5; Romans 2:4), never chooses the option of evil, nor does he ever even wish to (James 1:13). As created beings though, we are finite; hence, we make choices between good and evil; and all too frequently, to our own hurt, we make stupid and wicked choices.
With sufficient motivation, an evil person can choose to change his life and seek God’s pardon (Acts 2:38; 22:16). Clyde Thompson was known as “the meanest man in Texas.” A multiple murderer (two of these committed when he was only 17), he was the terror of the Texas prison system. He killed two prisoners while on death row. But a kindly guard gave him a Bible, and through reading and ingesting the Holy Scriptures, his life was radically changed. Eventually he was paroled, and he became one of the most vigorous prison-evangelists of the century, leading many souls to Christ (see: Don Umphrey, The Meanest Man In Texas, Dallas: Quarry Press, 2004).
On the other hand, for reasons perhaps known only by oneself and God, a good person can choose to turn from goodness and do evil — recklessly, with unrestrained abandon (Ezekiel 18:24).
“But why?” we ask. Why did Peter, a very good man, deny he knew Jesus? Was it overconfidence? Fear? Both? We may speculate, but the simple fact is — he did it, and it was wrong.
A variety of possibilities might be suggested as to why people do things that are perceived to be abnormal for them. A long-held, subdued grudge, under certain circumstances, may flare into a roaring flame. A spouse, perhaps neglected or abused, might reach a level of frustration, rebel, and commit an immoral or criminal act. An aging husband or wife, in a period of depression, might have a “fling” in an attempt to recapture a missing dimension in his/her life. Sometimes people are desperate, and no other person knows it but them; desperation can trigger rash and ungodly acts.
The truth is, we may never discover why certain good people do bad things. One thing we do know is this. Our ability to “choose” is a gift that may be employed righteously, or devilishly; we must constantly cultivate a passionate desire to make wise choices to the glory of God.
Saul, the first king of Israel, started his reign admirably. Blessed by God, he valiantly defeated some of the pagan enemies that troubled the nation of Israel (1 Samuel 11). But the ruler had some significant weaknesses. In his arrogance, he set aside divine instruction and determined he would exercise his own judgment (cf. 1 Samuel 13:8ff; 15:1ff). When the courageous young David began to attract considerable attention after his defeat of Goliath, a spirit of jealousy (perhaps lying dormant already) seized the king and led him down a path of spiritual abandon (cf. 1 Samuel 16:14). He hardly was recognizable as the former “Saul.”
Every person has weaknesses; the one who says he does not has perhaps revealed his greatest weakness of all. Even the indomitable Paul struggled to bring certain fleshly temptations into subjection (1 Corinthians 9:26-27; cf. Romans 7:14ff). If this amazing apostle labored under tremendous internal pressures (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7ff), should we be surprised at our own inclinations?
It sometimes is the case that a person will struggle with a personal weakness for years — holding his own, yet yielding on occasion. He makes progress, however, and does well over all. Then, for some reason that may not be apparent to others, he/she totally surrenders to those unspeakable acts that baffle family and friends. These people “break” spiritually, forfeiting all implements of moral/religious defense (Ephesians 6:10ff). Are rational people accountable for these acts of rebellion? They are indeed and they will appear before the Lord in judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10). The lesson we should learn is this: our personal weaknesses must be identified and assaulted — through study, prayer, and association with godly people who can provide us with moral support, even if they are unaware of the specific nature of our needs.
Some people are more fragile than others. A tragedy in their lives, for example, virtually dissembles them. A lady recently lost a wonderful Christian friend to cancer. With tears streaming down her face, she told me: “I just don’t know how I can believe in God any longer.” Did she expect her friend to live forever? Doesn’t death come to all? We must be stronger than to go to pieces when disaster strikes. One thing is certain: heartaches won’t cease just because one turns “bad.”
The Eroding Conscience
The human conscience is an inward faculty, unique to those made in God’s image. It either accuses or excuses a person’s thoughts, words, and actions (Romans 2:15). The conscience does not determine what is right or wrong (Proverbs 14:12; Acts 23:1); rather it merely judges one, based upon the standard of conduct the person has adopted. It is clear, therefore, that the conscience must be educated by divine revelation (the Scriptures), and constantly cultivated to remain sensitive to truth (Ephesians 4:19; 1 Timothy 4:2; Hebrews 5:14).
The Bible speaks frequently about the “hardening of the heart.” The conscience is such a sensitive instrument that it becomes wrong to violate it even in matters of expediency (Romans 14:23). There are some people who let their consciences gradually erode; eventually they slip over the edge and do terrible things, of which others never dreamed them capable.
Richard Kuklinski was a “hit man” for the mafia. This professional murderer was known as “the iceman” because he sometimes froze corpses to disguise the time of death. Ironically, he also was emotionally frigid as well, having killed approximately 125 victims before he was arrested in 1986. In a television documentary, Kuklinski attributed much of his apathy towards violence to his father, a mean-spirited, brute who beat his son regularly — apparently for no reason at all. Growing up as the victim of abuse, young Richard eventually pursued the path of viciousness himself, killing his first victim at age 18. To look into his eyes (via several television documentaries) was to peer through clouded windows into a vacuum where there appeared to be no remnant of conscience. He claimed to have no remorse over the slaughter of his victims. How very important it is to: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
When Paul penned First Corinthians to a church in a very corrupt city, he cautioned: “Evil companionships corrupt good morals” (15:33). Actually this is a quotation from Menander, a Greek playwright, who, in that context, spoke of the danger of consorting with prostitutes. Another proverbial expression says, “lie down with dogs; get up with fleas.” This is not in the Bible, but it surely makes a point.
In his parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus told of a foolish youth who took his inheritance, gathered his possessions, and “took his journey into a far country. There, he wasted his substance with riotous living” (Luke 15:13). It does not take much imagination to picture the many newfound companions who flocked to the lad, wresting him from his spiritual roots, and joyfully helping him waste his inheritance.
There are numerous warnings in Holy Scripture of the danger of close association with the ungodly. “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6, 9ff; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Peter 2:2, 18-20). Some folks, basically good people, have been caught up in relationships with ungodly companions who have led them — like lambs to the slaughter — away from the source of their spiritual strength.
In an intimate environment of wickedness it becomes infinitely easier to do unbelievably terrible things. I know of a young man who right now is on death row in a major prison facility. A murder was committed one night; though he denies any personal involvement, he admits he was “with them,” and now he awaits an uncertain fate.
I have known of Christian parents who were stunned to learn abruptly of their children’s wicked lifestyles, themselves seemingly oblivious to the fact that for years they, with considerable pride, had thrust their youths into a corrupt environment — under the guise of wanting them to cultivate “social” skills.
A Destroyed Foundation
The composer of Psalm 11 once asked: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (v. 3). There is a principle here that warrants investigation. A structure is no stronger than the foundation upon which it rests (cf. Matthew 7:21-27). People who have but a veneer for a spiritual base are very vulnerable to temptation and apostasy.
Good conduct ultimately is tied to God. The atheistic philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, was quite correct when he wrote, “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist.” While there are many skeptics who are moral, relatively speaking, they are so because they have “bootlegged” their ethics from elsewhere, and not because such is intrinsic to their blighted system. The best people are those who nourish their souls constantly with the strength that is resident in the Bible. “Your word have I laid up in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). When the Son of God was severely tempted after the forty-day ordeal in the wilderness, his source of power was “it is written” (Matthew 4:4-10).
It is a grim and tragic reality that many people who are “good” people basically, do not keep their souls strong, hence eventually they drift into a state of weakness (Hebrews 2:1). One can profit from reflecting upon Paul’s discussion of those who are “strong,” versus those who are “weak,” in Romans, chapters 14 and 15. The difference between the two classes is divine knowledge, assimilated and applied.
It is an indisputable fact that the pages of church history are littered with cases involving “good” people who lacked or neglected the discipline of study and perseverance, and so permitted the assaults of unbelief to chip away at their moral sensitivity. Progressively they became weaker. Finally, with nothing to fall back on, they give in to pride, anger, frustration, immorality, and/or even criminal conduct. Once the “foundation” has rotted, the person becomes easy prey for Heaven’s archenemy.
The “Security” Illusion
It is most likely that there are some “good people” who labor under the illusion that just because they have lived faithfully for many years, a breech of faith, even a dramatic one, will not jeopardize their salvation. Apparently they entertain the notion that their longevity in Christ grants immunity from the consequences of evil deeds. Some doubtless have absorbed that noxious dogma of Calvinism — that the child of God can never be lost. No matter what he does, his heavenly destiny is secure, they allege. However, a prophet of God declared:
But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of his righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered: in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die (Ezekiel 18:24).
These are sobering words indeed. The fate of the rebel is too transparent to misunderstand.
The benefits of this study may be twofold. First, it can serve as a preventive for those of us who want to enter heaven more than anything else, and we are concerned about how to maintain our spiritual integrity; how to avoid some of the pitfalls that lie in that perilous route.
Second, a consideration of these truths may assist us in understanding, and coping with, the defection of loved ones and friends who have so disappointed and discouraged us.
Life is filled with struggle and heartache. But giving in never accomplishes anything. It only complicates.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.