None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.

Romans 3:10-12

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

Romans 1:17

There’s a particular religious strain, one I most often see in the Reformed camp but not only there, that takes general Scriptural descriptions, maximizes their meaning, and applies them without balance in the strictest possible way. The first verse cited above, for example, is often used (with others, like Isaiah “all our righteous acts are as filthy rags”) to build a case for an extreme form of total depravity. But it’s clear just reading the rest of Romans that not all men are evil all the time and that men can really be righteous. It’s clear in Isaiah that truly righteous acts are not really filthy rags. From the perspective that we cannot earn our Salvation – that is, we cannot actually do enough good to merit eternal life – the point is well taken. This is often stretched far beyond the point we all agree about.

Certain religious convictions flow from taking hyperbole with an extreme literalism. Things like:

  1. There really is no difference between forms of evil
  2. There really is no difference between a good person and a bad person; there are no good people
  3. No one actually ever does anything good
  4. We never really improve in character
  5. Even if we can improve in character, it can’t happen without a miraculous event
  6. Everyone who isn’t in Christ is spiritually dead, which means they literally can’t respond to God.

To someone who isn’t a Christian, these statements appear bizarre. Bizarre not just because they seem so extreme, but because they seem contradicted by normal experience. For example:

  1. Stealing a pack of gum is obviously not the same thing as murdering a toddler.
  2. We know people who aren’t Christians but exhibit many things we might call fruit of the spirit if a Christian did them (patience, gentleness, kindness, self-control).
  3. We see selfless acts by all kinds of people.
  4. We’ve clearly matured beyond our childhood character. We wouldn’t survive otherwise.
  5. Speaking of survival, this has happened for even the large percentage of the world that doesn’t know Christ. We also know people who aren’t Christians but were able to stop doing things we know are evil.
  6. Even in Scripture, we see people respond to God who we have no indication actually worshipped Him; we also know people who are searching for God and find Christ and they clearly aren’t really dead.

We are sometimes tempted to speak in these spiritualized, hyperbolic ways but it doesn’t line up with what we see. Sure, there’s lots of evil in the world. Even good things can be done with evil motives. But the extreme literalist leaves no room for any alternative. There’s no good deed done by anyone, not really.

This hyperbolic reading obviously confuses our salvation with our sanctification (the former is all Christ, the latter is work done in us by things we do in the power of the spirit). But it also confuses our general state (sinners in need of God’s grace) as though it were a perfect description of every moment of our all of our lives. We are sinners in need of God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean we only sin and do so continuously. Consider this from Genesis 6:

“The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”

This is exactly the sort of picture the hyperbolic literalist paints of everyone. And yet, this is presented in Genesis as something unique. This isn’t a description of the world we know, bad as it is. It’s a world so evil God needed to destroy it. A world so evil God singularly called it out in Scripture as deserving of such an end.

The danger in all of this is that, by inaccurately understanding what Scripture teaches, we might encounter counterexamples in the world that we either piously dismiss or we begin to doubt our interpretation and overreact, denying literal readings about everything. Unfortunately, there are entirely doctrinal systems built on taking hyperbolic statements, stripped of context, to their utter extreme.