Total Depravity: Why Darth Vader is the (Almost) Perfect Illustration

I believe in total depravity. Sometimes in the last few years it has been hard to believe in it, for two major reasons. The first reason is theological. How can I affirm that fallen man is made in the image of God, that he still somehow reflects God, if he is totally depraved? The second reason is experiential. It may be easy to affirm that someone like Adolph Hitler is totally depraved, but what about people we encounter everyday? Would I go to a doctor whom I believed to be totally depraved? (One of my professors in college used that exact argument against the whole idea). And what about myself? I know I’ve messed up, but am I really sinful to that degree? I have recently come to satisfactory answers to both objections.

Theologically, total depravity does not refer to the obliteration of the image of God, but rather the perversion of it. I think Darth Vader offers a fine example here. Vader (as Anakin Skywalker) was trained in the ways of the Force by Obi-Wan Kenobi. He became superbly skilled in this arena. Then he turned to the dark side. What happened then? Did he suddenly lose his skill and ability? No. He did worse: he turned it against everything Obi-Wan Kenobi trained him for. Vader did not lose the ability to use the Force; instead, he dedicated all of his powers to a purpose against which he had been trained from the beginning. His fall was so great because it represented the complete reversal of potential from one direction to another. He used things that were good in themselves in the service of evil. And because they were so good to begin with, they were that much more potent as instruments of evil.

That is how I understand total depravity. We are such wonderful creatures of God, the only ones made in his image, with gifts of dominion, ethical and spiritual capacity, reason, complex emotion, creativity, imagination, relationality, etc. The Fall did not obliterate these things (all of which, I believe, are aspects of the image of God but not the totality of it). The Fall merely turned these things from the service of God to the service of other gods: whether that be the gods of self, creation, the devil, etc. Like Darth Vader, we are still capable of great things. When Obi-Wan Kenobi faught the recently fallen Vader (Episode III), he did not fight an opponent who was of inferior skills. Kenobi did not say, “Since you turned to the dark side your skills are completely gone.” Kenobi could still admire Vader’s skill, ability, and technique while disapproving of the end to which Vader had directed these things. And it is the end or purpose that corrupts the acts themselves. Total depravity is like this. God does not disapprove of good things that humans do when they are considered simply. But in relation to their ends (service of a false god), they are depraved and sinful. Even the doctor who successfully treats a patient, if he does so in such a way that is not to the glory of God, does so sinfully. This is what it means to be depraved. Whatever does not come from faith is sin (Rom 14:23). Whatever is not performed to the glory of God is done in service to an idol. The only way one can do things to the glory of God is if one has fundamentally oriented oneself to God through embracing the gospel.

Oh, by the way, I say Darth Vader is almost the perfect illustration because, as it turns out in Episode VI, his son Luke turns him back to the good side by stirring up the good that remained in him. In Christian terms, this is Semi-Pelagianism. Scripture does not picture conversion that way at all. God does not stir up the good that remains in us (there is none). He, by the Spirit, brings us to life from the dead (Eph 2:1-10). He gives us the new birth (John 3:3-8), a completely new start, not the renewal of an old one.

What about the experiential objection? How can I affirm total depravity if I don’t feel like I’m totally depraved? The way I answer that is to say that if, indeed, I am totally depraved, then I could never expect to know that by experience. If total depravity is true, then sin has corrupted everything about us, including conscience and reason. We could no more understand total depravity from experience than a fish could understand water from experience. That’s just the reality we live in; we know nothing else. We cannot trust our faulty interpretation of experience. We must trust what God says about us. God says that the mind of the flesh (i.e., fallen nature) is incapable of pleasing God (Rom 8:7-8). He says we are corrupt from head to toe, one and all, that no one seeks God (see the litany of quotations in Rom 3:9-18). Every thought and intention of our hearts is only evil continually (Gen 6:5; 8:21).

Mark Seifrid contributed a few chapters to the second volume of a work entitled Justification and Variegated Nomism. The title of one of the chapters was very creative: “Unrighteous by Faith.” Normally we think of being righteous by faith through God’s justifying declaration. But we must also realize that a proper understanding of sin also comes from faith. Totally depraved people do not come to the correct conclusions about their sin by reasoning through their experiences. They must hear and believe what God says about them, and in that sense recognize their unrighteousness as an act of faith. In my own experience, I have found this confirmed as God has continually exposed sinful layers of my heart (in the light of Scripture) that I did not know were there before. The more I know God, the more I realize how sinful I really am.

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