If I understand "Total Depravity" from Calvinism -- apart from God's grace, there is nothing good within us -- we are miserable, evil creatures.

In light of this, I have some questions about the rich man in Luke 16:

Luke 16:27-28 (NIV)
27  “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28  for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

  1. Why does he wish well for his family (rather than an attitude of: I don't care about anyone, if they go to hell, they go to hell)?

  2. Why does he wish well for heaven (the heaven rejoices whenever a sinner repents])?

  3. Why does he still have what appears to be compassion despite having not been elected?

  • 2
    "Total Depravity" (the T of TULIP) means that depravity has reached the totality of our being - not that we are as depraved as we could be.
    – warren
    Aug 10, 2012 at 15:29

2 Answers 2


I think you've got a misunderstanding of the concept of "Total Depravity" and of the definition of the word "good" from a Christian perspective.

Total Depravity does not mean that we are totally evil. It doesn't mean that we have no good within us whatsoever. Everybody on earth has some good in them, so it would be utter foolishness to interpret the doctrine in such a way.

On the other hand, "good" in our understanding is a relative term. We can do good things, we can think good thoughts. Someone who is generally caring, loving, and giving is considered a good person. But such a person is not perfect. Everyone has a flaw.

In the context of Christianity and salvation, "good" is a black and white issue. "Good" would mean 100% in line with God's thinking - in thought and in action. In other words, it would be completely without sin. Even one sin in our life disqualifies us from the level of "goodness" needed to earn our way into heaven.

For whoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10)

Which brings us back to total depravity.

It doesn't mean "devoid of any good thing". It means "Separated from God, and completely unable to do anything, whatsoever, that could do anything to assist in our own salvation."

In non-technical, layman's terms, it means that salvation is completely, 100% the work of God, with no action, not even one of surrender on the part of the believer. Totally depraved simply means completely separated from God, with no power whatsoever to do anything in the least to be saved.

This is contrasted with the belief of partial depravity, which goes hand-in-hand with resistible grace espoused in Arminian theology, which says we do have the power to do one thing - accept the free gift of salvation offered to us. In Arminianism, we believe there is an act of accepting the gift on the part of the believer. The believer has the power to choose. Grace is resistible.

In Calvinism, that power doesn't exist, or is an illusion because even if the believer thinks he is choosing to put his faith in Christ, the fact is that God predestined that believer to do so. The believer has no choice. Grace is irresistible, because God has ordained that person to believe.

Either way, however, both "Total depravity" and "Partial depravity" see no issue with the Rich man's ability to do good things. Again, everyone is capable of doing "good" just not the type of "good" that leads to salvation.

  • In many respects this answer is useful, but its explanations of total depravity and the "illusion" of choice do not reflect typical Reformed theology. Feb 28, 2017 at 20:12

I have actually asked myself this question before. I have two answers.

One, we can't assume everything in a  parable is to be taken literally. In this case the concern he has is not real but is there to fill in the picture of the parable's main point.

The second, which I prefer as seeming more natural, is this.  Total depravity does not mean men are without affection that seem good and are a reflection of true virtue (but not the reality).  For example a parents strong love for their children can exist in the most evil of hearts. However, these natural affections actually have no moral value in them in that they are selfish based and more like an emotional appetite, like craving food.

True virtue and love comes from faith in Christ and flows from faith in his love for us. True virtue does not arise from our natural affection without such faith.  In this sense maybe it is possible that people in hell are further tormented by having other loved ones there and worrying for them in their anguish.

Regarding this kind of natural affection these words of Jesus seem to assume:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (NIV Matthew 7:11)

In either case, I do not think we need to infer anything against total depravity from the parable and speculating to far along the details of a parable (something I may have just done)  is not the parable's intention. Actually I am still divided over which answer is better.

  • I like the second answer more. The exchange depends on the rich man's desire to warn (for whatever reason) his family. If that part was figurative, I'm not sure how to interpret the parable.
    – user1694
    Aug 10, 2012 at 6:51

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