After each new man-made atrocity—terrorist attacks, shootings, wars—people wonder at man’s inhumanity to man. How can we be so cruel and heartless to fellow human beings?
The idiom man’s inhumanity to man refers to human cruelty, barbarity, or lack of pity and compassion toward other humans—essentially, mankind’s ability to see and treat other people as less than human. The phrase is believed to have been coined in Robert Burns’ 1784 poem “Man Was Made to Mourn: A Dirge.” The end of one of the stanzas laments, “Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!” It is also possible that Burns used an earlier source, paraphrasing a quote from 1673 by Samuel von Pufendorf, who wrote, “More inhumanity has been done by man himself than any other of nature’s causes.”
Generally, man’s inhumanity to man is used as an expression of regret when some great tragedy occurs. The 20th century, with two world wars, the Holocaust, the rise of numerous oppressive governments, and several more wars, was a showcase of man’s inhumanity to man. Mankind inflicted immense, almost unfathomable, suffering on itself with each of those events. In modern contexts, the phrase seems to be applied to any type of perceived injustice.
The Bible accounts for man’s inhumanity to man. In fact, Paul indicates it should even be expected: “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:12–18). Every single person is impacted by sin. We may not each commit large-scale atrocities, but everyone sins against God and against other people. Man’s inhumanity to man is within us all.
However, the Bible also offers a solution to man’s inhumanity to man. Jesus died on the cross to pay for the sins of the world, and “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God forgives our sin in Christ and makes us new creations in Him. We can then see others with the love and compassion of God, leading to charity and gospel outreach, with the goal of helping more people cast off the influence of sin through Jesus.
Suffering continues in the world because the world remains fallen. Sin still runs rampant, bringing man’s inhumanity to man with it. Paul also wrote of this in Romans, saying, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3–4). God uses everything—even the awful consequences of man’s inhumanity to man—for His purposes, and it all works together for good in the end (Romans 8:28). That is why believers can have hope in the face of tragedies.