Original Sin 3 – The Fate of Children Who Die

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I engaged and sometimes practiced a broad spectrum of Christian and non-Christian religions and spiritualities growing up. So I was not ignorant about popular Christian teachings. But I did not really begin to seriously engage those teachings until I turned toward Christian faith when I was roughly thirty years old. By then I was a parent and had been a parent for many years, so it was perhaps natural that the first issue I had with the idea of inherited guilt revolved around its impact on children. For if we are born with the inherited guilt of our ancestor before God, then that means that every child is born already condemned.

Since I was not preconditioned to accept this idea of original sin, I made no effort to fit it into my developing Christian understanding of man and the particular sort of God we find revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, my initial reaction, once I traced its implications, was that the idea itself could not be right. I did not believe that the God whose love had drawn me toward Christian faith was the sort of judge who would condemn infants, not for anything they had done themselves, but for a legal and moral guilt they had inherited. As I often do when something does not require an immediate answer or solution, I set the matter aside for later exploration and, perhaps, illumination. But I do not recall any point at which I was willing to accept the idea that children are culpable before God simply for being human. I suppose on some level, I recognized from the start that this God I was discovering was a “good God who loves mankind.”

Of course, most of us instinctively reject the idea that children inherit guilt. We reject the image of a God who would condemn an infant simply for his birth. And we are right to do so, for such a God would be abhorrent. (Yes, I know there are some hardcore Calvinists who do actually hold that infants are born guilty and that at least some of those who die are condemned by God to an eternity of punishment in hell. But their God is already abhorrent for many reasons. That’s just one more entry in a lengthy list.)

Different traditions resolve that underlying problem in varying ways. I won’t explore them all here. But one example from my own SBC denomination is the so-called “age of accountability.” Essentially, it says that although children are born with the inherited guilt of original sin, God doesn’t hold them “accountable” for that guilt. Basically they get a free pass in God’s court. At some undetermined point in each child’s life, if they develop normally, they become able to grasp their guilt before God and at that point they become “accountable” for both their own guilt and their inherited guilt.

While the “age of accountability” idea does work around the abhorrent image of a God who condemns infants for eternity for the actions of others, it creates its own problems. Not least of those is the strange way it leads people to speak of and to children. We raise the child to love Jesus and tell them over and over again how much Jesus loves them. We teach them to pray and to sing to Jesus. And then at some point we tell them they are separated from God and they need to tell Jesus they’re sorry and that they love him and that they want him in their lives. But haven’t we raised them loving Jesus? Why is Jesus suddenly requiring them to ask for his forgiveness? How have they truly wronged him to create such a sudden separation? Yes, at some point every person will have to make their childhood faith their own if they are going to continue in that faith. I have no argument on that point. But doesn’t that only seem like an exceedingly strange way to go about it? Or is that just me?

However, I digress. We all recognize that condemning descendants for the actions of their ancestor is fundamentally unjust. That was the point of the thought experiment yesterday. The injustice of the idea is simply magnified when we consider children. And it was on this point that I first rejected the idea of inherited guilt. But it was hardly the only reason I found to reject it or the only problem I found it raised. So we’ll continue this meandering series tomorrow.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted February 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Well, I do think it goes against our reason to believe that little babies could actually be born guilty, and lost…separated from God…but that is what the Scriptures tell us.

    We were conceived in sin. We are all born rejecting God. That is our condition.

    But, God is a merciful and loving God. He promises to forgive sin and give us the Holy Spirit in our baptisms. (no age requirement there…infants are welcome to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, as well)

    ‘Original sin’ is orthodox Christian doctrine, even if we do not like the teaching.

  2. Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    First, it goes against our reason to believe that anyone is born juridically guilty of another person’s actions because it is inherently unreasonable, however you wish to justify it. Moreover, one can justify anything and any god with the right selection of sacred prooftexts, oracles, prophetic vision, sign. And over the course of human history people have so justified just about every god available.

    A god that would judge an infant guilty for the act of a distant ancestor and condemn that infant to eternal torment on the basis of that inherited guilt alone is at least as evil a god as Baal who demanded infant sacrifice. (I say “at least” because with Baal the torment was not eternal.) It makes no difference what other sort of condition or allowance has been made. If baptism, then the majority of the world’s infants had no opportunity for baptism. Almost every Christian tradition that accepts the idea of inherited guilt attempts to create an “out” for this problem because almost every human being instinctively recognizes that such an action is evil and a god who did it would be an evil god.

    However, in this instance, the idea of original sin as inherited guilt has, at best, only the most tenuous connection to Scripture. Its primary origin actually lies in Stoic philosophy, but that’s a later post in the series as is the one that specifically discusses the tiny number of Scriptures used to attempt to connect the idea to Scripture.

    In this day and age, saying that something is “orthodox Christian doctrine” is a statement that only has meaning when you qualify it within the context of a specific tradition or sect. Within the context of the Roman Catholic tradition, the idea of original sin (though it originated primarily as an idea of St. Augustine of Hippo), crystallized as dogma in the early middle ages. So if you are Roman Catholic, then I would agree that within that context the specific idea of original sin as inherited guilt is “orthodox Christian doctrine” for Roman Catholics. I can open the Catechism on my desk and find it in there. (Though in truth, it has been nuanced so often and so many ways from the middle ages on, I have to confess I’m not certain what the Roman Catholic Church teaches today in regard to infants who die unbaptized.)

    If you are speaking from within the context of most of the Protestant denominations, then within that context again your statement is true, the idea of original sin as inherited guilt is considered “orthodox Christian doctrine.” That only seems natural to me since historically Protestants formed as offshoot sects of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. They carried with them many of its teachings and ideas.

    However, those are the only Christian contexts within which the idea of original sin as inherited guilt can be considered “orthodox Christian doctrine.” The idea can hardly be found anywhere in the first millenium of the history of the Church. The “oriental” Orthodox Churches (those who for varying reasons did not affirm Chalcedon) do not teach that as doctrine. And notably, the Orthodox Church, which has the strongest purely historical claim of continuity of doctrine for the last two thousand years, does not teach human beings inherit the juridical guilt of anyone. If the Orthodox don’t teach it, it can only be considered “orthodox” in very qualified and narrow terms.

    While I will be exploring the above in more depth in later posts, the only reason I’m writing a series is because this is a matter of dispute and not of settled doctrine within Christianity. If it were merely my own opinion, I would probably still hold it. (I can be strong-willed that way. It’s one of my failings.) But I would not write publicly about it. In the grand scheme of things my personal opinion on something like this means nothing to anyone but me. I’m approaching it as a personal narrative because that’s the way that felt right for exploring this particular topic. But if this were a truly settled matter of doctrine across all Christian traditions, I would largely keep my thoughts to myself. On this issue, though, “Eastern” Christianity and “Western” Christianity hold very different perspectives and I’m pretty firmly on the “other” side from my fellow Western Christians. I did try to clearly disclose that in the opening post of the series, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone reading.

    Of course, I didn’t believe in inherited guilt long before I knew there alternative, orthodox Christian perspectives. I don’t want to leave the impression that I encountered the alternative teaching in Orthodoxy and was convinced by it. I rejected the teaching from the beginning for my own reasons apart from knowledge of any other Christian tradition. And since these first posts track my personal narrative, they are about my own personal reasons for rejecting the idea. As such, others might not find them particularly helpful. They all meant something to me. As I dove into Christianity, I addressed scripture and the history of doctrine on this point over time, so posts exploring both of those will come later in the series.

  3. Kay
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Scott,
    I’m glad you decided to take up the subject of inherited sin. Through my years attending a conservative Baptist church, I struggled with trying to reconcile this issue with the rest of my beliefs about God’s nature. Finally rejected it, but kept that under my hat. I would have been labeled a heretic and probably a “feminist heretic” to boot because of my gender. Also, at that point in my walk, I didn’t feel the strength to do that or have the theological background knowledge to back it.

  4. Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Even after fifteen years in a conservative (whatever that means) SBC church, I’m still as much outsider as insider and probably always will be. My early formation is just too different and I came to it too late. Until I read the comments on Elizabeth Esther’s very (I thought) sweet post, I never realized just how entrenched that perspective was and the ways it permeates so many different views. I don’t know how many will even read what I write and I’m sure most will just dismiss it. But I decided that I felt I had to at least write the series and put it out there. I can’t really do much else, but I can do that much.

    I’m probably too strong-willed for my own good. I have that sort of strength, but I’m not sure how helpful that really is. I don’t know that I have any real theological background knowledge. I’m sure there are many people out there with more knowledge than I have and even many people who are probably better able than me to write a series like this. But, I’m the one writing it, so we’ll muddle through as best we can.

    I hope you find something in what I write helpful. Thanks for your comment. It is always nice to know people are reading, whether they agree or disagree. I probably went way overboard in my response to Steve’s comment, but people so rarely comment here that when someone does, I feel like I’m overflowing with things to say.

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