Children and Morality, Part Two: Examining The Scriptures


In my last post, I talked about recent psychology studies which reveal that babies have an inborn sense of morality.

I want to ask the question: Do these science experiments – and the conclusions drawn from them — contradict Scripture?

I don’t think so.

What does the Bible say about children and morality?

Let’s start with the text most often quoted in favor of the notion that children are born evil:

Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

For starters, I will say that I don’t think it’s a good idea to base an entire theology of human nature on one line of Hebraic poetry. It is God-breathed, yes; but it is still poetry – a genre that doesn’t generally lend itself to doctrine.

So we have to keep context and genre in mind when we read passages like this. According to the The IVP Bible Background Commentary, this is penitential poetry we’re looking at. It was standard for a penitent, in this genre of poetry, to highlight the contrast between divine perfection and inherent human weakness. Rather than seeing this as an expression of the doctrine of “original sin,” then, it seems more appropriate to view this as part of the general confession of the penitent. “I’m sinful, through and through, and I need your perfection,” he’s saying. This is a common feature of this type of prayer.

Not much else is said in the Bible about the moral state of babies and children, that I’m aware of. (There’s a reason the salvation of children has been a hotly debated topic throughout Christian history. The Bible just doesn’t say much on the topic.)

It does have a lot to say about our wickedness in general, as an entire species; but I find little indication that children are any more prone to evil than adults, and therefore in need of being formed into good people by their parents.

Jesus has a few interesting things to say about children, however.

In Matthew 18:3, he says: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I don’t think this is the time or place for me to delve too deeply into this passage – plenty has been written, by folks much more knowledgeable than me, in attempt to understand just how we are to become like children — but one thing is clear: children possess some special quality that we adults would do well to emulate.

Another time, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me but the one who sent me”(Mark 9:37).

So again, Jesus makes a connection between children and the Kingdom: to offer hospitality to a child is tantamount to offering hospitality to the King. We need to treat children with the utmost respect. They are unspeakably precious to him. The way you treat a child is the way you treat God.

* * *

children huggingSo what does all this mean?

Doesn’t the Bible tell us that we’re all sinful? Aren’t our hearts “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”? Doesn’t that start at birth?

How do I reconcile these scientific findings with what Scripture says?

Here’s my interpretation.

As the documentary demonstrated, we all have inborn, God-given impulses toward good. This makes sense, since Scripture tells us we are made in His image.

When I see that first experiment I described in my last post – where babies preferred the “good guy” over the “mean guy” – I see this:

We desire to align ourselves with Good right from birth. It’s in our very nature.

We instinctively long to team up with Good, to be one with Good.

That doesn’t mean we always carry it out, though. Quite the contrary, actually. Because of sin, we lack courage, wisdom, and a whole host of other virtues to carry out the good we desire. Those virtues need to be cultivated under the influence of the Holy Spirit. We must open ourselves to Jesus’ saving power to overcome the evil within us.

Babies – just like adults – have good inside of them, tainted by sin. I believe they want to do good, but don’t always do it. (Hmm. . . where have we heard this before?)

We are born neither devils nor angels, but morally ambiguous creatures, capable of both good and evil.

I really like the way Joyce Ann Mercer thinks through the issue in Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood(a book that I’ve talked about before). She explores the cultural ambivalence towards children in the West, and in the Western Church especially: depending on our particular camp, we tend to characterize children either as purely innocent or inherently evil – either angels or devils.  (The former mistake is common amongst theology scholars, especially feminists; the second, among evangelical conservatives.)

On the one hand, she writes of how it is important to acknowledge that each child’s life happens within a larger preexisting context of human history – one that includes guilt and sin.

“By virtue of participating in the larger whole of humanity, the individual born also participates in that guilt,” she explains (p. 151). Children participate in sin as a human condition and therefore share responsibility for sin in the world.

However, each child is also encompassed by the love of God, who desires to save all of humankind through grace.

Indeed, God seems to have a special place in his heart for the smallest, weakest, and poorest among us. And who is smaller, weaker, and poorer than an infant? Children occupy a special place in the Kingdom.

Moreover, just because children participate in humanity’s sin, that doesn’t mean they’re fundamentally sinful.

I think it’s dangerous to err in either direction — assuming children are either purely innocent or inherently evil.

In my evangelical context, I tend to see an overemphasis on children’s evil impulses.  We overlook children’s natural desires for good. We are too quick to assume that unpleasant behavour is the consequence of their rebellious nature, in need of correction, and fail to look for other (less indicting) root causes (i.e. maybe we’re being unfair or unreasonable; maybe they’re trying to be good but lack the tools; etc).

We would do well to keep our eyes open to the goodness already alive in children at birth.

In conclusion, I feel that it’s our job, then, as parents and caretakers, to both nurture the good in our children and to help them understand and fight against the evil. We must do this while remaining constantly aware of our own propensity toward selfishness and other evils. Sometimes, perhaps the conflict we’re having with our children has its roots in our own sin rather than theirs.

Meanwhile, just as we have much to teach children, we have much to learn from them: Jesus tells us to become like children.

We’re all teaching each other. Parents have more wisdom than children in some respects because of their experience; but in other areas, may have less, for the same reason. We’ve seen too much. We’ve forgotten some of the simple Truths that only children know.

As we teach children, may we also learn from them.

Photo courtesy of Linh Ngan.
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  1. I’m going to need to chew on this a bit and come back, but for now I’ll say this is a very illuminating post, especially the last paragraph. I have a friend who recently lost twin babies right after birth and I was doing some reading on her behalf regarding the doctrine of babies going to heaven if they die. Interesting to see Evangelicals try to back-peddle, in a sense, on this issue. Like you said on the one hand, we tend to emphasize the sinfulness of babies from birth (if not even before birth), yet when we or someone we know loses a baby to miscarriage/stillbirth/infant death, we want to claim truths that kind of clash with that worldview. (And I know you already know this Kathleen, but to anyone else who might see this comment: I’ve had a miscarriage myself and I firmly believe that baby is in heaven. I don’t mean to be insensitive to others who have lost babies, by any means; if you have, I’m so, so sorry; may God bring you comfort like only He can.) Hmm. Anyways I think you’re right on here. Thanks!

  2. I absolutely love that you picked up on the teachings of “being like little children” – it makes a lot of sense. If children are inherently full of sin (instead of full of the potential to sin, which I think is key) than why would God want us to be like them?

    I, too, think we have much to learn from our children while they are such – which is why it always surprises me when people fight so hard against the change that children bring to their lives. They are fighting against an amazing opportunity to grow.
    Molly recently posted..Glimpses of our SeasonMy Profile

  3. “For the wages of sin is death” – Romans 6:23
    Babies die, unborn babies die. I believe that Psalm 51:5 is true, not mere hyperbole.

    Babies showed a preference for the “nice” otter, but how do we know this preference isn’t selfish? I’d much rather be around a nice person, but that doesn’t make me nice myself.

    Adam and Eve ate from the tree of KNOWLEDGE of good and evil. The Hebrew word used here is the same one used when it talks about a man going in and “knowing” his wife. It is an intimate knowledge. All people born since have this intimate knowledge of both good and evil.

    However, while I believe that all people, beginning at conception, are sinful ( in rebellion against God) and in need of salvation – I do not believe that means we are to be heavy handed with our children and punishing for every perceived mistake or sin. God is long-suffering, gracious, and forgiving with us. How much more so should we be with our children since we ourselves we not perfect? Hmm, this makes me think of the parable Jesus told of the unforgiving servant…

    As to Jesus’ command to be like little children, I don’t think He is saying they are not sinful. Rather I believe He is referring to their readiness to listen and trust. Children, while sinful, have not yet built up the years of barriers or stuffed their ears to keep from hearing the Gospel.

    To the commenter who spoke about miscarriage, my denomination teaches that even an unborn child can have faith since it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift that He works through the hearing of God’s Word (Romans 10:17). An unborn child, no matter how young, who has been in the presence of God’s spoken Word, can receive saving faith.

    Anyhow, despite my disagreement with you, Kathleen, on the basic nature of children and human kind, I do agree with your paragraph beginning “In conclusion.”

    I hope my ramblings are coherent…
    Michele recently posted..Motherhood Reality – Life In GeneralMy Profile

  4. I love this post (or set of posts). You explain things so clearly. I think that the relationship of children, especially babies, and God is commonly misunderstood or misinterpreted. I like how you come at the issue from multiple angles as well as showing why it matters and how these truths can be applied. In fact, your post was so beautifully done, it inspired me to write a similar one on my blog. Do you mind if I put a link to your post in it?
    Sandy recently posted..Who Are We? Part 1 – Little Children Are Alive In ChristMy Profile

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