Born guilty?

Are all human beings really born guilty? Lots of people think so. Theologians, scholars, and preachers have been writing and speaking on this topic for over a thousand years.

There are some serious consequences of this doctrine, and I wonder if they have really been thought through. Perhaps the idea has been around so long that it has become another one of doctrines that we just assume is true, then look around for proof.

Sinful from youth?

Let’s start with Jonathan Edwards. Way back in 1758, he wrote this:

“The word translated youth, signifies the whole of the former part of the age of man, which commences from the beginning of life. The word in its derivation, has reference to the birth or beginning of existence . . . so that the word here translated youth, comprehends not only what we in English most commonly call the time of youth, but also childhood and infancy.”

Edwards wrote those words in a commentary on Genesis 8.21, which says, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth”. We can see that he has taken great pains to argue the point that the word youth means from birth, and that this passage therefore supports the doctrine of original sin, specifically that all persons are sinners from birth and are therefore guilty before God.

To defend the doctrine that mankind is born sinful, Edwards also cited these passages:

Ps 51.5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Ps 58.3: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.”

But is the consistent message of the scriptures that man is sinful from youth? Here are some other passages which speak of man’s state from youth, using the same Hebrew word we find in Gen 8.21:

Job 31:18: For from my youth the fatherless grew up with me as with a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow.

Psalm 71:5-6: For you, O Lord, are my hope,
my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.

Psalm 71:17: O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.

Again, these passages all use the same word for “youth” which we find in Gen 8.21, but tell quite a different story. Job declares that he has been a servant to widows and orphans from his youth. And note especially Ps 71.6, where the psalmist says he was trusting in God even before he was born. But that isn’t the only passage which uses this kind of language:

Psalm 22:9–10: Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

Again, the psalmist is declaring his unswerving devotion to God as being from birth. Are these the words of someone who is evil from youth, someone who was born a sinner and therefore incapable of loving or serving God?

What’s going on?

What do we do with the verses Edwards cited? What do we do with the competing ones listed above? Do we count each side and the greatest number wins? Do we try to discount one set and elevate the other?

I contend instead that none of these passages on either side can and should be used to defend either guilt or innocence at birth. They are poetic descriptions of man’s state. Phrases like “from my youth” and “from the womb” are idioms meant to convey the duration of one’s life, much as we in English would say, “as long as I can remember”. They are not intended to carry the theological or philosophical freight of describing human ontology at birth.

Consider: did the psalmist really trust God as a fetus (and have God serve as midwife), as in Ps 71.6? Can the wicked actually speak as infants, according to Ps 58.3, and speak lies at that? Did Job really guide widows as a newborn, as he says in Job 31.18? These lines are poetic speech; they use imagery, including metaphor and hyperbole, to make a point about the nature of mankind, God, and the world.

What is the point?

And what is the point? Surely not guilt: the word never appears in any of the texts. Instead, these passages teach us that all persons sin, and from an early age, but that God is able to call us to him, also from an early age.

I hope it is clear that I do not believe that the authors of these passages are innocent before God. Of course they have committed sins and will be either condemned by God or forgiven by him. What I am saying is that passages like these should not be used to affirm or deny the notion of inherited guilt.

Shedding innocent blood

There are a number of OT passages which refer to the shedding of innocent blood. For example, Jeremiah 19:4–6:

Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents,and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind— therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.

Who are the “innocent” in this passage? The term appears to refer to the children who were sacrificed to Baal by their parents. Some writers use this passage to claim that children are, in fact, innocent. Even some defenders of inherited guilt will lean on this passage to say that God calls these children innocent and therefore they will be in heaven. (These are the same people who say that all human beings are created guilty and deserving of God’s wrath, an inconsistency which I cannot grasp.)

But is the text really saying that these children are blameless before God? I think not. The Old Testament, and Jeremiah specifically, has a number of references to the shedding of innocent blood, and we cannot make a claim in all these cases that the ones being murdered are blameless before God; the OT authors are simply stating that the victims did not deserve that particular fate meted out to them. For example, Jeremiah 22:17 says: “But you [the king of Judah] have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.” Jeremiah is not making a point about the sinlessness of the victims, but the sinfulness of the king.

The same interpretation applies to the scene in chapter 19. God, through Jeremiah, is not making a claim as to the sinlessness of the children; instead, he is accusing the parents and the society of wrongdoing. Using these passages to claim that children are innocent before God and therefore in Heaven is poor exegesis.

How God judges

The question still remains: if human beings are not born guilty, how do we become guilty? The Bible is consistent and (dare I say) clear: it is via our own choices. Consider the extended argument in Ezekiel chapter 18. God is responding to two complaints which the house of Israel is making while in exile in Babylon:

  1. We have been sent into exile because of the sins of our parents.
  2. It’s not fair.

The first complaint is seen in Ezekiel 18:1–4:

The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.”

God speaks to Ezekiel and tells him, “the soul who sins shall die”. The rest of the chapter lays out several scenarios and God’s judgment in each case.

Verses 5-9 describe a man who is righteous, and God’s judgment is that he shall live.

Verses 10-13 describe this man’s son, who is unrighteous. He will die.

Verses 14-17 describe the second man’s son, who is righteous like his grandfather. He will live.

Verse 18 repeats the fate of the son from vv10-13; he will die.

Verses 19-20 reveal God’s justice:

Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Verse 20 repeats the standard from verse 4: “the soul who sins shall die.” God then summarizes the scenarios he laid out above, declaring that the children shall not suffer [die] because of the sins of the parents. He is going to great lengths to communicate this message, describing multiple scenarios to hammer his point home. God is defending the “just-ness” of his justice.

Defenders of inherited guilt often claim that Ezekiel 18 is not teaching us how God judges, but is instead a plea to repent. God does make this plea beginning in verse 21, and notice just what God is begging his people to repent of — their own sins. He has already made it clear that they will not be held responsible for the sins of their parents, nor will they live because their parents are righteous. No, it is their own sins which are the object of their repentance. He reiterates the point yet again:

Ezekiel 18:30: Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God.

The repetition of God’s method of judging is in explicit response to the second statement the exiles are making: “It’s not fair.” God disputes that response and claims that it would actually be unfair to judge children by the sins of their parents!

Claiming that Ezekiel 18 is all about repentance ignores the argument in the first 30 verses, and focuses only on the God’s plea in verses 30-32. It also ignores the two claims made by the house of Israel, the very claims God disputes in his argument.

Let me make the point clearly: Ezekiel 18 says it would be unfair of God to judge persons by the sinful or righteous state of their parents. No, God judges each person by his or her own choices, yet in his mercy he will forgive any one who repents.

Wrapping up

Taking Bible verses which claim that because human beings are sinful from youth that we must have been born guilty is bound to fail, as these verses are countered by numerous passages making just the opposite claim. On the converse, passages which appeal to the innocence of victims as some sort of defense of the victims’ eternal state fail as well, because those passages are not proposing anyone’s blamelessness before God, but are instead making a statement about the evilness of the perpetrators.

What we do know is this: God is just, consistent, and fair. He judges human beings based on their actions alone, and will accept the repentance of any person, regardless of that person’s heritage.

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