Infant Salvation, Prolegomena: Original Sin
A few weeks ago, I was about to post the refurbished first installment in this series on the question, “Do Babies Go To Heaven?” It was in the queue, spell- and grammar- checked (thank you, Great-Gran and Grandmother for an intense upbringing in proper English), and all I had to do was click Publish. But right at that very moment, it hit me that I was missing something integral to our understanding of the question. I had left out the part that explains why there is even a problem in the first place: we have to deal with the concept of original sin.
Let me put up a definition here for my less verbose readers: prolegomena is a Greek word that means something like “prologue” or “introduction.” It is used in many theological books to describe what we would call the “Preface.” And indeed, the doctrine of original sin must preface any discussion about the supposed salvation of infants. Indeed, it colors the entire discussion, whether one knows it or not. But now, we can enter into this discussion much better informed and knowledgeable. So, let us begin.
What Is Original Sin? Before we can understand what original sin is, we must first grasp what it is not. Original sin is not the very first sin committed by humans. Many people think original sin means the moment when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is not true. It may be the first sin, but it is not what is meant by original sin. Original sin, instead, refers to the results of the first sin. Every single human since Adam and Eve was a sinner from their conception.
Many find this idea hard to grasp and even harder to accept. Scripture is very clear on the matter. Psalm 51:5 states, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (ESV). The NIV makes it more clear: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” The New Testament doesn’t get any better. Ephesians 2:3, speaking to Christians, says that “we [that is, Christians] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” To be something by nature means that “something” is foundational to who you are. In other words, you cannot be who you are unless this “something” is a part of you. So we are by nature sinners, under condemnation and damned to hell (the “wrath” referred to in the Ephesians verse above), from the moment our parents conceived us.
How Did Original Sin Become Our Nature? Something happened to Adam as a result of eating the forbidden fruit. Something changed in him that affected his entire being — spiritual, psychological, and physical. Those changes were passed on to us. The most noticeable and accepted changes are physical deterioration and death, and the deterioration and death of our psyche (our minds and emotions). But many of us find it difficult to accept that something we are not immediately responsible for (the spiritual death Adam’s sin created) is passed on to us.
Romans chapter 5 is the clearest explanation of how sin became our natural state. There seems to be a logical progression here: sin enters the world, causing death. Adam passes that death on through his children all the way up to us. But Paul does not stop there. In verse 12, Paul says that Adam’s sin is also passed to us. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned….” (emphasis mine) Even though you and I had never sinned — indeed we did not even exist so that we could sin — when Adam sinned, every single one of us sinned right along with him. There are two ways to look at this incredible fact of Scripture.
First, we can think of it in terms of biology. Let’s take deafness as an example. Some people are deaf because it is genetically inherited. Somewhere in that deaf person’s past, an ancestor had his or her genes altered by something that made him or her susceptible to becoming deaf and put all of his or her offspring at risk of becoming deaf themselves. From that person onward, every one of his or her children has a biological tendency towards becoming deaf. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for the children of Deaf people, that genetic trait does not always manifest itself. I’ve heard it said that deafness skips a generation! But even if a child is born hearing, it carries the gene, and passes on the tendency to its children. Sin is similar because the tendency is passed on, but it is also different. Sin never skips a generation, sin always shows up in the children of sinners! In that respect, when God sees a sinner, he also sees the children of that sinner as sinners themselves, because they carry that tendency with them even before they are born. Every potential child of a sinner, even before it is ever conceived, is tainted by sin and as such cannot be united with God.
The Bible speaks to this concept as “being in the loins of” Adam. How? By way of Hebrews 7:9-10, where the writer explains that Levi, even though he was not yet born, paid tithes to the priest Melchizedek through Abraham. Remember that Levi would not even be conceived until after Abraham died. This concept also leads us to a second way to understand original sin.
Second, we can look at it in a legal sort of way. Another way to understand the concept of being “in the loins of Adam” is to say that Adam was our legal representative. What he did would affect everyone he represented, for all time. Romans 5 also clearly expresses this legal concept, and much more forcefully than my biological argument above. Verses 18 and 19 clearly state that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” and “by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” Remember that the entire chapter is referring to Adam and Christ. The trespass and disobedience referred to throughout the chapter refers to Adam. The sin of Adam was clearly transferred to the rest of humanity. Again, when God sees a sinner, he also sees the children of that sinner as sinners themselves, but in this instance it is because of the status conferred on them by their father and representative, Adam. And because of that status, just as in the biological argument, the children of Adam all the way up to us today cannot be united with God because of their legal status as sinners.
Is that still a problem for you? Remember, God is holy. As such, God cannot abide sin. He cannot be around it. He cannot have it. It must be cast out from his presence and destroyed utterly. And as such, sinners must be utterly destroyed for all eternity in hell. Sinners are damned.
If ever we faced a double whammy, it is this: we are sinners by both natural descent and legal representation. And we can’t claim inadequate representation, nor can we claim that we were not there to make the choice to sin. God made Adam perfect and there was no one else to take up that responsibility. Therefore Adam not only damns us by proxy (that is, as our agent or substitute), but also damns us by nature (passing on the sinful nature and all its consequences through biological reproduction). It cannot be made any clearer that children are not only born sinners, but they are also sinners at conception. Scripture is airtight.
So now we arrive at the problem we face in this question: babies are conceived and born damned to hell for all eternity. Is there any hope for these children? Can they be saved? It is to this question we will finally turn in the next post. Join us later this week for this continuing series!
Resources for further study:
Systematic Theology, by Wayne Grudem, p. 492-501
Christian Theology, 2nd ed. by Millard Erickson, p. 648-656
Created in God’s Image by Anthony Hoekema, p. 140-167
Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle by Henri Blocher
[Note: If you get these books and your page numbers for Grudem and Hoekema don’t match up, I’m using the 2000 printing of Grudem (which contains revisions from the original work printed in the ’90s) and the 1994 paperback edition of Hoekema. Grudem has a new edition out and Hoekema has a new printing, so I don’t know where the page numbers fall on this. Suffice it to say that they fall in Grudem’s chapter on Sin and Hoekema’s chapter on The Spread of Sin.]