What About the Suffering of Children?
The atheist thinker Bertrand Russell argued that no one could sit at the bedside of a dying child and maintain a belief in God. While the death of any child is heart-wrenching, it’s important to understand how God reacts to such a tragedy.
Some theologians believe that when a child dies, he or she is immediately ushered into God’s presence to experience his love and care. In God’s sight children who die before reaching an “age of responsibility” are not yet culpable for wrong actions and therefore are judged morally innocent. “If a child dies before he or she is capable of making genuine moral decisions,” suggests theologian Millard Erickson, “there is only innocence.” Erickson’s conclusion finds support from Robert Lightner, who argues that Jesus does not seem to regard children as fundamentally sinful, at least in their willful rejection of God, and points to them as an example of the simple trust and utter dependence necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3; 19:14).
John MacArthur, after citing notable theologians such as B. B. Warfield and C. H. Spurgeon, writes, “Little children are called innocent in Scripture for precisely this reason: They have no willful rebellion against God. They have no deeds of disbelief.” MacArthur acknowledges that while all children are born with a sinful nature, “they have never had willful opportunity to exercise that nature with full understanding or deliberate rebellion.”
A perspective we find particularly compelling is Millard Erickson’s argument gleaned from Romans 5. Erickson points to the parallelism in Romans 5, where Adam’s sin and Christ’s righteousness are applied to us. Adam’s sin leads to death, while Christ’s righteousness leads to eternal life (Rom 5:18). What does this parallel show us? “If, as we might be inclined to think, the condemnation and guilt of Adam are imputed to us without there being on our part any sort of conscious choice of his act, the same would necessarily be true of the imputation of Christ’s redeeming work.” In other words, if we say that Adam’s sin is immediately applied to us at birth, then we must say the same about Christ’s righteousness. However, we know that isn’t the case. Paul states that the righteousness of Christ is applied to an individual only after he or she makes a conscious decision to receive the “abundant provision of grace” and the “gift of righteousness” God offers through Christ (Rom 5:17). Erickson argues that, similar to Christ’s righteousness, Adam’s sin is applied only after a “conscious and voluntary decision on our part.”
What would this decision look like in the life of a child? Adam’s sin is not applied to a child the first time he or she sins. Rather, it is applied when a child realizes he or she has a bent toward sinning. “We become responsible and guilty when we accept or approve of our corrupt nature. There is a time in the life of each one of us when we become aware of our own tendency toward sin.”
— J. P. Moreland, from The God Conversation, p. 36