By Spencer D Gear
It is not uncommon to get this kind of interaction in person or on a Christian forum on the Internet:
Question is simple and I will use the Amalekite infants as an example [1 Sam 15:1-35 ESV]. Did they truely (sic) deserve to die considering they were only guilty by association? Granted some of the Amalekites deserved to die, but it seems rather cruel to kill off even the infants who were not responsible for anything. With that in mind, if infants are born with a sinful nature like all humans are, do they deserve to be thrown into hell like the rest of us according to the bible?
The bible is not consistent. Ezekiel 18 indicates we are not responsible for our father’s sin or anyone’s sin but our own. No. Infants are not born guilty of anything and no body is thown (sic) into a place of torture by a loving God. The wages or consequences of sin is death–not life everlasting being tortured.
This is nothing more than your opinion. The Bible is very consistent, but our interpretations represent our major problems and your statement here is representative.
Yours is a rather short-sighted view.
Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch address this matter in Hard Sayings of the Bible (1996. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, pp. 177-179). I highly recommend this source as one of the finest in dealing with tough verses in Scripture. They address this issue when responding to,
Deuteronomy 24:16: Should Children Be Punished for Their Parents’ Sins?
The principle governing Israelite courts was that human governments must not impute to children or grandchildren the guilt that their fathers or forebears accumulated. In Scripture each person stands before God as accountable for his or her own sin.
While this principle is acknowledged in Deuteronomy 24:16, there seem to be cases where it was not put in practice. For example, the child born to David and Bathsheba died because of their sin (2 Sam 12:14-18). And Saul’s seven grandchildren were put to death because of Saul’s sin (2 Sam 21:5-9). How are we to reconcile these contradictory sets of facts?
Some will also bring up the fact that the sins of the fathers have an ill effect on the children to the third and fourth generations (Ex 20:5; Deut 5:9). Surely this is a direct contradiction of the principle in Deuteronomy 24:16.
But Deuteronomy 24:16 is dealing with normal criminal law. It explicitly forbids blaming the children for the sin and guilt earned by the parent. If the son deserves the death penalty, the father must not be put to death in his place, or vice versa. This point is repeated in a number of texts, such as 2 Kings 14:6, 2 Chronicles 25:4, Jeremiah 31:30 and Ezekiel 18:20.
The legal principle of dealing with each individual according to individual guilt is one side of the equation. The other side is that God has reserved for himself the right to render all final decisions. Not all situations can, or are, resolved in human courts. Some must await the verdict that God will give.
There is a third element that must be accounted for as well. This notion is difficult for Westerners to appreciate, since we place such a high premium on the individual. But Scripture warns us that there is such a thing as corporate responsibility. None of us functions in complete isolation from the society and neighborhood to which we are attached. Lines of affinity reach beyond our home and church groups to whole communities and eventually to our nation and the world in which we live.
There are three factors involved in communal responsibility in the Old Testament. First is unity. Often the whole group is treated as a single unit. In 1 Samuel 5:10-11, for example, the ark of God came to Ekron of the Philistines. Because the bubonic plague had broken out in the previous Philistine cities where the ark had been taken, the Ekronites cried out, “They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.” The whole group sensed that they would share in the guilt of what their leaders had done in capturing the ark of God.
Second, sometimes a single figure represents the whole group. Rather than someone who embodies the psychology of the group, this is a case of one, such as the suffering Servant of the Lord, standing in for many others.
The third factor is oscillation from the individual to the group, and vice versa. The classic example appears in Joshua 7:11, where the Lord affirms, “Israel has sinned,” even though Achan confesses, “I have sinned” (Josh 7:20).
Each situation must be evaluated to see whether it is a principle of a human court that is involved, a divine prerogative of final judgment or a case of corporate solidarity. We in the West still understand that one traitor can imperil a whole army, but we do not always understand how individual actions carry over into the divine arena or have widespread implications. Scripture works with all three simultaneously.
In the case of David and Bathsheba, it is clear that the loss of the baby was linked to the fact that David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife, though Uriah remained determined to serve David faithfully in battle. This did not involve a human court but was a matter of divine prerogative.
The story about Saul’s seven grandchildren takes us into the area of national guilt. Saul violated a treaty made with the Gibeonites in the name of the Lord (Josh 9:3-15). The whole nation was bound by this treaty made in Joshua’s day. Thus when Saul, as head of the nation, committed this atrocity against the Gibeonites, it was an act against God and an act that involved the whole nation. A divinely initiated famine devastated the land until the demands of justice were met. When David inquired into the reason for the famine, God answered, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death” (2 Sam 21:1).
Saul and his sons had already fallen in the battle at Mount Gilboa, but his household shared in the stigma. Only God knew why the seven grandchildren shared in the guilt; it is not spelled out in the text. Apparently they had had some degree of complicity in the matter. Because only God knew, it was up to God, not a human court, to settle such cases.
As for the commandment that has the sins of the fathers visiting the children to the third and fourth generations, we can only observe that the text clearly teaches that this happens when the children repeat the motivating cause of their parents’ sin—that is, they too hate God. But when the children love God, the effect is lovingkindness for thousands of generations!
Both individual responsibility and group or communal responsibility are taught in Scripture. We must carefully define and distinguish these types of responsibility. But in no case should the principle of courts be to blame children for the wrongful deeds of their forebears. And if God demanded that principle as a basis for fairness in human governments, should we think he would do any less in the running of his own government?
No one will ever be denied eternal life because of what his or her forebears did or did not do. Each will live eternally or suffer everlasting judgment for his or her own actions (Ezek 18). Our standard of what constitutes fairness and justice, after all, is rooted in the character of God himself.
The graciousness of God and his swift move to forgive and to forget every sin that we call upon him to cleanse is seen in Exodus 34:6?7. The theme of these verses is essentially repeated in Numbers 14:18, 2 Chronicles 30:9, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 111:4, 116:5, 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2 and Nahum 1:3.
But God’s grace is balanced by the last part of Exodus 34:7, which warns that “[God] does not leave the guilty unpunished.” The reverse side of the same coin that declares God’s mercy and his love speaks of his justice and righteousness. For the wicked persons who by their actions tend to second their father’s previous motions by continuing to sin boldly against God as their fathers did, with no repentance, this text again warns that the chastisement of God will be felt down to the “third and fourth generation.” However, note carefully that the full formula includes the important qualifier “of those who hate me.” But wherever there is love, the effect is extended to thousands of generations!
In this connection, it is important to note that 2 Samuel 12:14 likewise declares about David’s sin with Bathsheba, “But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.” While it true that David was thoroughly forgiven of his sin of adultery and complicity in murder (see Psalms 32 and 51), there were consequences to his sin that could not be halted, for they followed as inexorably as day follows night. To put it in another way, just because God knows that a mugger will accept him as Savior a number of years after a mugging, God does not, thereby, turn the molecular structure of the bat used in the mugging, and which is now descending on the head of an innocent victim, into limp spaghetti; it leaves permanent damage on the skull of its poor unsuspecting target. The case of David and Bathsheba is similar: the consequences of sin are as real as the creation of a new life that comes out of a sexual affair. This in turn gave occasion for the enemies of God to vaunt themselves and demonstrate even further contempt for God, his people, and their alleged different style of life. It was for this reason that God brought immediate judgment on David: “the son born to [him would] die.”
 Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘Do infants deserve hell since they are born in a sinful nature?’ Ultima4257 #1, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7689287/ (accessed 22 September 2012).
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.