Are Children Evil?

It occurred to me while reading back over yesterday’s post that my former self would have responded much differently to that set of Puritan descriptions for how we should raise our children. As you might recall, Tamar Moag described the Puritans’ use of language as a clue to why they felt corporal punishment was necessary:

the recurrent use of words such as ‘stubborn’ and ‘rebellious’ to describe children’s nature, and words such as ‘conquer’, ‘subdue’, ‘obedience’, and ‘repress’ to describe the parental role. A 1732 letter by Susanna Wesley to her son John offers an instance of this type of writing: ‘When a child is corrected it must be conquered, and this will be no hard matter to do’.

Why do those words strike me so differently today than they would have 10-15 years ago? Some of it is having children. I really enjoy my kids. They’re not perfect, by any means, and, yes, they can certainly be stubborn and rebellious – our older daughter just went to time out as I’m typing this – but I don’t think they need to be conquered, subdued or repressed.

Words like that strike me as a natural outgrowth of original sin theology. If we are born with a “sin nature” genetically inherited from Adam and Eve, then that kind of phrasing is understandable. We have to admit it’s technically accurate, even if uncomfortable to see expressed.

But I think we need a new theology because that one doesn’t make sense. The text of Genesis 1-3 doesn’t support it.

The traditional view is that God created a perfect world, called it “good,” and then Adam and Eve messed it up; by disobeying, they introduced evil and death into the world. We’ve discussed before that the existence of a tree of life in a world with no death is oxymoronic, and that Adam and Eve don’t seem fazed by the concept of death when it’s discussed by God and the serpent.

But if God created the world without sin or evil, what’s the serpent doing there? If the serpent is Satan, then he’s the one introducing sin and evil into the world, isn’t he? If he’s just a serpent – which is what the text literally says; if we’re willing to use metaphor to argue for the serpent being Satan, why not use metaphor for the whole story? – then God created the world with animals who not only can talk but have the capacity to deceive, which is characteristic of evil, not good.

Of course, all of that is problematic only if we’re taking the story as literal, historical, objective truth, but it’s not intended to be any of those things. But if the historical, factual basis behind the doctrine of original sin is gone, how do we account for suffering and evil? So we get back to the theodicy problem – God created the world “good,” but he didn’t make it perfect. Why not? Well, that’s a totally separate post. Let’s just assume the factuality of the statement for now.

What that means for us is that when Paul talks about creation groaning for release in Romans 8, that includes us. Like everything else on this planet, we eagerly await the time when God comes to make things right. Until then, we are prisoners in our bodies of death (Romans 7). The many verses cited to argue for the existence of a sin nature become statements of fact not theological premises.

That vocabulary change is important – for our view of God and our view of our children. It means less that Jesus died to save us from God and more that he died to set us free from sin and death. We move away from penal substitutionary atonement and toward Christus Victor (I recommend Richard Beck’s discussion of what exactly that is). 

And our children stop being inherently evil and stubborn and start being trapped and enslaved. They stop being objects of wrath and become people to be pitied. They stop needing repression and conquering; they start needing guidance and love.

And that should make a big difference in how we raise them.

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