Thursday, March 26, 2009

The fate of infants

One of the stock objections to Christianity concerns the fate of infants. I recently dealt with this objection in another connection, but now I want to address it separately.

One form of the objection attacks the OT when God commands the Israelites to execute the heathen–down to the last man, woman, and child.

Likewise, the fact that God brings about the death of infants through natural causes or natural disasters, viz. spontaneous miscarriage, tidal waves, disease, Noah’s flood, &c., is also regarded as morally objectionable.

Finally, they attack the idea that God would consign any infant or child to hell.

The underlying presumption is that infants are innocent. Hence, it would be wrong to bring about their death–directly or indirectly–much less their damnation.

How are we to address this objection?

i) One problem with this objection is that unbelievers like Peter Singer defend abortion and infanticide. Hence, on secular grounds, it’s unclear why an atheist should take such umbrage at the death of infants.

One reason is that a lot of militant atheists are apostates. Despite their repudiation of the Christian faith, they remain far more influenced by Christian ethics than they care to admit.

So there’s a moral time-lag in their objections. They’re playing catch-up with the moral implications of atheism.

ii) Another problem with this objection is that it’s incoherent. If you presume that infants or children are innocent, then infant mortality would not imply divine punishment for their sins.

To be logical, we need to split the objection into either of two corollary forms:

a) If infants are innocent, then God won’t kill or condemn any infant on account of its sin. Infants are innocent: therefore, God never kills or condemns an infant on account of its sin.

If God does kill an infant, then that is not on account of its sin. Rather, that’s for the greater good. And God will save any infant he kills (assuming their innocence).

b) Conversely, if God kills any infant as a punitive act, then infants are not innocent–in which case God does no injustice to an infant by taking its life.

iii) As you can see, the logic is reversible. You can substitute the conclusion for the premise, or vice versa.

So the objection poses a pseudoproblem. If you presume that infants are innocent, then, on that presumption, infant mortality is not a punitive sanction. Rather, it’s for their ultimate good.

Everyone dies sooner or later. The crucial question is where you end up.

iv) A more orthodox version of the argument is to say, not that infants are innocent, but that infants are justified –as the objects of God’s grace.

v) My larger point is that, in rebutting the objection of the unbeliever, a Christian doesn’t have to stake out a particular position on the fate of infants.

If, on the one hand, he takes the position that infants are innocent (or justified), then God will save any and every infant he kills. So God does them no injustice. They are the beneficiaries of his saving grace. They take a short-cut to heaven.

If, on the other hand, he takes the position that infants are guilty in Adam, then it’s wrong to claim that God is killing the innocent–in which case, infant mortality is not unjust.

Whichever position you take, God’s action is justifiable.

vi) This debate is beclouded by two other issues:

a) It’s often decked out in Dantean pictures of hell. But that’s a straw man argument.

b) It pictures an infant at the moment of death. But death is not the end of maturation.

1 comment:

  1. One minor clarification: Peter Singer has never been Christian. His family was Jewish, but secular. He has stated in interviews that he never learned Torah, etc, as a kid. However, your observation about moral time-lag may still be applicable if someone absorbs Judaeo-Christian ethics from the surrounding culture.