By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: In conquering the land of Canaan, why were innocent children killed along with their wicked parents (Deut. 20.16,17)? In view of Ezekiel 18:20, was this fair?
Reply: In the conquest of Canaan and in the subsequent history of Israel, God did include the killing of children along with their wicked parents. The reference in Deuteronomy 20:16,17 (referred to in the question) is the instruction of Moses concerning the future conquest of Canaan. He commanded Israel: “But of the cities of these peoples, that Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth; but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as Jehovah thy God hath commanded thee.”
Calvinists think they have an explanation for God’s command to have the children killed, as well as the adults. They believe that since infants are born guilty of sin they are therefore liable to God’s wrath. But infants and unaccountable children are not guilty of sin. The Bible teaches that sin is the transgression of God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4), so infants have not violated the law; therefore, they are not sinners. Persons become sinners when they become accountable and then transgress the law. Adam and Eve became sinners when they committed sin; obviously, they were not born sinners. Furthermore, the guilt of sin is not transmitted from parents to children. Paul wrote: “Therefore, as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). It is to be noted as to what is passed unto all men. Death is passed unto all men – not sin, but death.
Death is the consequence of sin. There is a difference between consequence and guilt. Some infants die because of the consequence of sin, but that is far different from being born sinners. So, the idea that God had children put to death because they were sinners is eliminated. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son. . . ” (Ezek. 18:20). A plainer verse against inherited sin cannot be found. This verse, along with many others, teaches that each one bears his own iniquity. Guilt is not transmitted from generation to generation. The child is not condemned or punished for sin which has been committed by his parent, but this truth is contradicted by the Calvinistic doctrine of hereditary total depravity. Children were not executed because they had sinned, as we have seen.
Atheists charge God with injustice and cite such cases of God commanding that infants be slain with the adults. in the Oliphant-Smith Debate, Charles Smith (an atheist) charged the God revealed in the Bible with cruelty. He referred to the case of God commanding Saul, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Sam. 15:3). (See The Oliphant-Smith Debate, p. 120.)
We may not always understand why the innocent must sometimes suffer for the guilty. A point to consider in answer to the question asked, is that death is sometimes more merciful than life. In the case of the Canaanites, who were engaged in idolatry and immorality, it would be better for their children to perish in infancy than to grow up in an environment of vice and become vile sinners like their parents. Also, we know that bearing another’s burdens may cause the innocent to suffer. The atonement is an illustration of this principle. Jesus gave Himself that others might live. Here was the innocent Son of God who suffered for the guilty – the righteous for sinners (Rom. 5:7,8). We do not know all the answers to moral difficulties; for, we cannot always know God’s mind. If we did, we would be infinite. We only know God’s mind to the extent that He has revealed it to us. Let us be aware that God, who is the Giver of life, may take away life as He chooses. This is His prerogative. Our task is to trust Him in all things, realizing that He is omniscient and that His judgments are far beyond those of man. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:33, 34)
Guardian of Truth XXX: 17, p. 517
September 4, 1986