The Christian Moral Imperative to Not Have Children

The Christian Moral Imperative to Not Have Children February 16, 2016

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The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” (Matthew 26:24)

[Update:] A lot of what I’ve suggested here actually becomes a lot more plausible in light of some of the research on Luke 20:34-36 that I’ve been looking at (and doing). See my post here

Also, in Grypeou and Spurling’s The Book of Genesis in Late Antiquity: Encounters between Jewish and Christian Exegesis:

interpretations of the fact that Noah was 500 when he had children, as described in Gen 5:32, provide potential evidence of dialectic and direct encounter between rabbinic and Christian traditions. This is particularly highlighted in GenR 26:2; in this tradition, God enforces the sterility of Noah in light of his potentially wicked offspring, and so Noah’s choice to act righteously and abstain from procreation was removed. (193-94)

(See this section in their monograph more generally, relevant bits quoted here.)

Right off the bat, it should be noted that what I’m suggesting here—the undesirability or indeed immorality of Christian procreation—doesn’t apply to Catholic tradition, in which the production of children is an equivocal good, and openness to having children is in fact necessary for entering into a valid marriage. Obviously it doesn’t apply to other Christian traditions in which there’s an essential imperative to procreate, either. Rather, this post is only directed at those traditions and denominations in which procreation is more of an open question.¹

Also, before getting properly started, it’s interesting to note the striking absence of the idea suggested here, from both Christian history and even modern theology. It wasn’t until I was virtually finished with this post that I discovered several treatments of this issue in contemporary Christian philosophical theology², by Kenneth Himma and a respondent—though these mention no theological precedents for this argument, instead taking their starting point from the non-religious antinatalist arguments of David Benatar (as I did, too).³

To the extent that there’s any vaguely similar theological problem that’s more well-known, we might look toward a section of Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Among other things, here Copan addresses the ethical crux of the Israelite slaughter of the Canaanites, as recorded in the Biblical book of Joshua and elsewhere. This divinely ordained slaughter becomes most problematic when it’s recognized that the command here was for a total destruction that did not discriminate between women and children and, say, combatants.

Copan suggests several strategies of alleviating the apparent horribleness of this, the most relevant of these involving the moral unassailability of (Canaanite) infants and their postmortem destiny in heaven: “If any infants and children were killed, they would have entered the presence of God. Though depraved of earthly life, these young ones wouldn’t have been deprived of the greatest good—enjoying everlasting friendship with God” (189).

Later, however, Copan takes a moment to consider the potential broader ramifications of this view: “If infants are killed by God’s command, they aren’t wronged, for they will be compensated by God in the next life. So why not support infanticide? Why not kill all infants to make sure they are with God in the hereafter?” (194).⁴ In response to this, though, Copan puts forth four objections:

1. In the context of God’s ongoing special revelation to Israel, God gave an unrepeatable command for a specific purpose, which the Scriptures themselves make clear; this command is not to be universalized.
2. Since life belongs to God, any harm caused due to specific purposes in a specific context would be overshadowed by divine benefits in the afterlife.
3. While the infant would go to God’s presence, the killer has not only taken another’s life but also sinned (primarily) against God (cf. Ps. 51:4).
4. The killer is responsible for the consequences of his own actions—namely, taking innocent life. He is not responsible for granting heavenly life. The giver of heavenly benefit cannot be the human agent but only God himself (another agent).

Defense of the Canaanite genocide itself aside, many of these particular counter-arguments against the more generalized position here are indeed persuasive.

But my post, even though addressing a tangentially relevant issue, is oriented in quite the opposite direction. If Copan seeks to redress the idea of infanticide as a guarantor of heaven for the slain, I’m interested in the idea of abstention from producing children as a guarantor of avoiding Hell.⁵ Again, notwithstanding Christian traditions in which procreation itself is understood as moral imperative, this is clearly magnitudes less ethically problematic, in that it (obviously) avoids the prospect of murder.

If you’ll tolerate my belaying the main point just a little bit longer here, it might be worth taking a second to suggest where one might look in terms of denying the moral imperative for procreation.

I think there’s hardly a better place to look here than the seventh chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. Here Paul advises unmarried Corinthians that, unless they’re unable to practice self-control—that is, if they’re at risk of succumbing to premarital sex—they should remain as they are, “in view of the impending crisis.”⁶

We could hardly have a stronger statement of the virtues of celibacy and singlehood: something then easily extrapolated out to a broader and radical subordination of family life in this early Christian ethics, including procreation. Jesus’ own words in Luke 14:26 are probably the most radical and well known example of this: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (See also Matthew 19:12.)

In conjunction with the eschatological context of 1 Corinthians 7, it’s also interesting to note that familial tension is a stock motif of Jewish and Christian eschatological language of the time. The 15th and 16th chapters of the apocryphal—and apocalyptic—book 4 Ezra are closely parallel to 1 Cor 7 here; and several other texts even focus particularly on the dangers and woes of pregnancy and childbearing in the End Days. For example, in the Olivet Discourse of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus proclaims “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days” (Mark 13:17), and in Luke 23:29 “[f]or the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.'”⁷

The idea that abstaining from having children can protect them from Hell—and by “them” I obviously mean not just children, but including the adult person they’ll grow into, as well—depends on several considerations.

Most importantly, all humans are at risk of failing to attain what I’ll call “criteria for salvation.” In a Christian context, this most plainly means the acceptance of the person and accomplishments of Christ (cf. John 8:24) and repentance of sins, but also often includes things like tangible ethical behavior, etc.⁸ (Kenneth Himma speaks more generally of “Christian salvific exclusivism” here, which “holds that it is a necessary condition for being spared divine punishment that one instantiate a genuinely saving Christian faith before one’s death.”⁹)

As a corollary to this, then, the failure to attain these criteria is traditionally understood to result in damnation to Hell—which is traditionally conceived as a realm of everlasting torment.

Another important thing to note here—and I’ll discuss this further in a second—is that although there are a wide variety of views about how to attain salvation and what Hell is like, the views mentioned above are represented in the earliest strata of Christianity, including the New Testament itself. (The idea of Hell as consisting of eternal torment has had detractors throughout history, and has become particularly contentious in the past few decades; though this critique has often been based on revisionistic theological concerns, and less so on historical-critical ones—the latter of which, ideally, are best suited to ascertain the most “authentic” beliefs of the earliest Christianity; even including those of, say, the historical Jesus himself.)

Again I’ll discuss that a bit more later.

But while the chances that a child would fail to attain these criteria for salvation would (obviously) be lessened by, say, its being born in a majority Christian nation and having a Christian upbringing, we have to bear in mind that even if the potential child were born into an ideal situation in which the likelihood of this failure were small, it still remains the case—again based on the “traditional” understanding of salvation and damnation—that this is weighed against the risk of a literal eternity of suffering.

Himma notes that although David Benatar “thinks . . . that there cannot be a moral duty to have children, he thinks that having children can be morally justified if one has adequate reason to believe that the benefits to the child will outweigh the harms” (“Birth as a Grave Misfortune,” 185). Of course, notwithstanding the problem of just how delicate and problematic this belief really can be, there’s are crucial differences when it comes to the issue of Christian procreation, vis-à-vis the issue of salvation and damnation. From a non-religious viewpoint, while we might think—or at least hope—that “[t]hose cases in which the offspring turn out to regret their existence” are rare (though, as Benatar notes in his section “A World of Suffering,” this may in fact be a false hope), even these tragic cases of regretful lives are finite.

Again, however, this is not the case on the traditional view of an eternal Hell. To parents who would become aware of the moral imperative suggested here and yet refuse to follow it, then—if the child indeed failed to attain the criteria for salvation—these parents would bear some amount of direct responsibility for setting the stage for the infinite amount of suffering that their damned child would experience.

In other words, avoiding having children is in fact the single greatest thing that could be done to unfailingly prevent this afterlife suffering; and considering the magnitude of suffering that this damned individual would experience, we could in fact say that this avoidance would be a significant mitigation of the total amount of suffering present in reality itself.

To take the gamble against this, then, would be the height of recklessness; and, proportional to the infinite suffering possible here, the decision to not take measures to (unfailingly) prevent this—to avoid procreating—veers toward being unequivocally or indeed infinitely immoral.

Of course, however, here I’m making some assumptions here that have well-known objections in philosophical theology—especially in terms of my having cast Christian procreation as veering toward a type of immorality. For one, one of the most common theodicies employed when dealing with the more general problem of Hell is that, by virtue of its divine origin, Hell is in fact good (insofar as anything God does or makes is good); and thus it could be suggested that the parents wouldn’t really be responsible for “immorality” themselves if their child is ultimately damned, because in a way they’ve really only advanced God’s own purposes in this; or at least aren’t “out of line with” God’s own ultimate morality.

Yet can this really be true? (The following few paragraphs are more speculative than other things in this post; and to be perfectly honest this is also new territory for me here, so I readily acknowledge that there may be some serious mistakes.)

Insofar as in our actual world, fertility and conception appear to be governed entirely by natural forces—by virtue of the fact that, to the best of my best knowledge, we have no attested instances of biological laws of procreation being supernaturally violated; at least not outside of, say, Biblical or other literary and/or legendary claims (e.g. Genesis 20:18)—at minimum we might say that God has a preference for a hands-off approach here.

Although it’d be too strong to say that God cannot intervene here anymore, we might at least say that for the time-being—and presumably for the foreseeable future, too¹⁰—God has made it so that the issue is out of his own hands. (Perhaps to preserve human free will?)
Thus there appears to be no more ultimate causal agent in bringing forth children than humans themselves. Can we say, then, that this is in contrast to a more traditional portrait of God’s agency in procreation—a portrait that emerged when humans had little knowledge of the biological mechanisms of conception, it should be added—or even perhaps that God has relinquished his control here?
If so, then, in this analysis parents are very much the ultimate agents of their (hypothetical) condemned child’s damnation, and God at most only the proximate one; presuming, say, his agency in indeed going through with consigning people to Hell in the end.¹¹
In any case, there is, again, the idea that the more that potential parents are aware of this idea—that their agency in bringing life into the world is what could destine the child to eternal suffering—the more morally culpable they are in this. Although a condemned person’s damnation may proximately be due to their own free will sin and/or rejection of Christianity, it is the parents’ procreative decision which created the condition for this in the first place—something which, again, was eminently avoidable. Of course, in a certain way this is parallel to a broader problem of evil in general, where God’s creation of the universe is the ultimate cause of all suffering; but in other ways this is a very different issue.¹²
Perhaps even more interesting: if we consider that God might have some sort of reluctance to ultimately consign people to Hell—at least insofar as he would prefer his creations attain salvation rather than be damned¹³—is there a sense in which the mere act of parents’ procreation here is in fact the direct cause of setting God up to do something that he would rather not do (assuming that this does indeed result in a damned child sometimes)?

This may all result in the idea, then, that—if parents’ procreative decision puts God in the potential position of doing something that he doesn’t “want” to do (again cf. Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4), and consequently that this precarious decision itself (which resulted in a condemned child) should indeed be considered “bad”—God must have had a preference that the parents of the condemned child not procreate to begin with! (Insofar as refraining from procreation is the one thing someone can do in order to guarantee another person not being condemned to Hell: the one thing that, if not done—that is, if people do procreate—may “force” God’s hand in an undesirable way.)

All of this being said, absent some extraordinary event it’s unreasonable to think that arguments such as the ones I’ve presented will have any tangible effects on the views of Christians and their desire for children. Of course, if these principles were to be universally taken up, then the only ethical option for those who wanted children would be to adopt those who had already been brought into the world anyways.

But in a sense, the reason this is all worth speculating about is not direct; rather, it’s valuable—and perhaps might even ultimately have more tangible real-world ramifications—because of the broader theological implications. In the last speculative section above, consideration of these points might open up a host of logical problems about God’s interaction (or lack thereof) with the world; elsewhere, and more generally, considering the apparent injustices that would result from failing to abstain from procreation might force people to rethink some of the more traditional ideas about the mechanisms of Christian salvation and the nature of afterlife punishment.

Precisely along these lines, in his original article Himma suggests

I will go even further . . . arguing that the harm caused to every child by having been brought into existence is, assuming certain traditional doctrines of Christianity are true, sufficiently great in most, if not all, cases to entail that it is morally wrong to have children . . . in order to show that either Christian exclusivism or the traditional doctrine of hell should be abandoned or modified. . . . Again, it bears emphasizing that my point here is not that I really believe it is wrong to have children from the standpoint of Christianity; it is to use this view as a reductio against at least one of the two doctrines that helps to imply this counterintuitive result – Christian exclusivism and certain elements of the traditional doctrine of hell, namely that hell is a non-empty place of eternal torment unmatched in severity to any suffering we can experience on earth. (186, emphases mine)

Yet, noble though these efforts may be, sometimes problems (of evil, or whatever it may be) should just remain problems. To always be on the lookout for a solution to them—any solution, at any cost, as long as it indeed relieves traditional religion and understandings of God from the burden of error or immorality—strikes one as not coming from a place of intellectual honesty, but rather uncritical apologetics.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] A starting place for pinpointing these traditions could looking at Protestant views on contraception. For a specialized study, cf. Hall’s Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction.

[2] Kenneth Himma, “Birth as a Grave Misfortune: The Traditional Doctrine of Hell and Christian Salvific Exclusivism” (in Buenting, The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology, 2010); response by Shawn Bawulski, “Do Hell and Exclusivism Make Procreation Morally Impermissible?: A Reply to Kenneth Himma,” Faith and Philosophy 30 (2013); and cf. now Himma, “The Ethics of Subjecting a Child to the Risk of Eternal Torment: A Reply to Shawn Bawulski,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy.

[3] See Benatar’s monograph Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence; and in shorter format, his article “Why it is Better Never to Come into Existence.” Admittedly I haven’t been able to access Bawulski’s article yet, though Himma offers no citations of previous arguments in either of his papers, other than Benatar’s. See, however, the next footnote.

[4] I haven’t done an exhaustive search for the origin of this idea, but at the very least it can be traced back to Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian”:

The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out: by this means they secured these infants went to Heaven. No orthodox Christian can find any logical reason for condemning their action, although all nowadays do so.

Although this has been frequently quoted, I can’t find a source that attests to this practice. Perhaps of greatest interest, however, is a story recorded about the early 10th century Sunni Islamic theologian al-Ash’ari—described here by Eric Ormsby:

According to an oft-cited story, al-Ash’arī questioned his master al-Jubbā’ī as to whether God had done “the optimum” in the case of three individuals: a believer, an unbeliever, and a child, all of whom died and were, respectively, rewarded, punished, and “neither rewarded nor punished.” What, asked al-Ash’arī, if the child who had died should say, “O Lord, if only you had let me live, it would have been better (aṣlaḥ), for then I would have entered paradise?” God, replied al-Jubbā’ī, would say to the child, “I knew that if you had lived, you would have become a sinner and then entered hell.” But then, countered al-Ash’arī, the unbeliever in hell would exclaim, “O Lord! Why did you not kill me as a child, too, so that I would not sin and then enter hell?” At this, according to the accounts, al-Jubbā’ī was left speechless. (Theodicy in Islamic Thought: The Dispute Over Al-Ghazali’s Best of All Possible Worlds, 23)

(Surely we might also find similar ideas in Buddhist tradition.)

But this might also be similar to a problem of proselytizing in view of the idea of invincible ignorance. In modern times this has been most frequently illustrated by an episode from Annie Dillard’s 1974 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Here she recounts “I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?”

Of course, however, there are a multitude of reasons why this is a drastically oversimplified “problem.”

[5] I use the term “Hell” solely because of its familiarity, over and against terms like “Gehenna,” etc.

[6] 1 Corinthians 7:8, 26. See Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7. The “impending crisis” here is virtually universally understood to be the eschatological judgment. (See more here and here.)

[7] See also 2 Baruch 10:

10.13 And you, bridegrooms, do not enter, and do not let the brides adorn themselves with garlands. And you, women, do not pray to bear children. 10.14 For the barren will rejoice above all, and those who have no sons will be glad, and those who have sons will mourn. 10.15 For why should they give birth in pain, only to bury in grief? 10.16 Or why should men have sons again? Or why should the seed of their kind be named again, where this mother is desolate and her sons are taken into captivity? (Translation by Gurtner)

Kulik, in his commentary on 3 Baruch, notes also 1 Enoch 99:5 and that “[m]ass massacre of children forms part of the eschatological scenario of the Apocalypse of Daniel (1:10; 2:1)” (384).

[8] I hardly think the idea of infant baptism as a guarantor of salvation is even worth considering here.

[9] “The Ethics of Subjecting a Child to the Risk of Eternal Torment.”

[10] One might think here of Jewish and Christian traditions of eschatological fertility. In the Talmud (b. Shabbat 30b), Rabbi Gamaliel suggests “[in the eschatological age a] woman is destined to give birth every day: ‘The woman conceives and bears simultaneously.'”

[11] Expanding on this, is there also a sense in which, while it would be “okay” for God to send people to Hell, the ultimate causation of the parents here would not be okay by virtue of the fact that—in tandem with God’s apparent absence from the childbearing process—it’s not okay for humans to do something to send people to Hell; or, less strangely put, to do something that they know could very well cause indescribable suffering?

[12] I wonder if we could convey one difference here along these lines: although God is (presumably) certain that what he is doing is good, even the most devout of Christians don’t enjoy nearly the same level of certainty when it comes to things divine. For all they know, the Christian God could be entirely real but malevolent; think of the Gnostic Demiurge, who had in fact tricked humans into believing that he was the one true God, when he really wasn’t. Thus, for those who become aware of the arguments I’ve presented here, these people (unlike a truly omnibenevolent God)—if they also continue to believe in a Hell, and to consider procreation as a desirable thing—have less recourse to the idea that Hell is ultimately a good (=divinely sanctioned/sustained) place, and thus can never enjoy the certainty that they’re not recklessly endangering their potential future child to malevolent forces.

Of course, mitigating this is the hope and/or expectation that their child will indeed be saved. Still, though, the effect is that even if God may have unassailable reasons for doing something that will ultimately produce suffering into the world, here it looks more and more like humans do not have genuine warrant for this—not of a kind to really justify the risk or relieve one of the potential (and again virtually infinite) immoral burden.

[13] Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4

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