The Evangelical Concept of Salvation Should Say No to Punishing Children

Hi Joel,

A never-before-told story:

When I was a child, my family welcomed into our home all kinds of people, for short and long periods of time. Modeling radical hospitality is one of the most important gifts my parents gave me.

At one point, some siblings lived with us. (Many sets of siblings lived with us, so I’m not revealing much here, and, anyway, anyone who knows them knows their story.) Their parents were in federal prison (and still are) for crimes that included bank robbery and multiple murders.

The crime was horrendous. Whatever drove them to do it cannot be an excuse for doing it. They were a danger to others, including their children, whom they had neglected, abused, and endangered.

Other people in our community knew the story of these children. They had lived in the community before, and their parents’ crimes were national news.

No one was unkind to us about having them in our home. It is possible, of course (likely, probably) that people were unkind to these children because of their parents’ crimes, but there was no organized effort to drive them out of the community.


To say that America is “imperfect” kind of suggests that we were close. An “imperfect” apple might have a blemish on it, but it wouldn’t be rotten. America is more rotten than imperfect, especially these days.

But there is a germ of an idea, one that was radical (though not unknown): that “all men are created equal.” We know that the founders did, in fact, mean only men (not women) and didn’t really mean “all.” It’s kind of a Limited Atonement Declaration of Independence: it applies to those to whom it applies.

But the seed was there, and the story of America has generally been, with some major periods of reversal, the expansion of that equality.

Key to this founding ideal is that our bloodlines don’t matter. As Alice Dreger shares in her TED Talk “Is Anatomy Destiny?” the founders rejected the “anatomical concept”


and replaced it with another one that was radical and beautiful and held us for 200 years…. our Founding Fathers were rejecting was a concept of monarchy, and the monarchy was basically based on a very simplistic concept of anatomy. The monarchs of the old world didn’t have a concept of DNA, but they did have a concept of birthright. They had a concept of blue blood. They had the idea that the people who would be in political power should be in political power because of the blood being passed down from grandfather to father to son and so forth. The Founding Fathers rejected that idea, and they replaced it with a new anatomical concept, and that concept was “all men are created equal.” They leveled that playing field and decided the anatomy that mattered was the commonality of anatomy, not the difference in anatomy, and that was a really radical thing to do.


(Of course, Dreger means equality for some. For others–for MOST others for MOST of our history–our black and brown and female bodies were EXACTLY the thing that determined our worth.)


Of the many Bible verses that terrified me as a child, Exodus 34: 6-7 was near the top:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him [Moses] and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

The fear was  justified. I come from a long line of pretty heavy-duty sinners. I’d guess at least back three or four generations, but some of our sins, uh, make tracing family lineages a little difficult.

Having children in need live with us helped me see the passage differently. If I sometimes worried that God would punish me for the misdeeds of my ancestors, I never worried that God would punish them. They were victims of their parents’ sins, vulnerable people God would care for (and had asked me and my family to care for), not people he would punish.

One of the core messages of evangelical Christianity is that we stand before God alone. Evangelicals in today’s Religious Right detest the Social Gospel because of its politics, but they make a lot of noise saying that its heretical, too, because understands salvation as social, not individual. In the soteriology of today’s white evangelical churches, each one accepts or rejects Jesus’ free offer of salvation and thus determines their salvation or damnation. And acceptance is enough to get into heaven, which is the goal.

It’s a lazy theology, but it should protect from the injustice and cruelty we see happening along the US-Mexico border.


Image may contain: 3 people, people standing and hat

Above, an icon by artist Kelly Latimore reinterprets the story of the Holy Family as migrants. A man with a knapsack and a woman carrying a child, all with brown skin, walk under moonlight. His arm is behind her protectively as they move forward together. You can find more of–and support–Latimore’s work here. 

Christians shouldn’t imprison immigrants or children for a thousand reasons, including the fact that Jesus was a child immigrant and that the story of the Hebrew Bible is of the immigrant finding welcome. But, perhaps even more basically, for evangelical Christians, is that we don’t punish children for the sins of their fathers.

Improper entry into the US is a misdemeanor that does not require jail time. Unlawful presence is a civil violation. No matter what punishment Christians may think that adults deserve for these violations, children never deserve them. Never.

If the children who lived with us, children of murderers, had been in the getaway car, they would not have been treated like criminals. If they had loaded the guns, they would not be treated like criminals. If they had hidden the money, they would not be treated like criminals, because those are the crimes of their parents.

And, to be clear, presenting oneself for asylum is not a crime. Immigration is not a crime. Fleeing violence is not a crime. Coming to a place where you think you can make a better life for yourself is not a crime. But even if it were, the very core of the evangelical message of salvation, as well as our best founding idea, says it children aren’t punished for it.




  1. I’m a little confused by your premise. It seems to me we treat children like criminals all the time, literally by trying young teenagers and even preteens as adults in the judicial system, and even when we don’t do that we place juvenile offenders in prison-like detention centers where they are dehumanized and criminalized as much as possible, and even for kids who escape that fate, many of our public schools are becoming more and more like jails and children, even kindergarteners are subjected to harsh discipline, including being handcuffed in some cases.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent point. (We could probably push it even farther and say that the very structure of schools is prison-like.)

      I’m more focused on why evangelicals insist that punishing children for their PARENTS’ “crimes” is acceptable.


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