Updated: Jun 12, 2021
Ray Comfort is a prominent evangelist/apologist who has a big audience and has written an article on children and sin that I feel it is necessary to respond to. This is mainly for my own sanity as the article highlights some poorly thought out theology which leads to guilt-tripping parents and overly legalistic parenting ideas. I am responding because it is written by someone who claims authority from scripture. I hope this article is helpful to others and is as gracious as I can be to Ray Comfort while disagreeing strongly with his conclusions.
Mr Comfort (Ray from here on out) starts off with this:
"Most dads think that babies are a bit boring. They look forward to the day the infant becomes a “real” human being. Until he can relate, smile, talk, etc., men are usually happy to let the baby be the woman’s responsibility."
Is this meant to be a joke? If it is, the humour is lost on me. If it isn't, is it really the case? I imagine some fathers do respond this way but do all? Even if most do, is this the sign of a healthy relationship both for a man and his child and a man and his wife (assuming a nuclear family is in Ray's mind at this point)? I hope this is meant to be tongue in cheek but given the rest of the paragraph, the stereotypes aren't a good look. Ray seems to think that the 'natural' thing for men to do is to chop wood and flex their muscles while it is the woman's job to look after the children. Apparently passing a baby to a man will show just how unnatural we men are when interacting with babies. Whether a joke or not, I am particularly sensitive to how fathers are portrayed in the media (generally clumsy, annoying and lacking most good qualities) and having a fellow Christian reinforce these stereotypes frustrates me. I'm not the only one! In response to this paragraph, a load of men have shared images of them and their children (or children in their family). It is an awesome thread (click the image) filled with fathers and children.
Moving on from stereotyping men and women to a very narrow idea of manhood and womanhood, he then goes on to talk about 'ugly baby blindness syndrome'. He uses the idea that parents are blind to their baby's obvious ugliness to argue that blind love should not ignore ugly behaviour. His example of ugly behaviour is the back arch that happens when the word 'no' is used and the child doesn't want to be picked up having been told off. Apparently this is the first sign of infantile rebellion and this seed of rebellion "will grow into a monster and destroy everything".
This takes us to where Ray starts using scripture so that he can hide behind it. He states that if I disagree, my quarrel is now with God and not with him. This is nonsense and is a strategy to avoid responsibility for poor theology. I recommend distancing yourself from any minister that uses this strategy to avoid critique. Ray is interpreting scripture, my quarrel is with his interpretation and [mis]use of scripture and not with God.
Ray goes into a Proverb:
"The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother." Proverbs 29:15
'Shebet' the Hebrew word behind rod is a staff shepherds used to guide sheep, only bad shepherds beat their sheep. This is true of parents as well. The 'rod and staff' of God is a 'comfort' in Psalm 23. Bringing guidance and having boundaries are vital for bringing up children and teaching them well. This has nothing to do with corporal punishment and is not about instilling fear into children. Corporal punishment isn't defended by Ray here but instilling fear comes up later.
Ray conflates two things: the potential for evil and innate evil. The first is something I think we can all agree with. The majority of humans, and by extension the vast majority of children, have a potential to do harm. They also have a potential to do great good but Ray seems to ignore that. Ray also ignores that there are a number of children that do not have this potential. My daughter for example. I'll at least agree that humans, generally speaking, have potential for evil.
The second idea that everyone is inherently evil is not actually grounded in good biblical exegesis (exegesis just means letting the text speak for itself, generally avoiding single verses and reading things in context). Humanity is not inherently evil. In fact, the beginning of the bible calls the creation, including the creation of humanity, 'very good' (Genesis 1:31). While things go wrong in Genesis 3, the bible doesn't teach that your child arching their back in response to your 'no' is the beginning signs of your child becoming a psychotic murderer (which is implied by the article). Ecclesiastes 7:29 also says that "God made man upright but they have gone in search of many schemes", without guidance a child may well grow to reject good but the concept that they are born evil is not there.
The idea of original sin is often misrepresented as well as often debated but it does not mean everyone is evil in the sense Ray Comfort has shared. It does mean that everyone fails to live up to God's standard but it does not mean that everyone fails at an equal level to the extent that all non-Christians (including children) are on a par with a mass murderer which is implied by Ray's article. I'll discuss this more in a moment. Ray seems to use a couple of definitions for sin but then only focus on one when it comes to his conclusions. He says that 'human nature swings toward idolatry'. This is fairly uncontroversial from a Christian view and would be how I define 'original sin'. Idolatry is the worship of something that isn't God. We can idolise gods, people, money, family, possessions and any number of things and we are torn apart when those things fail us. I think this aligns with a biblical definition of sin is 'a failure to love God and others by not treating them with the honour that they deserve' as the Bible Project video says below.
After discussing idolatry, Ray emphasises sin as moral failings and poor behaviour. Sin can be a moral failure and poor behaviour, but it is not only that. The bible teaches that you can be the most morally upright human but still fail at loving God and others. This was Jesus' repeated issue with the religious leaders of the day - they worshipped with their lips and focused on the law but their hearts were far from him. An emphasis of sin as a moral failing leads to a skewed understanding of Christianity. It leads to us seeing humans as inherently immoral/evil rather than having a tendency to fail to love God and love others correctly. It is a subtle distinction but an important one. If we see sin as only a moral failing or preach a gospel that is only focused on morality then we miss the bigger picture of the gospel that says that even morality can be an idol. The problem humanity has is bigger than morals, it is literally about life and death. We cannot save ourselves from death, we cannot forgive ourselves our sin, we cannot overcome our own shame, so we need someone who has defeated death, has the power to forgive sins and restore our dignity. Simply put, we need someone to rescue us.
Ray says that all children have "an inbuilt love of sin, and that will become clearly evident when he hits the teenage years". Ray makes a huge leap as to what this looks like, skipping things like partying too hard or pre-marital sex, straight to Jeffrey Dahmer. Apparently every child is really a murderer and cannibaliser inside and just a bit of extra parenting would have sorted Jeffrey right out. If only life was that simple.
It shouldn't take a blog article to highlight how ludicrous this idea is. The idea that a child struggling against boundaries (a small child at that if it is being picked up after 'disobeying') is a sign they are on a par with a serial killer is just plain silly and it isn't the gospel. The gospel doesn't even out evil to suggest that everyone is actually on a par with Hitler or to follow it even further, that abuse victims are no more innocent than their abusers. This isn't good news and it isn't God's idea of justice among people who claim his name. Will children, if left unguided, potentially go against what is good? Sure. In comparison to God (perfection) we may well be considered evil as only God can be called truly good. This is what I believe Romans 3 and the Psalms are pointing to. What the scripture is not doing is equating the evil of mass murder with a rebellious back arch of a toddler. In fact Jesus seems to suggest that children are innocent when he tells his disciples to let the children come to him, "for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these". He even says that we all must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. If this is how Jesus views children, thinking of them as having evil monsters within them seems the antithesis of what Jesus is teaching. So what does Romans actually say? Paul loved Jesus and the Old Testament scriptures. There is more nuance to Paul's letter to the Romans and to the scriptures being quoted than Ray shares in his article. The Old Testament scriptures repeatedly promise,
"you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul." Deut 4:29
This seems like a very odd verse if no one is actually seeking God as Ray 'proves' using Romans 3:10-18 .
The scriptures are full of verses referring to people who seek the Lord, the Psalms are full of verses pointing to people seeking God, the prophets and kings at various points seek God. It is plain nonsense to use the verses of Romans 3 in the way that Ray does. Either Romans is contradicting other verses, or, it isn't saying what Ray suggests. I believe it is the latter but I'll need a bit more time to explain why.
Romans 3:10-18 is Paul paraphrasing several Old Testament scriptures and merging them together. You can find the background in Psalm 5, 10, 36, 14, 53, 140 and Isaiah 59:7-8. Ray seems to conveniently miss out the verses that suggest that the 'none' that seek God also shed blood, curse, are bitter, and practice deceit. Does that sound correct of any toddler? Maybe your child will try to deceive you but are **all** children cursing and bitter and swift to shed blood? Reading the verses like Ray has done just leads to ridiculous conclusions. So again, what is happening here? Both in the verses in the Psalms and in Paul's letter to the Romans, he is looking at a specific situation where those in that moment are not seeking God or practicing the righteousness that they know they should. The verses from Psalms 14 and 53 that state 'no one does good' are contrasted with 'my people' and a 'generation of the righteous' (i.e. people who do good) so clearly do not mean that no one seeks/does good. The text does not allow the conclusions that there is *universally* none who seek God nor do good that Ray states. The Psalms are poetry, there is hyperbole and overstatement to get the point across and I think that is what is happening here.
While there are other theological conclusions that can be made from Romans 3, we will move on in Ray's article.
Ray says that you shouldn't believe the 'godless reasoning' that there is good in everyone. He doesn't seem to have heard of or simply ignores the historic idea of common grace. The idea that we all have a conscience and have some good in us is hardly 'godless', it is because I believe in God that I believe this to be the case! All humanity is made in God's image and that makes them part of a very good, albeit currently broken, creation!
So what is Ray's solution to this evil child problem, is there anything we can learn regarding parenting? First, Ray reminds you that you must want your child to live, to be saved from death and hell. Just to emphasise this, he wants you to make sure you are 'soundly saved' as though there is something extra to plain old being 'saved'. He wants parents to press home 'the fear of the Lord' which in Ray's mind is to preach judgement and the ten commandments which will be a 'schoolmaster to bring him to Christ'.
This is a very strange conclusion given Ray's quoting of Romans. The whole book of Romans is about how the law doesn't do enough to save us and is a terrible master that only highlights guilt and fails to do what only faith in Christ can do. This means Ray's solution is all backwards. Preaching law will only bring legalism and moralism which can only lead to guilt from imperfection and end up with your child thinking they will never be good enough for you, let alone Jesus. Several of the responses to Ray's tweet sharing the article prove this can be a result of Ray's teaching.
Ray's article is not only a poor conclusion from scripture, it also fails to learn from history. There is a long list of high profile Christians who have had major moral failings, despite their understanding of the 10 commandments, the severity of sin, regularly teaching about eternal torment in hell and God's judgement. Knowing the law and God's judgement does not necessarily lead you to imitating Christ.
Here is a better solution and one I think follows the way of Jesus. Love your children like Jesus does. Let them see your unconditional and gracious love when they fail morally, fail to meet your expectations or simply mess up. Love them when they hurt you and even if they reject you. Be ready to forgive them if and when they return to you. Guide them by showing them the teachings in Matthew 5 to 7. Build a household on the rock that is Jesus that cares for the poor, comforts those who mourn, encourages humility, hungers for God, shows mercy to those around them, seeks to do right in all situations, brings peace in conflict and blesses even those who curse you. Show your children Luke 15:11-32 and emphasise the love of the father, who wraps his arms around the son even though his son arched his back in rebellion, insulting his father, squandering his inheritance and returning only when he had nothing left.
Yes we want our children to be well behaved and to fear the Lord, but they won't do that if you teach the fear of the law. Jesus fulfilled the law so that by loving him and loving your neighbour you'll find that the law follows suit. By following Jesus first and foremost, when you fail to live up to the law, you will find an abundance of forgiveness and grace there for you and your child to pick yourselves up and go again. This is a far greater promise and hope than the 10 commandments on their own could ever offer.