There will probably never be perfect harmony among commentators as to the meaning of this statement.  We could with reason understand the apostle to be saying that death reigned over men who had not sinned against an orally expressed law, as Adam did.  However, I am inclined not to accept this explanation, simply because of the record of Genesis, as referenced above.  I am persuaded that sinners such as Cain and the Sodomites were just as conscious of the wrongfulness of their actions as was Adam when he received the forbidden fruit from his wife.  Therefore, the people Paul refers to here appear to me to be those who died in infancy, or even before leaving the womb.  Death reigned even over these who on a human level would be considered perfect innocents.  We ourselves might have thought that they should not be subject to the penalty of death, not having openly violated the law of God as Adam did.  The justice of God decreed otherwise, and indeed sometimes still does to this very hour.

One might be tempted to question why we should offer such an interpretation, that may on the surface seem somewhat strange.  However, I would contend that when verse 14 is understood this way, we will see that the apostle is saying something very powerful about original sin.  What he is attempting to do is prove Adam’s federal headship, whereby his transgression is imputed to the account of his descendants.  We would all be able to agree that infants are not guilty of having looked the law of God squarely in the face, and intentionally broken it, simply because they wanted their own way.  Not having sinned, then why and how are they subject to the penalty of death?  The only answer is that sin is upon them by imputation, which makes them liable to the penalty God has prescribed against sin.  If it were not so, it would be difficult to argue that God is not guilty of injustice in slaying those who are pure from sin.  But when we understand that the guilt of Adam’s transgression is imputed to every human being conceived in the womb of a mother, then we understand that from the moment a living soul takes up residence in those few cells, that sin is charged upon them.  Therefore, from the very moment of conception every one of us is subject to the penalty of death.  In the inscrutable wisdom of God, He has ordained that many perish before ever seeing the light of day.  Because sin is charged upon even these tiny and helpless ones, we can in no way impugn the justice of the Almighty for paying them the wages of sin, which is death.