Age of Accountability
This is a response to a question I received on Facebook. Kevin asked the following:
I have always wondered about the idea of “The Age of Accountability.” As I have younger ones, I read Scripture and study with them. I am just curious as to the origins of this idea.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the age of accountability (hereafter referred to as AOA) is the idea that children who die before a certain age (or maturity level) do not go to hell, since they never had the chance to choose Jesus for themselves.
I do believe this to be accurate. However, I also believe that much Scripture has been grossly misused in an effort to support AOA. Let’s go through some of the various passages to see how they hold up.
David sinned with Bathsheba and fathered an illegitimate son with her. As punishment, Yahweh struck David’s son with an illness that would ultimately kill him (2 Samuel 12:14–15). David mourned and fasted while the child was sick, but he ceased as soon as his son had actually died (2 Samuel 12:20–21). In defending his actions, David said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23, NASB).
At a glance, this would seem to prove AOA. However, we must first notice that this was simply David’s recorded statement of personal belief. Furthermore, David did not have the same level of revelation concerning the eternal state that we have. He only knew of Sheol—the “grave” or the place of the dead where all await the resurrection (believers and unbelievers alike). It is certainly true that David would follow his son to the grave, but that has nothing to do with seeing his son in eternal life. Therefore, I do not believe this is an appropriate passage to use in support of AOA.
The Little Children
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all record the account of the disciples rebuking those who brought children to Jesus. However, Jesus rebuked the disciples saying, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mark 10:14, NASB; also Matthew 19:14 and Luke 18:16).
This seems to support AOA much better than the account of David’s son; however, it is not conclusive. While Jesus may have meant that children are automatically in the kingdom of God, he was more likely alluding to the manner in which adults must come to the kingdom. In the next verse, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15, NASB). This seems to have complemented a similar statement he made earlier. “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, NASB). So while this account lends more support than the previous, I still do not believe it is a conclusive proof for AOA.
A Just Judge
In dealing with AOA, many people simply appeal to God’s justice. They cry, “Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25, NET). Yes, God certainly will act justly. His decision for the fate of our little ones will be the right one. But we dare not impose upon God our own sense of justice. Unlike God, we are flawed in our view of justice. We cannot use the truth of God’s perfect justice as proof that AOA actually is just. But don’t lose hope, I do believe that AOA is just, and I believe I can prove it biblically.
At the heart of this all is the atonement. If Jesus’ atonement was made for and applied to all children, then AOA is just. If not, then AOA cannot be just.
Some believe in a limited atonement. If you hold to that viewpoint, then I’m not sure how you could believe in AOA. You would have to simply hope that God chose to elect your child. Thankfully, the concept of a limited atonement is not biblical.
He himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world. (1 John 2:2, NET)
The Bible is perfectly clear that Jesus atoned for the sins of all mankind when he died on the cross. I am aware of the arguments against this, but they must either deny this verse or completely ignore the context of how John uses the word world.
Jesus’ sacrifice did indeed atone for all. Eternal separation from God is not the punishment for our sins—those have already been paid for. Rather, eternal separation is punishment for rejecting the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Most adults come to the point where they must choose to either accept Jesus or reject him (whether by words or actions). However, those who die young enough will not have reached this point. Likewise, those with certain mental handicaps may never become capable of choosing to reject Christ.
Jesus Christ died to atone for the whole world, and God raised him back to life as proof that his sacrifice was effective. Those who have not rejected his gift will have eternal life. There isn’t actually a specific age that is the age of accountability; different people develop at different rates. But those who die before they are capable of making such a choice are still atoned for.
However, if you are reading and comprehending this, then you have the choice. You can no longer stay undecided. Now that you know, you must choose to accept the gift he has given or reject it. You must place your faith in Jesus Christ and choose to serve him. I urge you to do so today.
[Update: I have posted a follow-up to this question. “What If Someone Never Hears the Gospel?”]
What Do You Think?
Does this help with your understanding of AOA? Do you have a different view on the subject?
Share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends.