Friday, 26 June 2009

Age of Accountability - Scriptural or Emotional?

Do infants or children who die go to heaven? The subject of a Biblical age of accountability came up recently. It is something that everyone thinks is reasonable, but most people seem to base their idea in the matter on what they think is fair, not on Scripture.

Some will say there is no such thing as an age of accountability, and that there is no guarantee that a child who dies in childhood or infancy will go to heaven. Some, especially hard-core Calvinists will say either that only 'elect' children will go to heaven, or that God allows only, 'elect' infants to die. That, in my opinion, is a stretch, to fit their Calvinist definition of election.

Others rely on their hope that the 'Judge of all the earth will do right' (Gen 18:25), but that is merely a hope in the matter of a child's death, and certainly no firm guarantee.

Others will place their hope that God will be 'fair,' and not send anyone to hell who has not been able to make a decision to follow Christ.

John Piper suggests,
God only executes this judgment on those who have the natural capacity to see his glory and understand his will, and refuse to embrace it as their treasure. Infants, I believe, do not yet have that capacity; and therefore, in God's inscrutable way, he brings them under the forgiving blood of his Son.

...but does not suggest we can know what that age might be. Most people who believe in an age of accountability will say that the age varies from child to child, or will give an age of twelve, or thirteen, but what Scriptural evidence they have for this view, I do not know.

But I believe that we may know exactly what that age is, and it is Biblical. Here is how I arrived at my conclusion. Consider the following passages:

'Because they have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one of the men twenty years old or more who came up out of Egypt will see the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob- (Num 32:11)

In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. (Num 14:29)

And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it. (Deut 1:39)

By harmonizing these three verses, I believe we can infer that:
1. There is an age (at least there was among the Israelites in the desert) before which a person did not know good from bad.
2. This age was the age below which children were allowed to enter the promised land.
3. That age was 20 years of age.

I believe we can reasonably accept this as an age of accountability, established by God Himself.

The main objection I hear when I express this opinion is that 20 seems too old; that much evil is done by people before the age of 20 and that they should be accountable for their sins. But that, in my opinion, is really an emotional objection. It may be a matter of the foolishness of God being wiser than man's wisdom ( (1 Corinthians 1:25) When we see criminal acts being committed our sense of justice cries out that the perpetrators (even, and sometimes perhaps especially, teenagers) be punished. And of course they should. Probably even more severely under the law that they now are.

But accountability to secular law and accountability to God are two entirely separate things. It is important to remember, of course, that this is not because children are 'innocent' of sin. The sin of Adam has tainted us all, including the very youngest. But God decided, at least in this one particular case I illustrate, that those under 20 were not to be held accountable for the sin of disobedience in the desert. Can we apply that specific case to a general principle? Well..., why not? We can just as easily believe we can as that we can't.

Frankly, I hold this view with a somewhat open hand, but I don't think we can rule it out arbitrarily. Perhaps, also, this may serve as some comfort to someone who has lost a child, particularly a teenager, and is troubled by their eternal fate.

Take Care

PS: This question has a personal side to it. We lost our own granddaughter at the age of four and a half months to crib death. For my thoughts on this season in our family's lives, click on SIDS, below. The series of posts will appear in reverse order.


Update: I have posted a few more thoughts, specifically in relation to the mentally handicapped here.


Warren said...

An interesting perspective that I've not previously encountered. Were the children not judged with their parents in that they too had to wander for many years in the wilderness? How would you square your perspective with Numbers 16:25-33 and Joshua 7:22-26?

How would you relate the age of accountability to the Lord's supper?

John K said...

Hey Warren,
My point was not so much that those under twenty entered the land, but that before they were twenty, according to the Deuteronomy passage, they did not yet know good from bad. That passage does not give an age, but we can ascertain it by comparing with the other passages. Before the age of twenty, in other words, children did not know good from bad. I suppose one can extend that as far as one feels comfortable.

In the passages you quoted, children certainly suffered for the sins of their parents, but we don't know their eternal destiny. I would have much more trouble harmonizing your examples with Ezekiel 18, for example, and I will give that some thought. For the moment we may be able to differentiate between worldly and eternal consequences of sin.
Take Care

wakawakwaka said...

saying that there is such thing as an age of accounablity is saying that you know more tahn Jesus! because he had said
John 3:18: He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 14:6: Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me

John K said...

Are you saying that unborn babies, for instance, who are aborted, go to hell?
Just askin'.

wakawakwaka said...

YES because if someone somehow figured out the age of accounabiltiy wouldnt it be okay or even godly for that matter to kill little children since they will automaticly go on the glory train to heaven! The idea of an aga of accountabily would ENCIURAGE abortions and infanticde!

John K said...

First of all, I think the verses you quoted, you have interpreted rather narrowly. You have eliminated, for instance, everyone from the OT.
Would it encourage abortion and infanticide? I doubt it. Anyone who cared about whether or not there was an age of accountability would also be aware of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."

wakawakwaka said...

yes it would encourage abortion and infancide, because hey isnt sending people to heaven a godly thing? I mean lying is a sin right? but what if you didnt lie about something you would be killed ywould you still lie ?

John K said...

Admitting people to heaven is God's business. Sending them there in the manner you state is murder, and that is most definitely a sin. Lying is not necessarily a sin - bearing false witness against your neighbor is. Rahab lied. God told Moses to mislead Pharoah.

wakawakwaka said...

well John you should tell that to the mentally troubled people who do that....

Gary said...

The wages of sin is death ( Romans 6:23).

The fact that children die shows that they are subject to sin just like adults. The Bible never mentions an age of accountability. Instead, it teaches that "the whole world (is) held accountable to God" (Romans 3:19), Psalms 51:5, Eph. 2:3.

Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

John K said...

wakawakwaka and Gary,
All I did was turn to the Bible to show the "possibility" of an age of accountability. The verses I quoted speak for themselves. Neither of you addressed them.
It's not a hill I am prepared to die on, but my original post stands.

Maggie P said...

Thank you for your very interesting perspective. I was just having this discussion with my fiancĂ© in relation to my oldest brother…. because he is autistic, and has little true understanding of relationship things and anything abstract in nature. He is very concrete in his understanding, much like a 5 or 6 year old, even though he is rather high functioning and lives independently. I am concerned for him, and hope that he is covered by God's grace in salvation. He did at one time pray to receive Christ, but I think did it only because he was told that's what he needs to do. He didn't truly understand what it means. He understands that God is good, that he loves God, the difference between right and wrong… and the right and wrong he does understand, he lives by. He's a good man, a good hearted man, and one of the kindest ppl you could ever meet. But you know when you meet him that he is limited in his understanding. I would be grateful for any comments you have, any scriptures you think that may speak to my concern, and I thank you for posting this above.

Molly Patel

John K said...

Hi Molly,
Thank you for your heart for your brother. I think the Lords sees it too.
Obviously there are many opinions on this matter, as evidenced even by the comments above. I don't suppose it will be settled this side of heaven. As you may have noticed, I think it important, as the Apostle Paul said, not to go beyond what is written. In other words, I like to interpret Scripture accurately and literally, but as generously as possible, not as narrowly. I really do think that God will take into account someone's ability to understand. I'm not sure the Bible addresses it one way or the other. He really is not trying to keep as many people out of heaven as He can. Perhaps we can look at Jesus' words regarding children and be confident that God sees those with the mind of a child in the same category. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Luke 18: 15-17)
In the end, in addition to my arguments in the original post, I turn to Gen 18:25,
"Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Take Care

Grant said...

Trying to stay within the confines of God's revelation to us, what do we know?
1. God is just - he punishes sin.
2. God is merciful - he saves sinners who do not deserve it. 3. All of mankind - as a race - has inherited guilt.
4. God is sovereign in salvation (this may be the narrow Calvinist definition of election you were talking about).
Putting all these together, I am very comfortable in saying that there is not an age of accountability, but rather, God has mercy on whom he has mercy and we will worship him for his omniscient wisdom when we see it revealed on that day.

That said, could you expound on how this is a narrow view of election?

John K said...

Hello Grant,
This is a re-post of the one deleted above, as it had some weird pasting I didn't intend.

I don't know if, in this post, I referred to 5-point (and by logical extension, 6-point) Calvinism as narrow, although I'm sure I have in others, because I think it is. I agree with each of your 4 points, but IMO they do not necessarily mean that God has brought into being, persons whom He as fore-ordained to destruction with no chance of responding to His invitation to salvation through Jesus Christ. I believe that salvation is offered to all, and that whoever seeks Him with all their heart will find Him. Men have a choice; they can turn toward the light or away from it. To those who turn toward it, I believe God will reveal Himself. To those who don't want God in their lives, He will grant their wish, but I don't believe that God arbitrarily and actively prevents or forbids anyone from coming to know Him. I believe my view on this is entirely Biblical.

In fact, your point 4, above, actually could be used as an argument for the possibility of an age of accountability. IOW, if God is sovereign, He can have an age of accountability if He so chooses. In any case, as I said, I hold this view with an open hand. I merely present the verses as they are in Scripture and let the reader take them as they will.

You can check out some of my other posts on Calvinism or election for more of my thoughts in this area.

Anonymous said...

Hi, can i insert an opinion on this?
I think we should likewise consider the age of discretion since accountability age is vague as to argument.
Let's consider this text in 2 Chronicles 36:9 in the life of king Jehoiachin. He was still 8 years old when God saw his wickedness during his reign. To reign a kingdom at this age require utmost diligence and wisdom as overseer of the entire kingdom but despite of his age God gave this concrete sense that accountability will accompany discretion.

John K said...

Interesting perspective, Anon. In my opinion the issue is not whether people of young age do evil. Of course they do. That's the whole doctrine of original sin, isn't it? The thing is whether they are held eternally accountable for the wrong they do before they reach a certain age, the age before which the Bible says they, "know good from bad."
Thanks for your thoughts.

Bill said...

Didn't Paul address this directly in Romans 9? Before the two knew to do good or evil, He chose the one and rejected the other?

To debate accountability immediately attributes salvation to lost men conceived in sin and takes it away from Gods grace.

And yes God does create vessels for destruction. Some are like brute beast who have no purpose but to be destroyed.

John K said...

Hi Bill,
I'm not sure the issue is going to be solved, but let me just say this: if, (IF, I say) God has allowed an age of accountability, it is only by His grace. So His grace is not diminished at all.