Several years ago, I took a group of college students to the Amazon basin to share the love of Christ in some remote river communities. After a few days in one village, I left a small group of students there and continued upriver to another village. After I left, a young family in the community tragically lost a 6-month-old baby to an unknown illness and dehydration. The parents asked my students to do the funeral. These 19- and 20-year-olds were not prepared for the emotional and spiritual gravitas of the situation. They did the best they could to minister to that family. But they all felt the acute burden of answering the inevitable theological questions arising from such a difficult loss: What happens when children die? Are they saved? What do we say to comfort grieving parents?
The latest research on good, evil, and infants.
It is natural, maybe even inevitable, that we seek comfort in the hope that God welcomes little ones in heaven when their time on earth is cut painfully short. While most Christians affirm the doctrine of inherited sin and confess that forgiveness of sin comes only through personal faith in Christ, we also believe God is good and gracious in cases when a lost child was too young to make a profession of faith. How is it, though, that God would save young children without the need for repentance of sin and expressed faith in Christ?
Theologians and Christian leaders throughout history have sought to answer this knotty problem. Augustine and Ambrose argued that since infants inherit the guilt of sin, not just the sin nature, only baptized infants would be saved. John Calvin and C. H. Spurgeon maintained that God’s election could extend to infants and children, so they were already predestined for salvation. And a variation of this view argues that God foreknows who will believe, so they are saved even if they die before they reach the age or mental capacity to do so.
These views may make theological sense, but they often lack clear scriptural support or, somewhat uncomfortably, they only account for some children. Of all the approaches to solving this problem, the idea of an “age of accountability” is one of the more popular views across a broad spectrum of evangelicals. It offers a sensible solution that is also comprehensive in scope.
The concept of the age of accountability is that God does not hold children accountable for the guilt of their sins until they achieve proper moral awareness of their choices. Children who have not reached this age of accountability will get into heaven because God does not lay the guilt of their sin upon them. In other words, God does not hold young children accountable for wrongs they don’t know they committed.
The theology of this position is certainly appealing for a number of reasons. But is there biblical support for the notion of an age of accountability? While some passages may appear to affirm the idea, they don’t directly support it when viewed in broader context:
“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.” (Deuteronomy 1:39)
The context of this verse relates to the rebellious generation of Hebrews who were punished with 40 years of wilderness wanderings. God prohibits that generation from entering the Promised Land, but in this verse promises to allow those who were children during that rebellious time to enter the land, because they did “not yet know good from bad.”