Q & A – The Age of Accountability?

The Age of Accountability?

What happens to babies and young children when they die?  I know they haven’t had a chance to learn about Jesus or accept Him as their Savior. Can they still go to heaven?  What about the sin nature that everyone is born with?  I hear people refer to “the age of accountability.”  What does that mean, and what does it have to do with these issues?

Tony’s Response: This question obviously has several facets, and I believe each is important to address. Certain parts of this question are theological (sin nature, age of accountability, etc.). At the same time, nothing could be more personal to parents who have lost a child to death than the eternal destiny of that child. Any pastor who has ever stood with bereaved parents certainly understands how heart-wrenching that question is on a personal level.

Fortunately, the insights offered by Scripture not only serve to provide a theological understanding of this issue, but offer great peace and comfort as well.

The Lord Jesus said in Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (NIV). Jesus associated the innocence of children with what heaven is like, and He demonstrated a completely open heart and receptivity toward them.

Isaiah spoke of God’s wonderful, merciful nature (40:11, NIV) when he said, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

When David grieved the loss of his infant son in 2 Samuel 12:23, he expressed confidence in a future reunion with that child when he said, “But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

The term “age of accountability” (or “age of responsibility”) refers to a time in a person’s life when they understand enough and become mature enough to be morally responsible for their own decisions and behavior. Because individuals mature differently, it is believed that this time – this age of accountability – is different for each person.

Paul referred to what happened in his own life relative to this in Romans 7:9: “I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.”

Paul appears to be speaking of a time in his life when he was “without the law.”  It would seem the only time that this would have applied was when he was an infant or a very young child. He wasn’t speaking about being alive physically, because he didn’t die physically when he came to the knowledge of the law. It is true that we are born with a sin nature, but it appears from Scripture that the full consequences of that fallen nature (and our subsequent corresponding actions) aren’t counted against us until we come to a certain level of knowledge relative to God’s standards.

Paul said in Romans 5:13, “For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.”

It’s not that the sin nature or the propensity toward sin are not present in an infant or a child; it’s simply that God has chosen not to let the consequences be fully realized when a person cannot know any better. There are many Scriptures that present the idea that judgment is, to a degree, meted out based on the knowledge of the person (Luke 12:47-48, James 4:17, John 9:41, John 15:22, etc.).

Some would take this idea and go too far. They would say, “So if knowledge is the issue, then everyone who has never heard the Gospel has no responsibility.”  Paul precluded and countered this argument in Romans 1-3 when he identified four levels of God revealing Himself to mankind (creation, conscience, law, and Christ). His point was that even those who have never heard the Gospel still have a responsibility to respond to the level of revelation which they do have available to them.

To me, the question is not whether children are born with a sin nature. Rather, the question is, “At what point does that child (or person) become accountable for that particular situation, along with the consequences for his or her own behavior?”  Scripture seems to associate that with acquiring a certain level of knowledge. Only God knows the age of accountability for each person.

In summary, I believe that we can safely and confidently trust a loving and merciful God with the care of the souls of infants and small children who die. Jesus’ attitude toward small children was one of complete acceptance. This is not to downplay the importance of an individual accepting God’s forgiveness personally when they are old enough to understand their need for such forgiveness.

In closing, let me quote from my book, Life After Death. “Although the death of a child—whether by miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature death—is difficult to comprehend with our human reasoning, the Holy Spirit offers comfort and strength to help us through our sorrow. And even though we may not understand everything, we can be confident in God’s mercy and compassion. The good news of God’s mercy is simply this: Jesus loved, embraced, and welcomed children to Himself when He was here on this earth, and Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).”