A good friend recently wrote me with a serious question: Where does it say in the Bible that younger children are safe from Hell up to a certain age? She, of course, is talking about the doctrine that many call “the age of accountability,” and because she’d never actually read anything about it in the Scripture herself, she was wondering if this teaching is actually in the Bible or just something she’d been told.
With a few updates, here is the basic answer I gave her, which I thought would be helpful for others as well.
This question, of course, is a loaded one because it comes often with such deep, heart-wrenching emotion in the face of losing a little one, as one of my wife’s friends from nursing school recently experienced. I can’t imagine a more traumatic experience than having one of your precious children to die. My wife and I recently watched the episode of “19 Kids and Counting” where the Duggars buried their miscarried daughter, Jubilee. I wept as I thought about having to do that with one of my own.
What you are asking about is what’s popularly known as the age of accountability. In other words, we are talking about the age when a child becomes responsible to God for their sin. As for the term “age” of accountability, a better term might be “moment” of accountability. Nowhere in the Bible is an actual age given. It’s different for every child depending on their development.
The “moment of accountability” happens when a child has the capacity to see God’s glory and embrace it. It’s not just the capacity of moral reasoning or knowing right from wrong. My 21-month-old daughter already has inklings of that, and my 3-year-old son definitely has this capacity. So, it’s not about simply knowing right from wrong. Rather it’s the capacity to see God’s glory and embrace it.
Children typically develop the ability for true abstract thinking between 8 and 12 years old. So, for most children, the moment of accountability is somewhere in there. Of course, on one hand, some children could develop the ability before 8-years-old, and on the other hand, those such as the developmentally-challenged never become accountable throughout the entirety of their adult lives because they never gain that ability.
We simply do not know exactly when a child becomes accountable. Therefore, we must share the gospel with them at all ages, faithfully leading them to trust in Christ as their Savior. In fact, after reading your question, I explicitly shared the gospel with my 6-year-old son and am praying he’ll trust Christ soon.
So, what is the answer to the eternal destination of children who die before the moment of accountability? There are several options that have come up in history. The Roman Catholics say that only baptized babies go to Heaven, and unbaptized ones don’t. Some in the Reformed tradition have historically held that the elect babies go to heaven, and the nonelect babies don’t. Some other Christians have argued that children of believing parents are covered by their parents’ faith and are allowed into heaven while children of nonbelieving parents are not allowed in. Many evangelicals would say, especially some Baptists, that all babies go to heaven because they are born innocent before God. All of these options fall short of biblical as best as I can understand.
If you’re looking for a prooftext on this issue, you won’t find it. Instead you must reason from Scripture, which leads me to embrace the doctrine that all children who die before their moment of accountability will go to Heaven because God does not hold them accountable for their sin. In Scripture, we find that John the Baptist was regenerated even in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Years before that, King David said similar things about himself (Psalm 22:9-10). David also had a son die in infancy, and upon that son’s death, David declared, I will go to him, but he will not return to me, (2 Samuel 12:23). David, the man after God’s own heart and who would surely see Heaven, said that he would be with his son in the afterlife. Therefore, David fully expected his infant son to be in Heaven with him. The first two examples in John and David are special cases, but David’s son is just a normal situation. Nevertheless, all three instances lay the foundation that at least some children who would die in infancy see Heaven. However, there is more biblical evidence to consider, leading to the conclusion that all children who die before the moment of accountability go to Heaven.
Many years ago in a funeral sermon for a little baby, Dr. John Piper made the following biblical case for all children who die before their moment of accountability going to Heaven:
Jesus says in John 9:41 to those who were offended at his teaching and asked if he thought they were blind-he said, “If you were blind, you would not have had sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
In other words, if a person lacks the natural capacity to see the revelation of God’s will or God’s glory then that person’s sin would not remain-God would not bring the person into final judgment for not believing what he had no natural capacity to see.
The other text is Romans 1:20 where Paul is dealing with persons who have not heard the gospel and have no access to it, but who do have access to the revelation of God’s glory in nature: Romans 1:20 “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
In other words: if a person did not have access to the revelation of God’s glory – did not have the natural capacity to see it and understand it, then Paul implies they would have an excuse at the judgment.
The point for us is that even though we human beings are under the penalty of everlasting judgment and death because of the fall of our race into sin and the sinful nature that we all have, nevertheless 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, (Matt Perman, “What Happens to Infants Who Die?”)
I think that is a rock-solid biblical case and would agree with what Dr. Piper has said here. All children who die before the moment of accountability go to Heaven not because they are innocent. We know they’re not innocent because they are prone to die, which according to Romans 5:13-14 is proof of sinfulness even if sin is not accounted to them. Furthermore, Scripture clearly declares we are sinful from birth (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3) Rather, all children who die before the moment of accountability go to Heaven because they are not held accountable for their sin due to their incapacity to truly grasp the glory of God and the gospel. In other words, they are simply unable to fully understand such abstract things as the glory of God and the gospel, and God in response is merciful to them. I believe that God in His mercy imputes their sin to Jesus and imputes Jesus’ righteousness to them apart from their faith because it is impossible for them to exercise faith.
This truth is further solidified by God’s mercy toward the children of the Israelites in Deuteronomy 1. The Israelites rebelled against God’s command to go into the Promised Land and take it as their own, removing by force the occupants. Only two of the adults were in favor of obeying God—Joshua and Caleb. Moses, of course, was in favor of going in but had already been told by God in Numbers 20:12 that he would not be going into the Promised Land (Aaron died between the events of Number 20 and Deuteronomy 1). Because Israel disobeyed God’s command, here was God’s proclamation of judgment, Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land which I swore to give your fathers, (Deuteronomy 1:35). However, God decided to let Joshua and Caleb go in because of their faith, and then God said this decree about the little ones of Israel, Moreover, your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it, (Deuteronomy 1:39). The little ones were allowed to enter into the Promised Land of Canaan because they were not held accountable for the sin of Israel. In the same way, little ones who die before they are able to grasp God’s glory and the gospel are permitted into the Promised Land of Heaven because they are not held accountable for their sin.
In conclusion, one can reason from Scripture a moment of accountability when a developing child will be held responsible before God for their sin. Up until that moment, God does not hold them accountable for their sin because they are unable to grasp the glory of God and the gospel, and should they die, we can rest assured that every one of them will be in Heaven with Jesus. However, this “moment” varies for every child. Therefore, we must faithfully share the gospel with our children from very early on so that they will believe on Jesus and be saved from the wrath of God their sin deserves.