The age of accountability?

by K.W. Leslie, 18 May 2017

How old do we have to be for God to hold us responsible for our sins?

Wait, doesn’t he always hold us responsible? Well, not according to certain Christians.

See, from time to time a child dies. Which sucks, but this is life, and sometimes life sucks. It’s always sad, and grieving parents frequently look to their religious friends for some kind of comfort. ’Cause we know something about heaven, so they wanna confirm with us that heaven is precisely where their kid went. Mommy and Daddy’s little angel, happy and pain-free, will forevermore be looking down upon them.

Yeah, it’s never fun breaking the news to them that we don’t become angels when we die. ’Cause it’s such a deeply-held pagan belief. Some of us never have the guts to tell ’em otherwise. Hey, we figure, they’re grieving; let ’em believe their kid’s an angel. What’s it hurt? (Well, them. The belief will just become even more deeply-held, and then it’ll be a real pain trying to later explain how heaven really works.)

And it’s never fun breaking the news to them that, unless we trust Jesus to take care of our sins for us, we still own our sins. Therefore we don’t inherit the kingdom of heaven. And since they never raised their kids to trust Jesus any…

…Well you see where I’m going with this. Few Christians have the nerve to tell any grieving parents any such thing. We chicken out.

Lots of us instead embrace this idea of an age of accountability: There’s an age where God deals with us as a responsible human being. Before that cutoff point, we don’t know any better; we’re innocent; we’re spiritual minors; God couldn’t possibly hold our sins against us. For everybody before the cutoff, God practices universalism: Everybody goes to heaven. No exceptions.

Your pagan friends’ dead kid? Just squeezed in at the cutoff. Definitely in heaven. God would never send a five-year-old to hell. Six-year-olds definitely; hell’s chock full of ’em, screaming their bratty heads off. But never five-year-olds. Yes, little Tafadzwa is definitely in heaven. Yes, Tafadzwa now has baby wings like a little cherub.

Oh, it’s an utter copout. ’Cause the age of accountability isn’t in the bible anywhere. Seriously, not anywhere. It’s pure fabrication, invented to soothe grieving parents, and calm worried ones. When their pagan kid just died, parents wanna cling to hope, and Christians really don’t wanna be the ones to puncture it. (Well, most of us. There are certain a--holes who take a perverse glee in telling people, “Hey, it’s unlikely your kid was one of the elect, so they’re not in heaven.” I’ll get to them.)

Quite often it’s the Christians themselves clinging to hope: Their kids aren’t following Jesus, and they’re super worried the kids are gonna be pagan or apostate or even antichrist. So they wanna know there’s still a chance. The age of accountability is 30, right?

Now since this article is tagged #Grace, you can likely guess there actually is hope somewhere before the end of it. But you’ll have to bear with me as I dash several of the false hopes.

Comes from the culture. Not the bible.

The concept of an age of accountability comes from our legal system. Not the scriptures.

Yeah, its proponents tend to point to when the LORD cut off everyone older than 19 from going to the Promised Land, Nu 14.29 taking a one-time thing and turning it into a proof-text. And forgetting how the LORD made exceptions for Joshua, Caleb, Eleazar, and for the time being Moses and Aaron.

’Cause yes, the LORD creates various age-based and time-based cut-off points for various things. One very literal example of such a point would be how they had to circumcise boys at eight days old. Lv 12.3 But again God made exceptions: If you weren’t circumcised then, you could still get circumcised later. Js 5.2-7 God does grace, y’know.

But humans don’t. Used to be that children, when they committed crimes, were tried the same as adults. When a nine-year-old boy stole a loaf of bread, he got the very same penalty, and went to the very same prison, as a 50-year-old man. I’m not kidding.

Nowadays, we recognize how thoroughly awful that sounds. Kids don’t always understand the harsh consequences of their actions. ’Cause they’re kids! Neither can they always withstand the same punishments, like whipping or workhouses. And I won’t even get into the ways full-grown convicts might treat kids in prison.

When the United States finally got round to reforming the way we sentence criminals, often we mercifully assigned lighter consequences to children. We put some of the responsibility on their parents for not supervising nor raising them properly. We made allowances for people who aren’t mature enough to know better. Not just kids, either; the developmentally disabled often get reduced sentences as well. (Well, depending on how merciful your state is. Some states don’t do mercy, and they’re quite proud of it. Ironically, a lot of Bible Belt states among them.)

If we can be that merciful, how about God? And many Christians assume God is at least as merciful as we. Maybe he’ll give lighter consequences to children. Or none: They’re too young to understand sin and death, so they get a free pass out of hell. Right?

But again: This concept isn’t found in the bible. At all. Anywhere.

Most parents are totally aware their children know right from wrong. You tell your toddler, “Don’t touch the vase,” and the child understands what “Don’t touch the vase” means, and doesn’t. Or for whatever reason, whether curiosity or rebellion, the kid ignores the command, touches the vase violently, and breaks it to pieces. Could be a three-year-old, a two-year-old, or a really bright one-year-old. Every kid is different, and attentive parents can tell whether their kid is being inattentively innocent, or willfully disobedient—in other words sinning.

So little children know what sin is. Not necessarily how consequences work. Heck, there are some adults, like our president, who haven’t figured out how consequences work. But sin’s a really basic concept. One of the first concepts we humans ever learn. There’s right and there’s wrong: Sin is wrong. They may not always be taught God doesn’t approve of it, but we can see they’re awfully quick to learn Batman doesn’t.

For some crazy reason, the “age of accountability” is always figured to be older than the natural age kids are once they realize the difference between good and evil. I’ve heard Christians claim all sorts of arbitrary, unjustifiable ages for it: Five years old, seven years old, 13 years old. Even 21 years old: Apparently legal adults aren’t yet able to tell good from evil in God’s eyes, but they can vote, serve on juries, and join the Army. So if you unrepentantly murder someone before 21, you still get that free pass to heaven. Bonkers, right?

But what we see in the scriptures is how God’s commands in the Law apply to everyone the same. Including children as well as adults. Jesus’s instructions in the gospels apply to young and old, rich and poor, men and women, Jews and gentiles. No exceptions.

It’s a parent’s duty to teach their kids God’s commands, and make sure they know them and obey. Dt 6.7, 11.19 Likewise it’s a Christian parent’s duty to raise their kids as fellow Christians.

But when you believe in an age of accountability, it means you have no such duty. Not till that age kicks in, anyway. Train children in the way they should go? Pr 22.8 Meh; they’ve got time. God’ll be merciful, so we can be lazy.

Accountability without mercy.

Then there’s the other extreme. Remember those jerks who are all too happy to tell grieving parents, “Nah, your kid’s probably in hell”? Obviously they reject the unbiblical idea of an age of accountability. Problem is, they rarely believe God’s merciful either.

Most of the time I find these folks have embraced the Calvinist interpretation of predestination. It’s not an accurate description, but here’s how they figure: God has a secret plan for the universe in which he pre-planned to save some of us—and no one else. If your kid died, it’s part of the plan. If your kid died before ever hearing the gospel, it’s more than likely part of the plan where your kid was predestined to never be saved. So, hell.

Properly, predestination means God decided to save us way before we could ever screw things up. He simultaneously came up with Plan A (“Don’t sin”) and Plan B (“If you do sin, there’s Christ”). 1Jn 2.1 Thanks to this planning ahead, everybody can be saved through Christ. ’Cause if we do sin, there’s Christ.

The Calvinist idea comes across as harsh and awful. That’s why various Christians, who embrace it yet don’t wholly understand it, try to attach explanations or defenses. I once heard this one: “Apparently God knows whether they’d have made a decision for Jesus if they grew up—and he puts them where they’d go, as if they made that decision already.”

To be fair to Calvinists, they don’t teach any such thing. They believe God, entirely on his own, without any input from us, chooses people for saving. It’s called monergism. What anybody might do has nothing to do with monergism. You might grow up to be Christian… but since predestination is entirely up to God, this makes no difference. If he decided you’re destined for hell, you’re still going. Like I said, harsh and awful; it’s no wonder people reach for nicer explanations.

But let’s take apart the idea “God knows whether they’d have made a decision for Jesus.” Okay, so little Tafadzwa died young. But God knows how Tafadzwa’d behave if, instead of this universe, she grew up in a parallel universe where she didn’t die. And instead of judging her for what she never got to do in this universe, God judged her based on that one.

Well how’s this righteous of God?

See that Tafadzwa in the parallel universe? That’s not the Tafadzwa in this universe. That’s a whole other person. One who didn’t die young. One who grew up and, say, deliberately set fire to a Chik-fil-A. What’s our Tafadzwa doing getting punished for their Tafadzwa’s crimes? Our Tafadzwa didn’t sin!

Or say their Tafadzwa became a lifeguard and rescued a dozen kids. Yeah it sounds nice that God would credit our Tafadzwa with all those saves… but she didn’t make them. Another person did. It’s still not right.

In parallel universes there are infinite possibilities. God alone knows them all. But you don’t live in those universes. You live in this one. And in this one, God doesn’t judge you for hypothetical sins. Or what you might do. Only what you do.

Works both ways: God doesn’t judge me for my good intentions, but whether I lived up to any of them. God doesn’t judge anyone for a destiny it became impossible to fulfill.

Really, if not for grace, every last one of us would be doomed. Grace erased those potential destinies. The “me” on a parallel universe who never became Christian? I’m not judged by his actions. I’m judged by mine. And since I trust Jesus to save me, he will. I don’t know about those other Leslies. Hope they trust Jesus too.

As for those kids who die before their expected time: God is gracious, and it’s entirely likely he’s gonna apply some grace to their judgment. Had they never heard the gospel? (Or never heard it presented properly?) If not, how can a just God judge them for never responding to something they’ve never heard? Well he doesn’t.

Grace and the unreached.

God is gracious. Does he forgive kids who don’t know any better? Sure. Dt 1.39 Does he forgive adults who know not what they do? Lk 23.34 Yes. He doesn’t want us to stay ignorant, Ac 3.17 but he’ll easily show mercy to those who act out of good intentions, though no faith. 1Ti 1.13

So if there’s every reason to figure a person doesn’t know any better, there’s every reason to preach grace. Maybe God was merciful. Why not? He’s easily merciful. Ps 86.15 We serve a compassionate God, who wants to save everybody he can. 2Pe 3.9 If you’re looking for loopholes in God’s wrath, Jesus is a big fat loophole, and is all too willing to apply it.

Now. Just because God is gracious, doesn’t mean we should shirk our duty to preach the gospel to anyone and everyone. Just because God may grant life to people who never heard of Jesus, exactly like he did to the folks in the Old Testament, doesn’t mean we should figure, “Well if I never go to that town and tell ’em about Jesus, maybe God’ll grant ’em eternal life just because they never knew any better.” Why make them accountable?

No no no. Jesus told his students—and that includes you and me—to go make him more students. Mt 28.19 He wants people to follow him, now, and learn about this kingdom he’s inaugurating, and learn how to live in it. Not stumble into his kingdom unawares and unexpectedly, and barely squeeze in just because God’s compensating for slacker Christians. Do your bloody job. Share Jesus.

And never forget to proclaim God’s grace. Whether it’s to the lost and dying, or to those grieving for the lost and died. Grace tells the parents to never lose hope—and grace reminds ’em they can still get into the kingdom themselves.

Grace is a far more reliable idea for us to hang our hats on than any “age of accountability” rubbish.