Do Bad Children Go to Hell?

When I first became a father, I found myself facing a question that most Christian parents must confront at one time or another: when is my child responsible to make her own decision to follow Jesus? Were thirteen-year-olds in danger of going to Hell? And what about a three-year-old? What was the point at which a child who failed to trust in Jesus could be damned for that failure? When I first held that swaddled bundle in my arms, these questions were no longer merely academic. After all, my daughter’s eternal life could depend on getting the right answer!

When faced with such disturbing questions, the Christian tradition has commonly taken solace in the idea of an age of accountability. According to this notion, children are born into the world with a divine grace period which provides them time to grow and mature. During this early period, children are not held responsible for their beliefs and actions. But once they mature to a particular age, they cross a threshold into accountability after which they are responsible to make their own decision to follow Jesus … or face damnation.

It might help to think of this idea of an age of accountability in analogy with the age of majority, that legal threshold which demarcates the move from childhood to adulthood. The transition into the age of majority is significant for a number of reasons. For example, a person is not legally responsible for a contract they sign when they are still a legal minor. But the moment they become a legal adult, they are responsible. Further, criminal responsibility varies as to whether the crime was committed when the individual was a legal minor or an adult. For these and many other reasons, the age of majority is enormously significant.

While the age of majority is clearly significant, it pales in importance when compared with the age of accountability. According to this concept, children are born heaven-bound by God’s mercy, but there will soon come a day when they will become morally accountable for the lives they lead. At that point, their salvation will require a personal decision to follow Jesus.

So what does the Bible say about the ages of innocence and accountability? The answer is, surprisingly little. The most commonly cited text in favor of the age of accountability is found at the moment when King David’s newborn child dies. In response, David stoically observes: “now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:23, NIV 1984) Here David seems to express the conviction that he will be reunited with his child again. If we think of that reunion as occurring in heaven, then David’s sentiment would suggest an age of innocence, at least for newborn infants.

However, even if we accept that interpretation, it still doesn’t tell us much. After all, the passage only applies to newborn infants: the text says nothing about toddlers, small children, or teenagers. As a result, once we attempt to extend an age of innocence to a wider pool of individuals, we are moving well beyond David’s prayer and into the realm of hopeful speculation. And few parents will be content to leave the salvation of their beloved children to the realm of mere speculation.

Thus, despite the fact that the age of accountability is presumably very important, there is no clear teaching in Scripture on when it occurs or even if it exists. By contrast, societies that observe an age of majority are always clear on when that point is and for good reason given that it represents the hugely important transition into a new age of adult responsibilities. Needless to say, this is very perplexing. Given the sky-high stakes with the age of accountability, wouldn’t one expect that God would make it perfectly clear when a child crosses that threshold?

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Randal Rauser