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?

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.

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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:

Deuteronomy 1:39

“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.”

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.”

Because God did not hold the Hebrew children accountable for their parents’ sins, people use this verse as support for the age of accountability. The problem is that, in this passage, “children” refers to those who were too young to be eligible for military service at that time, meaning anyone 20 years old or younger. While most teenagers certainly have much room for maturing, it seems implausible to suggest they are somehow not morally accountable by that age.

Isaiah 7:15–16

“He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right,for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”

This passage relates directly to the famous prophecy that the “virgin will conceive and give birth to a son” (Isa. 7:14). These verses state that the “boy” in his youth does not yet know how to tell the difference between right and wrong. It suggests the biblical authors had at least some conception of a period of time before children have an understanding of morality. Unfortunately, this passage is not intended to establish the parameters for when a child can be viewed as morally culpable; rather, the focus is on God’s coming deliverance.

2 Samuel 12:23

“But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

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By far the most familiar verse on this subject is David’s lament at the death of his firstborn son with Bathsheba. While the child was dying, a direct consequence of David’s sin, David fasted and prayed in hope that God would be merciful. But once the child died, he stopped grieving. David recognized that the only way he could be reunited with his son was if he, too, died.

This verse wields enormous pastoral comfort and, I believe, establishes clear evidence to affirm that young children are safely with God. While it provides a basis for our hope regarding children, it unfortunately does not suggest an age of accountability as the reason.

The New Testament doesn’t offer much in terms of an age of accountability, either. Some point to Romans 7:9 to argue that punishment for sins is not meted out until the guilty are aware of their crime, but this reads too much into what Paul is saying. He is making an argument about the way the law works, not suggesting people are innocent prior to being aware of the law. Another passage cited is Acts 17:29–31. Again, Paul is making a case that God is the God of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, and he is calling them to repent of their idolatry. But Paul is not saying that God overlooks sin until a certain point. Some even try to use the prodigal son “[coming] to his senses” in Luke 15:17 as support for the age of accountability, but again, this seems a stretch.

Mercy for the young and mischievous

Even if we had clear biblical support for an age of accountability, it would still be virtually impossible to determine exactly when a child might arrive at that age. Most argue it occurs sometime between the ages of 4 and 12, but this is based on extra-biblical traditions. To be sure, children eventually grow up and, as they mature, they must face the reality of sin and their own moral culpability. But to say children are not aware of good and bad seems to contradict the experience of most anyone who has raised them. Parents know that even at a very young age, children sense when they are being naughty. Take, for instance, when my wife and I were sitting in our living room, and our 5-year-old daughter suddenly ran past us and exclaimed, “Nothing!” We would not have suspected anything, except that her little conscience and poorly timed work of reverse psychology alerted us to an entire box of Q-tips she had emptied in our now-clogged toilet.

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According to research by Karen Wynn at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, also known as “The Baby Lab,” babies as young as three months show preference for an individual who is seen helping rather than harming. In another study by J. Kiley Hamlin of the University of British Columbia, babies as young as eight months were observed embracing the punishment of “bad” characters. Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, who is married to Wynn, explains that the sense of morality found in infants is “tragically limited” and a “product of cultural development,” but is nevertheless present.

If children as young as three months show an awareness of the difference between right and wrong, it potentially weakens the notion of an age of accountability.

With the lack of biblical support, and everyday evidence and psychological studies suggesting that children are, in fact, capable of recognizing good and bad behavior very early on, perhaps we should not look to an age of accountability as the basis for our hope concerning children.

As evangelicals, we believe salvation is exclusively found through faith in Christ, but we have good reason to believe that his saving work extends to children too young to make this decision. What the Bible does explicitly teach about God should already dispel our concerns about the fate of infants and young children. So we don’t need conjectures like the age of accountability.

One reason we can have hope is because God is a good and just judge. As Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Because we see this idea echoing throughout Scripture, we can confidently trust God to always do what is good, right, and perfect (Deut. 32:4; Zeph. 3:5). Another reason we don’t need an age of accountability is because the doctrine of God’s grace is clearly evident in Scripture (Ex. 34:6; Ps. 103:8; Lam. 3:22; Joel 2:13; John 1:14; Rom. 3:22–24; Eph. 2:8–9). Certainly, God’s grace extends to all humanity, and especially to children.

In fact, Jesus had some very specific things to say about children, and it is clear that God has deep love, care, and even preference for them. Jesus taught that we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:2–5; Luke 18:17). And he warns that no one should despise “little ones” because “their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:10). Jesus also said to “let the little children come to me” because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them (Matt. 19:14). What is more, Jesus threatened severe punishment and woe for anyone who would cause a child to stumble (Matt. 18:6–7).

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If Jesus elevates children in this way, we can take comfort that children who die are safe in his keeping. He is good, kind, merciful, and just. We can trust that he cares for children more than we can ever comprehend. When their little lives are cut short and our vision is blurred by tears, we can be certain that he will deal graciously with them in a way that is consistent with his saving work. He is a good and loving heavenly Father who always does what is right (Ps. 33:4–5). God always acts in a manner in keeping with his holy, righteous, merciful, gracious, loving, and good character—the same loving character that prompted God to send his own Son to die for a world of sinners.

On that dark day in the Amazon rainforest, my students went with the parents and most of the community to a small gravesite in the jungle. There were only a handful of believers in the community and, because they were looking to God for answers, they had asked the students to do the funeral. As shafts of sunlight dotted the leaf-covered jungle floor, these students represented the love, hope, and salvation of God to a people overcome by grief. Although it was an immensely difficult experience, these students could confidently speak of God’s love and goodness. Those parents, who were brand new to faith in Christ, took tremendous comfort because they knew their son was now with God.

Alan Bandy is professor of New Testament and Greek at Oklahoma Baptist University. He recently coauthored, with Benjamin Merkle, Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015).

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