The Biblical Basis
Age of Accountability:
* Where do babies go when they die?
* Is this a Bible Doctrine or Wishful Thinking?
* Where did this teaching come from?
* How old will children be in heaven?
* Will we know our babies in heaven?
A Biblical Examination
of the Age of Accountability:
Where do infants go when they die?
Dr. Charles Brown
Executive Vice President Landmark Baptist College
II Samuel 12:15-23
15 And Nathan departed unto his house. And the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.
16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.
17 And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.
18 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead?
19 But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.
20 Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.
21 Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.
22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?
23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.
An infant dies. A tearful parent cries out, “Where did my baby go? Will I see him again?”
There is probably no other belief that is held to more fervently and devotedly and with less understanding and Scriptural basis than the age of accountability. Some call this an inferred doctrine rather than one that is clearly taught in the Bible. Some cling to it and some disclaim it. It has been estimated that half of all people ever conceived reach maturity. Where do these people go when they die?
Is there an age of accountability? What does the Bible actually say? Faith that is based on wishful thinking is presumption. Faith is only genuine when it is based on the plain truth of the God of the Bible.
Age of accountability defined
First this term needs to be defined. Simply put, the age of accountability means that infants and young children go to heaven if they die before coming to an age where they are held personally accountable by God for their sin. William Hendricks said, “it is a time or period of life when one is aware enough of God to respond to him.” The Biblical Basis of Child Evangelism defines it as “that age when the child commits sin consciously and deliberately, and when he is, therefore, held accountable or responsible FOR IT (emphasis theirs) before God.
Is the Age of Accountability a Doctrine?
Is the teaching of the Age of Accountability (from now on referred to as AOA) correctly called a doctrine? The word doctrine means teaching. Something can only be rightly called a doctrine when a truth is clearly stated in the Bible with the agreement of many Scriptures. Then it must not be in disharmony with other clearly stated doctrines.
The eternal abode of children who die is not clearly stated in the Bible but enough peripheral evidence is given that a sound conclusion may be reached .This writing will investigate the verses from which that conclusion can be drawn. Conclusions may be true but do not fit into the same category as doctrines. The very fact that God, who does care greatly for everyone’s eternal state, has chosen to be relatively silent about this subject may indicate that children are safe in His grace. In other words, God has said little about it because the babies are safe in their state of inability to make a valid choice. It may also be assumed that any person whose mental ability falls below rational level is equally safe.
This paper will first look at the history of this belief. Second, will be viewed the variations of AOA in modern teaching. Third will be the theology of the belief. Forth will be God’s attitude toward those who are not accountable. Fifth will be the only place in Scripture where the dwelling place of deceased children is mentioned. Sixth is the question “What age will babies be in heaven?”
History of the Belief of the Age of Accountability
The writings of the early church fathers (before 250 AD) did not mention the salvation of children. The only people baptized were adults who had confessed Christ as Savior. The Didache (Teaching), circa 110 AD) called for converts to learn the teachings of Christ and be committed to them before being baptized. Sometimes the teaching period given to those called Catechumens (instructed persons) lasted several years.
Child baptism arose during the third century in North Africa. Two ideas led to this practice. First was the thought that baptism washed away sins. Second was the belief that baptism washed away the child’s guilt of participation in Adam’s sin.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, believed in baptismal regeneration. He reasoned infants should be baptized on the day of their birth because Hebrews circumcised their infants on the 8th day and that, for Christians, the 8th day is the first day. He reasoned that if baptism can wash away the sins of adults then it can wash away the sins of an infant, which would be the infant’s participation with Adam’s sin.
Augustine (circa 400 AD) fully developed infant baptism. He said that baptism of infants forgives them of original sin. He went on to say that any child that died without baptism could not enter heaven but, since the child is not guilty of any personal sin, he would suffer less punishment.
Later teachings of the Middle Ages, as illustrated by Thomas Aquinas’ writings, demand that a person who was baptized as an infant undergo a confirmation of that faith when they come of age. A series of 7 sacraments came to be accepted as the way to heaven: baptism, confirmation, penance, eucharist (the Lord’s supper), marriage, ordination, and extreme unction (last rites to forgive any sin since the last confession).
Luther rejected the idea of baptismal regeneration, believing that baptism was an act of faith and faith saved the soul. He believed that infant baptism aids the infant through the parent’s faith. He wrote a catechism for educating youth and those who went through the program then received confirmation at the end.
Variations of these themes have continued to this day which say that a parent’s faith is exercised when the infant is saved. At a later time, maybe 12-16, the child must affirm his own faith to be saved.
Calvinists of England and Scotland developed Covenant Theology. They believed that there existed a covenant between God and the church similar to the one between God and Abraham. They baptized infant children of parents who belonged to the church. The concept was that the whole family was under the covenant with God. Baptism made the child a church member and his own faith in the covenant made him a joint participant in the covenant. Usually that happened at 12 to 14 years of age.
Baptists, by name, emerged in the 1600’s. They rejected infant baptism and preached believer’s baptism on the basis of Scriptural support. While Congregationalists believed that the church consisted of believing parents and their children, Baptists believed that the church was only composed of believers. To the Baptists, children could not be members until they believe. Baptists held that the infants were in participation with original sin but were held unaccountable because of their inability to believe or even to choose. They said that children go to heaven because all those who die in infancy are elect of God and under God’s grace.
Statistics show that the age in which most children make a profession of faith and are baptized is around 10- 14 years of age. The average age has gone down from the 1800’s when it was in the high teens and up to 20 years old.3
Variations in the Belief of the Age of Accountability
The Mennonite tradition, as expressed by Westminster Theological Journal, suggests that the human race is not guilty of Adam’s sin but each individual is guilty of his own sin. Adam’s sin makes people sinners by choice, not by guilt. The inference is drawn that all infants who die prior to the AOA are saved by default since they have never sinned and are totally innocent.
The Christian Research Institute gives the following variations of the subject. If a child dies before reaching AOA then God’s mercy and grace automatically save the person. Some lean on a Calvinistic side and believe that God’s foreknowledge also includes what would have happened had the child lived. If the child would have been saved later on then he is forgiven if he dies in infancy. It may assumed (but it is not stated) that this position holds that an infant who would not have been saved had he reached adulthood would be eternally lost. One author whose theology seemed to condemn deceased infants still held to the AOA in what he called “a reverent and hopeful agnosticism.”
The Westminster Confession states, “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” This has been understood variously as “those infants who die are the elect and go to heaven” and “those elect infants who die go to heaven and the non elect babies go to perdition.”
At what age are children accountable?
There are many “guestimations” at which age a child becomes accountable. Yahweh’s Restoration Ministry suggested that the AOA is 20 years old. They use the following 5 points as proof.
- Ø A person was considered an adult in Israel by age 20 (Numbers 14:29; 32:11).
- Ø At that age a person was considered worthy to serve in the Temple (Ezra 3:8; Leviticus. 27:3).
- Ø At 20, a man was old enough to go to war (Numbers 26:2).
- Ø Those who were 20 and older had to pay the temple tax (Exodus 30:14).
- Ø No one over 20 was allowed into the Promised Land after the incident at Kadesh Barnea except Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 32:11).
They finished their explanation by stating that their position gave no license for anyone less than 20 “to be profligate and live sinfully” although they gave no reason why such a license should not be assumed.
The ancient Hebrews thought that a child entered adult age spiritually at fourteen years of age and was accountable for his own sins. Isaiah 43:2 1 reads “This people have I formed for myself, they shall set forth my praise.” The Jews based this interpretation on the numerical value of the word this as thirteen. At thirteen the Hebrew lad would prepare for his Bar Mitzvah which took place on or about his fourteenth birthday.
William Hendricks said that it is not a specific age when children become accountable but a time when the individual child is brought to the moment of grace to make a decision for or against Christ by the Spirit of the Lord. He doubted that many children below the age of 9 could be aware enough of their responsibility to God to be accountable for their sins.
Sam Doherty in The Biblical Basis of Child Evangelism said that it is wrong to make the AOA at 12 or 14 years of age. He said that it is much lower than that.
John Rice pointed out that the individual child matures at his own rate. He had 6 children who all made professions of faith at or before 6 years of age, and one at 4 years old. They had been raised all their life, including in the womb, with Bible teaching. The Spirit brought conviction of sin at an early age and thus salvation was accepted. He was not advocating any such age as the norm, but the possibility in a godly atmosphere.
The Theology of the Age of Accountability
One point upon which most Bible teachers can seem to agree is that the Bible does not say anything specifically about at what age a child becomes accountable. Many people seem to believe in it because of their concept of “fairness.” That term is defined by each person according to their own values. Humanism may play a big part in such conclusions. That is, that humans deserve good things and nothing bad would come from God. It is more biblical to say that God always deals justly and righteously. To be fair would mean that God treats everyone alike and with equal opportunity. To be sure, He does not. God works all things according the counsel of His own will and for His glory. Man is the recipient of God’s goodness through His grace, not man’s merit. If God were fair to all then all men would go to hell for their sin. God is gracious and merciful and has provided a sin payment through Jesus Christ. From that we gain favor with Him and the promise of eternal life.
Two doctrines will be briefly stated and examined which have a direct bearing on the AOA. The first is the doctrine of original sin. Second will be the Bible method of salvation.
The basis of the belief of AOA lies in the concept of original sin. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden something changed in them. God had said that the day they ate of the forbidden fruit they would surely die. Their bodies did not die for hundreds of years later but their spirit died that day. That is, they were cut off from God. They had been in a state of innocence but their personal choice to sin brought on death – both spiritual death and physical death.
The far reaching problem that Adam’s sin brought (he is the focus in Scripture because he was the head of his house and head of the race of man) was that every man and woman since Adam has been born with Adam’s sin nature. There are many theories as to how Adam’s sin got transferred to each individual but it did.
Strong‘s Systematic Theology states the human guilt of Adam’s sin in this manner.
“Man’s relations to moral law extend beyond the sphere of conscious and actual transgression, and embrace those moral tendencies and qualities of his being which he has in common with every other member of the race. The Second (point) is that God’s moral government is a government which not only takes account of persons and personal acts … but also judges mankind, not simply as a collection of separate individuals, but also as an organic whole, which can collectively revolt from God and incur the curse of the violated law.”°
The Bible says that death came upon all the human race from Adam’s sin. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned (Romans
What is this death that mankind inherits from Adam? The curse of Adam’s sin that all mankind inherits is two fold. First is physical death. Second is a sin nature that exerts itself independently of God’s will.
Physical death rules this world. When God judged Adam He said that Adam would toil in ground that would fight his efforts to grow food. Adam would toil until his body wore out, died, and went back to dust. All creation, including people, groans and travails with pain under the unhappy curse that is upon nature (Romans 8:19-22). Life is a frustrating struggle for existence and struggle brings weariness and death. Adam’s sin of death is a curse that will not be removed until the coming of the Lord. “The creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption unto the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
WHAT IS DEATH?
There is documentation of many people who have stopped breathing and heart and brain function has ceased and then, some after many hours, they have come back to life. What defines death? (When the Spirit leaves the Body) [This can be determined and measured]
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
This curse is not removed from anyone, even when they become born again believers. God forgives all the sins of a person when they are saved (1 John 1:9). Yet each person is still subject to death. What is forgiven, then? The guilt inherited from Adam’s sins? No. What is forgiven are the sins committed by the individual by his own acts of rebellion and self will. The curse of physical death is not removed until the resurrection of all the saved. Then “death will be swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:54, quoting Isaiah 25:8).
Babies die for the same reason adults die — they share in the whole death cycle in which the earth exists. “In Adam all die” and all humans are in Adam. “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression” (Romans 5:14). Physical death is the curse of Adam. The question of why an individual baby dies can only be answered by the mind of a sovereign God. It is as unexplainable as why any particular individual lives.
The second thing from Adam’s sin is a fallen Adamic nature. There are many Scriptures which describe the depravity of man and his tendency to sin (Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Job 15:14-16; 25:4; Psalms 14:1-3; 51:5; 58:3; 130:3; Pro 21:8; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Isaiah 53:6; 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9;John3:19;Romans3: 9-23; Ephesians2:1, to name a few). Man chooses to sin because he is a sinner by nature. The natural mind of man is enmity (the opposite of love) with God (Romans 8:20). This does not mean that any person is as evil as he can possibly be. It does mean that no one is as good as they ought to be.
The Method of Salvation
Much has been written on this subject but two verses may suffice to represent the way of salvation. “For by grace are ye saved, though faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9). The definition and explanation of GRACE could fill several volumes but simply put it is God love and mercy freely given to men when there is strong reason for condemnation.
Romans 5:12-21 deals with the graciousness of grace and shows how it brings far more blessing and restoration than Adam’s sin brought problems. Grace brings life to men, both spiritually at salvation and physically at the resurrection.
The offer of salvation is called the gospel (good news). I Cor 15:1-3 defines it as the death of Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures, his burial, and the resurrection, according to the Scriptures. That good news is presented by the Word, through reading its words or hearing it preached (Mark 16:15). When it is believed by a sinner then that sinner is born again (John 1:12).
Salvation and young children
How does this deal with the salvation of children who are too young to understand concepts of sin and salvation? Consider two things from Scripture to find the answer.
First consideration: John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.
For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.
This is unique in Scripture. Taking this Scripture at face value, John was born again before he was born. God’s mercy was extended to him before he was of an age when human reason could be exercised in faith. John leaped in the womb over joy that Mary’s voice (Mary was then pregnant with Jesus) sounded in the ear of John’s mother, Elizabeth.
41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
Is this an example of a person being saved without the preaching of the gospel and individual faith? Apparently, yes.
The Rebirth – Salvation
I Corinthians 3:16 (God’s Spirit comes in and we are reborn.)
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.
14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
Then what about the heathen who have never heard the gospel? Are they lost? Romans 1 and 2 would say that they are definitely lost. Why? They are lost because they have reached an age when they have made choices to sin. Romans 1 and 2 deal with people who have chosen to sin, not with infants and children. The isolated world is in need of the gospel. There are multiple Biblical commands to go preach to the world and examples where this was done. The infants and children of those heathen are evidently safe in the mercy of God until they reach a point when they knowingly do evil.
The work of God in salvation
Second consideration: the work of God in salvation. As the consequences of Adam’s sin extend to all the human race, so the redemptive benefits of Christ’s obedience are available for all the race. “For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many” (Romans 5:15).
As Adam’s sin affected all men so the redemption of Christ is available to all men. Babies who die in their infancy are forgiven of their participation with Adam’s sin and are regenerated by the graciousness of God through Christ. The words MUCH MORE indicate the graciousness (far reaching) of God’s grace.
Augustus Strong said “no human being is finally condemned solely on account of original sin; but that all who, like infants, do not commit personal transgressions, are saved through the application of Christ’s atonement.”1
God’s revealed attitudes toward those not accountable
Has God ever excused someone from guilt because they were not old enough to be accountable for their decisions? Consider those under the age of 20 years old at the rebellion of Kadesh Barnea who were judged not accountable for the rebellious decisions of the adults (Numbers 14:29). This does not say that anyone under 20 goes to heaven, but that those under age would not be held accountable for their elder’s decisions.
God recognized the personal innocence of children.
God wanted to spare Ninevah because there were 60,000 children so young they could not tell the right hand from the left hand.
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
God said that young children do not know good from evil.
Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it.
There is a time when children do not know how to refuse evil and choose good.
For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.
Before Jacob and Esau (twins) were born God said they had not done any good or evil.
(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;)
God will not put a child to death for his father’s sins (Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chronicles 25:4).
God has a special love for children. Matthew 18 is the classic chapter on children. Jesus held a child in his lap and said that adults need to be converted and become like little children (v3). He said that to receive a child in the name of Jesus is to receive Jesus. To offend one of them is to offend Him (v6). He said that the angels of the children have the special attention of the Father in Heaven (vlO). Isaiah said that little children are taught a little at a time as their understanding grows (28:11).
The statement of Scripture regarding the place of deceased children
The only place in the Bible that comes close to expressing the heavenly home of a dead child is II Samuel 12:23. The son of David and Bathsheba had just died. David had been consumed with grief over the stricken child and had begged God for seven days to heal his son.
When the baby died David’s servants were afraid David would physically hurt himself in mourning. Instead David washed himself, changed clothes, worshipped and then sat down to eat. When the servants asked him why he could act so calmly, David replied, “But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23).
Some commentaries have interpreted this as David saying that he would also die. Some Covenant Theologians say that David recognized God’s covenant of grace with the nation of Israel and counted that the child was safe and in heaven because of David’s faith, in sort of an umbrella of faith.
It may be noted that David recognized that the child was dead and would not return. His faith in God was a great comfort to him and evidently to Bathsheba for verse 24 says David comforted her after the child’s death. What would be a comfort at a time like that? The only thing that would comfort would be the knowledge that the baby was with Jehovah God and someday the parents would see their baby again.
The OT saints seemed to vision heaven as a family reunion with God (Genesis 49:29; Judges 1:10; I Kings 22:20). David and Bathsheba knew that their baby was in heaven, safe and alive forevermore. They would see him again and be together as a family.
What age will babies be in heaven?
Psalm 110:3 is clearly a Messianic Psalm. It prophecies of Jesus resurrection and says “From the womb of the morning thou hast the dew of thy youth.” Jesus went into the tomb in a physical condition so pitiful that he did not appear human (Isaiah 5 1:14). When he arose from the grave He was in His normal self again. It may be assumed that each believer is raised as was their Savior, in the picture of health and as a young adult. “When He shall appear, we shall be like him” (I John 3:2).
The book of Job adds to this knowledge by stating that if a person who draws near death finds a messenger (presumably, Jesus) who ransoms him, then “his flesh shall be fresher than a child’s; he shall return to the days of his youth” (Job 33:22, 25).
We will be known for what we are:
I Corinthians 13:12
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Deceased babies will not be babies for eternity but be young adults. They will never know sin or sorrow but only constant joy and peace.
Will parents know their infants in heaven? Will the infants know their parents? Mark 9:4 records the transfiguration of Christ. Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus meeting with Moses and Elijah. They had never seen those two OT saints yet knew them when they saw them. This may indicate that we will know each other in heaven. We are promised that our loved ones will descend with Christ for a glorious family reunion (I Thessalonians 4:13-18). This promise of a family gathering is a comfort to believers who lose saved loved ones. They will be together again.
Based on the grace of Christ and the promises of His return it may be believed that saved parents who have lost a baby will, at the rapture of the church, hear their baby, then a young and perfect adult, cry out “Momma! Daddy!” and rush to their arms. For the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:26), God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes (Isaiah 25:8), and so shall we ever be with the Lord (I Thessalonians 4:17).
Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus.
Dr. Charles Brown
Executive Vice President
Landmark Baptist College
810 E Hinson Avenue
Haines City, FL 33844