Dan wrote a passionate comment, questioning where the conditionalism theory might take us in terms of infants and others who are not morally accountable. I recommend that you read it.
I thank Dan for it, because he’s pushed me to dig deeper.
Every position has its difficulties. Consider the traditional view. A child who dies before the age of accountability goes to heaven to live with God forever. However, if the child dies the day after attaining the age of accountability, having committed but a single sin, without having found Jesus, the child suffers eternal conscious torment. That’s a truly awful doctrine.
Moreover, under the traditional view, if the child is old enough to be baptized, he’s old enough to be accountable. And that means some children are baptized too young for the baptism to count and that some young children in Christian families die after the age of accountability but before baptism.
While the traditional teaching gives comfort to those whose very young children have died, it gives very little comfort to those whose children died when they were old enough to have possibly attained the age of accountability. And the traditional doctrine is very, very vague about just when a child becomes accountable.
And, worse yet, some (not nearly all) Calvinists reject the age of accountability entirely as a purely Arminian doctrine, and declare that infants who are not among the elect die and suffer eternal conscious torment, whereas infants who die and are among the elect enjoy eternity in heaven. John Piper’s version of Calvinism, however, teaches an age of accountability.
And so the traditional views have very little to commend them when it comes to the fate of children.
Possible conditionalist positions on the age of accountability
As to the conditionalist position, I can’t find where Edward Fudge has addressed the age of accountability question directly, but I can imagine three possible outcomes within the conditionalist school of thought —
1. Children who die before reaching the age of accountability do not spend eternity in heaven but suffer no punishment at all. They cease to exist. If they’ve reached the age of accountability and haven’t been saved, they are accountable and are punished with whatever blows are just.
2. Children who die before reaching the age of accountability spend eternity in heaven. If they’ve reached age of accountability, they are accountable and are punished with whatever blows are just. Children who die shortly after attaining the age of accountability suffer very few blows, but are denied eternity with Jesus.
3. Children who are born within the covenant community who die before reaching the age of accountability spend eternity in heaven. They are like the children of the Israelites, born into the covenant community but, once they reach the age of accountability, become capable of abandoning the community, being cut off, and suffering just punishment. Those children who die outside the covenant community before the age of accountability die without punishment but don’t enter the kingdom.
I honestly don’t know which one is correct or whether the answer is even revealed. I can see arguments for all three. But some arguments seem better than others to me. And I think working through the arguments can shed a lot of light on the subject.
Arguments pro and con
1. In support of 1 is the fact that one can only enter a kingdom by submitting to the king or being born in the kingdom (see 3). There is no promise of the kingdom to children. Moreover, the scriptures repeatedly teach that one can find salvation only by faith in Jesus. A very young child is incapable faith.
(John 3:18 ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
On the other hand, one could argue that the scriptures insisting on faith are speaking only of those who are accountable, supported by —
(Mar 10:14-15 ESV) 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
David said after the death of his son at age 8 days —
(2Sa 12:22-23 ESV) 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
“I shall go to him” is taken by many as looking forward to heaven, not merely the grave. David was speaking of hope, not despair. After all, this is the moment when he ended his fast and stopped mourning.
And, of course, Adam and Eve weren’t saved by faith but by their non-accountability due to their ignorance — until they violated the one law they were accountable for.
2. In support of 2 is the fact that Adam and Eve existed pre-Fall in a deathless state. Paul makes this quite clear in Roman 5. Because they were innocent in their ignorance of God’s will, they would never die — which surely means they would have enjoyed everlasting life with God, as eternal death only entered the world after they sinned.
(Rom 5:12-13 ESV) 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.
“Where there is no law” includes “where the law is not known.” After all, the point of Genesis 2 is that there were indeed laws beyond “don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” but they weren’t known to Adam and Eve and so they weren’t accountable for those laws. Else, there’d have been no knowledge of good and evil to gain!
3. The covenant argument is familiar territory in many denominations that teach various variations on the theme. The idea is that the church is like Israel in the desert — a typology that permeates the New Testament. If the church is like ancient Israel, then its children are saved by virtue of the covenant relationship of their family, unless the children reach the age of accountability and choose to rebel against God.
(Heb 3:13-18 ESV) 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?
It’s not a point I can find squarely in the New Testament, but the comparison of the church to Israel in the wilderness shows up throughout the New Testament.
Going even deeper: What is the age of accountability?
One of the classic arguments against the age of accountability is that it’s just not found in the Bible. However, that’s not entirely true —
(Num 32:11-12 ESV) 11 ‘Surely none of the men who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not wholly followed me, 12 none except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed the LORD.’
(Num 14:28-31 ESV) 28 Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the LORD, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: 29 your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, 30 not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected.
(Deu 1:39 ESV) 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.
The Torah plainly teaches that God treated only those Israelites 20 years old and older as accountable, but those 19 and younger as having “no knowledge of good or evil.” And they were allowed to enter the Promised Land, whereas all Israelites 20 years old and older when they refused to enter the Promised Land the first time (when the spies scouted out the land) died in the desert for their lack of faith and rebellion.
Now, you can’t help but notice the parallel of “knowledge of good and evil” in Deu 1:39 with Gen 2:17, 3:5, and 3:22. God seems to be clearly comparing the non-accountability of the children of the Israelites to the innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall.
Isaiah contains a passage that also bears on the question —
(Isa 7:15-16 ESV) 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.
It’s not clear how old the boy was when the prophecy was fulfilled, but certainly the passage says that there is an age before which a child doesn’t know how to refuse evil and choose good.
Therefore, the concept of an age of accountability is certainly in the scriptures, and in Deuteronomy, it’s closely associated with Adam and Eve before they sinned. Amazingly enough, it’s age 20, which seems too old, at first glance.
Could 20 be right?
Interestingly, modern science has shown that the human brain doesn’t mature until around age 20, and until then, the brain is not fully equipped to weigh rewards and punishments sensibly. (It’s a well-sourced article.) There’s also this article in the Harvard Magazine. Most importantly, Bill Cosby agrees.
You see, I think Isaiah has it right. It’s not so much about knowing right and wrong. Three-year old children often know enough to very intentionally disobey their parents! Rather, they don’t know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” And if that’s the standard, age 20 isn’t all that crazy.
Now, while we can imagine God being lenient to teenagers, we all know people who were baptized well before age 12, and the baptism seems to have “taken” — they act very much like saved people, filled with the Spirit.
You see, being accountable and being capable of saving faith are two different things, and there’s a lot of appeal to the idea that there may be several years of overlap, during which a child is not accountable but capable of coming to saving faith. After all, if accountability and the ability to have faith occur at the same moment, then no one could be saved without first being damned — unless they happen to be baptized at the very moment of accountability.
I rather like the idea that the time frames overlap. It’s much more like the God who is revealed in Jesus than the traditional teaching.
Quite clearly, I find myself in disagreement with the traditional eternal conscious torment viewpoint. And while I don’t pretend to know all the answers, I know that whatever the outcome is, it’s no worse than just. God does not unfairly punish people. And I am entirely content to let God do the judging.
It’s hard to be dogmatic. Of the three positions suggested, 1 appears to be the weakest to me, because of the counter arguments found in the Torah and Isaiah, especially the parallel between Deuteronomy 1:39 and the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” in the Garden. I’m not entirely comfortable insisting on age 20 as the age of accountability, but neither can I build a strong case against it. At least I think we can all take comfort in the notion that the age of accountability is likely older than traditionally insisted.
However, all cases of a child being deemed non-accountable speak of a child who is part of the covenant community. While these passages seem to contradict 1, they don’t directly speak to the salvation of those who die before the age of accountability outside the covenant community, that is, outside a Christian home. Therefore, 3 is not as crazy at it might at first seem.
Having said that, my instinct is that, of the three positions, 1 is the least likely to be true. And I realize that’s not perfectly consistent with my previous post, but that’s why there’s a comment feature on the blog — so the readers can straighten me out. I’m always glad when that happens.