The Age of Accountability
On June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five children, one by one, in the bathtub. It is a horrific story. She was suffering from postpartum psychosis, but the reasons she gives that drove her to commit such acts are telling:
"It was the seventh deadly sin. My children weren't righteous. They stumbled because I was evil. The way I was raising them they could never be saved," she told the jail psychiatrist. "They were doomed to perish in the fires of hell" (Roche 2002).
She confirmed this line of reasoning motivated her actions again in an interview with forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz:
"Before you did it," Dietz asked Andrea during one videotaped session, "did you think it was wrong?"
Dietz asked, "Why did you not think it wrong?"
Andrea answered without hesitation. "If I didn't do it, they would be tormented by Satan” (Roche 2002).
Her chilling rationale for killing her children was inspired by a misguided understanding of hell and the nature of God’s character. She also seemed to have the idea that killing her children while they were young would spare them from hell and being tormented by Satan there. Where did such an idea originate?
The answer to this question lies in an idea that was developed to soften the harshness of the traditional doctrine of hell: the age of accountability. According to this idea, people must be mature enough to be able to cognitively understand their sin and need for a Savior before being held accountable for their sins. It seems to be generally assumed that people reach this age at around twelve or thirteen years of age (because as everyone knows, this age bracket is very mature and able to make sound decisions). Actually, it seems one could only arrive at such a conclusion if they haven’t spent much time around twelve or thirteen year old kids! For most people it is probably one of the most tumultuous and unreasonable seasons of their lives!
Nevertheless, many cling to the age of accountability concept because it makes eternal conscious torment in hell seem a little less unjust. After all, it’s only adolescents and up who will fry for all eternity, not little kids or babies. While this might make one feel slightly better about the doctrine, there are still numerous moral and philosophical problems with it. We will address these soon, but before we do, let’s first consider whether the age of accountability is a biblical concept at all. Does the Bible somewhere state that babies and children are not accountable for sin until they reach a certain age?
The answer is no. The Bible makes no such claim. Proponents often claim that such a concept is implied by certain verses. Here is one that is often cited:
2 Samuel 12:22-23
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?’ 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.”
In context, David’s son, whom he fathered with Bathsheba, has died. It is clear that David is saying that he cannot bring his son back to life: he’s dead. Then he says, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” For some reason, people think that this is support for the age of accountability, but it neither explicitly nor implicitly supports such a conjecture. David is simply saying that he too will one day join his son in death, but his son won’t return to life with him presently. In the Old Testament, there is little demonstrable understanding of an afterlife. Instead, we see that all go to Sheol, or the grave. David is making a clear statement that he too will go to Sheol, but his son would not rejoin him in this life. How one can derive the idea that this somehow supports the concept that people are not accountable for sin until they reach the age of twelve or thirteen is beyond me. This is simply not what the verse is about.
There are a few other verses that are sometimes cited but likewise none of them really support the age of accountability. For example, people sometimes cite that twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem to have discussions with religious teachers in the temple in Luke 2. How on earth can this possibly be extrapolated to the concept that twelve is the age of accountability? Once again, this interpretation has nothing to do with what the passage is actually saying. Does this therefore mean that there is no hope for infants and children who have died without professing Christ?
Of course not! But we do not need to derive this hope from extra-biblical proposal. Instead we can look to the Bible itself and see God’s heart for all people. We can see that He is the Savior of all people, the Savior of the world, the ransom for all people, and the Good Shepherd who leaves no one behind. We can remember Jesus great love for children and that He said, "let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matthew 19:14). We can also see that His judgments are righteous and fair. We see that God “will repay each person according to what they have done,” and judge impartially (Romans 2:6), according to “what their deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:10, see also Revelation 20 and elsewhere). We also see that “the Lord longs to be gracious” and will show compassion because He “is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18).
From these biblical concepts we can be confident that God will show mercy to those who were unable to choose him yet. After all, what deed has an infant done to merit eternal torment? Too much crying? Too many soiled diapers? A righteous judge simply could not condemn infants to eternal suffering. That is not a righteous judgment and everyone, in their consciences, knows this. And we have actual, biblical support that God will judge righteously, instead of unsupported conjecture and an invented concept like the age of accountability.
Problems with The Age of Accountability
There really is no compelling scriptural reason for holding to the age of accountability. We can, however, trust what the Bible does say about God’s character and justice and put our confidence for the salvation of children and babies in this. With this understanding, let’s now look at some of the philosophical and moral problems created by holding to the age of accountability concept.
Problem 1: Why Let Children Live?
This is perhaps the most disturbing moral problem that is introduced by the age of accountability concept. If it is true that God will be merciful to children up until a certain age, after which they will be accountable for their sins and tormented forever, why is it morally right to let children live? If you can save them by killing them before they reach the age of accountability, wouldn’t this be the best possible thing that you could do for them? You see, this was the reasoning of Andrea Yates. And the really disturbing part about it is that it is actually rational (if it is actually true that death at a young age means you will be shown mercy and avoid eternal suffering). Of course, everyone knows that murdering children is morally wrong and terrible. But the age of accountability concept has the potential to make murder and infanticide seem like a moral good, as a trade-off between momentary survival on this broken world and eternal bliss in heaven.
If the age of accountability were actually true, abortion would also be a moral good. Why should a child be raised by unprepared parents in an environment that might lead to eternal perdition rather than be aborted and go straight to heaven? I certainly do not agree with this notion, but holding to the idea that everyone is saved from hell until they reach a certain age creates these moral and philosophical questions. Ironically, some people like to claim that telling people of God’s great love for all of humanity is dangerous. Perhaps instead, creating unbiblical concepts to defend the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is the real danger. I think the children of Andrea Yates would agree with the latter.
Problem 2: What Age is the Age?
Another problem with the age of accountability concept is that it is completely arbitrary about the age at which a person is mature enough to be accountable. Why on earth would a twelve-year-old with raging hormones in one of the most awkward seasons of human existence be prepared to make decisions of eternal weight? Why is an eleven-year-old not equally capable of understanding the gospel?
If we actually want to think about human development scientifically, it must be understood that the brains of twelve-year-olds aren’t even close to mature. Instead, “our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years” (Dobbs 2011). The ability to make reasoned mature decisions develops rather slowly, according to neuroscientists. Consider the following from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood (2016).
So, the part of the brain that is most significant in making informed, mature decisions is still a work in progress well into adulthood. At what point does such a brain cross over into the age of accountability? Where is the threshold? I think that adults will readily admit continued growth and maturation of thought never really stops. We are constantly changing and growing. Why should teenagers, whose strangely immature behavior is well-documented, be worthy of eternal torment when many of their actions seem to be due to an underdeveloped frontal cortex? Inventing an age of accountability at which sufficient maturity is attained is artificial and arbitrary. It makes far more sense to place our trust in God’s righteousness, mercy, justice, and love as the reasons why He won’t endlessly torture young people, than to adhere to biblically untenable imaginings.
Problem 3: The End of God’s Love
Another important question is why God’s love for people ends once they have reached a certain age. It is presumed by the age of accountability that God loves all children, but then ceases to extend unmerited grace to people once they should know better about their sin. Why would this be true when the Bible clearly tells us that God’s “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8)?
There is not a compelling biblical reason to believe that God ceases to love individuals because they know they are sinning. Instead we are told that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In the story of the prodigal son, we see the Father seeing His adult son, who willfully and knowingly rebelled, while he “was still a long way off.” His response was to run to him, filled with compassion, and throw a great celebration in his honor. We are told that this son squandered his inheritance on prostitutes. This is no eleven-year-old boy, but rather a consciously defiant adult who had snubbed his Father and chosen sin. Yet, God still looks for Him on the horizon, waiting for His return and rejoicing when it happens. God’s love doesn’t end because we are old enough to know better. Instead, He comes to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), regardless of their ages.
Problem 4: The Alternative
One final observation for traditionalists regarding the age of accountability is that one must accept the stark alternative if it is not true. If there is no such thing as the age of accountability (and biblically there is no compelling evidence for it), then a proponent of the traditional doctrine must assert that all infants, unborn children, and children below a certain age will experience eternal conscious torment if they die before confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. In other words, every infant and every miscarried child will be tormented forever, since infants and unborn children presumably have no way of professing faith in Christ.
It must be remembered that part of the traditional conceptualization of hell is the concept of original sin and that all are born sinful. As the Psalmist says: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Therefore, according to the traditional doctrine, there is no time at which a person is righteous apart from a profession of faith in Christ, and all deserve hell until that happens, regardless of age. Indeed, this is why the Catholic church (and other Christian groups) have traditionally baptized infants, believing that this ceremony protected them from damnation. Thomas Aquinas, for example, states “it became necessary to baptize children, that, as in birth they incurred damnation…” (Aquinas). But what of those infants who die before baptism, those who are stillborn, or those who are miscarried in the womb? The traditional doctrine offers no assurance that these children will be saved from eternal hell.
Now, some may object that God would not torture infants because that would be morally wrong. And they would be right, but they would not be consistent with the traditional doctrine. Our consciences, however, do not allow us to accept the notion that tormenting babies eternally is morally good; it is objectively morally wrong. I have an infant son, and if someone were to torture him for no reason, I am 100 percent positive that their actions would be evil. I think that everyone knows this deep down.
This is why the age of accountability was created. It is a convenient way to escape facing the true implications of the doctrine of eternal torment for all unbelievers. As such, it is a crucial underpinning to the doctrine, without which many Christians would be unable to stomach its undeniable cruelty. Yet, it must be admitted that it is an invention of man that is not biblically supported. It is somewhat ironic that traditionalists attempt to claim strict adherence to the Bible as the source of truth while simultaneously inventing extrabiblical supports to make the hell doctrine seem less horrific. It would be more honest to acknowledge that the Bible is silent about an age of accountability, and therefore offers us no assurance of the salvation of babies if the traditional doctrine is held.
If, however, we hold to the biblical truths of God’s righteous, fair justice, His unending mercy, and His deep love for the whole world that He came to save, we can have confidence that God will indeed be true to His promises to save even the youngest of us who can’t articulate our faith in Him yet.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Aacap. “Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making.” Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Sept. 2016, www.aacap.org/aacap/ families_and_youth/ facts_for_families/FFF-Guide/ The-Teen-Brain-Behavior-Problem-Solving-and-Decision-Making-095.aspx .
Aquinas, Thomas. “The Summa Theologica.” Summa Theologica, dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/ TP/TP068.html#TPQ68A9THEP1 .
Dobbs, David. “Beautiful Brains.” National Geographic Magazine - NGM.Com, Oct. 2011, ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/ 2011/10/teenage-brains/dobbs-text .
Roche, Timothy. “Andrea Yates: More To The Story.” Time, Time Inc., 18 Mar. 2002, content.time.com/time/nation/ article/0,8599,218445,00.html .