Is there an age of accountability in the Bible? What happens to babies that die?
The concept of an age of accountability is that there is a certain age at which people become accountable to respond to the gospel of Jesus for salvation. Before this time, this belief teaches that children who die go to heaven because they were not old enough to understand what it means to choose faith in Christ. Some writers also call this time period the age of innocence.
Thirteen is the most common number given for the age of accountability, based on the Jewish custom that a child becomes an adult at the age of 13. Others use 20 years of age, based on the age given regarding those who would die in the desert due to their unbelief during the time of Moses (Numbers 14:29-30). However, the Bible gives no direct support for a particular age of accountability. It likely varies from child to child. A child has passed the age of accountability once he or she is capable of making a faith decision for or against Christ.
When discussing this important issue, many point to 2 Samuel 12:21-23 in which King David fasts and prays for his infant son who is ill. When the child dies, David stops fasting and mourning. His servants are confused, and they say, “’What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.’ 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 these words, several observations can be made.
First, David was confident he would once again see his infant son who had died. The only possible place David would have in mind is in the presence of God in heaven.
Second, David had a positive future in mind. Some have argued that this is merely a reference to death in general, but the fact that David is no longer in mourning means he has a much better ending in mind.
Third, David found comfort when his child passed away. Why? His view of God included a deep understanding of God’s love for children. Those unable to respond to the call of the Shepherd (Psalm 23) can rest assured that the Great Shepherd would extend His care to them. To further the analogy, a shepherd would offer the most protection to the youngest and most needy of his flock, knowing that death would be certain without his intervention.
While the Bible does not directly state that young children or others unable to make a decision to follow Christ by faith will be in heaven, there is no reason to believe that God would not choose to mercifully save those who cannot make a faith decision. God’s mercy extends to all sinners at a time when they cannot help themselves (Romans 5:8). We can also take into account 1 John 2:2, which teaches that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” This verse is clear that the death of Christ is sufficient for all sins. If God has chosen to cover the sins of young children and others unable to come to Him by faith, then the blood of Christ is certainly sufficient to do so.
In the end, the age of accountability is not a certain age but the theological idea that God’s grace extends to those too young to make a decision to follow Christ by faith as the Bible teaches (Ephesians 2:8-9). We can trust that the Lord’s grace covers those unable to respond as He has commanded, yet we must continue to strive to share the gospel message to all who can believe and stand in need of the salvation only Jesus provides.
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