There is a popular idea among Christians that there is some age of accountability before which point a person who dies without having made a cognitive confession of faith in Christ still gets to go to heaven. But after that point failure to pray the appropriate prayer will result in eternal damnation.
Here’s an illustration to illumine one problem with that popular picture. Imagine a hyper-competitive East Asian country. Let’s call it “Korpan”. In Korpan children are tested the week of their third birthday by a team of government experts. These experts spend the week observing the behavior of these toddlers and evaluating their results on a battery of tests. Based on that week’s testing, the children are then shuttled into either an “academic” education program or a “trade” program. All students in the academic program go on to university and become the ruling elites while those in the trade program gain a basic skill that equips them for a marginal life in the working underclass.
Most people would find the Korpan system to be a terribly unfair way to determine the destiny of a child. You can’t determine the life course of a person by observing their behavior for a week as a three year old, not least because the child cannot possibly comprehend the gravity of the situation.
But is the popular view of damnation any more plausible? Does it seem any more fair? Consider Brad, raised in a comfortable, irreligious suburban North American home. He never heard much about Christianity except from his parents — both professors at the local university — who declared how absurd and historically tenuous it was. He was a generally good person (meaning the kind of kid you’d readily rent an apartment to or want to be dating your daughter), satisfied in his life and lacking any deep existential hole that needed to be filled. A week after his seventeenth (or eighteenth or nineteenth) birthday Brad was hit and killed by a drunk driver.
Game over. The results of the seventeen (or eighteen or nineteen) years of observation are in. Brad goes to hell to be subjected to greater psychological and physical suffering and torment than a person can imagine and to experience it for eternity.
And you thought Korpan was being unfair!