This article is based on chapter 30 of my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?
Parenthood opens you to new questions you never thought to ask before. For me, it initiated a new stage in my wrestling with salvation and the Gospel: what did it mean for my daughter to be saved? Did I agree that toddlers or young children were possibly under threat of damnation? If so, I’d better start implementing a plan now. What about a four-year-old? Could a child of that age be damned? Here is a recording of my daughter singing “Happy Birthday” to me back in 2006 when she was four-years-old:
Okay, so she’s a bit off-key, but at the very least, surely she is innocent, no?
So I have to ask: was my daughter damnable at that tender age? To put it bluntly, could she have been culpably separated from God for eternity when she was but four years old? And if so, what about a three-year-old? Or a three-month-old? What is the (how should I put this?) damnability threshold, the point at which a child who failed to confess the right beliefs could be damned for that failure? When I first held that newborn seven-pound swaddled bundle in my arms, these questions were no longer merely academic. I needed to find an answer.
From my perspective, it would be unimaginable to think that the God who is Love, and the Jesus who described entry to his Kingdom as becoming like a little child, would damn a four-year-old to hell. If I were to push beyond that intuition in search of an underlying reason for my confidence, I’d be inclined to say that the four-year-old had not yet reached the age of accountability, that is, the age at which point a person becomes accountable for their beliefs and actions (or entrenched in patterns of implacable rebellion). Of course, this is not to suggest that a four-year-old is completely unaccountable for their beliefs and actions. Rather, it is just to say that a four-year-old is not ultimately accountable for a decision so momentous that it could result in their eternal damnation.
The notion of an age of accountability appears to draw on an analogy with the so-called age of majority, that legal threshold which demarcates the move from childhood to adulthood. The transition into the age of majority is significant for a number of reasons. For example, a person is not legally responsible for a contract they sign when they are still a legal minor. But the moment they become a legal adult, they are held responsible. Further, criminal responsibility varies as to whether the crime was committed when the individual was a legal minor vs. an adult. For these and many other reasons, the age of majority threshold is enormously significant legally, morally, socially, and personally.
As significant as the age of majority is in contemporary civil society, it utterly pales in importance with the age of accountability. To fill out the picture, we begin with two stages:
1) the age of innocence when a person is innocent and not damnable;
2) the age of accountability when a person is guilty and damnable.
A damnability threshold divides these two periods. Every human being begins in the age of innocence, the period of time during which one is secure for heaven and thus will not be damned for any sins they may commit. Eventually, as each individual matures he/she crosses the damnability threshold into the age of accountability, the period of time during which one becomes responsible and thus damnable for one’s sin.
It is important to appreciate that just as there are no gradations between heaven and hell (that is, you’re going to one or the other) so there are no gradations between innocence and damnability (you’re either one or the other).
And in case you were wondering, that fact doesn’t change if you accept the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, for all who enter purgatory eventually move on to heaven. So even with purgatory there still are only two final options: heaven or hell.
Whether you like it or not, the choice is an absolute binary: either one is ultimately saved or one is ultimately damned; either one (eventually) enters an eternity of blissful existence after death or one faces a horrible fate of destruction. There simply are no other options.
It is the very absolute, binary nature of the choice that is so distressing, particularly when considering children and their gradual journey toward moral responsibility. Societies that observe an age of majority are always clear on when that point is and for good reason given that it represents the hugely important transition into a new age of adult responsibilities. Given that crossing the damnability threshold into the age of accountability represents a transition point of unimaginably greater significance (the difference between the default destination of heaven and the possibility of hell), wouldn’t one expect that God would make it that much clearer when a person crosses into the age of accountability?
So what does the Bible say about the age of accountability? Given the enormous burdens that must be borne by this doctrine, it is quite surprising to discover that the textual support for it is, in fact, surprisingly thin. Indeed, the truth is that it takes a bit of imagination to find anything in the Bible that may be viewed as direct evidence for a clear transition from innocence to accountability.
The most commonly cited text in favor of a period of innocence is found in 2 Samuel. The moment comes just after David’s newborn child tragically dies. In response, he stoically observes: “now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:23, NIV 1984) As the reasoning goes, David is expressing the conviction that he will be reunited with his child again in heaven. And that provides evidence for an age of innocence, at least for newborn infants.
Even if we accept that David is expressing this hope, the fact is that it only applies to newborn infants. David says nothing about older infants, toddlers, or four-year-olds. Consequently, once we attempt to extend an age of innocence to a wider pool of individuals, we are moving well beyond David’s prayer and into the realm of hopeful speculation. And few parents will be content to leave the salvation of their beloved children to the realm of mere speculation, hopeful or not.
There is another big problem with appealing to David’s prayer as evidence for an age of innocence. The problem here is that the Hebrew understanding of the afterlife developed over time, and the notion of the clearly distinct states we know as heaven and hell only appeared after David spoke these words. At the time David expressed his sentiment, the common view was that at death all people without distinction went to sheol, the place of the dead.
Given that fact, when David says he would be reunited with his infant son again, he likely wasn’t imagining some victorious reunion in heaven which was based on the child’s default state of innocence. Rather, he was only anticipating the time when he would join his child in the realm of the dead. Consequently, the text simply doesn’t provide a guarantee that all infants who die go to heaven.
Here’s another way to approach the matter. Could it be that the first sin, if there is a first sin, that this act constitutes the moment when a child crosses that threshold of damnability? Could it be that a single first sin is enough to leave a child worthy of damnation? That certainly is a disconcerting thought. But if we are to consider that possibility we must ask the question: what might a first sin look like?
Here’s a candidate. When my niece was a two-year-old she asked her mother for a glass of water. So her mom obligingly poured her daughter a cup. The child took the cup, looked defiantly at her mother, and dumped the water out on the carpet. Could that have been her first sin? Perhaps, and if it was then it was appropriately dramatic!
If we grant that this was a first sin, could it also be the moment when that child crossed the threshold from innocence to accountability? Some theologians seem to think so. And to strengthen the claim they ask us to consider the nature of sin at its root. They say that any sin–no matter how seemingly trivial–is ultimately an offense against the sovereign Lord of the universe.
As evidence, these folk note that when King David confessed his sins against Uriah, Bathsheba, and the nation, he famously observes that it is against the Lord only that he has sinned (Psalm 51:4). These theologians argue that this shows all sin to be, at its root, an offense against God. And, so the reasoning continues, any sin against an infinite God is worthy of infinite damnation. Thus, on this view in the moment that a two-year-old obstinately pours out a cup of water on the carpet, she sins against God and thereby crosses the threshold into being an appropriate subject of eternal damnation.
But even if I concede that all sins are, in some sense, a sin against God, I remain skeptical of the accompanying calculus which insists that every sin, no matter how seemingly trivial, thereby makes one a proper object of eternal damnation. The two-year-old who has the nerve to challenge her mother’s authority may be deserving of a time-out. If you’re more traditional in your preferred disciplinary methods, you might even think she deserves a spanking. But can we really think that by committing this action she is now a fitting object for infinite and eternal damnation? Sorry but I just can’t buy that one. Eternally damned toddlers?! Surely that can’t be right!
As I reflect on this notion of responsibility, I can’t help but suspect that thinking in terms of one single threshold of damnability is just too simple a grid given the fact that moral agency and moral accountability appear to come in degrees. In short, my intuitions and experience strongly support the conclusion that (all other things being equal), a two-year-old is more responsible than a one-year-old, a three-year-old is more responsible than a two-year-old, a thirteen-year-old is more responsible than a three-year-old, and so on. And if that’s true then this reality should be reflected in our accounts of what it takes to be damned. Unfortunately, degrees of responsibility are not recognized on a model in which damnability, like pregnancy, is a binary status: either you’re pregnant or you’re not, and either you’re a proper object of damnation or you’re not.
Given that the age of accountability is a binary state, the next question we need to consider is whether there is a fixed date of damnation for every person, a single moment that functions like the age of majority. Could it be that every person becomes damnable at the same time on their fifth or thirteenth or eighteenth birthday, for example? If this is the case, then which date is it?
I have two big problems with the idea that there is a single universal damnability date for everyone. The first problem, as I already suggested, is that God has neglected to tell us when precisely that date is. As a doting-borderline-neurotic helicopter parent, that seems to me to be a significant oversight. What could possibly be wrong with letting worried parents know the date at which their beloved progeny become damnable?
My deeper problem is with the very idea of a single universal damnation threshold. As I said, this seems to be fundamentally unjust given the gradual way that moral agency, responsibility, and guilt are acquired at different times. What is more, we all have different types of emotional and cognitive baggage that can slow our development and skew our choices. We can all probably think of particular kids who, through no fault of their own, experience various cognitive and emotional learning delays. Is it really the case that God would hold all these individuals with their various degrees of cognitive and emotional development and responsibility to be damnable on the same day?
I’m inclined to say no: I think God would take the details of each individual life into account. And that leads me to believe that there couldn’t be a single, fixed damnability moment for everyone. Instead, I suspect that if damnability is a binary status with a momentary threshold, it is one that is crossed at a different moment for every individual. To change metaphors, you might say that God flips the damnability switch at the appropriate moment for every person based on his perfect knowledge of their particular range of cognitive abilities and life experiences.
While that seems like a reasonable compromise, it also has a rather unfortunate implication: barring some special revelation, it now follows that nobody knows the day on which they first become damnable. And yet, surely as with the age of majority, this is important information to have. Once again, this doting-borderline-neurotic helicopter parent wants to know the first day my kid would be in danger of going to hell!
With these thoughts in mind, I turn my attention back to my infant daughter sleeping peacefully in my arms. The questions remain unaswered, at least to the precision that a parent would demand. And yet, I can still take comfort in the knowledge that the God who knows the answers is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more merciful than I could ever be. And that itself is an answer.
For further discussion, see my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?