This question is one for which there is not a definitive answer. It is God who saves, so we can never say with certainty who is or is not saved. However, the Bible does provide great biblical reasoning that helps us answer this question.
Please read and digest the full answer to this question. You need to be prepared with words of comfort if someone you know or love loses a young child, baby, unborn baby or mentally impaired loved one. God can use you to comfort them by telling of His amazing grace for these little ones.
Because it’s sufficiently clear in Scripture that for salvation one must “confess with their mouth and believe in their heart that God raised Jesus from death,” (Romans 10:9), we must ask, what about those who are too young to understand the gospel of saving grace? Or the unborn, or the mentally impaired at any age, who are unable to hear or understand the gospel message? These questions are addressed with a doctrine called the Age of Accountability.
The Age of Accountability is not clearly defined in the Bible. However, it is widely accepted and there are many Bible verses and passages that support this teaching.
I believe the Age of Accountability should more accurately be described as the Level of Accountability—meaning, the time when someone comes to a level of understanding who God is, who they are, what Jesus has done for them and what He offers to them. “Level” is a much better determining factor to describe this doctrine, because the age at which someone comes to understand the gospel can vary greatly from person to person. However, for the purposes of addressing this question, I will use the most common term for this doctrine, the Age of Accountability.
The Age of Accountability
There is great deal of scriptural support to believe that those who die before making a confession of faith in Christ go immediately to be with the Lord. Let’s define the Age of Accountability and take a look at the passages that support this doctrine.
The Age of Accountability is based on one’s ability to
- Understand Who God is and who they are (a sinner).
- Discern good from evil and right from wrong, based upon the moral standards set forth by God in His Law.
- Understand that transgressing God’s Law is sin, because it is rebellion against God.
When someone is able to understand those three things, they are able to:
- Experience the sorrow of sinning against a Holy God.
- Understand that sin is punishable by death.
- Understand that God sent Jesus and He offers forgiveness and salvation.
Once a person understands these things, he is then accountable for a response. God sent His Son to die on the cross and pay for our sin. Once someone has knowledge, there is only one of two responses they can make:
- Repent of sins and trust in Jesus’ finished work on the cross for salvation.
- Knowingly and willfully reject God’s provision of payment for one’s sins.
So the question remains—what about infants and young children who are incapable of such understanding and response? And what about a person of any age with severe mental disabilities or an unborn baby?
For those who are too young to understand, or incapable of understanding, the Age of Accountability doctrine teaches that God does NOT condemn them. This is based on the nature and character of a loving, merciful and just God and it is supported with a number of verses of Scripture.
Scriptural Support for The Age of Accountability
Let’s reason from the Scripture about why this doctrine is widely accepted in the church.
At the death of his infant son, David expressed belief that his son had gone to Heaven. He also believed that he would see his son again one day.
2 Samuel 12:23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.
“I shall go to him. . .” David knew that he would join his son one day, in the place where his son went at death. This clearly illustrates an understanding of afterlife and begs the question, where would David go to be with his son? In Old Testament understanding there were two abodes of the dead—a place of comfort for those who trusted in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and a place of torment for those who did not. It is reasonable to assume that David believed he would be reunited with his son in the place of comfort for the righteous dead. This place is referred to as Abraham’s Bosom in Luke 16. In addition to knowing that he would one day see his son again, David also found comfort in this knowledge. We know this because, after David said he would go to be with his son, he was able to comfort his wife.
2 Samuel 12:24 And David comforted Bathsheba his wife…
We read in Scripture an example of God sparing the children of unbelieving parents.
After God delivered His people from Egyptian bondage, He led them to a place called Kadesh Barnea where they were to enter into the Promised Land. The Israelites sent in 12 spies to determine what they would face when they entered the land. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the spies returned fearful and in doubt. Because the nation did not trust God, He decreed that the adult generation would die in the wilderness (Number 14:29).
We note that this judgment was not upon the children of this generation. . .they were exempt and not held accountable for something they did not understand.
Deuteronomy 1:39 Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it.
In another event, the Bible records that God spared the children of rebellious parents when He judged them. Numbers 16 records the rebellion of Korah, a Levite, and Dathan, Abiram and On, all Reubenites, who together revolted against the authority of Moses and Aaron (both Levites). Their rebellion was an attempt to discredit the authority of Moses and Aaron’s service as High Priest and to increase their authority and position. In rising up against Moses and Aaron, the Lord’s appointed, they were also rising up against the Lord. Their rebellion was judged by God, when. . .
Numbers 16:32 The earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.
While God judged the men and their families (their houses) by imposing death, we are told that the children of Korah were spared.
Numbers 26:10-11 And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died, what time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men: and they became a sign. Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not.
Children belong to God. God calls them innocents.
Jeremiah 2:34 Also in thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the poor innocents: I have not found it by secret search, but upon all these.
Jeremiah 19:4 Because they have forsaken me, and have estranged this place, and have burned incense in it unto other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers have known, nor the kings of Judah, and have filled this place with the blood of innocents;
Although children are born sinful creatures, they are not responsible in the same way as those who sin with knowledge of who God is, and with an understanding that all sin is a rebellion against God. God calls children “innocents.” The doctrine of the Age of Accountability teaches that those who do not understand sin against God and the gospel of saving grace in Jesus Christ are given the Lord’s mercy and grace.
All the threats of Hell in the Bible are reserved for unregenerate people who sin knowingly. They will not inherit eternal life:
Galatians 5:19-21 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. . . they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Revelation 21:8 says, “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
This next reasoning is more controversial and is presented for your consideration and study. It is based on sin not being imputed where there is no knowledge.
Because babies, young children, the unborn and the mentally impaired are unable to attain the knowledge of God and His Law, they do not have a knowledge of sin. Therefore sin is not imputed, as it is to those who have knowledge.
Romans 3:20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Romans 5:13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. . .)
This does not mean that children are born without a sin nature. We know that every person who enters this world has a sin nature. We also know that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
Let’s read the broader context and the complete parenthetical which contains the verse that supports this reasoning.
Romans 5:11-17 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned; (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)
This reasoning focuses again on God’s mercy being given to those who are unable to understand sin, the consequences of sin and the necessary response to the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. The difference with this reasoning, and what makes it controversial, is that it theorizes that sin is not imputed where there is no knowledge.
Finally, Jesus repeatedly spoke of young children inheriting the Kingdom. These are such beautiful words of love, mercy, and grace. I believe that they assure us of the heavenly destiny of babies, young children, the unborn and the mentally impaired:
Matthew 19:13-14 Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
Mark 10:13-16 Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them.
Luke 18:15-16 (NKJV) Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him and said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.”
Matthew 18:1-5 (NKJV) At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”
There are some who will dispute this doctrine of the Age of Accountability…and that’s okay. This is not something Christians should argue about. Remember, it is God who saves sinners and there remains much mystery in how He does so. The Age of Accountability is not a core doctrine in the Christian faith and it should not be divisive. However, it is my personal belief that my two brothers, one of whom died in the womb and the other who lived but a few hours, are in Heaven. I also believe that childhood friends who died at five and seven, along with my two nephews who had a simple but incomplete understanding of Christ at eight and nine, are all with the Lord in Heaven. You might think that I believe this because I want to believe it…and you are partially right. I do want to believe that I will see them in Heaven. HOWEVER…I also every reason to believe they are there. I know and trust in the love and mercy of our gracious God, and I do believe with all my heart that His love, and His mercy, and His grace extends to those who are incapable of repentance on the basis of age or level of understanding. One day we will know for certain, but until that time we can trust that the Lord is good and His ways are perfect.
I encourage you to search the Scriptures and come to your own understanding about the eternal destiny of babies, young children, the unborn and the mentally impaired. Take comfort in knowing that in all deaths, Jesus is with us and He will bring us through the sadness, pain, and suffering of the deaths of those we love.
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