HOUSMAIL HM#127 16 March 2007
WHAT HAPPENS TO CHILDREN WHO DIE BEFORE "THE AGE OF ACCOUNTABILITY"?
This is a very emotional question for those who have lost a child before it could reach the "age of accountability", and make a personal choice to accept the Gospel. It is a question which has plagued the Church since its very early days.
In what follows please understand that I am VERY sensitive towards the feelings of grief that are experienced by bereaved parents who have lost children before they could have an opportunity to accept the Gospel. And I understand completely their desire to believe that there might be hope for the salvation of their children at the resurrection.
So it is with some trepidation that I present a view that does not accommodate this. Please accept the friendship I offer which dares to say things honestly as I believe them, rather than as you might like to hear them. If I did the latter I would join the "ear ticklers". (2 Timothy 4:3) And you will understand I am sure, that as a friend, I may not do that.
For members of Mainstream Churches, the problem has its origin in the doctrine of the " Immortality of the Soul ". If humans are born inherently immortal, it logically follows that they must perforce also have an eternal living destiny of some sort.
Questions about the destiny of children arise from the clear Gospel insistence that there are only two possible destinies. Mark 16:16 says that those who believe the Gospel, and are baptised, will be saved, but those who do not believe will be condemned. People who believe that the dead are not really dead, but still alive somewhere, for ever, will have an understandable concern about what might be happening to their deceased children who never had an opportunity to accept the Gospel
Many early Church theologians, followed Augustine, (AD354-430) who taught that children who die unbaptised, are condemned to eternal torment in the fires of Hell. Others have taught that unbaptised children who die "morally innocent", are admitted immediately to heaven without being required to meet the normal Gospel conditions. Within the Catholic Church others less severe than Augustine have taught that unbaptised children are denied access to Heaven, and admitted to an intermediate state, just outside Hell, where they are free from punishment. From the middle ages on, this intermediate state came to be known by the name "Limbo ".
(Note however that the Catholic Church has recently discarded this LIMBO teaching in favour of " hope that unbaptised infants will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision " (in Heaven) (Catholic News Apr-20-2007)
Today one encounters at least FOUR common opinions in the mainstream Churches.
1.The majority opinion now seems to be that ALL children who die before reaching the age of accountabilityTHE FIRST TWO – HEAVEN OR HELL?
are admitted immediately to Heaven to live in eternal bliss. No distinction is drawn between the children of
believers or unbelievers.
2. There still appear to be some who use Paul's words in 1 Cor 7:14 to make a difference between children
of believers and unbelievers. These teach that only the children of believers are saved and admitted to
Heaven, whilst the children of unbelievers are consigned to unending torture in the fires of Hell.
3. Universalists solve the problem by claiming the eventual salvation of EVERY man woman and child who
has ever lived. They say that those who have not accepted the Gospel in this life will be raised from the
dead to receive "corrective training" in the next, which will eventually compel them to believe. It sounds
uncomfortably close to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory!
4. A fourth class believe that the Bible contains insufficient evidence to decide the fate of children one way
or the other. They teach that since we do not know, we must simply leave the fate of these children in
God's hands, trusting that whatever their destiny may be, God will get it right.
The first two options above depend on belief in the " Immortality of the Soul ". They fall down when we begin to understand that this doctrine is not found in the Bible.
I am not going to write a treatise here about " Conditional Immortality ". That is a subject in its own right. If you want to study it further for yourself, there is plenty of good material available to help you. For this present paper we will start from the assumption that you already know about it. The following brief summary will remind us why neither of these first two options can be true.
First , death is NOT the conscious existence of an immortal soul. It is a state of complete non existence, in which the dead know nothing, (Ecclesiastes 9:5) and experience nothing. (Psalm 88:10-12; Psalm 115:17)The most important conclusion from this is that NO ONE, especially deceased children , is currently suffering torment in Hell! But then neither are they in Heaven. If there is to be any comfort at all for grieving parents, it must come from knowing what the Bible really does say about the destiny of both children and adults, who die without having an opportunity to accept the Gospel.
Second , the reward of the righteous is ON EARTH – NOT IN HEAVEN! (Matthew 5:5) No one (except Jesus) has gone to heaven. (John 3:13; Acts 2:34)
Third , the Bible teaches clearly that immortality is conditional , received only by the righteous at the resurrection which is to take place at the second coming of Christ. (John 5:29; 1 Corinthians 15:51-55)
And Fourth , the punishment of sin is NOT endless life in torment. It is the SECOND DEATH, a cessation of all conscious existence, to be inflicted at the judgment when Christ returns. (2 Thessalonians 1:9; Jude 1:13)
THE THIRD OPTION – UNIVERSALISM
The third option above, Universalism, is also not found in the Bible. Indeed, if I may speak freely between friends, I believe it to be a FALSE GOSPEL offering a FALSE HOPE of salvation. Its worst feature is that it suggests that people may deliberately choose to reject the Gospel in this life, live a life of debauchery, and yet still be saved after being raised from the dead to experience further "training". I cannot find that in the Scriptures at all.
Universalism simply can't be true! It contradicts other Scriptures which say clearly that on the Day of Judgment MANY will be condemned and thrown into the Lake of Fire, (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:15) where they will suffer the punishment of " everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord ". (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
THE FOURTH OPTION – SIMPLY TRUST
Of course " Trust " is always the ONLY answer for every problem where we don't have a clear Bible answer! However this is a case where "trust" means living with unanswered questions about the first two options above. That would be very hard, perhaps even impossible. Who could ever really " trust " a God who might behave so unjustly as to " judge " and " condemn " an " innocent " child to the terrors of the " Lake of Fire "? Is it "justice" to inflict such terrible punishment on someone who never had an opportunity to meet the Gospel conditions for salvation?
If that is what "trust" means, we are NOT talking about the God who reveals Himself to us through Jesus!
REAL " trust " requires a Biblical foundation – NOT a false hope for something which contradicts the Bible. And that means we must rule out all of the three options above. However we still need a Biblical foundation for "trust" that does not leave us in fearful uncertainty about the character of God, and the fate of children who die before reaching an " age of accountability ".
I believe the Bible does offer something much more comforting than either the crushing fear from the first option discussed above, or the false hope offered by the second and third. It is an answer which neither maligns the justice of God, nor breaches the conditions on which the Gospel offers salvation. More about that below.
WHAT IS THE ETERNAL DESTINY OF CHILDREN WHO DIE IN INFANCY?
The simple fact is that the Bible contains no explicit statement about the eternal destiny of children who die in infancy, before reaching an age of accountability. This of course accounts for the several widely differing FALSE speculative views, discussed above. Many have gone beyond the Scriptures to offer a false hope which tickles "itching ears". (2 Timothy 4:3)
There is however certainly a clear statement about STILLBORN children. In Job 10:18-22, we are explicitly told that stillborn infants NEVER SAW LIGHT. I understand this to be a Jewish way of saying they NEVER EXISTED. Their life never began. They never left the darkness of non existence.
Resurrection is the recreation of a person who had a previous existence. And I conclude from that, that there will be no resurrection of something that has never existed. If something never existed, there is nobody to raise, and no eternal destiny to speculate about.
For children who do survive birth, we are left to derive prayerful, but nevertheless speculative, conclusions based on other less than explicit information. We must refer to other verses which define some general principles about the Gospel, and the conditions on which salvation is offered, and what will happen at he resurrection and judgment.
Any thought of infants being held accountable for what they never had a chance to learn, is completely unacceptable. God is not like that at all!
The term " age of accountability " is NOT found in the Bible. However the CONCEPT is certainly there. For instance, there is a strong hint of an unspecified age of accountability in Isaiah 7:16, which says that there is a time when a child becomes able to " know how to refuse the evil and choose the good ".
On another occasion, when the children of Israel were banned from entering the promised land, only those over the age of 20 were rejected. All under the age of 20, were not held responsible for the actions of the older generation. (Numbers 13:26-35)
I certainly don't believe that this incident can be used to say that those under 20s were saved to inherit the everlasting Kingdom of the future. All they got was an entry to the promised land in their own time. Their lives were still under probation for any eternal inheritance which lies beyond the resurrection and judgment. From the record of their subsequent behaviour it is clear that at the Judgment, some of them will inherit the eternal Kingdom, and some will not.
Nor do I believe that this incident should be made into a "doctrine" that 20 is an arbitrary LEGAL age for responsibility! Experience ought to tell us that this age can vary widely for different children. And experience should also tell us that we can't always clearly discern the time when the line is crossed! What we can safely say is that infants only a few weeks or a few years old, have definitely not reached the age of accountability.
BUT for the rest of us, God does know when that age is reached. And that is the important issue. The fate of the dead is in God's hands - NOT ours. God won't get it wrong! Nor will He judge or punish the ignorant for failing to do what they never knew. (Acts 17:30) God isn't like that at all!
We should be trusting Him to make the right decision about that -- and we shouldn't let any strong emotional feelings or concern about deceased loved ones get in the way of our complete TRUST about that. In any case, worry about the possible fate of our deceased loved ones is futile. We cannot change anything. Far better to direct our energies to other important issues about the living, especially ourselves!
DOES LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY EQUATE TO SALVATION?
There is NO Bible verse that says lack of accountability offers any assurance of salvation. In Acts 17:30 Paul says clearly that it is only after ignorance is dispelled that men are accountable to judgment for their failure to obey the call to repent.
The Gospel is unequivocal. To hear and believe and obey the Gospel is to be saved. To believe it not, is to be condemned. (Mark 16:16) And that must surely mean that those who never hear it, and are thus unable to believe it, CANNOT be saved.
BUT what does "condemned" mean in such cases? It certainly cannot mean that they are to be punished or tormented for their lack of opportunity. That would not be just at all. And it does not fit at all with the character of God revealed in the Scriptures.
ONLY TWO CLASSES AT THE JUDGMENT
In the Bible passages which describe the judgment, there are only two classes, both of which are accountable for their choices in this life, and judged accordingly. The righteous inherit the Kingdom. The wicked are condemned. All are to be judged according to their works! (Romans 2:6-11) God shows no partiality. There are only two classes. There is no third class who are "saved" by their ignorance and lack of accountability, without meeting the Gospel conditions!
However, although there is no " not accountable " third class amongst those raised for judgment, the Bible certainly does speak about a third class who will NOT rise from the dead to be judged.
A THIRD CLASS NOT AT THE JUDGMENT?
I do not believe that the Scriptures teach UNIVERSAL resurrection of every single man woman and child who has ever lived.
Isaiah says clearly that there are some who will NEVER rise from the dead.
" They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise : therefore hast thou visited and destroyed them, and made all their memory to perish. " (Isaiah 26:14)
Jeremiah says the same thing.
" I will make drunk her princes, and her wise men, her captains, and her rulers, and her mighty men: and they shall sleep a perpetual sleep, and not wake , saith the King, whose name is the LORD of hosts. " (Jeremiah 51:57)
Psalm 49:20 says " Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish. " Beasts do not rise for judgment - neither do these men who do not understand. They have simply perished like beasts.
It would seem that any who have died without reaching an age of accountability might be in this category.
WHAT DOES THE GOSPEL OFFER?
The Gospel authorises us to speak of ONLY TWO classes.
1. There are those who believe it, and are baptised and will be saved.Acceptance of the Gospel requires
2. There are the others who do not believe it, and will be condemned.
1. Repentance Matthew (4:17)There is NOTHING in the Gospel which speaks of any third class who will be saved on other terms.
2. Baptism for remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Galatians 3:3:27-29)
3. PUTTING OFF the old Adamic nature, and PUTTING ON a new nature
"created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness ".
IS GOD UNFAIR TO LET CHILDREN PERISH WITHOUT OPPORTUNITY?
If that is what God does, it can never be UNFAIR! There will ALWAYS be a just and fair reason for God's decisions.
Nor can we really say that the child had no opportunity. Does the death of a child take God by surprise? Is it a mere accident over which He has no control?
" See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand. " (Deuteronomy 32:39)
That means that NO ONE lives a moment longer, or dies a moment sooner than God permits!
Further, Jesus says that NONE of those who the Father has given into his keeping can be lost, unless they are "sons of perdition" like Judas. (John 17:12) And if the day of salvation is only for this life, (2 Corinthians 6:2) that means that any who die without coming to an age of accountability must not be included in that number who are "kept safe".
Is that unfair? Of course not. God knows what is in the heart of a man. And God also knows the names of those written in the book of life. We can be certain that if God lets anyone die without growing to an age of accountability, or hearing the Gospel, He has already determined that for reasons best known to Himself, they would not respond. There has been no "lost opportunity".
If we take a little time to think about it from the point of view of a God who knows ALL, including the future, there may well be other reasons why some are taken prematurely.
In what follows please don't misunderstand me! I am not entering into judgment of any particular child of believing parents, who might have died before reaching an age of accountability. I simply don't know what God knows about each individual case. We don't have to spend time heart aching over things we do not know! All I am trying to do is present a broader view of God's involvement in His creation, which might increase our trust in His infinite ability to get things right.
It might be, for instance, that God has spared believing parents the untold grief and suffering they would have experienced if the child had lived long enough to contract a painful incurable illness lasting many long years. In such a case an early death would be an be an expression of God's love for the believing parents, and act of great mercy for the child, wouldn't it?
Sometimes children are born, who if God had been obeyed, would NEVER have come into existence. The case of the child of David and Bathsheba is one such.
David's murder of Uriah, his adultery with Bathsheba, and the birth of the child from their illicit union, had given " great occasion for blasphemy " on the part of God's enemies. (2 Samuel 12:14) God took the child of adultery, to remove the visible evidence of their sin. And I further speculate that God was making sure that this child who should never have been born, could never inherit the throne to rule over God's people.
Was God acting unfairly to the child? Never! Of course it doesn't happen to every child born in that situation, through no fault of its own. But might not something like that still happen sometimes in other cases?
Then there is the almost unthinkable anguish of the parents of the monster who just a few days ago, took the lives of those 32 college students in USA. Would not any believing parent far rather that their child was taken before he lived long enough to do something like that?
" The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men. " (Daniel 4:17)
If, as Daniel says in the quote above, God gives the kingdom to some, it also means He withholds it from others. Perhaps a person is taken early because they might have become another Hitler, who cannot be permitted to have any place at all in God's creation. What believer would want their child to live to become a monster like Hitler? Or Idi Amin? Or Pol Pot? If they had that potential, would we not rather that God took them before it could happen? Would we not count it a blessing for both the child and the parents, and also for the many millions of people they might otherwise oppress?
WHAT HAPPENS TO CHILDREN ALIVE AT THE SECOND COMING, BUT NOT YET ACCOUNTABLE?
The Scripture simply does not
discuss this question in
specific detail. However there are precedents which might offer
The problem is that there are different precedents offering
What that amounts to is that there are precedents for just about anything you want to choose! And no firm answer as to which of the three will apply. Further, note carefully that none of these precedents offers even a glimmer of suggestion that any children of previous generations of the righteous were raised to participate in the limited temporal "salvation" of Noah, or Lot, or the under 20s in the wilderness. The salvation in all of those incidents was for this life only. It did not guarantee them immortality in the "Age to Come".It is prophesied that just prior to the second coming, the earth is going to suffer the same world wide destruction as it did in Noah's Flood – this time by fire. (2 Peter 3:8-13)1. From the story of the Flood, we learn that Noah was allowed to take his wife and family into the ark with him.(Genesis 7:7) All of the wicked, and their children, were utterly destroyed.2. When Sodom was destroyed, the children of the wicked died with their parents, but righteous Lot, and hiswife and daughters were taken out of the city by the angels. But we also note that Lot's wife chose to " lookback " and was destroyed. (Genesis 15:15-29)3. When the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter the promised land, the rebel parents were banned fromentering the land and condemned to die in the wilderness, while all children not held accountable for therebellion of their parents, were allowed to enter the promised land 40 years later.
Some think that there are hints that believers will be taken to safety when this happens. From the precedents above it might be possible to say that if there are any children of believers alive when the fire falls, they might also be taken to safety with their parents.
But these precedents leave little hope for the children of the wicked! It seems more than likely that most of them might be destroyed with their parents.
The most we could say is that if there are any children of the wicked left alive after the fire, who God does not hold accountable for the wickedness of their parents, they will probably be included with any other adults who survive the fire, to enter the kingdom age as mortals on probation for salvation.
But that is all speculation! We will have to wait and see.
The real message is that we should not be placing our hopes on any uncertain SPECULATION about Old Testament precedents, which might not apply at all to the events surrounding the second coming, and the establishment of the everlasting Kingdom of God. Rather we should be concentrating on " working out our own salvation in trembling and fear " (Philippians 2:12) and fulfilling our obligation to pass on what we know to the LIVING, including our children whose eternal future is not yet assured.
ANOTHER LOOK AT SOME VERSES OFTEN QUOTED AS "PROOF" OF THE SALVATION OF CHILDREN
1. 2 SAMUEL 12:23
Speaking of the child of his adulterous union with Bathsheba, David said:
" 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. " (2 Samuel 12;23)
Many interpret this to mean that David expected to join the child in Heaven. However those who know that NO ONE goes to heaven, including this child, also know that this interpretation is WRONG!
All David is saying is that He will one day die and go the grave where the dead child already is, and from whence it WILL NOT BE RETURNING! Taken at face value, David did not believe that the child is ever going to be raised from the dead.
2. 1 CORINTHIANS 7:14
Another verse commonly misunderstood is 1 Corinthians 7:14
" For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. "
I do not believe that this passage has anything at all to do with SALVATION of spouses and children of believers. Paul is answering a different question. We don't have the exact wording of the question, but we can deduce what it must have been, from the answer.
It must have been something like:" Should believers married to unbelievers stay married or get divorced ?"and" what is the status of their children? "His answer concludes with:
" For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean , but now they are holy . "
Note carefully that Paul says it is NOT the status of the believing partner which decides whether or not the children are unclean or holy! Paul says that if the UNBELIEVING spouse is NOT " sanctified " by his relationship with the believer, the children are " unclean ". For the children to be regarded as " holy " the unbeliever must be " sanctified ".
I think we need to see the question against its early Church background, and the problems caused by the JUDAISERS. There were certainly Jewish believers at Corinth, (Acts 18:1) who would have been asking pointed questions about the status of believers married to unbelievers.
These questions would have their origin in the Law of Moses, which forbids marriage between Jews and non Jews. (Deuteronomy 7:3) Such marriages were illegal and therefore NOT VALID. They were supposed to be undone. There are Scripture "case histories" of two separate occasions on which this happened, in Ezra 9 & 10, and Nehemiah 13:23-30.
Further the children of such unions were considered ILLEGITIMATE. The basic meaning of the Jewish word used for it is " mongrels ". (Hebrew MAMZER) According to Thayers Greek Lexicon it means:
1a) bastardThe Law of Moses had something to say about that also. "Mamzers" were regarded as ritually " unclean ". Malachi tells us that such illegal unions " profaned the holiness of the LORD ". (Malachi 2:11) and their children were NOT a " godly seed ". (V15) "Mamzers" could NEVER " enter the congregation of the LORD ". (Deut 23:2) And the same prohibition applied to their descendants for the next 10 generations! A fearful prospect indeed.No wonder the Corinthians were concerned! It is completely understandable that they must have been wondering whether or not this OT law applied to the marital status of believers in Corinth, especially the Gentiles. Were they bound by the same law? And if so, what should they do about it?
1b) mixed population (fig.)
1c) born of a Jewish father and a heathen mother or visa versa
From all this we conclude that when Paul uses similar terms to those used by Malachi, about the spouses and children of believers married to unbelievers, he is talking about whether or not the marriages are valid in God's sight, and whether or not the children of such marriages are legitimate or illegitimate. Especially, can these children have any hope of " entering the congregation of the Lord "?
His answer to the question, is that the Corinthian marriages between believers and unbelievers were " sanctified ", (=legally valid and recognised by God) and the children were NOT "unclean". (= illegitimate and banned from the "congregation of the Lord") Instead they were " holy ". (=legitimate and just as acceptable to God as any other child with TWO believing parents)
IT CANNOT BE ABOUT THE
OF UNBELIEVING SPOUSES AND CHILDREN!
Could Paul possible be saying that unbelieving spouses can be saved, without either faith or repentance, on the technical "legal" ground that they are lucky enough to be married to a believer?
Could Paul possibly be saying that a child with one believing parent is saved on the technical "legal ground" that they are lucky enough to have a Christian mother?
UNTHINKABLE! That would make a complete mockery of the Gospel!
The Gospel offers salvation ONLY to believers . Unbelievers are "condemned". (Mark 16:16)
(Note here that " condemned " does not necessarily mean " consigned to punishment or torment in the lake of fire" . In the case of those who are not accountable because of lack of knowledge or opportunity, the lesser dictionary meaning of " officially declare to be unfit for use " would be much more appropriate)
There is no specific Scripture which does say that children of believing parents are saved without meeting the conditions imposed by the Gospel. Nor is there any that says children of unbelieving parents are condemned to everlasting torment in the lake of fire.
Those who want to believe either of those things, must argue from silence!
However there certainly is Scripture which provides enough information to conclude that God does NOT hold anyone accountable for things they never had any opportunity to hear. That includes children who die before reaching the "Age of Accountability".
The comfort offered by the Scriptures for the grieving parents of such children, is that they are now asleep in the grave in the same state as " infants who never saw the light ", and where " the weary are at rest " and where even " the wicked cease from troubling ". (Job 3:16-19) Like all men that are " in honour and understand not " they have simply perished like the beasts, and will never rise again. (Psalm 49:19-20)
I do not know why that is so for any individual case, but God does! And I know that He has got it right! With that I am truly comforted for any who have died in the total ignorance that God "winks at". (Acts 17:30) They will never again rise, and they will never know that they have missed anything.
Finally a quote from Hebrews 11:6.
" Without faith it is impossible to please him:
for he that cometh to God must believe that he is,
and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. "
And another from Jeremiah 29:12-13
" Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me,
and I will hearken unto you.
And ye shall seek me, and find me,
when ye shall search for me with ALL your heart. "
And another from 2 Corinthians 6:2
" For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted,
and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee:
behold, NOW is the accepted time;
behold, NOW is the day of salvation ."