The Age Of Accountability


Numbers 14


Suffer the little children to come unto me. Ė Mark 10:14


Writing about scripture is an easy task. I can read, I can meditate, I can cogitate. And I can do all this with the ivory-tower freedom of knowing that no one will ever come to me with a question regarding a real problem Ė ever. This ivory tower gives me a freedom that ministers do not have. For instance, no mother will ever approach me at her 3-month-oldís funeral and ask me if her baby is with Jesus. Itís not that she wouldnít value my opinion. Itís that she would likely know me, and she would therefore fear my response would include reference to at least three mortality tables, a book suggestion so she could understand Bayesian probability, and at least five rabbit trails I sprinkle into my responses just to keep the rabbits aware of my presence.


Against that background, I am not as persuaded as I would like to be that all infants who die before knowing right and wrong go to heaven. As heresies go, this one is on the tame side Ė but itís a heresy nonetheless. Therefore, I do tend to avoid the topic, lest I be a stumbling block. And I do disclose this when I begin attending a function where specific beliefs might prove important, just as I made sure Pastor Burcham was aware of this before we talked seriously about my fellowshipping at First Baptist.


Though writing this might get me accused of insensitivity, I have a stake in Godís ultimate answer too. For on two occasions, the Lord saw fit to end the earthly ministry of my child before (s)he was even born. Even if I did not have a stake in the matter, Iím not so heartless that I would tell a grieving mother that we just donít know where God directed the soul of her baby.


If I had a vote, I would vote to send that baby to heaven. Iím not expecting the election to come any time soon.


Were I fully persuaded that infants who die go to heaven, I would park on Numbers 14 and Deuteronomy 1. In Numbers 14:29, the children under 20 years old were exempted from the penalty of Israelís unbelief; but in Numbers, God doesnít give a reason. In a parallel account, Deuteronomy 1:39, we learn the reason Ė ďwho today have no knowledge of good and evil,Ē but not the cutoff age.


In order to believe that all infants who die go to heaven, you must posit a doctrine of the age of accountability. Very rarely does anyone who believes in an age of accountability commit to what that age might be. I get the sense that most people think in term of 9 years, give or take. Some evangelists issue a warning to parents in their altar call that they never know when God will judge that their child has crossed the age of accountability. Count me as highly critical of that tactic. And besides, were I to believe in an age of accountability, I would believe the age was 20. For 20 is the only age that scripture ever links with a threshold of having a knowledge of good and evil.


Most people jump straight to Davidís son in 2 Samuel 12:22-23. That passage shows that it is possible for an infant to depart and be with God Ė it does not say it happens every time. You should probably have a position on what you think Malachi 1:2-3 means (See also Romans 9:11). The other passage frequently used is the heading of todayís comments Ė suffer the little children to come to me. Itís a touching story indeed. But I am not in violation of Mark 10:14. For nothing I believe or do not believe has anything to do with whether or not they are granted access to Jesus. Itís not as though I am blocking them.


My primary problem is that Ė apart from a clear verse to the contrary Ė I cannot accept that the child could be 5 days past that age, then die, and then be sent to Hell. But if that same child had died a few days sooner, he would be enjoying Christ in His glory this very day. It is not possible that there is a transition period. There is a precise moment, a specific twinkling of the eye, when an unbelieving child essentially loses his salvation. And I donít accept it. And I cannot accept that persuading a woman from having an abortion would effectively waive the guarantee that the child will spend eternity with Jesus, and cast that child into a lottery context that maybe he will, but maybe he wonít accept Christ.


Silence is never a strong argument to support or oppose a doctrine, but here goes: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is written in order that the early church not grieve over believers who have passed. Paul comforts them by saying ďI would not have you ignorant.Ē He wanted these people to rest in Christ. Your believing ancestors who have passed will in fact participate in the resurrection. But as the father of two children who did not survive incubation, to which verse do I go for similar comfort? There is no verse. Did God outline an intricate process of the resurrection in order that I might be comforted concerning my grandmother, but disregard my anxiety regarding two of my own babies? Or perhaps He didnít issue me such a comfort because He knows there is no static answer.


Godís treatment of children isnít always gentle. 2 Kings 2:23-24Ö. You can look it up. But I warn you Ė itís gory. And you donít even want to know what Psalm 137:9 says. A man may ask: ďIf my one month old daughter doesnít survive the operation, will she go to heaven?Ē The question has a cousin in a different popular question: ďIf a man lives his entire life on a desert islandÖ.?Ē Sometimes itís easier to accept Godís punishment for sin if the one He is punishing had one clean shot at repentance. Godís answer to the deserted island question is: How earnestly did he handle the revelation he HAS received? Itís remarkably just; itís simply not the answer we had craved.


Iíll never try to persuade you I am right. And I may never again discuss it this openly. You have the same Bible and the same indwelling Spirit that I have. My wish is that you deal honestly with the verses you read, and with the Spiritís directions.

Judgment for Disbelief


The census of Numbers 1 has Israel at 603,550 adult men, plus an unspecified number of Levites, whom I will exclude from this exercise just as God did. Ignoring any probable population shifts that can happen over a two-year span, God is pronouncing in Numbers 14 that 603,548 people will die over the next 38 years Ė about 43 or 44 per day. (Feel free to try this at home.)


By contrast, if you scaled the US population down to 603,548 men, the death rate would be a little less than 18 per day. The comparison is not clean, but a mortality table for homeless Semitic men in the 15th century BC proved too difficult to locate, so I used the table provided by Social Security.


The Bible gives no real clear answer whether God was pronouncing against men only, or against all adults. Numbers 14 uses no gender references Ė it doesnít say women will die; it doesnít say they will be spared. So boisterous is the lack of gender references that Iím almost inclined to believe that women were included in the Numbers 14 penalty. Deuteronomy 1 does use the word men. However the term could be collective.

If God was including women, then just double all the numbers above Ė except donít double the chapter numbers. And the 18 deaths per day should be lowered a notch before you double it, because a womanís mortality rate is lower than a manís.


If you scale down the US population down to 603,548 adult men, then we can expect about 250,000 of them to be still alive 38 years later. By contrast, Numbers cites three catastrophes that killed a total of about 40,000 people (14,950+ in Numbers 16:35 and 16:49; 24,000 in Numbers 25:9; and 250 in Numbers 26:10). That still leaves 210,000 that simply died prematurely for having placed their faith in the wisdom of 10 men. Instead of the one true and omniscient God.


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