This is an issue that challenges or questions the justice of God. It is a legitimate question, and I must say at the outset we cannot give a total answer. But there are passages in the Bible which shed a great deal of light on the subject. I will try to address the ones that have come to my mind which I think bear directly or indirectly on your question of the innocence/accountability of children.
Generally speaking, we are asking the question, " What do children know and when do they know it? And the key issue here is one of comprehension of, or the understanding of the Gospel message. This is not only true for children, it is true for adults. When Philip saw the Ethiopian eunuch sitting in his chariot reading Isaiah 53, he was instructed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:29) to "Go up and join this chariot." Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading. The eunuch replied, "Well, how could I, unless someone guides Me?" (v. 31). Acts 8:32-40 goes on to relate that Philip explained how this Eunuch could become a Christian. He responded and was baptized.
My point in beginning with this incident is because there can be no salvation without an understanding of the gospel message. We find Paul throughout the book of Acts reasoning, debating, contending with people so they might understand the message of salvation. And so children must be old enough to understand the gospel, which involves a comprehension of their own personal sin and guilt.
This brings the next question: At what age would that be? I am sorry that I cannot give an affirmative answer since the Scripture never pinpoints clearly the exact age when this occurs. The Talmud from ancient times designated age thirteen for boys ("Bar Mitzvah,"--cf. Judaism, Arthur Hertzberg, p. 100) and twelve for girls ("Bat Mizvah"). This was the time when Jewish boys and girls became responsible for themselves and were to observe all the rituals, feasts, etc., incumbent upon them as members of the Jewish community. It was also the time when the boys were allowed (called) to read the Torah as full members of the worshipping community.
The confirmation services for the young which are practiced in all Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and some Protestant churches are based on the earlier Jewish traditions above. All of them, including the Jewish community, have traditionally set the "age of accountability at about age twelve.
It is also interesting that Luke records the incident at the temple where a twelve-year-old Jesus lagged behind his family and was found (three days later!) in the temple "sitting amidst the teachers both listening to them and asking them questions. . .And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers." (Luke 2:46,47).
We can glean from other Old Testament passages additional insights:
I Samuel 1:22-18; 3:1-19: Hannah, married to Elkanah, was barren. She made a vow to the Lord that if He would give her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord for lifelong service. God graciously did so, and Samuel was born. Hannah cared for him and told her husband she would not go up to the Tabernacle (at Shiloh) for the annual sacrifice (Day of Atonement) until she had weaned Samuel, saying, "I will not go up until the child is weaned; then I will bring him, that he may appear before the Lord and stay there forever." (1:22).
The weaning of Hebrew (and other ancient) children did not occur until two or three years, and nursing may have extended beyond to perhaps age five. Therefore Samuel was a very young boy when he was dedicated to the service of the temple. Hannah says on this occasion, "For this boy I prayed, and the Lord has given me my petition which I asked of Him. . .So I have also dedicated him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is dedicated to the Lord. And she worshipped the Lord there."(1:27,28). We are also told in 2:11 that "the boy ministered to the Lord before Eli the priest."Verses 2:18-21 indicate that the boy was visited each year by his mother, at which time she would bring him a new, little robe. Several years are indicated in this passage, including the fact that Hannah had given birth to three more sons and two daughters. We can conclude, since Samuel was at least three or four years old when initially brought to the temple, he would at least be nine or ten, and could have been even older (a teenager) when he had his visitation and call from the Lord in I Samuel 3:1-21. The critical verse in this chapter is as follows: "Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor had the word of the Lord yet been revealed to him." (v. 7).
So here again, Samuel could well have been around age twelve when this event occurred, an incident pointing out a demarcation in his life--of "not knowing" and then "knowing" the Lord.
Another passage which marks out this demarcation is found in Nehemiah 8:1-3. After Nehemiah and the Jews had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem they gathered together in worship to hear Ezra the Scribe read the Torah:
"And the people gathered as one man, . . .and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding. And he read from it before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. . .And they read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading (v.8). By implication, the younger children--those without understanding--were not present.
Another interesting "accountability" issue is found in the Torah which involves the numbering of the fighting men of Israel in the book of Numbers. We are told in Numbers 1 that Moses was instructed to "take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and their families. . .according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel." (1:2,3). This passage informs us that there were no teenagers in Israel’s army. This census was taken at the end of the entire year the Israelites spent at Mt. Sinai where they received the Law, and during which time they built the Tabernacle and organized themselves into a well-defined community. They were now to embark upon the conquest of Canaan. However, they were called upon to postpone that conquest because of their unbelief and disobedience at Kadesh Barnea. God sent them into the wilderness for forty years after their "Reconnaissance" of Canaan by the twelve spies ended in failure.
After this forty year exile we read in Deuteronomy 2:14-16, "Now the time that it took for us to come from Kadesh-barnea to (here has been) thirty-eight years; until all the generation of the men of war perished from within the camp, as the Lord had sworn to them. Moreover the hand of the Lord was against them, to destroy them from within the camp, until they all perished."
What is significant here is that those men who perished were those selected for the army forty years earlier whose ages ranged from twenty to age sixty. The Bible says that by thirty-eight years later, all of these men, the men of "unbelief," had now died off, leaving only the new generation which would be allowed to enter Canaan. This new "fighting force" would include that original group of males (from age 1 to 19 (which would now be ages 40 to 59) as well as all the males which had been born during the roughly forty years of Wilderness wanderings. So here again, there is an "age of accountability" factor taken into account by the Lord and His servant, Moses. There was no judgment upon this younger group of males. They were allowed to enter Canaan and participate in the conquest of the Land.
There is another passage that touches on this later "age of accountability" from the life of Jehoiachin, II Kings 24:8: "Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king. . .and he did evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father had done." So here we find an eighteen- year-old king who is viewed by the Lord as being accountable for the evil he had already done.
I put this section in, but I don’t personally believe that exempting the "under-twenty-year-olds" at the time of the Exodus is a likely precedent for an age of accountability. Furthermore, we find in the legal regulations of the Torah that a disobedient and unmanageable teenager was responsible for his actions, and could be stoned to death by the community! This could occur for cursing his parents, violence, drunkenness, adultery, and so forth. So, in my thinking, the ten to twelve year age would seem more likely for an age of understanding or accountability.
Another passage which bears upon our question comes from the life of David, and specifically the outcome of his sin with Bathsheba and the premeditated murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite (II Samuel 11 & 12). You will recall that David lusted after Bathsheba’s great beauty and committed adultery with her, after which she became pregnant (11:1-5). David gave instructions to have Uriah placed "in the fiercest battle and withdraw from him so that he may be struck down and die." (11:15). After Uriah’s death, David brought Bathsheba to his house as his wife, and she bore him a son. (11:27) Nathan the prophet confronts David with his sin and says, "because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.: Then the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s widow bore to David, so that he was very sick." (12:14,15).
The child lingered for seven days and then died. During this time, David prayed and fasted and laid on the ground. When the child died the servants were afraid to tell David, but he saw them whispering and they finally told him, "He is dead." (12:19).
When David heard this, he got up, washed himself, changed his clothes, asked for food and ate. His servants were perplexed by this: while the child lived, David mourned. When the child died, David got up and ate food. They wondered why. David said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live. But now he has died; why should I fast.? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." (12:22,23)
David has a view of death and immortality which expresses itself in this incident involving the death of a child. David believes in the after life. In Psalm 23 he concludes by saying: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."So for David there was a place for the dead, including children--the house, or the dwelling place, of the Lord. David also speaks of this in Psalm 16:9,10 where he says, "For thou wilt not abandon (leave) my soul in Sheol (the grave); Neither wilt Thou allow Thy Holy One to see (experience) decay (corruption)." David believes in the resurrection of the body--for himself, and for the Messiah (the Holy One) (see also Acts 13:35). Job says something very similar: "And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is flayed (corrupted) Yet without my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes shall see and not another."
The point of David’s perspective is that he believes that the child is still alive and in God’s presence, David anticipates that when he dies, he will join his little son in the house of the Lord: "I shall go to him."
Finally, we have the teachings of Jesus Himself. In Matthew 19:13-15, our Lord says as the children we being hindered from coming near to Him, "Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, and after laying His hands on them, He departed. . ."
Christ has a special love for little children. Why He associates children with the Kingdom of Heaven is because it is the place of the innocent, the blameless. It would appear that Jesus sees children in this light. The whole trend of Scripture seems to teach that the innocents who are too young to sin and too young to accept Christ intelligently (with understanding!), are safe in the arms of a just and holy God.
We need never fear about God being unjust. He cannot be. His mercy and justice are from everlasting to everlasting. I therefore conclude, that there will be no children in hell. There will also be no retarded, or otherwise mentally-incapacitated individuals there, those who cannot fully comprehend and understand what Christ has accomplished on their behalf at Calvary.
In summary, I think we can conclude the following:
First, that there is some period of "grace" afforded the young before they have developed an understanding to fully comprehend the gospel message and its implications for their lives.
Second, there seems to be good scriptural support that all infants, like David’s little son, go immediately, in their innocence, into the arms of the Lord.
Third, that the likely range of such an age of "accountability " may occur around the time of puberty.
Fourth, that we are not saying children younger than this "accountability age" commit no sin (as sinful tendencies and acts occur quite early in children), and because of their fallen nature, they do these things spontaneously, things which they have definitely NOT learned from their parents or their friends). What we are saying is that up to the point when they reach clear understanding, they do not come under the judgment of the Law.
So Aren’t Abortion and Murder ‘Good’ Practices if They Guarantee a Baby’s Place in Heaven?
(Adapted from Jimmy Williams’ (Probe Ministries) response to an e-mail)
Any infant death--whether from abortion, accident, disease, assault or other causes--does not matter: All babies go to heaven. And so aborting children would not be a great way to have more babies go to Heaven since all of them go to Heaven.
Would we would be doing some persons (those who are not going to become Christians after they have reached the age of accountability when they are held responsible to God for their choices and behavior) a big "favor" by aborting them?
The answer is a resounding “No”. for the following reasons
(a) the "termination of a pregnancy" (i.e., a euphemism for killing and destroying an unborn infant) is murder. This is a violation of the Sixth Commandment (Ex. 20:13).
(b) Further, in order to carry out such a task, you would literally have to be God Himself, since you don’t know which ones are the "fledgling" non-believers upon whom you are to perform your acts of "mercy."
(c) But why stop there? Why not go ahead and do the same with the mentally-impaired? The comatose? The "non compos mentis" elderly? Would they not also qualify? Something is wrong with this picture.
Would such an enterprise make abortion and murder good? This is actually very far from a Scriptural perspective. Paul asks, "Shall we sin (continue in sin) so that (we can see) grace abound? (Romans 6:1)" In other words, should we take advantage of God’s forgiveness of sins through Christ and go on sinning so we can see His marvelous Grace go to work to cover it? Paul says, "God forbid." He elaborates on this later on: "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cleave to what is good (12:9)." Earlier Paul defends his actions against those who were criticizing him and his colleagues, "slanderously reporting that we say, ’let us do evil that good may come.’ Their condemnation is just (Romans 3:8)."
In Psalm 109:3-5 David’s words could easily be applied to the unborn: "They have spoken against me. . they have also surrounded me with words of hatred, And fought against me without cause. In return for my love (innocence) they act as my accusers;...Thus they have repaid me evil for good. ...and hatred for my love." In II Corinthians 13:7,8 Paul says, "Now we pray to God that you do no wrong...but that you may do what is right . ...For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth."
In Proverbs 17:13 it says, "He who returns evil for good, Evil will not depart from his house." And "He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, Both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord (vs. 15,16)." And Moses says, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your seed, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days (Deut. 30:19,20)."
And finally, James says, "Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone [to do evil] (James 1:13)."
The principle is pretty clear: "It is never right to do wrong in order to do right." "It is never good to do evil in order to do good."
See Section on abortion
More on Accountability
(Excerpt from Jimmy Williams’ (Probe Ministries) response to an e-mail)
“I don’t think we can arbitrarily pick an exact age for everyone. There are too many variables. But we do know this: there are FOUR components necessary for one to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. We find them in Paul’s interchange with Lydia in Acts 16:14: "And a certain woman named Lydia. . .was (1) listening, and the (2) Lord opened her heart to respond to the (3) things spoken by (4) Paul."
In Acts 9:27-39 we have the account of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch, who was reading Isaiah 53 out loud as he sat in his chariot. Philip ran up and asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading? The eunuch answered, "How could I, unless someone guides me?" You know the rest of the story. My point here is that even adults don’t become Christians until they, with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, come to understand the gospel and see it with the eyes of faith. Would it be any less important for children to have the same understanding?