“Age of Accountability”
To Different Understanding
As I mentioned in a previous post, Rob Bell’s most recent book, Love Wins, has brought on a firestorm of responses and there is good reason for it. He challenges some of our most sacrosanct beliefs about heaven and hell.
All the name calling aside though, there is very little substance to the responses, positive or negative.
Those who agree with Rob do so because “it just seems so right.” They don’t say exactly what they agree with or why, so they don’t give us much to chew on.
Those who disagree are too busy expressing righteous indignation to actually engage Rob’s arguments. Their enthusiastic, vehement opposition is easily heard but difficult to respect.
Deliberate thoughtfulness, which should be evident, is missing in both cases.
So, this post is written with one purpose in mind: to point out an argument which gives substance to Rob’s ideas, the “Age of Accountability” (A-of-A). Rob neither endorses nor denies the concept but he does mention it and it is one that most Bible believers accept:
Some Christians believe that up to a certain age children aren’t held accountable for what they believe or who they believe in, so if they die during those years, they go to be with God. But then when they reach a certain age, they become accountable for their beliefs, and if they die, they go to be with God ONLY (emphasis mine) if they have said or done or believed the ‘right’ things. Among those who believe this, this age of accountability is generally considered to be sometime around age twelve. p4
Rob then mentions a 15 year old atheist who died in a car accident and points out that conventional thinking says that the three year span of accountability means he has no hope.
He’s in hell and his destiny is sealed.
What makes that explanation so distasteful is the fact that there are many in heaven today who spent an entire lifetime hearing and resisting the Gospel before coming to faith. Why do they get so much time and others get so little.
And that made me think about others who may die very soon after the point of accountability, even a few seconds after. What about them?
Would dying one second after reaching the A-of-A mean the non-Christian person has no hope of heaven? Would God take into consideration their situation or dismiss them with no regard for several variables?
- Did they live in a Christian country or community?
- Had they heard the Gospel?
- Did the guardians in their lives disallow their going to church or reading the Bible?
- Were they being exposed to teachings that were anti-Gospel?
And so on…
And even if they had heard the Gospel, would they have had enough time to process it properly?
Maybe we should entertain the idea that God would graciously allow these short-lived people an option to decide after death? And if God would allow them this option then it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe He would allow it to others also.
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That is the direction Rob is taking in the book and it does make you think.
These are good questions and to understand the issues better I decided to illustrate them.
The following tables show the difference between conventional teachings about “Age of Accountability,” and life after death, and the ideas Rob implies in Love Wins.
The first table represents conventional teachings:
The highlighted blocks represent the critical stage.
- Three Decisional Stages
Conventional wisdom says there are three salvation-decisional stages in each person’s life. The difference in each stage has to do with the ability, or opportunity, a person has to choose to love God.
In the first stage, a decision is not possible.
In the second, a decision is required, absolutely.
In the third, decisions are not allowed.
The first stage begins at birth, the second at the A-of-A and the third at death.
- Birth Stage
The Birth stage begins at birth and lasts until the person develops the ability to be accountable for their decisions, especially the decisions they make about salvation. The length of this stage varies with the individual but is usually understood to be no more than 12 years.
It can be shorter. Some people have sincerely embraced Christ as young as 3 or 4. It can also be longer. People with extreme mental disabilities may never reach accountability in this life.
The length varies with each individual so we can’t be sure when any one person arrives at the next stage but conventional wisdom says salvation decisions are not possible during this time and, therefore, the destiny of a person who dies in this time period is fixed. They will definitely go to be with God.
Note: this understanding is based on King David’s statement about his child who died shortly after birth.
The child will not come to me but I will go to be with the child. (2 Samuel 12)
Most agree with this understanding.
- Age of Accountability Stage (A-of-A)
This stage is one that deserves thorough exploration.
Convention suggests that salvation decisions during this time are not just possible but required. If a person doesn’t deliberately decide to trust Christ, conventional teachings say hell is the only option and is automatically selected the minute they die.
To be clear, not intentionally embracing Jesus for any reason is the same as choosing hell whether the person is aware of the choice or not. Circumstances are never mitigating.
Not only that, but the duration of the A-of-A is extremely variable. As I pointed out before, it can be as short as 1 second or last a full lifetime, 60 or 70 years or more.
What that means is…
If a person dies within one second after reaching the A-of-A, they are automatically assigned to hell whether they heard the Gospel or not!
So the question is, as Rob points out, will God inflict…
Unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time… p110
Are we absolutely certain about that? Can we be adamant about the finality of a person’s destiny when the window of accountability may be as short as a few seconds or even a few hours? And if we’re hesitant to make a hard fast rule when time is so short, maybe we should be open to more generous ideas about those who live a full life.
Maybe, instead of suggesting destinies are determined ONLY in this life we should allow for the possibility that decisions can be made even after death.
- Death Stage
Convention, however, says that salvation decisions are never allowed after death even if the deceased person, who was uninformed before, is willing to embrace Christ after this life.
Rob’s ideas challenge this thinking as illustrated in the next table:
The highlighted blocks represent the areas where Love Wins introduces change.
Note: The following ideas are insinuated from the over-all teachings in the book. Rob says very little about the A-of-A. What he does say, implies a lot.
- Birth Stage
As you can see from the table, Rob agrees with conventional ideas until the last block, destiny. Those who die during this stage will decide about salvation after death and there a couple of reasons some might argue for this.
Would God refuse these people the character building option of choosing to be with God – locking them into a situation they may not want – or does it make sense to believe they will have the option to accept or reject God’s love later.
Conventional wisdom represents these young ones as choiceless. They die early and wake up in heaven, and are then forced to stay. It’s always assumed they would never want to leave.
I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be in heaven but I also don’t understand why angels rebelled. Personal choice is personal choice whether it happens here or in heaven. And it does have character implications.
Since humans are growing, learning, curious beings, is it entirely strange to think that someone who dies in the birth stage might wonder?
If, however, we believe they will grow and develop, then we must also consider the possibility that they will choose. Any growth that doesn’t involve choice is not genuine growth.
And two: logic.
If death could lock these people into a heavenly destiny, then why not terminate everyone during the birth stage, or before. That would prevent the possibility of their making a choice in this life that puts them in hell forever. No, I’m not suggesting that, but it is logical if popular ideas are accepted.
Conventional wisdom actually puts abortion in a better light.
- Age of Accountability Stage
Rob makes two changes here.
One, Salvation Decisions are urged during this stage but not required or imposed. He actually stresses urgency in the last chapter, “The End Is Here” in which he shares his own salvation testimony.
And two, Destiny. Rob suggests destiny can be determined in this stage but is not finalized by a non-decision.
- Death Stage
Obviously, with the above changes, death is no longer the point of no return. Salvation decisions are allowed afterward. Nothing is final.
The only question is what are the consequences for those who wait till after death to make their choice? That’s a good question and the answer is it probably depends on the situation. Each must be taken individually.
Those who weren’t informed or were misinformed, mislead, repressed or disallowed to believe, may have the opportunity to choose God immediately following death. That would be especially true if they were decent people. Not perfect, decent.
However, those who were willingly ignorant may take longer to get back on track. Like taking a wrong turn on a long journey. Even when you discover the mistake it may take a while to right yourself. It’s the consequence of taking a resistant approach to God and truth in this life. More on Evangelism’s Urgency here.
If you are wondering, Rob doesn’t deny hell, sin or the consequences of bad choices. He only denies that death marks the point at which all decisions must be finalized.
Rob reinforces his concepts with many questions taken from real life scenarios:
- What about people who never heard the Gospel because the missionary had a flat tire (uncontrollable circumstances)? p9
Would those who died while the missionary is delayed be disallowed in heaven? Would that be fair?
What if the missionary tried to get into a non-Christian country but was blocked for several years by the government? Would this mean everyone who died without hearing the Gospel during that time would go to hell no matter what?
- Are the destinies of people in the hands of others? p9
What if the people who were supposed to tell me the Gospel were lazy, or too involved with their own lives or too involved with ministries that didn’t really matter and for these reasons never got around to telling me.
And worse still, what if they didn’t like me and because of that refused to share the Gospel with me. Would not hearing the Gospel because of someone else’s failure seal a person’s destiny in hell forever?
And we must ask. Do capitalists go out of their way to share the Gospel with communists? Do racists make a diligent effort to reach those of a different color? Do Republicans really work at trying to be examples to Democrats?
Even if you point to the odd example of one group going out of its way to share the Gospel with people they don’t naturally like, I would say it is the exception and many times is done condescendingly, which dulls the intent. With human nature, isolation and reticence are the rule.
You get the point.
- What if people don’t say the right prayer?
What if a person wants to become a Christian but they do the wrong thing? They don’t get the right baptism or take communion often enough or attend church regularly enough.
Many Churches and Christians teach very divergent things, very convincingly and they can’t all be right. If someone sincerely commits to the wrong one are they doomed?
- What happens when people hear about a wrong Jesus or are abused by those who claim to know Jesus?
In some parts of the world Christians routinely discriminate against, oppress and in some cases execute those who aren’t Christians. Are the “non-Christians” in these situations condemned for rejecting an abusive Jesus?
Rob shares a few examples, one of which is particularly heart wrenching. Renee Altson was raped and molested, repeatedly over many years by her Sunday School teaching, Scripture quoting father. She managed to escape eventually and did find Jesus but how many others like her never escape or find Jesus in this life.
Are they doomed in spite of this abuse?
All of Rob’s questions seem strong. Almost convincing.
Final Word For The Unconvinced
But if you are still unsure, Rob allows for that too.
Following are two quotes taken from chapter 4, “Does God Get What God Wants?” One is from Martin Luther who, in response to the idea that people could get saved after death said:
Who would doubt God’s ability to do that. p106
And the second quote comes from Rob and it represents a key thought in the book:
Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it. We can be honest about the warped nature of the human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God’s love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to eah other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now. p111
This may not answer all the questions but Love Wins does open the door to discussion and gives us plenty to think about, that is, if you’re thinking.
The Love Wins Companion offers valuable information for anyone wanting to explore further: insights and commentary by qualified individuals, in-depth exploration of significant Bible passages, detailed chapter summaries of Love Wins with questions and guides for discussion, historical evidence demonstrating the breadth and diversity of Christian ideas about heaven and hell and more.
In The Reason For God Timothy Keller confronts head on the questions that skeptics are asking, yet without a confrontational style. It is sensible, rational and engaging. A must read for every thinking person, Christian or not. His approach to hard questions about God not only provides answers it encourages us to develop analytical thinking skills. Also available is a DVD with discussion guide for small group interaction.