Little-Known Bible Verses IV: The Age of Accountability

What happens to children who die before they are old enough to reasonably understand and accept the Bible’s doctrine of salvation? This vexing theological question was not always so vexing. The renowned theologians of antiquity answered it quite simply: they were cast out of God’s presence to suffer the eternal torture of Hell’s flames. Here is St. Augustine on the fate awaiting infants who died prior to baptism:

But even before the outbreak of the Pelagian controversy St. Augustine had already abandoned the lenient traditional view, and in the course of the controversy he himself condemned, and persuaded the Council of Carthage (418) to condemn, the substantially identical Pelagian teaching affirming the existence of “an intermediate place, or of any place anywhere at all… in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness” (Denzinger 102). This means that St. Augustine and the African Fathers believed that unbaptized infants share in the common positive misery of the damned, and the very most that St. Augustine concedes is that their punishment is the mildest of all, so mild indeed that one may not say that for them non-existence would be preferable to existence in such a state.

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm

Later on in the Middle Ages, the Catholic church mercifully commuted their fate to Limbo, a realm where they would live forever but not in the presence of God. However, Limbo has not fared so well in recent years, as the church in Rome has weighed whether to eliminate it altogether. (One wonders, what is guiding their decision? Is there any actual evidence one way or the other for the existence of Limbo?)

Today, the concept of the “age of accountability” is central to many modern Christian denominations. This doctrine, fairer than its predecessors by far, is an automatic pass to Heaven for children who die before they are young enough to discern the difference between right and wrong. However, like many widely believed Christian ideas, such a concept finds no support in the Bible. There is no verse in scripture that states the age of accountability doctrine, and some passages flat-out contradict it, such as the following little-known Bible verse:

Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem: and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.

—2 Chronicles 36:9

The context of this verse is late in the Old Testament. By this point, the sinful northern kingdom of Israel had been utterly destroyed by the Assyrians, and the only slightly less sinful southern kingdom of Judah was squeezed in a vise between its powerful neighbors Egypt and Babylon, regularly forced to pay tribute, or to have a puppet king installed on its throne, by one of them or the other. After the death of the righteous King Josiah, Josiah’s son Jehoahaz was made king, only to be dethroned and imprisoned by the Egyptian pharaoh Necho. In his place Necho installed Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoiakim, but Jehoiakim too was cast down and made prisoner by the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar, and was replaced by his son Jehoiachin. Jehoiachin, in turn, reigned only a few months before being replaced by his older brother Zedekiah, whose sins provoked God’s final wrath and caused him to send the Babylonians to destroy Judah once and for all, tearing down its holy temple and carrying off its population into slavery.

The Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles are largely tedious histories like this, which summarize the entire reign of each king with a few lines indicating whether his reign was good or evil in the sight of God. But it is Jehoiachin’s brief reign that concerns us. As the above verse indicates, Jehoiachin was only eight years old when he took the throne, and reigned only three months. At such an age, he should fall well below the “age of accountability” imagined by modern Christians. Yet the text states plainly that he “did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord”, and does not seem inclined to overlook this on the basis that he was too young to know better.

How can an eight-year-old child do evil? In the American system of elementary schools, Jehoiachin would have been a third-grader. Does it really make any sense to imply that such a young child has the intelligence and moral discernment needed to clearly tell good apart from evil and be held accountable for it – much less to imply that he has the wisdom to rule an entire country? This verse is a glaring indictment of the absurdity of the divine-right monarchy promoted by the Bible, but it also shows that the age of accountability is a modern invention, and an idea that is contradicted by scripture.

I do not dispute that the age of accountability is a good idea. It is indeed rational not to hold children to the same moral standard as adults. They have not yet reached that level of intellectual and moral development, and implying that they bear the same culpability or merit the same punishment as an adult is a cruel and monstrous idea. But despite its cruelty, this idea is implied by the Bible. As such, it constitutes one more reason why people of understanding should reject this book’s claims of divine inspiration.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Freeyourmind

    I’m new to the site and have been reading a lot of the articles/blogs over the past two days. As with the mass majority of what I’ve read, I agree whole heartedly. Let me also say that I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve read and it’s very well written. I’ll be here often going forward.

    This particular subject seems to be just another example of modern Christians trying to make their beliefs more humane. When in fact they are contradicting the very book that they claim to abide to for life.

    If the bible was in fact a book powerful enough for humans to live their life by, exceptions and contradictions wouldn’t need to be made. I certainly don’t claim to be knowledgable on the bible even a small amount as I’ve been a skeptic for life. However, through research I’ve read passages such as the above which only further substantiate my beliefs.

  • SteveC

    Julia Sweeney talks about this topic a bit here:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=CT5c3-k4uRE

    When she turned 7, her dad told her that she was
    “now able to commit any and all sins against God.”

  • jake3988

    2 Kings 24:8
    Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months.

    Ponder, which one’s right? 8 years old? 18 years old? SAB, I love you.

  • Christopher

    “Age of accountability” is just another ridiculous (and very unbiblical) concept designed by christians to make the swill they peddle a bit more palatable to their own congregations. If they have true confidence in their holy book, they wouldn’t feel the need to constantly come to its rescue whenever it trips over on itself!

    BTW: I love the SAB version of the bible too. It doesn’t outline all the contradictions and absurdities in this Bronze-Age relic, but it’s a good starting point.

  • mikidu

    I note that inerrantists claim that Jehoiachin was 8 when he was apprenticed to his father and 18 when he ruled in his own right. It’s possible I suppose, although there seems to be no evidence in support of this theory. Like most of the inerrantist’s explanations, they just make this stuff up.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the rational pirate

    Yeah, here is the bull being ladled down christian’s throats:

    Indeed, the texts identify two different ages at which Jehoiachin became king, a difference of 10 years existing between them. A likely explanation for this supposed discrepancy is that he began to reign along side his father at the age of 8, and then took complete control of the throne at the age of 18, reigning from that point onward for approximately 3 months time.

    Of course, the actual text says nothing of the sort. So in which parts of the supposed inerrant bible can I just make shit up and which parts are set in stone?

    And again here they are making stuff up:

    It is very unlikely that these words are spoken of an 8 year old. However, as his father’s apprentice for a 10 year period, no doubt he learned well the wickedness of his father, and repeated the same in his own short reign as king.

    There is no contradiction.

    Yeah, right. There is no contradiction. Especially if you make the shit up as you go along.

  • http://secularplanet.blogspot.com Secular Planet

    According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, which you quoted earlier, the age of reason (i.e., age of accountability) is generally seven years, so saying an eight-year-old did evil doesn’t contradict this belief.

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01209a.htm

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Ponder, which one’s right? 8 years old? 18 years old?

    According to a footnote in the NIV, one Hebrew manuscript and some later Greek manuscripts give Jehoiachin’s age in Chronicles as 18, in line with Kings. Most Hebrew manuscripts, on the other hand, assert that he was 8, in contradiction with Kings. Most likely there was one scribe who noticed the discrepancy and was bothered enough to “correct” it, while most of them just happily copied the contradiction.

    So in which parts of the supposed inerrant bible can I just make shit up and which parts are set in stone?

    An easy question! The answer, as I have determined from observing Christian apologists, is that if you are one of the ones who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy, you are apparently free to invent and add on to scripture to your heart’s content. If you do not believe this, however, you place your eternal soul in dire peril by adding even one jot or tittle to the text. It’s a very flexible standard that frees up fundamentalist Christians to obsess over many things that really are never even mentioned in the Bible.

    According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, which you quoted earlier, the age of reason (i.e., age of accountability) is generally seven years, so saying an eight-year-old did evil doesn’t contradict this belief.

    The Catholic view on this matter is not definitive, of course. Most Christians believe it is not a fixed age but varies from person to person although, as I maintain, the idea of an eight-year-old bearing the moral responsibility of an adult strains all credulity. Evangelical Christian denominations often believe the age of accountability is around 12 or 13, for example, here and here.

  • lpetrich

    The age of accountability shows up in the Left Behind series also; in it, all children under age 12 get Raptured. Even fetuses get Raptured(!).

    The series’ creators were asked about that here.

  • http://www.myspace.com/drekmac Derek

    What I find more interesting than the fact of no age of accountability in the bible is the implications of this fact. Not only do those children who die a natural death or at the hands of humans, but all the stories in the bible where god blanket kills everyone (which most people don’t even think about including children) he not only kills children with it, but without an age of accountability, these children all go to hell. How many children where on the earth when god supposedly killed 99.99% of the people on the earth in the flood? What about Sodom and that G-town I can’t spell?

  • Dave

    Some fundamentalists, Catholics from the past, and even perhaps the Bible consider children and other heathen (‘ungospelized’) to be accountable because of original sin. Not for their moral/rational capacity allowing them to choose their actions rightly. It is generally the fundamentalists that try to base God’s judgment sole on our actions (or Works, hence a return to Pelagianism) rather than our sinful state that assent to an age of accountability.

    I think the problem is general bible illiteracy by the various denominations. The modern fundamentalists movement falls in this category. They believe some very different things than the fundamentalist protestants in the reformation. This does not mean the bible speaks more than one thing when literally read. It means that someone is mistaken in what it actually says. Or flat out making things up, as is the case here.

    Next, you can’t argue the book isn’t divine based on beliefs that don’t come from it (or should). You assume that judgment is cruel without mentioning the reason, original sin which I believe is in the bible. You should address that not age of accountability, a belief that has not been historically held by the church.

  • Tomas S

    I’m starting to think that I don’t quite get the point of this column. Is it supposed to convince believers? Is it supposed to amuse scoffers? Is it supposed to do both? I don’t see how it could do either.

    There are believers who identify as fundamentalists who accept that some minor copying errors do occur. I predict that their reaction would be that Jehoiachin was obviously either 8 or 18 and someone dropped (or added) a digit — and would point out that the Holy Spirit made sure that The Truth was preserved – after all, the number was passed on correctly once. They might also point out that the actual age doesn’t have bearing on any doctrinal questions. (There are entire sermons missing from some manusripts; surely the age of some minor king (no pun intended) is no big deal.)

    As an atheist, I don’t believe the doctrine in question, but I do still believe that it is a reasonable doctrine to hold, if one believes the Bible. No, it’s not spelled out plainly, but it’s hinted at enough (e.g. some statements by Jesus about little children and the Kingdom of God.) What should we think about Jehoiachin? If he was indeed 8, what does it matter that he did “that which is evil.” The Bible (as far as I know) doesn’t say that Jehoiachin went to hell.

    When I was a believer, my understanding differed from what Ebon described above – on at least two points. First, there never was any set age of accountability; that it varied from child to child. Second, the test was not whether the child could sin or was tainted by Adam’s sin, but whether they could understand the plan of salvation and accept Christ as their savior.

    We may find these beliefs silly, false, or even dangerous, but I don’t see why Jehoiachin is dragged into it as at all relevant.

    By the way, when I considered myself a fundamentalist, I also believed that there was another kind of progressive accountability. In contrast to what Dave said, I believed that all would be “without excuse”, and that everybody would have (at least one) chance to accept Christ as saviour. This includes people who live in some far off place where nobody knows the name Jesus.

    I think it’s true what Christopher posted — that it’s meant to make things more palatable, but even so, what’s a believer supposed to do from a practical point of view? They don’t have to make a firm decision about whether the doctrine is true, since either way, the goal will be to teach their children and have them make a “decision for Christ” as soon as possible.

  • http://www.orderingdisorder.com Dan

    I do not dispute that the age of accountability is a good idea. It is indeed rational not to hold children to the same moral standard as adults. They have not yet reached that level of intellectual and moral development, and implying that they bear the same culpability or merit the same punishment as an adult is a cruel and monstrous idea. But despite its cruelty, this idea is implied by the Bible.

    The verse you quote implies nothing of the sort.

    You’re assuming that because the bible mentions an 8-year-old that did evil, the bible must therefore completely contradict the idea of an age of accountability. In fact, it really only shows that either the age of accountability is less than 8, or Jehoiachin reached his age of accountability at that age.

    More specifically, you’ve made the error of assuming that if there is an age of accountability, it must be a universal constant age that is applied to all people without exception. Even a cursory examination of psychological development should show why that is flawed. Different people develop at different rates. Different people learn how to distinguish between right and wrong at different points in their growth. A God who claims to judge us for our works would obviously take that into account. (And please don’t pretend that Christians can only believe something if it is explicitly stated in the Bible.)

    I contend that the verse you quoted is fully compatible with this idea.

    How can an eight-year-old child do evil?

    Perhaps an illustration will suffice. When I was five, I stole a pack of gum from a local grocery store. I was certainly aware that stealing is wrong, because once home I hid the stolen gum and did not reveal the theft to my parents. A child who does not know stealing is wrong would have no reason to hide the theft.

    Is it your contention that I could not have known stealing was wrong? If you admit that I could have known stealing was wrong at age five, then you must also admit that it is possible for an eight-year-old to know the difference between right and wrong.

    Is it wrong for a parent to hold a child accountable for doing something wrong, when the parent is sure the child knew it was wrong? If not, then why would it be wrong for God to do the same thing?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Perhaps an illustration will suffice. When I was five, I stole a pack of gum from a local grocery store. I was certainly aware that stealing is wrong, because once home I hid the stolen gum and did not reveal the theft to my parents. A child who does not know stealing is wrong would have no reason to hide the theft.

    Interesting point, Dan. On the other hand, it’s not just children who are capable of this. As any pet owner will tell you, dogs and cats will also sometimes act in ways that apparently show consciousness of guilt. If you came home to find your garbage can knocked over and its contents spewed all over the floor, and your dog whimpering and cringing in the corner or hiding under the bed, would you conclude that your dog understood the difference between right and wrong?

    My contention is that children at a very young age (as well as pets) can understand the concept of punishment – stage 1 of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – and desire to avoid it. That would be sufficient to explain why you hid the gum from your parents. But that’s not the same thing as having the reasoned, reflective understanding of morality that makes a person into a moral agent who can truly be credited or blamed for their actions. That understanding may indeed develop at different ages in different people, but eight years old is far too early for anyone to possess it.

    More specifically, you’ve made the error of assuming that if there is an age of accountability, it must be a universal constant age that is applied to all people without exception.

    That “error”, as you call it, is a common belief among Jewish and Christian denominations. Several examples were cited upthread: the Catholic church believes it happens at the end of your seventh year (this is explicitly stated in canon law); the Mormons believe it’s age 8; while most evangelical churches as well as Judaism (i.e., bar/bat mitzvah) believe that it’s 12 or 13, the onset of puberty. If you think this uniformity is unreasonable, perhaps you should take it up with your fellow theists, rather than blaming me for accurately reporting a commonly held belief.

  • http://www.orderingdisorder.com Dan

    That “error”, as you call it, is a common belief among Jewish and Christian denominations. Several examples were cited upthread: the Catholic church believes it happens at the end of your seventh year (this is explicitly stated in canon law); the Mormons believe it’s age 8;

    Indeed, many Christian churches do treat it as a universal, set-in-stone age. They are wrong. An error is an error, regardless of who is making it. I believe 8 years of age is generally accurate, a belief which is based on my own observations of myself and my four younger siblings as they grew up and matured. (The LDS Church, as least, treats 8 as a general guideline, not a set-in-stone rule.)

    At any rate, you claimed that the verse you quoted flat-out contradicts the idea of an age of accountability, which is simply untrue. It merely disagrees with you about when a person might reach that age, so unless you’re a seasoned developmental psychologist, I hope you’ll forgive me for not giving your opinion much weight on that issue.

  • John

    An age of accountability would contradict the doctrine that Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven. It would then be either through Jesus OR die before the a.o.a.


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