Literal Hell + Age of Accountability = What?!?

[The text in the facebook status copied above reads: About 20 children are receiving the BEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT EVER....the presence of our God and our Lord Jesus Christ!]

I remember when Andrea Yates drowned her five small children in a bathtub. I was a conservative evangelical at the time, and still in high school, and when I heard about the story I had a problem. I knew I found what Yates had done morally reprehensible, but, well, I couldn’t find a way to criticize her reasoning for doing what she did. My theology wouldn’t let me, because, well, her theology was my theology followed to its logical conclusion.

As with many if not most evangelical and fundamentalist churches, my parents’ church taught both the existence of a literal hell – consisting, of course, of eternal torment – and the idea that children who die before the age of accountability – usually around seven or eight – automatically go straight to heaven. Andrea Yates explained that, based on these doctrines, she murdered her five small children because she was afraid that if she let them grow past the age of accountability, they might not choose Jesus and might therefore spend eternity in torment. She was willing to damn her soul by committing murder if that was what was necessary to ensure that her children would spend eternity in heaven. Aren’t mothers supposed to sacrifice for their children, after all? As evangelical and fundamentalist America jumped all over itself to condemn Yates’ actions, I wavered on an instant of doubt and then pushed it away.

Following this line of thought, evangelicals and fundamentalists who truly believe in both a literal hell and the age of accountability ought to, like the facebook user who posted the status above, rejoice in the deaths of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary. Why? Because, by their doctrine, the shooter did those children a favor by sending them straight to heaven. Had those twenty children grown up, the odds that all of them would have become Bible believing Christians are a hundred to one, and the consequences for those children who didn’t would have been dire – eternal and never-ending torture. Instead, by these beliefs, all twenty children will have never-ending bliss.

Indeed, these evangelicals and fundamentalists ought to approach abortion in the same way. They believe that fetuses have souls, after all, and since they are under the age of accountability, they believe the souls of dead fetuses go straight to heaven. Logically, abortion doctors ought to be viewed as heroes, willing do damn their own souls and face eternal torture in order to spare as many souls as possible the same fate. In fact, logically, what mother who truly believes these things would choose to birth a child and let it grow up with even the chance of rejecting Jesus and spending eternity in hell? Would it not be better to abort it and thus spare it any chance of such torture and send it straight to heaven? Sure, by doing so they would damn their own souls to hell, but wouldn’t that make them the ultimate heroes, willing to sacrifice all for the good of their children?

When I had these thoughts as a teen, I didn’t know how to handle them, so I pushed them away rather than face their full implications. And as I write this, I realize that some might find it offensive. But I think we need to be pointing out the absolute moral horror that results from actually and truly taking these two beliefs seriously. Andrea Yates realized that horror, and she walked into it. And yet, thankfully, she is the extreme aberration. Further, her actions were widely and soundly condemned by evangelicals and fundamentalists right alongside everyone else. Why is this, when her action is in some sense simply the natural and humane conclusion of the doctrines held by so many evangelicals and fundamentalists?

My answer to this question is that evangelicals and fundamentalists who claim to believe in both a literal hell and the age of accountability must (a) not truly believe in one or both of those doctrines  (b) have never followed these doctrines to their logical conclusion, or (c) have pushed these thoughts under the rug as I did for so long. And I suppose perhaps we should be glad of this, because the last thing this world need is more Andrea Yateses.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • J.

    That only works if the Christian in question doesn’t believe 1) in original sin and 2) that original sin itself can send you to hell even if you haven’t committed any personal sins yourself. There are some Christians who claim that they can’t say with certainty that babies go to heaven and that it’s possible that the babies go to hell (or to the Catholic limbo!). Even if such a God were true, I’m not sure I’d want to willingly worship such a being. Like Christopher Hitchens said, God creates people sick and demands that they be well and punishes them when they’re not (all the while withholding from them the medicine to get better).

  • Daniel

    Maybe there is another possibilty: That they don’t assign any intrinsic moral value at all to the suffering or wellbeing of other humans, but base their whole morality on an deontologigical framework, in which the only thing that counts is whether the action is compatible with certain rules ( “you shall not murder”) without any considerations of the consequences of their actions.

  • Scott McGreal

    I agree that we should be glad that so few Christians actually take their beliefs to the logical extremes. (Since when are most religious people logical anyway!) An unfortunate example of one who does is the egregious William Lane Craig. You may remember his infamous post a while back justifying why genocide in the Bible is actually a-OK and that slaughtering infants is doing them a favour. (I wrote an essay about this here that may be of interest.) Let’s just hope he keeps his mouth shut about this latest tragedy.

    • Scott McGreal

      Oops, I made a typo in the above, the essay I refer to is here.

  • Syl

    I think a lot of the point of view which Daniel describes is at work here. The “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” frame of mind (cop-out, in my opinion) removes the uncomfortable need to think about and reconcile such contradictions. “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die.” Moral and ethical are what God says they are, in this framework. But who determines what it is that God says? Ah, there’s the rub (well, one of them). Which version and interpretation of which Bible or tradition or preacher or voice in one’s head/heart/gut? Ah, but don’t think about it – that’s the devil, you know… If what “God” said in the myriad of misinterpreted, misanthropic, ancient “scriptures” was consistent internally and with human well-being it wouldn’t matter. But humanity be damned (and it is, in the here and now by blind, deaf, dumb, and thoughtless “believers” of this ilk) – man the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

  • Tracey

    I remember the Andrea Yates tragedy and I believe her husband should have been found guilty on 8 counts of murder. Before falling in with him, Yates was a straight-A student, a nurse, who was high-functioning, sane, and well-liked by just about everyone. Her husband introduced her to living in unheated buses while miscarrying baby after baby. He continually impregnated her even though pregnancy made her so crazy that she was catatonic for days at a time and believed her pillow was talking to her. He left her in charge of all the housework, cooking, raising and homeschooling an ever-increasing amount of children while he sauntered off to work.

    It was obvious that she had completely lost her mind, in the clinical sense (not the casual sense). He knowingly put her into this state and then left her alone with the children. Now that she’s locked away, he’s happily remarried and creating more children for “the lord”.

    • Nea

      Tracey, you aren’t the only one who feels that way. Why was divorce a sin when she needed it, but Rusty can get one and God’ll understand?

    • Uly


    • TheSeravy

      Entirely agree. I was disgusted at how easy it was for Rusty Yates to just walk away from a tragedy that he played a huge causal role in. (she also had to care for her father with alzheimer’s for a period of time too) I’ve read articles about this and every time Rusty Yates is mentioned, his role is always minimized as if his only fault was leaving the children with his depressed wife. No, his actions were mental torture. She was nothing more than an incubator and handy home slave labour to him. He ruined her career, isolated her and trapped her in the hell he created. Caregiving and motherhood is seen as such a wonderful and womanly thing, people forget about how difficult it is to have to go at it all by yourself. I bet it never occured to Rusty to actually HELP his wife with all the crap he was sticking her with. Sorry for the rant but this story gets me every time.

      • Tracey

        Andrea Yates didn’t go from fully-functional human being to snapped in an instant–that was building up over years. However, nobody in her life gave a hoot about her. She was only there to be the sexual slave/baby factory/housemaid/teacher. Nobody at that church cared that she looked like a zombie (the pictures of her from that time show someone who doesn’t even know where they are): the woman’s job is to be the “helpmeet”. When Rusty Yates remarried, he bleated about how he “deserved” children–children his bitch of a wife deprived him of.

    • pagansister

      Tracey, ditto. Wish there had been a law that would have allowed him to be castrated AND then tossed in jail for contributing to the murder of those 5 babies.

  • Lana

    I was also in high school at that time. That was one point that turned me towards Calvinism. (I am no longer a Calvinists, nor do I believe in a literal hell today.) I believed that God chose some babies, not all; God chose some adults, not all. To then kill a baby could send some babies to hell. Whenever people would say all babies would go to heaven, I’d even tell people in their face, “guess we should go kill all the babies in Islamic countries, so they go to heaven rather than grow up as Muslim and go to heaven.”

    Funny at that time, I knew that Yates conclusion was logical based on her belief, so I turned to Calvinism. What I didn’t think think to consider at that time was that hell might not be real, or at least the Christian understanding.

    • Anat

      Well, the logical conclusion to the Calvinist stance is that nothing matters whatsoever. You spend eternity wherever God chose for you to go regardless of anything but his whim.

  • Niemand

    It seems to me that if you accept the essential premises that
    1. Every zygote has a soul
    2. The soul did not exist before conception (implicit in the requirement that one produce more babies for “the Lord”)
    3. All children under the age of accountability go to Heaven
    4. Making more people, especially more people destined for Heaven is a good thing

    then wouldn’t the best, most moral thing to do be to get pregnant as many times as possible and have an abortion at the first possible moment? That way you don’t have to “waste” the full pregnancy or risk any of the kids going to Hell some day. So shouldn’t abortion be a sacrament for the believing fundamentalist?

  • vitto

    In Catholicism, both Limbo and Heaven for children are just “hopes”. Strictly speaking, if your original sin is not cleansed by batism, you go straight to hell. That’s why even today many Catholic families baptize their children as soon as possible. Limbo (even when it was accepted teaching) was only guesswork, only a hope that there is such a place for children, but not a real doctrine. Now, of course, the Church has softened its tone and says that it is possible and hoped (again, only hoped) that children go to Heaven, but there are no guarantees. They don’t hide the fact that they do not really know. No one can be sure that even the most innocent, even an unborn child will end up in Heaven or at least Limbo. Strictly speaking, the original sin is enough to send you to Hell for eternity.

    • Noadi

      This is why an exception was made for women to perform lay baptisms if they were delivering a baby, so that stillbirths could be baptized in the hope the soul was still present and could then go to heaven. One of the thoughts which always horrified me was: what about good people who had never heard of Christ? They would be condemned to Hell due to where/when they were born? It just never made sense to me. Now I was raised in a nominally Christian family that occasionally attended a very liberal methodist church so that wasn’t a view I heard there but from a friends conservative evangelical mother.

      • Leigha

        That’s one of the things that’s always bothered me as well. I mean, the reason there were so many missionaries in the era of Imperialism is because they needed to save the souls of the people in Africa or Papua New Guinea or wherever, because they wouldn’t have ever heard of Jesus. But the thing is (assuming the entire belief system is correct), God put those people there. God chose for them to be born in a society where no one had ever heard of Christianity. And then God sends them to hell for not believing in something he chose for them to not know about? That’s about as horrifically unfair as you can get. It’s almost consistent with predestination (an idea which I find not only appalling but also theologically problematic–why bother doing anything religious if God already decided where you’re going?).

        Hell is a problematic belief in and of itself. You go to hell as punishment for sin, but you can get out of it by believing in Jesus because God had him killed so you could get to heaven (side note: there isn’t heaven and hell in Judaism; the dead go to Sheol, no matter what). God HAD to have Jesus killed to save everyone, because SOMEONE has to die as punishment for sin. But who made that rule? Either God made it, in which case he could simply have waved his hand and said “Nevermind, you can all go to heaven” (and he could put any conditions on it he wanted, like–most reasonably–being a good person) or even have made hell not exist, or there’s some higher natural law that even God can’t break (which is how it always comes across when Christians talk about the necessity of Jesus’s death, though they never say it flat out), in which case he is not omnipotent and therefore not, in the traditional sense, God. The very logic behind “Jesus had to die for us to go to heaven” makes no sense when you really think about it.

      • Conuly

        The Mormons have an interesting loophole where you can be baptized by proxy after death, thus giving you the option to convert in the afterlife. This causes no end of public relations debacles when they get caught baptizing Anne Frank (again), but it certainly is a novel approach to the problem of baby hell!

  • Rachel

    I didn’t understand the fb post up top for a while. I had to read over the post multiple times, and it still makes me sick.

    I think there’s a piece not being considered by most commenters. We’re approaching it from a utilitarian approach: as long as there’s a greater good guaranteed, a sin is okay. (And indeed, other religions do have this approach: a Jew is, up to a certain point, allowed to break Jewish law in order to save a life.) But evangelical Christian doesn’t seem to understand that: committing a sin, any sin (or perhaps, any mortal sin) doesn’t justify the good that may come of it. (And, to be fair, Judaism has a similar caveat: among the laws that one is not to break, even at the expense of your own life, is murder.)

    On its own, it’s a coherent worldview. The problem is that it’s not followed consistently: in evangelical worlds, there are any number of examples of hypocrites and double standards. Rusty Yatesis a good one — though I will say I learned more about Andrea’s side of the case from this comment thread than I did from secular media coverage, which treated her as a Bad Mother.

    • Tracey

      Actually, I learned what I did about Andrea Yates from secular sources. I learned that her condition had been worsening for years, and that her husband forced her to live in an unheated abandoned school bus while she had miscarriage after miscarriage. I learned from secular sources that Rusty Yates met the police at the house at his only comment was, “I’d offer you something to drink but there isn’t a clean glass in the house”. I learned from secular sources that Andrea Yates was so catatonic that she sat for days in a rocking chair, not moving or speaking…and Rusty Yates thought it perfectly fine to leave his children in her care while he went and spent time with adults and took himself out for restaurant lunches.

      What I learned from church was “Andrea Yates is EVVVVULL and A BAD MOTHER! Women suck!”

  • Ibis3

    We’re approaching it from a utilitarian approach: as long as there’s a greater good guaranteed, a sin is okay.

    True, but the logically consistent *and* utilitarian approach would say that it’s better for no children to risk going to hell and so Christians shouldn’t be having children. They can even find a load of NT justification for followers of Christ to be celibate (and in fact, many early members of the religion did just that: bishops, church fathers, revered virgins, cenobitic monks, ascetics who lived in the wilderness or in extreme situations, hermits, and later, friars and lay brethren both male and female). Having children just guarantees that some (many?) will suffer hell. It’s strange that modern Christianity all but ignores something that was central to Christian doctrine for almost two thousand years.

    • Rachel

      True point! That, of course, defeats the purpose of the “Quiverfull” movement. (And, from a practical standpoint, is it better for your followers to believe that they should be celibate in order not to risk the possibility of hell, or that they should have lots and lots of children whom they must indoctrinate in order to avoid the possibility of hell?)

  • Antigone10

    Andrea Yates makes me cry, but Rusty and their pastor? They make me wish hell was real just so they could go to it. Andrea went to the pastor for help when she was OBVIOUSLY depressed, and obviously post-partem to an extreme extent, and his advice was for her to submit more and to pray more and NOT go to a doctor.

    The “Bad mother” story is a good one, because it adds extra scrutiny to women in a difficult job with a slight twist of the women going “At least I’m not Andrea Yates” however subconsciously. If we had attacked Rusty Yates for being the selfish fuck he obviously is, too many people (especially men) would have to start examining their own families, actions, and relationships, and no one wants THAT.

    • Aaron

      Hear, hear.

    • sara maimon

      I think that’s way to harsh on Rusty. The man’s wife is nuts does that mean he is not allowed to have a life? In fact according to what I read, on the day of the murder he left her alone for a planned one hour only, while he went to work, until hi mother was scheduled to arrive. Yeah in hindsight it’s criminal but these are the pressures of day to day living.

      • sara maimon

        one of the reasons religion was surely guilty was by giving the idea though that they had to keep having children

      • Nea

        The man’s wife is nuts does that mean he is not allowed to have a life?

        The life he allowed himself included a wide variety of freedoms that he barred Andrea from having, freedoms to have time to herself, take physical care of her mind and body, and make her own decisions that might have kept her from going nuts in the first place.

        Furthermore, his abuses were directed to his children as well. He is culpable in leaving the children alone with someone who was at that point unstable and highly drugged for a minute. If he’d found a homeless woman muttering to herself on the street, fed her a gallon of lithium, and then said “here, look after my kids for an hour while I run to work” there would be no question that he was a callous, child-abusing monster. The basic situation didn’t change because the drugged-up person he abandoned the children to was his own wife.

        So no. I don’t think he was “allowed to have a life” because “his wife was nuts.” His chosen lifestyle was abusive to his spouse and his children, directly causing the psychotic break of the former and the deaths of the latter. For all we know, it still is – does anyone know the fate of wife 2.0?

      • Tracey

        @Nea: Yes, Rusty Yates’ chosen lifestyle *made* his wife nuts. She was not nuts before he serially impregnated her against all medical warnings. His wants were (and are) more important to him than the well-being of his wife and children. That’s definitely a patriarchal mindset, encouraged by the crazy church he chose to attend (likely because it catered to his sense of self-importance).

        That final day, knowing his wife was no more sane than some random muttering homeless woman, he skipped blithely off and left her alone with the children because he wasn’t interested in hanging around long enough for his mother to show up to help. The fact that he knew his wife needed supervision and chose to leave her alone with small children just underlines what a narcissistic, heartless monster he is. Everything is all about him and his wants.

      • Uly

        Who insisted she have all those children? Who decided that the unstable woman with PPD had to homeschool? Who isolated her from her family and friends and moved her with their multitude of kids into a little trailer in the middle of nowhere, where there was no room to escape from the children for even a minute? Who left her with all the work of the childcare and the house? Who took her out of the hospital every single time she checked herself in and tried to get help? Who fit several of the marks of an abusive spouse, even on a superficial glance?

        Rusty Yates ought to be strung up as an accessory to murder and an abusive husband.

  • Greg G.

    The Age of Accountability implies that at one moment a child is bound for heaven but if he learns one more thing, he is liable to be sent to hell. If the kid forgets some5hing else would he then be eligible for heaven again? Compared to the concept of God, we are all like children but the standard of accountability is whether we are smarter than a fifth-grader. If the theology set the standard just above human understanding, everyone could go to heaven. But then they would lose the thing that makes their church services entertaining.

    • Ibis3

      Thanks, Greg. Never thought about it that way. “Smarter than a fifth-grader” :D

    • Leigha

      Well, the reason anyone goes to hell in the first place is because Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, so I suppose it’s consistent to believe that knowledge sends you to hell. I realize it was the disobedience of doing it after God told them not to, not (officially) what the tree itself was, but…

      1. Why was the knowledge of good and evil forbidden? People without that knowledge would be like toddlers. No, not even toddlers, because toddlers are already starting to learn right from wrong. Puppies?
      2. Why would God put said tree there in the first place, if they weren’t supposed to eat from it. You wouldn’t put a cookie jar on the coffee table next to your toddler, say “You better not take any cookies,” and walk away, would you? Or if you did, you certainly would expect to come back to find some cookies missing.
      3. My biggest issue with it: Until they ate from the Tree, they (by definition) had no knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, they (like a toddler) can’t really be expected to understand the consequences of disobedience, especially since (unlike most toddlers) they had no experience whatsoever with it. So there is NO REASON to expect them to actually listen, because they had no capacity whatsoever to understand what would happen if they didn’t. They had no knowledge of guilt, shame, consequences, punishment, ANYTHING. I know Christians would argue they should have done what God said because he said so, but that doesn’t really make any sense. If you are literally incapable of comprehending that there could be negative consequences to disobedience, you can’t be expected to be obedient. Period.

      • Leigha

        Oops. I got so caught up in the tangential part of that comment that I forgot to go back to my point. What I meant to say was, with those points in mind, I would conclude that knowledge (and the ability to think critically) itself were the problem, not simply disobedience. Everything would have been just fine had Adam and Eve remained in ignorance, and it seems like some particularly conservative Christians try to keep their children as ignorant as possible in turn.

  • Walt

    Dear Miss Anne,
    Using human wisdom I see exactly how your reasoning applies, how it becomes the logical conclusion. First our Heavenly Father who is Jesus Christ in the flesh is the only one who can create. He created the sun, moon, stars, the heavens, earth and everyone in it. Now ift good exists, which isonly God then we know evil must also exist which is Satan. God creates, and Satan corrupts what God created to use for evil. Think of being jealous, God says He is the jealous God, so there must be good jeaoulsy because only God is good. However jeaoulsy corrupted is envy, which the reader of the Bible will find is what the Pharisee’s felt for Jesus, even Pontous Pilot discerned this. The age of accuntability is something I struggled with until one point in time the Truth came (Jesus Christ) and set me free. I have a friend who had mentioned Calvinism how people are elected to Heaven, yet the Bible teaches freewill. I struggled with this, trying to figure out in human wisdom how this could be. Then one day I heard Jesus say to me, Walt do I know everything? I was awestruck, I relpied God not only do you know everything, there is nothing that you do not know! Jesus then said Walt if I know everything do I not already know your freewill choice? Why Yes, Jesus you do!!! Now it makes sense, election and freewill make sense spiritually because Jesus Christ knows all, and is not held in time as we are He knows the beginning from the end, He is the Aplha and the Omega. Friends it is clear there is much untruth in our world. However to the one who repents and puts His trust in Jesus Christ as LORD, GOD, SAVIOR and REDEEMER He will set you free and He whom the Son sets free is free indeed!! The age of accountability for the Samaritian women at the well, was when Jesus Christ revealed Himself to her. As it is with everyone Jesus reveals Himself to whomever He chooses, because His Judgment is Perfect. Read your Bible everyday do what it says, God (Jesus Christ) is who He says He is, He is Holy, fair, just, kind, merciful, gracious , loving and above all is willing that none should perish, that all would come to repentance.

    • Bill

      This guy is one Seriously Deluded Individual .

      • Lucreza Borgia

        “age of accuntability” sounds like an awesome name for a band!

    • Uly

      Holy wall of text, batman! And not one line of it makes coherent sense.

    • Anat

      Let’s just pretend your god exists.

      Now ift good exists, which isonly God then we know evil must also exist which is Satan. God creates, and Satan corrupts what God created to use for evil.

      Why did your god create the satan? Either the satan is also good, having been created by a good god, or the god that created him wasn’t a good one.

      Think of being jealous, God says He is the jealous God, so there must be good jeaoulsy because only God is good.

      Or perhaps your kind of god isn’t a good one. Or he doesn’t exist. You are making too many assumptions.

    • Rosie

      I’ll just say that if your God is the Calvinist deity, and if Hell is only separation from him, I think that will be a mutually agreeable arrangement in my case.

      “As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity.” (William Blake)

  • R

    As an antinatalist I find any act of bringing new life into this world-human or animal- morally reprehensible. This world itself is a horror for so many lives, who are born only to suffer and die. I also do believe in an eternal afterlife of heaven or hell for each individual. Any possible chance of a soul being tortured on earth or going to hell- even the smallest chance- makes it repugnant to consider reproduction. If one believes in the bible then they must believe in what Jesus taught- that the majority of individuals will never make it to heaven and will indeed burn forever. And so if this is true, imagine what feelings the burning ones have towards those responsible for creating them. I think most Christians have children believing in that “pray the prayer” nonsense that is taught in churches these days….”all I have to do is convince my child to pray the prayer to accept Jesus and once that’s done they can never be damned and will be guarenteed eternal bliss. Easy enough.” However if you do truely believe in the Bible it says no such thing about any simple prayer saving one’s soul and makes it clear that the salvation of a soul is a costly (painful) lifelong endeavor.