You will often hear evangelicals talk about the “age of accountability.” The fact is that it is not a biblical term but one invented by evangelicals to try to explain how God can allow children into heaven even though they are born sinners. Usually the notion is that God does not hold them accountable for their sins because they didn’t know any better. John MacArthur, in a sermon on Infant Salvation, argues that the term ought to be “condition of accountability” because in his view there is no definite age in which a person becomes accountable—it varies from individual to individual. He says:
…we’re not talking an age of accountability–get this in your mind–we’re talking about a condition of accountability! Get the word “age” out of this discussion. We’re talking about a condition of accountability, not an age. Who qualifies then, in our discussion, as an infant or a child who, dying, is saved–who dying, instantly goes to heaven? Who are we talking about? Answer: those who have not reached sufficient, mature understanding in order to comprehend convincingly the issues of law and grace, sin and salvation. It’s not an age; it is a condition. From child to child, it varies, and, as I said, you have to include in this those who grow up mentally disadvantaged, mentally disabled, mentally retarded so as never to be able to have a sufficient, mature understanding and a convincingly comprehensive grasp of law and grace and sin and salvation. This is not an age; this is a condition. That’s who we’re talking about: people in that condition where they cannot, in a mature way, understand and comprehend convincingly these issues.So, MacArthur believes that any mentally challenged individual, someone who doesn’t have “a comprehensive grasp of law and grace and sin and salvation,” is not condemned by God (even though they were born sinners as a result of original sin) but will be granted admission to heaven. How does he defend this idea from his sole authority for such beliefs, the Bible?
He begins by citing three OT passages. First, he cites Psalms 139:16 and says:
God is intimately involved in every little life, every life. It’s not just a chain of procreative acts that He inaugurated; He is there in every single conception. These are precious thoughts because this indicates to us how precious every life is. Every life is so precious that God knows it all, plans it all, guards and protects it all, never loses sight of anything…and they must matter to him. They must matter to him. We could conclude from that alone that since God is by nature a Savior and since God is not willing that any should perish but all should come to repentance and since God would have all men to be saved, there’s every reason to believe, just from that alone, that a caring God who created that life to begin with, who superintends and guards that life, who knows intimately everything about that life–should that life perish physically in its infancy, there would be every reason from that Psalm alone to trust the grace of God, who is by nature a Savior, in behalf of that life.I think its a huge stretch to say that infants go to heaven on the basis of this Psalm. In addition, if God cares so much about the little ones, why does he order his people to slaughter them (in Deut. 20:16; Joshua 6:21 and in I Sam. 15:3)? And why just two Psalms (137:9) prior to this one, did he say regarding the Babylonians: Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!? Doesn't sound to me that God cares about all little children.
Second, he goes to Job 3:16-17, which says: Or why was I not as a hidden stillborn child, as infants who never see the light? "There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest . On the basis of these two verses, he concludes: Job understood that dying as an infant would bring one to rest and one would escape the pain of suffering. He certainly didn’t believe that infants that die go to hell and some eternal torment, but rather had the confidence that they enter into rest . That is some very poor exegesis, Mr. MacArthur, there are least two problems with his conclusion. First, there is no doctrine of eternal torment anywhere in the OT, so of course, its not here. Second, if the stillborn infant goes to heaven on the basis of this verse then so do the wicked, because v. 17 says: There the wicked cease from troubling .
Next, he goes to Ecclesiastes 6:3-6 to argue for infant salvation. He says: Solomon laments. He laments that a stillborn child is better off than a person who lives a thousand years twice and doesn’t enjoy the right things. He says, “What’s the point of living two thousand years if you don’t ever enjoy true goodness? You’d be better off a stillborn child.” . Surely MacArthur knows that he is on shaky ground to base any kind of major doctrine on Ecclesiastes. The book of Ecclesiastes is typically viewed, even by evangelicals, as being from the viewpoint of man apart from God. It is how things appear to man "under the sun" (i.e., apart from God). What the author is here saying is that life is meaningless (KJV, "vanity") to the man "under the sun". Even if one lived for two thousand years, he would never find meaning "under the sun." From that standpoint, it would be better never to have been born.
At this point, MacArthur feels the need to trumpet his Calvinism. He says:
You see, it’s only pure, true, reformed soteriology–salvation–only pure, true, reformed soteriology can account for the fact that fallen, sinful, guilty, depraved children who die with no spiritual merit, die with no religious merit, die with no moral merit of their own, can be welcomed by a holy God into eternal glory! Only pure, reformed theology can allow for that because only the purist theology believes that salvation is all by grace! How were you saved? By what? Grace! You say, “Well, if God just takes all the babies to heaven, that’s just grace!” Right! But how were you saved? By law? What do you want? Law for babies and grace for you? You had no more to do with your salvation than a helpless infant.What MacArthur is failing to take note of, however, is that the Scripture says that salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). Over 150 times in the NT, it is said that a person is saved through faith . He does not explain how an infant or a mentally challenged adult can exercise faith . Therefore, he is going beyond the Scripture (extra-Biblical) to argue that infants go to heaven. Now maybe that doesn't matter to those of us who are agnostic or atheist but it should matter to those who claim like MacArthur does, to believe what he believes because the Bible teaches it. The truth is that MacArthur cannot stand the notion that little infants go to hell, so he has to pretend that the Bible teaches they go to heaven.
He anticipates my objection: You say, “But, but, but, but, but they didn’t believe! They didn’t believe!” They couldn’t believe. They couldn’t believe. And so in grace and mercy and sovereign election, through the sacrifice of Christ and his resurrection freely applied to them, they are ushered into God’s kingdom.
First, where does MacArthur find what he just said in the Bible? He doesn't. He finds it in the books of his favorite Calvinist theologians. Second, if infants are saved because they "couldn't believe," as MacArthur argues, then why aren't those who have never heard the name of Jesus automatically saved? They couldn't believe either. Paul himself said in Romans 10:13-14: For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? A person cannot believe in someone of which they have never heard. So, if MacArthur is right, then all those who have never heard are on their way to heaven as well. Consistency would demand it.
Then MacArthur goes to Rev. 20:11-12 to argue that people who go to hell, go there because of their evil deeds. He proclaims: Scripture always, always connects eternal condemnation to the sinner’s deeds–works–always. In John 8:21 and 24, the most significant damning work, Jesus says, “Because you believe not in me, you will die in your sins and where I go, you’ll never come.” The greatest of all the sinners’ evil works is unbelief, unbelief. And unbelief is always singled out as the primary damning sin. But if what he just said is true, then how are infants saved? Because as MacArthur has already told us: "they can't believe."
He then goes back to the OT to try to substantiate his point. He refers to Jonah 4:11 and states regarding Nineveh: There are people there, God says, who deserve compassion because they don’t know the difference–they don’t know the difference between their right and left hand. He’s speaking of those who are infants or those who are mentally incapable of understanding truth. God says they deserve compassion because of that condition. Isn't it passing strange that God didn't think the children of the Canaanites nor the children of the Amalekites deserved any compassion. What has happened? Has God's moral sensibilities evolved? (I think its obvious that the moral sensibilities of the writers of Scripture have evolved). If the entire Bible is inspired, as MacArthur thinks, then why does God care about the innocent children in Jonah 4 but not in Joshua 6 or 1 Samuel 15?
In MacArthur's second sermon in his two part series on Infant Salvation, he begins by stating that his view on the mentally underdeveloped being automatically saved by God does not apply to the "heathen." He states:
Now, just briefly to recap what I said last week to sort of get you in the flow, we asked the question: who are we referring to when we talk about these infants, these little ones, these children who die and are saved? And the answer is this: those who have not reached sufficient, mature understanding to comprehend convincingly the issues of sin and salvation. Let me say as a footnote that does not apply to the heathen. Adult heathen are caught up in the Romans 1 passage: “When they know God, they glorify Him not as God, become empty in their imaginations, create their own gods, and worship the creature more than the Creator.” We’re not talking about them; we’re talking about those who have not reached sufficient, mature understanding to comprehend the issues of sin and salvation. I told you there is no age of accountability, but there is a condition of accountability and it is true for children and it is true for some adults who are mentally retarded or handicapped.I think MacArthur's position is contradictory. He says that infants are not condemned because they do not "comprehend convincingly the issues of sin and salvation" . However, neither do the "heathen" nor any of the unregenerate in his system of theology. According to 1 Cor. 2:14, the unbeliever cannot understand spiritual things which would of course include the "issues of sin and salvation" to use MacArthur's words. The passage says : The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The Calvinist likes to use the analogy of trying to explain a beautiful sunset to a blind person as being similar to trying to explain the need for salvation to an unregenerate man. If this is true, how could God hold the unregenerate man culpable for not believing any more than we could hold the blind man culpable for not being able to visualize the sunset?
MacArthur once again goes to the OT to try to establish that children are innocent. He cites Deut. 1:39 and explains:
God basically said to them, “You’re not going in the land. You’re not going in because of your willful rebellion, because of your willful sin, but your little ones who you said would become a prey if you went in and took the land, even though I told you I would fight for you and with you; your little ones who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, they’ll go in and I’ll give it to them and they’ll possess it.” What God is saying is, “Your rebellion…your rebellion…causes you to forfeit this blessing. I’ll give it to them because they don’t bear the same culpability that you do.”If MacArthur is right in what he is saying here, then we do have a particular age in which God begins to hold people accountable, its the age of twenty. Listen to Numbers 14:29-31:
your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected.This is not really important for my discussion except to point out once again that Mr. MacArthur is not really taking into account all that his Bible teaches but is cherry-picking the parts that he likes.
He now turns to Jer. 19:4-5 and states:
God viewed them as innocent even though they’re not baptized babies of “believing parents”; these are the children of idolaters! They would be outside the faith of Israel, even though they would be Jewish people. They would be outside the will of God! They would be, essentially, pagan Jews who are worshipping idols, burning their babies! And even the burned babies of idolaters are viewed here as innocent. That is God’s assessment of them.So, the babies of these idolaters are innocent but the babies of the Canaanites and the Amalekites were not? Why doesn't Mr. MacArthur see the contradiction?
Finally, MacArthur turns to the only passage in the Bible that may give some credence to his notion that babies go to heaven. Its the story of the child born to David and Bathsheba as a result of their adulterous affair. David prays and fasts for the child but it dies anyway. As an aside here, its once again contradictory to say that God would not kill the innocent but then here he kills the child of David and Bathsheba. Did the child sin? No, the parents did. Why then should the child be killed?
At any rate, after the child dies, David says: While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, "Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?" But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me (2 Sam. 12:22-23). MacArthur's argument is that David knows he is going to heaven when he dies and the baby will be there waiting for him. That sounds good but is it really the teaching of the passage? First, the OT's teaching about the afterlife is pretty scarce and its pretty obscure. Many passages state that everyone both good and bad go to the same place, namely Sheol. The full blown concepts of heaven and hell don't really appear until the NT probably due to the influence of Persian religions. Second, even if David is saying that his child will be in heaven, MacArthur could not within his theological system apply this same principle to all children. At best it would apply only to children of believers (which is precisely what many Reformed theologians teach but MacArthur rejects). Third, it would seem that a doctrine that would have so much practical and pastoral value, that children who die go to heaven, would be taught much more clearly than it is here and would be in multiple passages in the Bible not limited to one obscure passage buried in the middle of the OT.
Perhaps in anticipation of an objection like mine, MacArthur turns now to the NT. He cites the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:14: "So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish." Okay, but according to 2 Peter 3:9, its not God's will that anyone perish but according to evangelicals like MacArthur many will perish. So, I don't see that this verse does anything to support his contention that babies automatically get "instant heaven" as he calls it.
As his final argument, MacArthur turns to Matthew 19:13-14 in which Jesus blesses little children. Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." He argues that Jesus is here clearly saying that the kingdom of heaven will be populated by children who have died before reaching maturity. But is that really what Jesus is saying? Look at the parallel passage in Mark 10: 13-15: And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (cf. Luke 18:15-17). MacArthur cites the only one of the three synoptic gospels that leaves out the statement of Jesus that one must become like a little child in order to enter the kingdom. Jesus is not saying that children automatically go to heaven if they die (maybe they do or maybe they don't but that is not the point of his teaching), he is saying that one must become as humble and unassuming as a little child in order to enter the kingdom (cf. Matt. 18:2-4).
So, there you have it. MacArthur has examined every passage in the Bible that could be used to support his notion that children and the mentally underdeveloped get "instant heaven" when they die. Did he prove his point? I don't think so. The simple fact is that the Bible nowhere states that children who die in childhood automatically go to heaven. Evangelicals desperately wish that it did. It seems like it should say so but sadly it doesn't. To complicate matters more, strict Calvinists such as MacArthur who emphasize original sin and total depravity have to explain how these babies, even though depraved and wicked in their view, cannot be condemned by God when they die. Basically what Mr. MacArthur and his friends have to do is to eisegete a few passages in the Bible and then conclude that because their God is so loving and kind, he must accept all children and mentally underdeveloped folks into heaven. They know intuitively that it would be wrong to condemn such people. Their intuition is correct. But we also know intuitively that it would be wrong to condemn to eternal hell people who never even heard the name of Jesus. We also know intuitively that its wrong for God to hold all of us culpable for what Adam supposedly did thousands of years ago. We also know intuitively that its wrong to punish an innocent person in the place of a guilty person. Yet, MacArthur and his evangelical friends will ignore these intuitions but they can't ignore the intuition that babies don't deserve condemnation. At least they do have some semblance of a heart.