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The Age of Accountability

The Age of Accountability

At what age does God hold a person accountable for their sins? Evangelicals believe that all humans have a sin nature. This sin nature was inherited at conception from Adam, and humans have no say in the matter. From conception (or at birth) all humans become sinners. We don’t become sinners, we are sinners. Of course, babies and children don’t naturally understand this, so their parents and pastors must explain humankind’s inherent sinfulness. Children are taught early to understand the difference between right and wrong; that “wrong” is sin. Once these tender ones can parse the difference between right and wrong and know that their sin is an affront to God, they have reached the age of accountability.

Evangelical Calvinists tend to reject the notion of there being “an age of accountability.” No need, since God predestines certain people to be saved, with the rest of the unwashed masses predestined to Hell. There’s not one thing any of us can do to change God’s mind about our eternal destiny. Before the foundation of the world, God determined who was in and who was out. At what age children become accountable for their sin is irrelevant in Calvinistic soteriology.

Some Evangelicals believe that the age of twelve is when children become accountable before God for their sins. There’s no Scriptural foundation for this belief. Evangelicals who believe that twelve is the age of accountability don’t worry as much about their children’s sins. No need. God can’t judge them and send them to Hell until they are twelve.

I came of age in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. IFB churches and pastors take a very different approach to the age of accountability. They believe that children are accountable for their sins the moment they understand the difference between right and wrong; the moment they understand disobedience and rebellion, not only against God, but parents, pastors, and other authority figures.

Of course, children learn these things quickly in IFB homes. Sin, holiness, obedience, disobedience, and rebellion are often topics of discussion. The goal is to make children aware of their sinfulness so they can, at ages as young as four or five, understand God’s solution for sin — Jesus — and get saved. Children raised in zealous IFB homes typically get saved when they are young, and then as teenagers, they rededicate their lives to the Lord. While I was “saved” at the age of five, I use my rededication at age fifteen as my salvation date. Was I really saved at age five? I doubt it. I knew very little about the Bible or Christianity — just what I heard from my parents, pastors, and Sunday school teachers. While I certainly could have mouthed the IFB-approved plan of salvation, it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I truly understood what it meant to get saved (and later baptized, called to preach).

Why all this pressure to convert children as soon as possible? First, parents don’t want their progeny to suddenly die without being saved and go to Hell. Second, churches know that if children are not converted when they are young, it becomes increasingly unlikely they will be once they reach an age when they are developing rational, skeptical thinking skills. It’s easy to convince a five-year-old of an upright, walking talking snake. However, teens are not as gullible. Walking, talking snake, preacher? Sure. Early and frequent indoctrination and conditioning are key to keeping children in the church. Hook them when they are young and they will often stay (or move to a different cult that they think is less legalistic).

Churches have children’s church/junior church for two reasons. First, partitioning church services according to age allows children to be segregated from their parents. Kids have fun while being conditioned and indoctrinated with Evangelical beliefs, practices, and ways of life. Parents will not have to mess with their kids during worship services — ninety minutes of freedom from those demons God gave them. (For the record, I was not a fan of segregating children from their parents. Only one of the churches I pastored had a junior church.)

Second, splitting children away from their parents allows trained child and youth workers to use high-pressure methods to evangelize their charges. Scare the Hell out of children, and out of fear of judgment and death, they will pray the sinner’s prayer and get saved! For the record, I think such practices are child abuse.

What did your parents, churches, and pastors believe about the age of accountability? At what age were you saved? Did you get saved more than once? Did you fear as a child dying and going to Hell? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I questioned the injustice and unfairness of condemning to heck, heathens on the other side of the world, who happened, through no fault of their own, to be born into a non Christian culture. I must have sounded very naive and even unreasonable to my evangelical minister friend. He knew those heathens were never intended for Heaven. Fairness had nothing to do with it. Just their rotten luck. I just didn’t get it that religion isn’t supposed to be reasonable. I was one of those kids not indoctrinated early enough. I started expecting things to make sense and questioning when they didn’t. Just my luck. Now I’ll never fit into a cult.

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    Karen the rock whisperer


    For all the negative things I could say about the Catholic church (and there are LOTS!), I will make the point that infant baptism lets kids grow up knowing that if something terrible happens to them, Jesus will be waiting for them. It doesn’t water down the message that it is important to continued to grow closer to God and Jesus, that the Holy Spirit will help, and those messages were reinforced for me in Catholic elementary school (grades 1-8).

    From ’72 to ’76, I attended an all-girls high school run by a bunch of somewhat subversive nuns, who were determined that their students’ places were in the House, the Senate, the Oval Office, the judge’s bench in the courtroom, the PhD defense…you get the idea. But these women were also social justice warriors before there was such a thing, and taught us that Jesus really meant it when he told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and so forth. So that we were meant to go forth and make the changes in the world that he demanded…and the more ambitious we were, the greater opportunities there would be. I was never terribly ambitious compared to some of my classmates (BS Electrical Engineering, 1980, MS Geology, 2011), but I got the message about social justice, and it has lingered with me much longer than my religious belief. She serves who also writes checks to noble causes.

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      Thanks Karen, it’s the same take I have on religion. Teaching good works, instilling good instincts, motivating good deeds aren’t bad things for organized religion to do. The arbitrary hocus pocus/ritual/dogma on the other hand provide opportunities for abuse. Greedy power junkies find arbitrary rules useful to manipulate people to their will. If only there could be the one without the other.

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        Indeed, Dutch Guy, teaching good works, instilling good instincts, and motivating good deeds are good things for PEOPLE to do, whatever their religion or lack of it. We would be better off if we did those things, minus the power trip that religion too often brings with it. As an agnostic, I believe that is possible, and that more people should make the attempt.

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    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    Maybe—–just maybe—–we are all in Hell right now—–and are unaware of it. The Book of Daniel and Book of Revelations stuff was supposed to happen in just one generation, the Jewish generation that was alive on Earth when Jesus was alive here on Earth. I would call that generation as about 3 or 4 A.D. to 120 A.D. If it did already happen, maybe it happened so low-key and quietly in a metaphorical manner that few, if any, would even perceive it first-hand, like the birth of Jesus. Theologians have argued that the Greek word for “generation” might symbolize many generations rather than just one. However, the Greek word for generation used in the end-times scripture is singular—-meaning only one generation. My favorite theologian, Dr. Keith Ward, notes that fact and argues that the Book of Revelation is not very useful for reality per se, and the actual apocalypse did indeed occur in that one generation. He thinks that the apocalypse was the destruction of Herod’s Temple about 70 A.D. and the Jewish Diaspora. If that were true, every last person living on Earth today is a direct lineal descendant of a person who was “Left Behind” circa 70 A.D. So, where does that leave us today—–theologically speaking.

    No Bruce. I am not interested in the IFB view of this. I already know that position. I am interested in some theological, out-of-the-box creative thinking on this matter—-just for fun. I suspect any Ukrainian or Russian soldier right now would speak up and say, “We are in Hell. No doubt about it.”

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      Karen the rock whisperer

      May the gods below bless all the soldiers in the field, both sides, and hammer, absolutely hammer Putin. I despise seeing young people, soldiers, given lots of indoctrination like Russian soldiers must endure. But war, and the misbehaviors both sides are encouraged to in war, are evil Some Russian kid is not going home, because war. Some Ukrainian kid will not go home, same reason, though I think his country is in the right. But I grieve for both their families. We are all humans. It’s about time we recognized it.

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    The so called age of accountability makes the concept of hell more palatable for people who believe in hell. Age is the one extenuating circumstance where someone can avoid hell, not where you were born or what you were taught to believe or prayers not being answered. If someone can rationalize eternal torture for even the worst human being that makes them an even worse human being. Take your arbitrary age and add one day to that and that justifies eternal torture? Calvinists are assholes but at least they’re consistent. A god that is that monstrous is not worthy of worship.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    In my dad’s church, earlier is better regarding accountability. Who can know for sure what God decides so you better decide early to comply, right? A twisted Pascal’s Wager… Any child who could put together a sentance was expected to toe the line. Fairy tales, loaves and fishes, no Santa Claus, golden streets, you-name-it…
    Vicious stuff to put on children, just vicious when you get to the heart of it but thankfully the hungry human body seeks sustenance and people learn ways to amputate the sickest parts of themselves, to flee churchy fashion. In the act of fleeing, I began to take responsibility for myself, not focussing on blame and harm done to me but beginning to define my own rooms, my own life in rooms, my world.

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    “Age of accountability” is just a way for evangelicals to feel a little better about a horrifying piece of doctrine. Most people would cringe at the idea that infants, toddlers, young children without critical thinking skills would be damned to eternal conscious torment in hell if they died. Of course, as Bruce mentioned, there are some people whose empathy has been turned off in support of inhumane “rules” to not find this utterly unthinkable.

    As Karen mentioned, Catholics cover this by baptizing infants so that if infants and children die before going through the rest of the orocess, parents can think their child is safe in the arms of Jesus. I wouldn’t be surprised if my Catholic in-laws baptized my kids in the bathtub when they were little just to give themselves peace of mind. I know there’s a funny story about my husband’s grandfather baptizing 5 of his grandchildren in the bathtub because their mother married a Jewish man and the kids didn’t have Catholic baptism.

    The Southern Baptist church I grew up in wouldn’t consider children old enough to “make a profession of faith” until they were at least 10, usually 11 or 12. Youth group which was for kids 7th-12th grades was particularly focused on teaching about salvation, hell, and “right living”. The fundamentalist Christian school I attended taught us BJU catechism in 5th grade (it’s possible that started earlier, but I didn’t enter that school until 5th grade). We learned terminology like “soteriology” and “eschatology”, as well as terms like “justification” and “atonement”. These were all setting us up to learn why we needed to get saved and prepped us for 6th grade where we went to chapel services on Tuesdays and Thursdays where most of the sermons were focused on salvation and right living, with more scriptural basis than fun youth group provided us at church. It was pretty much expected that by the end of middle school, a kid was expected to “make a profession of faith”. If you grew up in church and were a regular attendee, you definitely knew the expectation to go down front, get saved, and be baptized. If you were older than 12 or 13 and were a regular who hadn’t done it, there was a TON of pressure. Casual attendees were given more leeway, but teens were expected to work on their friends to get them to “get saved”.

    I repeated the “sinner’s prayer” like a talisman dozens and dozens of times throughout my youth, just to make sure it stuck – because “once saved always saved” but who knew if you did it right?

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    I never really got my mind around the concept of “forever”, until I’d studied geology academically, though I was an atheist by that time. I learned about deep time, regarding the age of just our planet…wow. I realized that all those folks in the ancient and current literature, who talked about “forever”, didn’t have a clue to what that meant.

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    I didn’t become a Christian until age 17. I don’t know that I was concerned at all with the “age of accountability” until I started having children in my early 20’s, and at that time I was in SBC or IFB churches. My oldest son got saved at age 4 (whew!). But by the time my other children reached the “age of accountability” I didn’t know what the hell I believed anymore. I was no longer attending church and had pretty much given up on the belief that we could “know” anything about God or what he had in-store for us, now, or in an afterlife.

    I did a blog post some time back that might tie in well with this:

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    Bob, the proposition of people with the misfortune to be born in a non Christian culture being condemned to Hell is what started me questioning Christianity and ultimately all religion. Those passages plainly say that evn being born in A christian culture, being raised Christian, even BEING a good Christian who does good works, will not save anyone who is not PRE-DESTINED. I found myself unable to accept an arbitrary, cruel, unjust, God that condemns the innocent to damnation. The idea of infants condemned to Hell is the last straw. If Hell is a real place, there must necessarily be more innocent people there than guilty ones. To me it is utterly incompatible with rational thinking. No religion can stand up to evidence. That being so, I am troubled by Judges who admit to being religious. With minor exceptions, Lawyers have studied rues of evidence and have proved they understand it. And yet, they claim to believe religion every single one of which defy proof. Sanity in an insane world can seem a bit lonesome at times but I suspect there are more of us than we think. With all the societal pressure to belong to some religion, thinking people avoid being public about lacking belief in the supernatural. I know I don’t make an issue of it. If pressed on the subject I say my religion, sex, and politics are private matters.

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    Unitarian Universalism is (as ever) pretty flexible on this point, but many congregations offer a Coming of Age program for kids between 11 and 14. The general idea is to offer kids at that age a chance to explore questions of faith and philosophy, and formulate their own credo regarding their priorities and beliefs. Each congregation designs its own CoA course so they vary quite a bit. In our RE classes we teach kids as young as kindergarten some basic things about UU, which involve taking responsibility for your actions even though most of us aren’t big proponents of the idea of salvation or hell.

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Bruce Gerencser