Whether or Not You Believe in the Age of Accountability, You’re Wrong Either Way

I know, I said I wasn’t going to make every post about Atheism. What can I say, I’m a dirty stinking liar. I’ll hit the brakes on it one day… but not this day. NOT THIS DAY.

The Age of Accountability (hereafter known as AoA for brevity’s sake) is something I’ve brought up a few times, at least once here and more often elsewhere. It’s a concept that has always bothered me, but it took me a long time – and my eventual deconversion – to understand exactly why. For those who aren’t familiar with it, AoA is a concept many Christians* adhere to, which essentially says that children will not be held accountable for their sins until they reach an age where they fully understand what sin actually is (and that they are committing it).

In other words, a 5-year-old might lie to her mother, but since she isn’t old enough to fully understand why it’s a sin for her to do so, God doesn’t hold her accountable for it. Only when she reaches an age where she fully recognizes that she’s doing something wrong will she be held accountable.

Sounds reasonable, right? Most Christians would say so. But there are some problems when one goes beyond a surface-level examination, both for those who believe in the AoA, and for those who don’t. It is a concept that has forced Christians to paint themselves into a corner, and they have no way to get out without making a huge mess.

The Problem With Not Believing in AoA

It is fairly easy to see the issue with those who don’t believe in Age of Accountability, so I won’t spend too much time dwelling on this side. The problem is the entire reason the concept was invented in the first place. And make no mistake, it was invented. There is no direct evidence in the Bible whatsoever to support the idea.

Someone had to come up with AoA because the awful alternative would be to claim that innocent children deserve to go to hell. See, evangelical/fundamentalist Christians believe that the original sin of Adam and Eve is inherited by all humanity, and that we are born sinners, condemned to eternal punishment by our very nature from the moment we take our first breath (some Christians would say we are condemned well before our first breath, but we won’t wade into that particular patch of ideological quicksand). So if AoA doesn’t exist, then the Christian must believe children and toddlers and even babies are doomed to damnation everlasting if they should perish in their youth.

That’s right, those evil babies and their sinful nature deserve Hell. They may not be able to speak or eat or survive in any way on their own, but it only makes sense that they should be sentenced to eternal torture for the sin of simply existing.

Do I even need to expand on this any further? If so, allow me to clear things up. If you are a Christian and you don’t believe in AoA, you are a goddamn monster. You probably either should seek professional mental help or you need to remove yourself from society at large.

A Short Aside…

“Ahh, but Justin,” I hear you say, “of course most Christians believe in the Age of Accountability. We are reasonable people after all!”

Are you? Are you really?

Let’s pause for a moment and imagine a young man. We’ll call him Dave. Dave is a day short of his 21st birthday, and he has been a perfect law-abiding citizen, never taking a sip of alcohol before being legally allowed to do so. Dave plans on finally imbibing for the first time that night at the stroke of midnight, and being the responsible fellow he is, lines up a designated driver and a plan to get home after having a few drinks. Everything goes perfectly. at 11:59 PM, the bartender brings him his first beer and counts him down by the second, until finally the clock rolls around to 12:00 AM and Dave, now of legal age, takes his first sip of brew. He finishes his drink, then a few more, gets a bit tipsy, and is driven home to sleep it off. The next day he is no worse for wear.

Go back to that moment as the bartender is counting Dave down to midnight. Consider who Dave is, as a person, the instant before the final second ticks away. Then, consider the person-who-is-Dave the instant after midnight has come and gone. What has changed in Dave so that he can now apparently handle alcohol when he couldn’t before? Perhaps the answer is that nothing has changed at all, that Dave is the exact same person the instant before and the instant after he turns 21 years old. Perhaps it is only an arbitrary threshold that we as a society have generally agreed upon until we come up with something better. But regardless of where that threshold may be, Dave does not actually change one bit in that moment.

Hold on to that concept, because it is an important one.

The Problem With Believing in AoA

Now, instead of our good fellow Dave, let’s imagine a girl. We’ll call her Hannah. Hannah is 8 years old, although she’d tell you she is at least 8-and-a-quarter, and don’t you dare question her otherwise. Hannah has always been a sweet girl; caring, loving, funny, charming, all of the things little girls should be. She loves unicorns, has a fascination with beetles, and wants to be a professional baseball player when she grows up. She isn’t perfect, of course. When she was 5, she once got angry with her mother for not giving her dessert after she wouldn’t eat her carrots, so she kicked her and told her mother that she hated her. It was most definitely a sin in God’s eyes, what with the dishonoring her mother and becoming wrathful and all, but God didn’t hold it against her. She was only 5 after all. She didn’t know any better.

Now though, Hannah does know better. She’s 8 years old (and a quarter) after all, and she’s grown up a lot since then. As her father is driving her to school that morning. She remembers the time she kicked her mother and became so angry with her. In a flash, without her consciously realizing it, it comes to her that maybe she was the one who had been wrong. Perhaps she’d done many bad things over the course of her childhood, and now she deeply regrets all of them. In that moment, even though she is still the same person she was only minutes before, she has crossed that threshold that God set for her, and he now holds her accountable for all of the sins she has committed and will commit in the future.

Exactly one minute later, her father – distracted by his ringing phone – blows through a red light at an intersection. Another car slams into the passenger’s side, where Hannah is sitting, killing her instantly.

Now tell me, oh benevolent Christian who believes in the Age of Accountability, where does Hannah’s soul go when she dies? If you answer that with anything but “Hell,” you aren’t nearly as confident in your beliefs as you think you are. At the same time, if you do believe she goes to Hell, then you are as great a goddamn monster as the Christian who doesn’t believe in AoA.

This is the problem, and it’s why I say Christians have painted themselves into a corner over this idea. If one believes in AoA, then one has to believe that there is some threshold a child must cross before he or she is considered accountable, just as Dave had to cross that age threshold before he was considered fit to consume alcohol. Further, this threshold isn’t decided by the child, but by God. The child has no control over when that line is crossed, and even though they are the exact same person before and after crossing it, God suddenly judges them accountable and worthy of eternal punishment and suffering. Little Hannah, 8-and-a-quarter years old and not an evil bone in her body, is now literally burning alive for all eternity in the worst pain anyone can imagine, and it will never, ever end.

THIS is what you believe, benevolent Christian? You claim to be the more reasonable of the two camps, but I ask you again: Are you?

Are you really?


*Yes, I realize I am generalizing about Christians, as many commenters of my previous post pointed out. #notallchristians AM I RITE? But understand, I am speaking from a U.S. perspective, and particularly the southern part of the country. Here, the fundamentalist brand of Christianity that is so often stereotyped by atheists is quite prevalent. It’s a stereotype for a reason. That’s what Christianity IS here. Is it the same way throughout the rest of the country? I think so, but in reality it doesn’t matter. Whether they are prevalent or not, they are certainly the most dangerous, and therefore they are the demographic that will demand my attention. 
That said, I lived in this world for decades. There is little doubt in my mind that my generalizations are quite accurate for the majority of evangelicals in this country. There will always be exceptions, but they aren’t nearly as common as internet commenters would like to claim. 
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