Musings About God’s Relationship with Children

Musings About God’s Relationship with Children

In this essay we address only a few of the more conspicuous and controversial concepts about children’s relationships (or lack thereof) with God.

“Age of Accountability”

There is no such thing. The entire idea is absurd.

A brief explanation for anyone not familiar with the doctrine: Children are said to be “innocent” and free of sin when they are quite young, because they are not capable of intentionally committing sin in a way for which they can justly be held accountable. Because their hearts are pure in God’s sight, because they don’t fully understand the consequences of their destructive actions, if they die they will go straight into heaven. Then at some point, which is different for each kid (often around age 11-12), children reach the “age of accountability” when they have become aware of right and wrong and have a conscience and can sin deliberately in a way that chalks up bad marks for them in the book where God records sins. And when those kids die, they will go to hell and be tortured forever unless they have given their lives to Jesus (and also, in some denominations, have chosen to be baptized).

Never mind the fact that scripture never even hints at an “age of accountability.” Moreover. . .

First: The basic anthropology of this doctrine is wrong.

The people who invented this doctrine must not have had kids. At an obscenely young age, children plainly understand that certain actions can hurt other people; and they understand that they shouldn’t do such things; and they do them anyway because they want to hurt. We’re quite certain we’ve never seen a truly innocent child over the age of about two. Three max.

Both of us distinctly remember actions when we were either three or four in which we intentionally set out to hurt—to cause pain to one of our parents or to a sibling or to a friend.

We dare suggest that any attentive parent can share a multitude of stories describing how young children obviously understand right and wrong and then choose the wrong. Children consciously choose sin long before they are in any way competent to understand such complex ideas as “accepting Jesus as your personal savior because you are a sinner and bound for hell.”

That understanding of children simply does not work.

Second: The underlying theology is flawed.

*Even though most who cling to a doctrine of the age of accountability would deny it, their working assumption is that humans are “saved” or “condemned” according to their works—that is, by things they do or don’t do. This doctrine reveals itself most clearly in the belief that, once a young person has committed deliberately evil acts, that person is condemned to hell because of those intentionally sinful deeds. Salvation by works (things that a person does) is a sine qua non of this doctrine, no matter how vehemently its practitioners proclaim that they believe in salvation by grace through faith, etc. You can’t have condemnation by works without salvation by works. In this scheme, young children are saved by their ”works” in that they refrain from sin because they don’t understand sin or because their hearts are pure. Whatever vocabulary you use, it’s children’s “works”—what they do or, more accurately, what they don’t do—that saves them when they’re very young. Which by definition is salvation by works.

*The idea that people who do not accept Jesus in this life are condemned to eternal torture is simply not in the Bible. It’s a two-faceted problem.

First, there are many more passages in scripture that emphasize the generosity and inclusiveness of God’s salvation than those that suggest a narrowness and implacability on God’s part so far as eternal salvation is concerned. We do not deny that there are statements that lean in either direction. But those that point to inclusivity far outnumber those that suggest exclusivity. Since that is not the subject of this essay, we will not devote space to what is a major but separate topic. Suffice it for us to say that we believe, not on the basis of wishful thinking but from a strong biblical foundation, that eternal salvation is and will be available to all who want it.

Second, those who choose not to live in God’s eternal city (that unhappy option is always available) will not be tortured forever. The number of biblical passages that even remotely suggest that idea can be counted on the fingers of one hand, with one or two fingers left over. It’s a terrible pagan doctrine that slipped into some strains of Judaism in the century or two before Christ, and that became seriously ensconced in the church in the second through fourth centuries A.D. The concept is never even hinted at in any of the seminal evangelical sermons recorded in the book of Acts, whether by Peter, Stephen, or Paul. It seems pretty clear that people who do not choose salvation will rather suffer eternal death—meaning that they will die forever. Gone. Snuffed. Vaporized. But it’s their choice.

For further discussion of these topics, we refer you to the last half of Musings on Romans 3:21-23 beginning with the heading, “Traditional theology doesn’t go far enough”; Musings on John 1:29; The Basic Argument of Romans 1-11; approximately the final fourth of Theological Theory of Everything, beginning with the paragraph that starts, “This is how we reconcile the existence of evil with a good God”; and The Problem of Suffering—Letter to a Friend.


Infant baptism

We should first state our underlying assumption, i.e., that infant baptism probably was not a practice introduced in New Testament times, but came into its own sometime during the second century. We might be wrong. But that doesn’t matter. We don’t care, and we think you shouldn’t either. We’re quite sure God doesn’t care.

As it exists today, the tradition itself can be silly or quite wonderful. The theology and vocabulary behind infant baptism are pretty irrelevant.

The same is true of the Eucharist (Lord’s supper, communion, etc.): For example, whether you believe in the Real Presence, in transubstantiation, in mere symbolism, or any other formal doctrine, this communal act of faith can be a powerful blessing to all who in obedience accept Jesus’ invitation to draw near to his table—no matter what your theology! Likewise, doing “whatever-you-want-to-call-it” to an infant can be an empty gesture or it can mediate an intense blessing, no matter your vocabulary and no matter your theology. God is not particularly concerned about correct doctrines! Rather, God desires above all to draw near to and to bless his children. The relationship is of paramount importance.

On the negative side: Traditional Roman Catholic theology held that sprinkling babies in baptism was necessary to free them from “original sin” that they “inherited” from Adam, and that babies who died without baptism would go to Limbo. Official beliefs varied on this question; this simply appears to be the most common understanding among Catholics for many centuries.

Concerning “original sin”: There is nothing in scripture to suggest that there is some kind of “inheritance” that mystically spread from Adam to all humankind, like a genetic defect or perhaps a virus. All humans are enslaved to sin, of course—we are born into a very broken world. Yet all such discussions are beside the point. Whether or not one believes in a traditional doctrine of  “original sin” that seems almost to be inherited genetically, it’s clear that all humans possess both the capacity and the inclination for sin. Any idiot can see that. The source of that inclination is irrelevant.

Why is the source irrelevant? Because it’s all covered! The Lamb was slain before the world was even created (cf. 1 Peter 1:20, Revelation 13:8). The good news proclaims that God has imprisoned all human beings in their own disobedience only to show mercy to them all.  –Romans 11:32 NJB, and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them.  –2 Corinthians 5:19 NJB. Jesus himself said that if he was crucified, he would draw all people to himself.  –John 12:32.

Anyone who has read many of the essays on this website will have noted the strong emphasis on the extraordinary breadth and depth of God’s salvation. Some claim it’s our “hobby” doctrine (see the links provided six paragraphs above). In a sense that is true, but for good reason. SO MANY understandings within traditional biblical faith merit reexamination and revision because they fail to include what we believe to be the very essence of the good news: that the sins of the entire world are covered, and have been since before the world was even created. The gospel proclaims not that people may have their sins forgiven if they accept Messiah; but rather that, through Messiah, their sins are forgiven, that there is no barrier between them and their gracious Creator/Savior God; that they are invited to accept that they are in God’s family, to turn away from sin and darkness and self-absorption, to accept the presence and power of his Holy Spirit into their lives, to begin living in the joy and freedom and power that is theirs because of Messiah’s righteousness. That is good news! Failure to accept God’s gift does not condemn a person to eternal torture; it rather condemns a person to miss out on experiencing the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit—right now! The traditional gospel message, if we are honest, doesn’t seem like very good news: Everyone is going to roast in hell eternally, in agonizing pain, except for the small fraction of humans who become Christians before they die. That is rather somber news, not good news.

Awareness of the comprehensiveness of salvation does for traditional theology what Copernicus’s heliocentric astronomical observations did to the Ptolemaic geocentric model that had darkened human understanding for over a millennium. Finally, everything made sense when seen through the lens of Copernicus’s system. Similarly, we believe that seeing scripture and the gospel through the lens of the abundant “all” passages in the New Testament (e.g., John 12:32, Romans 3:23-24, Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 2 Corinthians 5:15-19, Ephesians 1:9-10) illuminates and finally makes sense of a plethora of major theological questions.

Back to infant baptism. As illustrated by the preceding discussion, infant baptism per se is not even relevant to a child’s salvation. The salvation and the relationship are givens. However. . .

On the positive side: There are potent pragmatic aspects of infant baptism that can make this custom extremely valuable when it is approached in deep faith and not just because “it’s what everyone does.” The community participation, the very powerful commitments made by the child’s parents and family and godparents and Christian congregation, can lead to significant, ongoing blessings for everyone. We do not believe that what happens during infant baptism is more than tangentially related to baptism as described in the New Testament (see “Baptism and 1 John 5:7-8” for one of several explanations of the significance of adult baptism). But we don’t care what you call it, and neither does God. Vocabulary aside, infant-centered liturgies can engender degrees of commitment and trust within biological and spiritual families that otherwise might not occur. That is a very good thing.

Our first two children were not baptized as infants. Permit us to share with you an experience with our third child. We had become members of Zion Lutheran Church in Lake Crystal, Minnesota. The pastor, Glenn Taibl, was an extremely gifted preacher. We became good friends with Glenn and his wife, Becky. During our brief 18-month stay in Lake Crystal, our third child was born. We had witnessed a couple of infant baptisms at Zion Lutheran by then, and were quite enthusiastic for Glenn to “baptize” our new son. We explained to him, however, that in no way did we consider what he would be doing as “baptism.” So far as we were concerned, it was a dedication. But the experience, at least in that church and with that pastor, was so powerful and so charged with the presence of the Holy Spirit, we wanted it for our son. Glenn was not in the least upset that we didn’t consider it to be baptism. He was/is such a cool guy!

The liturgy was deeply spiritual and Christ-centered. And relaxed. We as parents, as well as the rest of the congregation, responded within the liturgy as appropriate. The best part was when Glenn took our newborn son in his arms and walked down into the congregation with him. He explained, completely off the cuff, that the congregation was not simply going through empty motions. He adjured everyone not to take lightly their stated commitments to pray for this child, and to be there for him, and to do all in their power to help him grow in knowledge of God and in wisdom and grace. Glenn walked up and down the aisle, gently bouncing that precious child in order to keep him calm, gently explaining to all present that theirs was a sacred, Holy Spirit-imbued, eternal commitment that none should take lightly.

What was there not to like?

It was a blessed time. In fact, we were so blessed by that event that a few years later, when Glenn was serving a large Lutheran congregation in Dallas and we were visiting my father in Dallas, one Sunday we had Glenn “baptize” another of our children.

We continue to believe that infant baptism is not warranted by scripture—yet we understand the reasons why many scholars disagree with us (e.g., see Acts 16:33). We are 100% confident, however, that even if we are correct in terms of biblical interpretation, God could not care less! God is interested in substance, in reality, in relationships—not in outward forms or in doctrines (cf. Psalm 51:16-17, Psalm 40:6-8, Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 1:11-17, Isaiah 58 passim).

Now for some real-life experiences:

Potential Profundity of Children’s Relationships with God

Many adults assume that children are too immature or lack sufficient understanding to experience God in a profound way. That is not true. Rather than attempt any chapter-and-verse rebuttal, we offer stories:

*I (the B of B&E) once was at a friends’ house when the adults were gone. Only their two girls, ages 8 and 10, were home, playing quietly in their rooms. A friend called from another city, describing an emergency involving herself that had no solution at that point other than serious spiritual intercession. I was the only one she had shared this with. The stakes were possibly a matter of life or death for my friend—even within the next hour or so. If God didn’t act, she might die, physically and/or spiritually. I had long known the synergistic power when multiple people pray together (cf. Matthew 18:18-20), and I lamented that there was no one else with whom to pray. It was just me.

Then the Holy Spirit spoke to me very forcefully: “WHAT DO YOU MEAN there is no one to pray with?! E and N are just down the hall. Have them pray with you!” So I called these young girls to join me in praying (they were quite accustomed to such things). It was a very powerful time of intercession. The Spirit’s presence was palpable. Within a half hour or so, all was well: My friend called to say that she was completely OK, the danger had evaporated.


*Brief exchange reported by a good friend concerning his daughters. R was 6, L was 4.

Four-year-old L: “If R ever has to get a spanking, I want to take her spanking away onto me.”
Their Daddy: “Really? Why?”
L: “Because Jesus took our punishment away onto Him.”


*A close friend visited her seven-year-old daughter’s Sunday school class as a substitute teacher, and at the beginning of the class offered a prayer that Jesus would walk among the kids and touch each one according to his/her need. A week or two later my friend had a temporarily confusing conversation with her daughter about the Sunday school class. Mother was mystified by what daughter was saying, daughter was mystified by what mother was saying. They eventually figured it out: After her mother prayed on that Sunday morning, the seven-year-old saw Jesus walking down the rows of the classroom, just as clearly as she saw anything else in the room. But her mother hadn’t seen a thing. The girl naturally assumed her mother had also seen Jesus, since he was clearly visible—hence the confusion. Finally, my friend learned from her daughter that Jesus had indeed touched each child in the room, laying his hand on the child, blessing the child. The daughter even observed that several of the children, upon feeling that precious hand touching them, looked up or in some other way acknowledged the touch.


*This is B again. When our older daughter, D, was three years old, she hung around me in our driveway while I rotated the tires on our car—a tedious process when you have only a single jack. My daughter kept me company and we happily chatted, while I explained to her each step of the process. After the long, arduous operation was nearly finished, I was tightening the lugs on the final tire. Once they were tight, I stood up, stretched the kinks out of my back, and was about to put the lug wrench back into the car’s trunk—when D said, pointing, “No, Daddy, those lugs [on the last tire] aren’t tight.” She had been standing right there when I tightened them, and she obviously had seen me tighten them as much as I could. As always, I had double-checked everything just to be certain. So I explained to her that actually the lugs were tight, I had double-checked them, everything was OK. She said they were not tight. I explained again that they were. D insisted that they were NOT TIGHT! She was beginning to get upset (possibly because I had explained what could happen if you’re driving fast and a tire begins to fall off?). Rather than continue arguing, I just retrieved the lug wrench and invited her to watch me demonstrate that they were as tight as they were going to get.

They were loose!

There was no way D possibly could have known by simple observation that the lugs were loose. She had seen me tighten them as much as I could, two times. So far as I am concerned, the only reasonable explanation was revelation from the Holy Spirit. Three years old.


*Once again, this is B. During the brief years when I was pursuing my own soybean research program as an entrepreneur, a friend had lent me a tractor, plus a gooseneck trailer and a pickup for pulling it. After a long day of field work, I needed to return the tractor to my friend’s research station about fifteen miles outside our town. By then it was late at night. After our five kids were in bed, my wife followed me in our car while I drove the pickup and trailer back to my friend’s place. In our part of central Illinois, the land is flat. Sections of land for the most part are laid out with a road on each boundary, so that there is a crossroads every mile. For less- traveled rural roads, there often are no stop signs—drivers are simply expected to use their brains and to stop at intersections when appropriate. A complicating factor occurs when corn is sufficiently high that a driver cannot see over it to know whether a vehicle is approaching on the intersecting road. I was quite accustomed to this situation, since I drove constantly on rural roads. My wife was not.

On this night, there was virtually no other traffic in any direction except for our two vehicles. As I passed one corn-blinded cross road, however, I looked to my right and saw a pickup heading full-tilt for the intersection. My heart nearly stopped. The driver was not slowing for the intersection! My wife, following behind me, appeared to be approaching at a speed that would place her car and the pickup at the intersection at precisely the same time. I think I had time to do little more than cry out, “God! . . .” before the expected impact. But it was a non-event. The pickup never even slowed, but passed behind my wife’s car. She later told me she didn’t even notice it. It was a long time before my pulse returned to normal.

Fast-forward to much later that night when we finally were home. We tiptoed up the stairs, not wanting to awaken any of the kids, since their small bedrooms huddled right at the top of the stairs. We quietly peeked in on each kid. But when we whispered open the door to nine-year-old T’s room, he burst out crying, yelled “Mommy!,” stood up on his bed, and grabbed his mother as if he would never let go, sobbing for a long time. He finally was able to explain: Much earlier, but well after we had left, he had been awakened with an emergency sense that his mommy was in danger right then. So T had prayed and prayed for God to protect her and keep her safe. He eventually had fallen back into fitful sleep, not having any idea about what had just happened and not knowing whether his mommy was really all right until we came home.

I have zero doubt that T’s sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, as well as his willingness/eagerness to pray in response to that spiritual alarm, saved his mother’s life.


*Over many years we have been in intimate settings (e.g., our small group from church) where friends’ young children (as well as our own) participated fully in group prayer—occasionally offering prayers so anointed that our bodies experienced chills, and sometimes speaking prophetic words, either intentionally or, more often, unintentionally.


*Let us not forget twelve-year-old Jesus’ discussing scripture with teachers in the temple (Luke 2:46-47). Or young Samuel’s calling as a prophet when he was quite young. According to Josephus (1st century A.D.), Samuel was twelve at the time. We don’t know whether Josephus (Chapter 10, Sacred Texts) accessed legitimate sources for his claim, or made it up out of whole cloth; but we at least can conclude that Jews of his time did not find it inappropriate for a boy of that age to begin a profound relationship with God.


*And although sixteen years is pretty advanced in the present context, we cannot fail to mention that many scholars believe that’s about how old Jeremiah was when God called him to prophesy.

We provide no specific internet examples, because as sure as we did they would turn out to be bogus. And, frankly, we are not eager to spend the time to vet dozens of YouTube videos. We rather suggest that, if you peruse the internet, you can find many examples of young children who have encountered God, who have been anointed powerfully to create profoundly lovely works of art or musical compositions, who have seen miracles in response to their prayers, and so on. There are also innumereable accounts that are scams. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern what is and is not true without doing a lot of research (which, frankly, we’re not willing to do). But if you use a suitable filter that is both spiritually and intellectually vigorous, you should find many valid examples of children who have indeed encountered God and who have been used by God in profound ways. Even before their “age of accountability.”