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What happens to children who die before they are old enough to reasonably understand and accept the Bible’s doctrine of salvation? This vexing theological question was not always so vexing. The renowned theologians of antiquity answered it quite simply: they were cast out of God’s presence to suffer the eternal torture of Hell’s flames. Here is St. Augustine on the fate awaiting infants who died prior to baptism:

But even before the outbreak of the Pelagian controversy St. Augustine had already abandoned the lenient traditional view, and in the course of the controversy he himself condemned, and persuaded the Council of Carthage (418) to condemn, the substantially identical Pelagian teaching affirming the existence of “an intermediate place, or of any place anywhere at all… in which children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness” (Denzinger 102). This means that St. Augustine and the African Fathers believed that unbaptized infants share in the common positive misery of the damned, and the very most that St. Augustine concedes is that their punishment is the mildest of all, so mild indeed that one may not say that for them non-existence would be preferable to existence in such a state.

Later on in the Middle Ages, the Catholic church mercifully commuted their fate to Limbo, a realm where they would live forever but not in the presence of God. However, Limbo has not fared so well in recent years, as the church in Rome has weighed whether to eliminate it altogether. (One wonders, what is guiding their decision? Is there any actual evidence one way or the other for the existence of Limbo?)

Today, the concept of the “age of accountability” is central to many modern Christian denominations. This doctrine, fairer than its predecessors by far, is an automatic pass to Heaven for children who die before they are young enough to discern the difference between right and wrong. However, like many widely believed Christian ideas, such a concept finds no support in the Bible. There is no verse in scripture that states the age of accountability doctrine, and some passages flat-out contradict it, such as the following little-known Bible verse:

Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem: and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.

—2 Chronicles 36:9

The context of this verse is late in the Old Testament. By this point, the sinful northern kingdom of Israel had been utterly destroyed by the Assyrians, and the only slightly less sinful southern kingdom of Judah was squeezed in a vise between its powerful neighbors Egypt and Babylon, regularly forced to pay tribute, or to have a puppet king installed on its throne, by one of them or the other. After the death of the righteous King Josiah, Josiah’s son Jehoahaz was made king, only to be dethroned and imprisoned by the Egyptian pharaoh Necho. In his place Necho installed Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoiakim, but Jehoiakim too was cast down and made prisoner by the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar, and was replaced by his son Jehoiachin. Jehoiachin, in turn, reigned only a few months before being replaced by his older brother Zedekiah, whose sins provoked God’s final wrath and caused him to send the Babylonians to destroy Judah once and for all, tearing down its holy temple and carrying off its population into slavery.

The Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles are largely tedious histories like this, which summarize the entire reign of each king with a few lines indicating whether his reign was good or evil in the sight of God. But it is Jehoiachin’s brief reign that concerns us. As the above verse indicates, Jehoiachin was only eight years old when he took the throne, and reigned only three months. At such an age, he should fall well below the “age of accountability” imagined by modern Christians. Yet the text states plainly that he “did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord”, and does not seem inclined to overlook this on the basis that he was too young to know better.

How can an eight-year-old child do evil? In the American system of elementary schools, Jehoiachin would have been a third-grader. Does it really make any sense to imply that such a young child has the intelligence and moral discernment needed to clearly tell good apart from evil and be held accountable for it – much less to imply that he has the wisdom to rule an entire country? This verse is a glaring indictment of the absurdity of the divine-right monarchy promoted by the Bible, but it also shows that the age of accountability is a modern invention, and an idea that is contradicted by scripture.

I do not dispute that the age of accountability is a good idea. It is indeed rational not to hold children to the same moral standard as adults. They have not yet reached that level of intellectual and moral development, and implying that they bear the same culpability or merit the same punishment as an adult is a cruel and monstrous idea. But despite its cruelty, this idea is implied by the Bible. As such, it constitutes one more reason why people of understanding should reject this book’s claims of divine inspiration.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...