Does the Bible teach an “age of accountability”? This phrase refers to the belief that before a certain age, children are not held accountable by God to their sinful nature since they do not yet have the ability to understand their need to place their faith in Jesus as their Savior. Usually, discussion on the age of accountability relates to God allowing children who die under this age to go to Heaven even though they have not actually accepted Christ personally.
Before looking at how Isaiah 7 informs this discussion, we must understand at the outset that the question of accountability is not a question of sin nature. The Bible is clear: we are born in iniquity (Ps 51:5). Children do not need to be taught to sin. It is in their nature as little sinners, from the moment of conception. Therefore, if God allows any child into Heaven who has not yet reached an age where they are morally responsible, it must be entirely because of his grace that they enter, not because they are innocent.
That being said, does Isaiah 7:15-16 teach an age of accountability? Here is the text (in ESV): “He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” The text is part of a prophecy made to King Ahaz and the House of David (7:13). In its immediate fulfillment, the prophecy predicts a child will be born, and before he is old enough to be weaned, the kings threatening Ahaz would be defeated.
What does Isaiah mean, “before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good”? Some commentators think that this refers to a legal age of accountability or manhood. Jewish customs taught that a male child becomes an adult by age 13. Numbers 14:29 sets the age at 20 for those who were accountable for their sin in the wilderness. All those under 20 were not judged. Deuteronomy 1:39 uses a similar phrase as Isaiah 7, speaking of the “children” of the Israelites “who… have no knowledge of good and evil” and will go in to possess the land.
But Isaiah links the phrase with “he shall eat curds and honey.” This likely refers to the child being weaned from his mother’s milk, which typically happened between 2-3 years old back then. So whatever Deuteronomy and Numbers says about a specific age of maturation, Isaiah speaks of children as young as two to three having an ability to discern right from wrong.
Again, this does not mean the child has not sinned before two years old. It does not dissolve the notion of inherited or imputed sin. But it does indicate that there may be some biblical justification for making a distinction between the amount of responsibility a person has for his or her sin at certain stages of life.
How does this apply to the larger question of what happens to babies or young toddlers when they die? (Or the related question about mentally handicapped individuals who may not have the rational capacity to understand the ramifications of the cross.) Though the Bible never explicitly says that babies go to Heaven when they die, passages like Isaiah 7 point to a strong possibility that God, in his grace, would not choose to punish such baby sinners since they have not yet had the opportunity to accept or reject the offer of salvation.
Other Scripture can be given in support of this conclusion. 1 John 2:2 speaks to Jesus being the propitiation not only for our sins, “but also for the sins of the whole world.” His death, then, was sufficient to cover the sins of all mankind, but perhaps only effective for those who accept Christ (and, we might presume, those who are too young to make that rational decision). 2 Samuel 12 depicts David being comforted by the death of his infant child, knowing that “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (12:23). This is not likely to refer merely to the grave, but a promise of a greater reunion in the afterlife. We might also note that in many passages that speak of the condemned, the Bible speaks of them in relation to their willing, conscious sins, such as 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Rev 21:8. And practically speaking, appealing to God’s grace and mercy upon infants is more rational than thinking of God punishing them for all eternity for a choice they could not yet possibly make.
So what is the conclusion of this study? Though we can’t be dogmatic on such a question, there is enough biblical evidence to recognize that God likely does not hold a baby accountable in the same way as a teenager or a child. The ability to think logically and rationally about moral options and the need of a Savior factors in to where one goes in eternity future. Whatever the case may be, we can rest assured that God will do what is just and loving and fair for all people.