Rob Bell, the SBC, and the Age of Accountability

June 22nd, 2011
Image © noturordinaryconsort | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

As you may have heard, last week the Southern Baptist Convention responded to pastor Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins, with a resolution declaring that “the Bible clearly teaches that God will judge the lost at the end of the age,” and that such judgment will include the “conscious, eternal suffering" for all non-Christians. 

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained the rationale behind the resolution as such: 

The publicity surrounding Bell’s new book indicates that he is ready to answer one of the hardest questions -- the question of the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ. With that question come the related questions of heaven, hell, judgment, and the fate of the unregenerate. The Bible answers these questions clearly enough, but few issues are as hard to reconcile with the modern or postmodern mind than this. Of course, it was hard to reconcile with the ancient mind as well. The singularity of the person and work of Christ and the necessity of personal faith in him for salvation run counter to the pluralistic bent of the human mind, but this is nothing less than the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation."

Rustin J. Umstattd, assistant professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary added:  

It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell…are troubled by its implications. But being troubled, even deeply troubled, by the implications of the biblical text does not give us a reason to abandon the text or force it into a mold that rests comfortably with us. It should be our goal to let the Bible be the source and shaper of our doctrine.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, Christians cannot allow their instincts to inform their theology, only Scripture. 

But this rationale represents a major inconsistency in Baptist teaching. 

If the members of the Southern Baptist Convention truly believe that only those who place personal faith in Jesus Christ will be saved and that no concessions to this belief should be made on the basis of its troubling moral implications, then for consistency’s sake, they must also vote to condemn the teaching of the age of accountability. 

The age of accountability refers to a belief that children under a certain age (usually twelve or so), will be granted salvation regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents. Most Baptists I know believe in the age of accountability, and even the SBC's Baptist Faith and Message makes it implicit in its statement that people are not morally accountable until “they are capable of moral action.”

And yet this concept is never explicitly stated in Scripture, nor does it appear in any of the historic Christian creeds.  

The age of accountability is a concept born from the compassion of the human heart, from a deep and intrinsic sense that a loving, good, and just God would not condemn little children or the mentally handicapped to such suffering when they could certainly bear no responsibility for their faith.  It is a theology created by discomfort. 

I’m not interested in defending Bell’s book in its entirety—I thought some of his exegesis was sloppy—but the questions he raises about the destiny of the un-evangelized are not that different from the questions traditionally raised by Baptists about the assumption within other Christian traditions that unbaptized babies spend eternity in hell. 

What is the difference, really, between a four-year-old child who is incapable of making a conscious decision to trust Jesus because of his age and an adult living in outer-Mongolia in 50 A.D. who is incapable of making a decision to trust Jesus because he couldn’t possibly hear of him? Aren’t both of them born with a sin nature? And aren’t both of them inherently valuable to God? If exclusivism is true, then the majority of the human population was damned to hell without even the possiblilty of being saved. 

I am often told by fellow Christians that an inclusivist reading of Scripture is the result of a sentimental “bleeding heart.” And yet most of those people embrace without question the age of accountability and reel at the idea of a non-elect two year-old burning alive for eternity. I believe we were created to reel at that idea, just as we were created to reel at the idea of a young Muslim woman being tortured forever by a God whose name she never knew.  I believe that our impulse towards grace is a reflection of God’s image inside of us, not a weakness of which we should be ashamed. 

In matters like these, Christians should of course be careful of asserting with absolute certainty how God will judge our fellow human beings. We should also be wary of any suggestion that our instinctive desire for love and compassion is a weakness that should be overcome. The very formation of the Southern Baptist denomination reflects the disastrous consequences of confining morality to that which is explicitly stated in Scripture to the neglect of the conscience. Conscience should be tested with Scripture, certainly, but it should never be silenced. 

Regardless of one’s position on the theological issues here, it’s plain to see that if the members of the Southern Baptist Convention intend to hold to their exclusivist position consistently and condemn as dangerous all who seek to harmonize scripture with the human conscience, then it’s time for them to confront their own theological accommodations and declare the unconverted child as hopeless as the unconverted adult. 

I only hope that this time it will be harder for the delegates to raise their hands. 


For more on why exclusivism is not the only view supported by Scripture, check out this older post by Rachel Held Evans on her blog.

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