According to Islam, those who die in childhood are assured of admission to heaven. Those who live to adulthood are accountable for their deeds, and only if they do well in life they can go to heaven. This means that the longer one lives, the more difficult it is for him or her to ensure going to heaven, while children have the great prize without having to do anything. If I were given the choice, of course I would die in childhood. Yet this is causing me a lot of confusion. Please clarify.
To start with, you have to look at life in this world as a test. Those who pass the test go to heaven, and those who fail condemn themselves to God’s punishment, unless He, most gracious, merciful and much forgiving as He is, forgives them and waives their punishment. They will also go to heaven in this case. People who have any degree of faith in God, but still come on the Day of Judgment with much more bad deeds than good ones may suffer temporary punishment in hell so as to cleanse them of the burden of sin and then go to heaven. Only a person who does not have the tiniest fraction of faith remains in hell.
Needless to say, the test of this life applies after one has become an adult, able to discern right from wrong and make a choice between alternatives on that basis. Hence, children are not questioned about their deeds because they did not reach that stage when they could make informed choices. It is an aspect of God’s mercy that He admits them to heaven. A Hadith tells us that all those who die in childhood are told on the Day of Judgment to go to heaven, but they stand at its gate and make a vociferous protest. God, who knows everything, asks the angels what is the matter with those children. The children plead for their parents, saying that they were deprived of the care and love of their parents early in life and they do not want to be deprived of that again. God, in His mercy, tells them to go to heaven with their parents.
This is just one aspect of God’s grace. He is very kind, forgiving and merciful. May I cite the Hadith that says that "God created mercy and divided it into 100 portions. He placed one portion on earth and kept for Himself 99 portions. It is from the one portion that all creatures show mercy to one another, including an animal which lifts its leg to allow its young to pass."
The rest of God’s mercy is reserved for the Day of Judgment so as to be exercised on that day. You can see how great it is when you consider that all the kindness in the present world, by all creatures, in all generations, past, present and future, constitutes one portion. When we consider this we realize why it is a fact that we go to heaven, first and foremost, by God’s grace not by our deeds.
Added to this, God rewards us generously for our deeds. Let me quote you this Hadith to give you a fair idea. Before I quote it, may I remind you that a martyr is certain to go to heaven as his sins are all forgiven:
Two of the Prophet’s companions died, separated by one year, but the first of them died a martyr for the cause of Islam. Another companion of the Prophet, peace be upon him, saw them in a dream. They were both in heaven, but the one who died later was ahead of the martyr. He reported his dream to the Prophet, peace be upon him, asking how could the non-martyr be ahead. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Did he not pray 6,000 rak’ahs more and fast the month of Ramadan?’"
This means that in this one year which he lived more than his friend, he ensured for himself a higher position in heaven through attending to his obligatory duties.
What this means is that life can be a great source of goodness, provided one conducts his life in the right way. Given the same choice, I would opt for a long life, provided that I am a believer who is committed to the cause of Islam and obeying God. This ensures the better outcome in heaven.