One of the more unpleasant events surrounding the Christmas story is found in Matthew 2, and has been described and depicted as the “Slaughter of Innocents.” It was the results of Herod’s, the ruler of Judea, paranoid reaction to being told by the Magi that they had come from the East to venerate he who was born King of the Jews. He wanted to make sure that no baby king was going to usurp his throne so he ordered the extermination of all male children 2 yrs and less in the little town of Bethlehem where the the Magi had gone to worship the Christ child.
Many scholars do not believe that such an event took place because there are no historical indications, not even in Josephus who usually recorded such things. Also, none of the other gospels mention it. However, historian Paul Maier reminds us that while this was a tragedy, it was local and limited in its impact. Bethlehem at that time had approximately 1500 citizens.
Dr. Maier says, “In my actuarial study, Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female… Josephus may have heard about it and not used it because you don’t have hundreds of babies killed… only about 12. And so this is not a big deal [historically], and I think that is why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.”
Obviously, no matter how small the number, we should still consider it a tragedy—an example of the fallenness of humanity, the abuse of power over the poor by tyrannical government, and a foreshadowing of the future tragedy that would be heaped upon another Innocent; the Lord Jesus Christ, who would die for your sins and mine.
As an addendum to Matthew’s account, I want to address a fragile and tender subject. I have received a number of questions over my years of pastoral ministry concerning babies who die. What happens to them? Much of our perspective has been influenced by Roman Catholic theology, which has developed the category of “limbo”—the place where unbaptized babies go upon their death. It is depicted as a place where they would never see God, but neither would they suffer. The problem is that the Bible never says anything about “limbo.” It also never teaches that baptism saves anyone – only faith in Christ.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive biblical teaching on what happens to babies who die and so we are left to look for principles that might help answer this question. We know that while babies cannot exercise faith, they do possess a sinful nature that one day will affect their whole lives. We also believe that their consciences have never been awakened so as to understand the nature of sin, repentance, or the essence of the gospel. Therefore, because they can neither accept nor refuse grace, I do not believe that a gracious and merciful God will hold them accountable for their sin. They will be covered by the blood of Christ.*
In addition, Jesus used little children as an analogy of what we must be like in order to enter heaven. Matthew 18:1-10 is a very interesting text, which may indicate that the situation of a helpless child (or the lowly disciple) will always come to the attention of and be addressed by their Father in Heaven. Thus I believe God in His mercy will graciously provide for the weak and vulnerable child. I think that these same principles could also be applied to the person who is mentally incapacitated from birth.*
*These are my interpretive opinions that have given me a place to stand as I have rendered pastoral care to many who have lost their little ones. I am open to more learning on the subject.