The greatest miracle of the Incarnation is not that God visited us—as Creator, he has every right to enter his creation. All through the Hebrew Bible, we find God intervening in the affairs of our planet.
The greatest miracle of the Incarnation is that this Creator chose to come to us as a baby. The One who holds the universe in the palm of his hand (Isa. 40:12) reduced his omnipotence into a miniscule fetus and was born as a helpless baby. Hands that held the universe were sheltered in a mother's arms. Christmas shows us what God thinks of babies.
As I write, our nation is grieving the horrific deaths of 10 children in a freak storm in Oklahoma. Seven were pulled from the wreckage of an elementary school. Watching the news coverage of the tornado, many of us are asking faith's hardest questions: Why did God allow such a tragedy? Why didn't he prevent it, or at least shelter these innocent, helpless children? What do we do now?
And the question we'll address here: What happened to the children when they died?
In my 35 years of ministry, I have stood beside parents as they gave doctors permission to withdraw life support from their babies. I have stood beside tiny coffins as parents placed their children's bodies in the ground. I am the father of two grown sons; every day since they were born, I have prayed for God to keep them safe.
When a child dies, part of us dies as well. And we ask: What happens to them? Assuming they were not old enough to understand the gospel and trust Christ as Lord and Savior, what is their eternal state now?
What does God think of children?
One day Jesus' disciples asked him, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Matt. 18:1). They assumed that Jesus would pick one of them—perhaps Peter, his lead apostle, or John. His answer must have shocked them:
He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 18:2-4).
A little later, "little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them" (Matt. 19:13). This was a typical practice of the day, something like baby dedication days in Baptist churches. When the disciples rebuked the parents who brought children, Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matt. 19:14). He placed his hands on them—hands that healed lepers and raised the dead, hands that formed each of us (Col. 1:16) and bore the nails of our sin, were laid on these infants in an act of divine acceptance and blessing.
The most normative picture of our relationship with God is that of children with their father. Jesus taught us to pray to "our Father in heaven" (Matt. 6:9). He told us that we have "one Father, and he is in heaven" (Matt. 23:10). As a result, Christians are his children: "To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12).
What does God think of children? Jesus called them "greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Scripture describes Christians as the "children" of God. Could our Lord pay any higher compliments to children?
What, then, happens to them when they die? We'll consider three common answers, then conclude with my approach to this difficult issue.