Whose Life is it Anyway?
The Sanctity of Human Life

(This article originally written in 1996. The figures quoted later in the article are from a UK perspective of that time. Horrifyingly, these figures are now almost certainly far higher!)

The destruction of frozen human embryos and the abortion of a twin baby has raised again in the public domain the vexed question of the sanctity of human life.

This issue, with the passing of time, will become more acute, not less.

Picture of a baby in the womb

A baby in a mother's womb.

The common perception of the Christian position is that it is an absolute ethic: that human life should never be taken away and should be preserved at all costs. Whatever the basis of this common perception it is, in fact, a misrepresentation. Although the sanctity of life is a fundamental value, it is not an absolute value. Not only did the Lord Jesus consider the giving of his own life for that which he considered to be of greater worth (the redemption of the elect), but he also urged upon his followers that losing one's life for the sake of the kingdom of God is no bad thing (as expounded in Matthew 10, for instance).

As the theologian Karl Barth expressed it, for the Christian: 'life is no second god'. While the principle of the sanctity of life may seem quite self-evident to many, that fact is that it has been used both for and against capital punishment, abortion and euthanasia.

One of the problems we face as we consider this subject is that we approach it with our views already 'coloured'. Often without being aware of it, we 'buy in' to ideas of human rights, personhood, quality of life and so on, which, to put it mildly, have less grounding in Scripture and are more rooted in the well-fertilised soil of a post-Enlightenment worldview which is now falling apart under the onslaught of postmodernism. For example, it is now taken for granted that we have a 'right to choose'; indeed, in the cases of abortion and euthanasia this 'right' is placed on a higher scale of values (if such a scale exists) than the right to life itself. As with most heresies, religious or secular, this is a Christian truth gone wrong; like multiplying cancer cells, such perverted ideas engulf that which is healthy.

Pictureof a baby girl.

A lovely baby girl.

Whereas the Bible, and indeed pagans like Aristotle would consider it right to ask the question 'What should we choose?' - i.e. choice is linked to other moral questions - today individual worth is seen almost entirely in terms of the fact that we choose: 'I choose, therefore I am'. The sociologist Peter Berger has called this 'the heretical imperative'.

If there are no moral absolutes (save the moral absolute of the right to choose), then it makes little difference in which direction we go: to save life, or to take it. But one can appreciate the logic that if quality of life and value of life are inextricably linked to the ability to choose, then those who cannot choose, whether an unborn baby or a comatose victim, forfeit the right to protection. After all, why protect that which has less value than ourselves? One can also see how, if dignity is defined in terms of choosing, then the last dignified act that a person may make is to exercise the ultimate choice in ending one's life, or demanding that it be ended for them by another, thus transferring the moral obligation onto someone else.

There are three basic biblical principles which should inform that way we might view aright the question of the sanctity of life.

1. Life is a gift
In Genesis 2.7 we learn that it is God who breathes into man the breath of life. Unlike the bringing about of the rest of creation, there is an intimacy here, almost the imparting of something Godlike to man. This gift is precious, reflecting as it does something of God himself: men and women are made in his image (Genesis 1.27, 9.6). To take away this life in a deliberate act of malice, as Genesis 9 and the sixth commandment make clear, is murder, and in some measure marks an attack on the Creator whose image the man bears.

In other words, this gift of human life contains something of the Giver, like the portrait of a loving parent. And so to deface or destroy this portrait would, at the very least, be an act of appalling disrespect. The value which people have is God-given, not man-determined. Just as we are called to recognise the beauty of a sunset, so we are called to recognise the value of a human being.

However, such a recognition may well have to be informed, because of our faulty moral perception due to sin, Think of how, until relatively recently, black people were not recognised as human by some white people. This means that the Christian will be suspicious of accepting other morally-dubious criteria for determining the value of human life, whether it be 'biological quality' or 'usefulness'. Within the grand sweep of Scripture, life is seen as a gift to be received with gratitude in contrast to death, which stands as an 'abnormal norm' in a fallen world.

2. Life is on loan

Hippocratic Oath
From about 400 B.C. - By the "Father of Medicine' Greek physician Hippocrates.

Especially notice underlined sections!

I SWEAR by Apollo the physician and AEsculapius, and Health, and All-heal, and all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath and this stipulation -- to reckon him who taught me this Art equally dear to me as my parents, to share my substance with him, and relieve his necessities if required; to look upon his offspring in the same footing as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or stipulation; and that by precept, lecture, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the Art to my own sons, and those of my teachers, and to disciples bound by a stipulation and oath according to the law of medicine, but to none others. I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgement, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my Art. I will not cut persons labouring under the stone, but will leave this to be done by men who are practitioners of this work. Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick, and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption; and, further, from the seduction of females or males, of freemen and slaves. Whatever, in connection with my professional service, or not in connection with it, I see or hear, in the life of men, which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not divulge, as reckoning that all such should be kept secret. While I continue to keep this Oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art, respected by all men, in all times. But should I trespass and violate this Oath, may the reverse be my lot.

The gracious nature of life as a gift to be received rather than a right to be asserted, is focused for us in that well-known response of Job: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the Lord's name be praised' (Job 1.21). The Life-giver is also the Life-taker. Since life is on loan, it is not ours to do with as we please, it is something which belongs to God, and so we ought to use life in responsible freedom in the service and praise of God. It could, therefore, be argued that to choose death, whether our own or that of another, as an end in itself without divine sanction, is to usurp the place of God. To the question so often raised: 'Whose life is it anyway?', the Christian's answer is: 'It is God's'. But this runs counter to the prevailing assumption of our age. Autonomy, the belief that we and we alone decide what to do, is the order of the day. It is the age-old question first raised in Eden: 'Who is to be God?'.

3. Life is to be redeemed
God's commands are not arbitrary. They are grounded in his moral character, what he is like within himself, and oriented towards his purposes for his creation. What is the goal of creation? It is the kingdom of God, God's saving rule through his Son, Jesus Christ, which will be consummated at the end of time. As someone has put it, the kingdom of God inaugurated by the resurrection is 'creation healed'. It is this understanding of men and women being made in God's image which gives the individual great value, but it is a relational value. The image of God is not so much something in us, but something expressed between us and each other and between us and creation. That image, marred by sin, is now being renewed among those who are redeemed.

Relational perspective
If we follow this through then we have a perspective on the question of the sanctity of life that has been neglected by evangelicals in the past.

Traditionally it has been argued that one does not take away human life in the womb by abortion, or prematurely at the entrance to the tomb by euthanasia, because that is a person made in the image of God, of supreme value and worth. (The current statistics are horrifying: three abortions per minute in this country - over 90% of which are on social grounds - and 9% of all deaths by euthanasia in the Netherlands, which, if transferred to this country, would be the equivalent of 1,000 per week as a percentage of the total population.)

While not wishing to deny this aspect as far as it goes, in addition we should be pursuing the question of whether taking away life by abortion or by euthanasia is the sort of activity someone should be doing who himself is made in God's image? When we see in the One who uniquely bears the image of the invisible God someone who restores life rather than taking it away, who will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick - then are we not given some very clear indication as to what our responses should be, as those who are to express God's image in the way we relate to one another?

This relational understanding of how we are to approach the issue of the sanctity of life, helps us avoid becoming bogged down in abstract notions such as 'personhood': is this a person to whom I am to accord the same rights of protection as myself? The fact is that we care for someone not because of some abstract notion of personhood, but because we are thrown together in covenantal relationships - as a father, mother, son, minister, doctor and so on. These are relationships which are meant to be based on trust, responsibility and obligation.

If a woman miscarries, especially late on, she feels she has not lost a conceptus, but her baby. Even when one is still holding the hand of a loved one who has just died, we recognise that the body still echoes the person, as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University subtitles one of his essays: 'He may not be much of a person, but he is still my Uncle Charlie'. The identity and worth of an individual is grounded in their relationship to others. Even if no-one else were around to love and care for an individual, this does not mean that their worth is reduced on any ultimate scale of values, for there is still One who watches over them and relates to them in covenant love - the Creator-Redeemer God.
Melvin Tinker
Copyright: Evangelicals Now - November 1996.

(Whose life Is It Anyway? is an Evangelicals Now article which we produce through a 2003 agreement between UK Apologetics editor Mr Robin Brace and Evangelicals Now editor Mr John Benham for us to occasionally reproduce their archive articles - however, inset article and pictures added by UK Apologetics. Despite this 2003 agreement, UK Apologetics has used fewer than ten such 'EN' articles).