The Value of Human Life
Rev. Robert R. Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources
It is becoming more difficult to know what to do in life and death situations. Advancements in medicine, challenges in the court, and changing opinions have raised questions about when life begins, what its value is, and when it ends.
As complex as these matters may seem, Christians can find help in God’s Word. The Bible does not address every life and death circumstance that we may encounter. It does, however, establish principles to guide us. These biblical principles guide our Christian understanding of the existence of life, the quality of life, and the right to choose medical treatment.
The Existence of Life
Early abortion debates centered on whether there really is human life in the womb. Specifically, the contention was made by abortion advocates that there was only “potential life.” While they would not deny that the fetus is alive they questioned whether the “quality” of its health or the degree of its development deserves to be called human life. In ethical terms, does it have the quantity which is human life?
While ethicists, advocates, and philosophers debate the question, Scripture states the case clearly. Simply put, either there is life or there isn’t life. There are not degrees of human life.
The psalmist acknowledges, “Surely I have been a sinner from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). The key word here is “sinful.” Sinfulness is an attribute of human life. Its condition makes human life accountable to the Creator who demands perfection. The psalmist sees no distinction between birth and conception. At both points sinfulness is the condition, human life is the reality.
While the sinful condition of life at conception clearly distinguishes the humanity of that life, the redemptive work of Christ gives evidence of its absolute value. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sin of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Jesus Christ did not die for “potential life,” “products of conception,” or “parts of the mother’s body.” He died for human beings, marked by sin and in need of a Savior.
In this sense God is no respecter of persons. “For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11). In his work of saving souls all human life has absolute and equal value. Equal value as a redeemed soul, however, does not mean that equal qualities of life are enjoyed by all. Life does come with varying degrees of quality.
The Quality of Life
Statements about the “quality” of life are no longer only evaluations of a person’s standard of living. They are becoming the criteria for life and death decisions. Qualitative expressions dominate medical decision-making terminology. You hear and read terms like “meaningful life,” “prevailing interest,” and “persistent vegetative state.”
Qualitative expressions are often used with implied comparisons. Will a child born with Down syndrome enjoy a “meaningful life” (in comparison to so-called “normal” children)? Do the mother’s concerns represent a “prevailing interest” (over those of the unborn life in her womb)? Is the patient in a “persistent vegetative state” (implying the patient has the value of a vegetable in comparison to “normal” people)? In life and death decisions the question is not, is this a life, but is this good enough in my opinion to continue? Does it have the qualities of a human life?
You see, the world measures the “quality” of a human life in degrees of enjoyment. The yardsticks are pleasure, prosperity, position, and opinion. Is it a life that can be enjoyed, bring joy to others, or contribute to the well-being of society?
There is no question that life does have varying degrees of quality, made that way by God (Proverbs 22:2, Romans 9:20,21). Some receive the blessings of wealth, health, prosperity, and popularity; others are given the burdens of illness, handicap, and hardship. In most cases there is a blend of blessings and burdens. But in all circumstances we are encouraged to learn contentment (Philippians 4:11-13).
God teaches that all human life is his gift, regardless of its “quality” and is worthy of our respect and protection. Jesus died for all. Even those with “poor quality” lives should live for Him (2 Corinthians 5:15).
In Genesis 9:6 the equal high value of all human life was expressed with the words, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” When man sinned he lost the image of God. Because God gives each life as a time of grace during which He wishes to restore that image, each human life is a special, unique, and prized creation of God (Hebrews 9:27, 1 Timothy 2:3,4, Colossians 3:10). Each of our lives, regardless of its quality, is such a human life. To end that life is a personal affront to its Creator. To take life without the expressed command of God is a violation of the Fifth Commandment.
The Right to Choose
Sadly, there is still a point which even many so-called conservative doctors, lawyers, and ethicists find themselves in conflict with God’s Word. While they may acknowledge it is wrong to take a person’s life actively or passively by withdrawing food and water, some contend that it is acceptable when a person exercises his “right to choose” (also known as “personal autonomy”). They believe a patient has an absolute right to make decisions about his own care. If he wants to die by starvation, let him. If he wants a lethal injection, he can have it. So the arguments go.
Personal autonomy is a biblical principle. In a Christian’s life of holy living he exercises this autonomy at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Our whole life of obedience is a series of decisions we make in Christian freedom. In our care for our bodies and the human lives of our family we exercise this same autonomy.
But freedom of choice is subject to the will of God who seeks to protect us from our sinful nature (Deuteronomy 10:13). We will not use our bodies, for instance, for sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:19). God forbids us to use our freedom of choice to indulge in those things which God has called sin (Romans 6). As popular as it may sound to say “a person can make decisions about his own life,” a Christian acknowledges that God’s Word directs his freedom. He certainly will not use his Christian freedom to take his own life. Nor will he honor a family member’s desire to do so.
Divine Guidance for Human Life
So, the Bible teaches that every human life is a gift from God, an absolute value from conception until its natural end. From Scripture we also know that a person has the right to choose treatment for himself in line with God’s will. But we will not use our Christian freedom to end God’s gift of life because we judge the quality to be poor.
Christians need not fear death. We know what is ahead (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). We can face the burdens of life trusting that even harsh things are for our good (Romans 8:28). If it seems clear God is taking back his gift of life, we will not fight His will with medication, treatment, or machines. If it seems clear that God, in his wisdom, is asking one of His children to continue life with fewer earthly qualities, we will not challenge his will with the sin of taking human life. In facing the difficult decisions of life and death we can be assured that with Christ as our guide, and faith in our hearts we can be no better equipped for such a task.
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Thank you for a clear explanation of the biblical value of life! Very well written! In Christ Jesus we rejoice and say Amen.
This was for the most part a very good article. There are a couple points that maybe should have been expounded on or not have been used.
1. Is the example of a vegetative state. In the article you make it sound as if it would be against God’s will to remove the machine keeping the person alive when I would argue it is more against God’s will to have a person being kept alive by any machine at all. God wants us to trust in him in all matters, from the time we are conceived until the time we take our last breath.
2. In the right to choose section you said “God forbids us”, when in fact God never forbids us from doing anything and God can always forgive any sin. God wants us to use our freedom to choose to follow his teaching which are always for our benefit, but would never force us to or forbid us from doing anything. We will always have the right to reject his guidance and saving grace. In the same way we will always have an opportunity to receive his saving grace until our last breath or are hearts have become too harden.
Thank You for shining a light on how precious and valued everyone’s life is to God and how it is a responsibility of all who believe in him to let others know this truth.
Thank you, Anthony. We’d like to reply to your numbered comments:
1. Trusting in God never exempts us from making decisions. We trust in the providence of God (Romans 8:28) but we are nevertheless to proactively demonstrate veneration for the ideals of God in protecting life and caring for it. It is not a lack of trust in God for the diabetic to take insulin or to intubate someone experiencing difficulty with breathing. Doing these things does not demonstrate a lack of trust in God but rather responsible stewardship for God’s gift of life. Sustaining life where there is no life is futile. Sustaining life where there is a diminished mental capacity (as extreme as being called a “vegetative state”) is to honor God’s gift of life regardless of its quality. There is no provision in Scripture for terminating care for someone who is alive but lacking cognitive skills of a certain level.
2. God forbade Adam and Eve from eating of the forbidden fruit. Martin Luther taught that the law (which is often given in the negative like – do not steal, do not kill, etc.) serves as a mirror, curb, and guide. For the Christian, the law is a guide in that understanding what God forbids and using our freedom to follow that will is a way we glorify God. Yet, even the Apostle Paul recognized that the battle between the old and new man in him had him doing what God forbids (Romans 7). When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about how to use freedom it came with a prohibition (1 Corinthians 10:23ff). Yes, through Christ we are free to serve God in many ways, but we are not granted the freedom to sin – especially so with the idea that it doesn’t really matter because we are forgiven (Romans 5:20-6:14).
Thank you once again!
I have a question about the last paragraph, in the context of old age not abortion. How do you know when God has decided to take back His gift of life and when He has not? Suppose someone has Covid-19 and is certain to die if disconnected from a ventilator. Does God want to take back His gift of life from this person? Should we honor His will or should be keep the person connected to the ventilator just because the machine exists?
Scripture teaches that we are stewards over life – called upon to care for it as something that belongs to God (Deuteronomy 32:39). As Christians we also put God first, seeking to glorify him in all things (1 Corinthians 10:31). While our culture has slowly been conditioning us to value life based on its usefulness and quality, Scripture takes a more objective approach in that all life is valuable as God’s creation and something for which he sacrificed his Son for its redemption.
Our faith also teaches us that we have nothing to fear in death (John 11:25). Salvation and eternal life have robbed death of its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). It is the Easter message! (1 Corinthians 15:14)
For these reasons, Christians understand that we both seek to protect life, while not fearing its eventual and certain end on this earth. It is not uncommon, therefore, that we wonder where the line is between “pulling out the stops” to preserve life, while not fighting God’s timing to take life back to himself.
First, understand this is not a new struggle brought on by our modern technology or the pandemic. Christians spend their entire lives studying God’s Word in order to understand and make decisions over the hard or “meaty” things of life (Hebrews 5:11-6:1). Paul touched on this when said, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:23–24). These struggles have been going on for generations.
That is why whenever we talk about “Christian Bioethics” we introduce the subject by saying it is the only field of ethics in which motive is the first determinant of what is right and wrong. It is not the only determinant, but a Christian begins by examining his heart. Is he acting out of faith and trust in God or with some other motivation?
That is tough to resolve. A late professor of mine once said, “Our sincerest of tears are tainted with sin.” For this reason, we measure motive in the light of God’s Word and in earnest conversations with our pastor and other faith-driven Christians who love us enough to be candid in helping us ascertain the purity of our own motives.
Second, we look at available resources. Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). Practically speaking, there is such a thing as the allocation of limited resources. Third world countries do not have the same medical resources that we have. They are not obliged to use ventilator support to sustain and cure their maladies if they do not have access to it. If you do have access to it, and it is believed to be of benefit, then you have the obligation to use it.
Martin Luther touched on this point in a letter when he wrote: “If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God’s eyes.”
Third, as the holder of life and death, God ultimately is the one who knows when life will begin and when life will end (Psalm 31:15). At best, we make reasonable approximations (2 Timothy 4:6). Based on history (experience) and science we will say that pursuing Treatment Options A has a reasonable expectation of success, or because of these circumstances, there is a reasonable expectation that death will still arrive imminently. It is, at best, an educated guess. Sometimes the circumstances provide us enough information to add a level of certainty to our decisions, but even in those situations, God gets his way. Throughout my ministry, I have dealt with people who should have kept on living, but they unexpectedly died. And I have worked with people that we were certain would die, and they continue living. My point is, the decision-making we do is an act of stewardship, reflecting our trust in the promises of God, regardless of the circumstance and regardless of the results. So long as we have not inserted our will in opposition to the stated will of God (i.e., made decisions to end a life that we felt should end) God will keep his promise to work it all out for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:29).
More specifically to your question, two issues are at hand with the current pandemic: 1) The allocation of limited resources. The focal point of the preventative measures is to “flatten the curve” and not to over-burden our medical resources. We have not always succeeded in that regard so there will be times when, for example, one ventilator is available and two patients need it. A difficult choice must be made. Typically, the decision will rest in favor of the one for whom there is the most reasonable expectation that it will work. That may mean the other person will die. A Christian understands in that horrible situation that perhaps this is how we sacrifice for the sake of others (John 15:13). For the sake of others (Philippians 2:3-5) a Christian could choose to permit the loss of his life for the sake of preserving the life of another.
At the same time, as Paul noted, our time is always meant to be of service to others (Philippians 1:23-24). That does not require us to be in stellar condition. Sometimes our disabled condition becomes the outlet for the faith of others, as was the man beaten and left for dead in the ditch in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
In summary, it is a difficult decision, but one that provides the Christian an extraordinary opportunity to live his faith and to put it on display that others might see the good works and glorify God (Matthew 5:16). A patient endurance through difficult times is also a discussion-starter as people will observe acts of sacrifice, toleration of inconvenience, and demonstrations of steadfast and consistent love that will prompt them to comment to you about it. When that happens you have been given the opportunity to share your faith (1 Peter 3:15).