The Value and Dignity of Human Life
Chee-Chiew Lee | Singapore
Life is a gift from God. Adam became a living being by the breath of God (Gen. 2:7), and if God were to withdraw his breath from humans, they would perish (Job 34:14–15). Since life belongs to God, humans do not have absolute autonomy over their own lives but are stewards of the life given to them by God. The lives of all humans, both their own and others’, are to be cherished and guarded.
Created in the Image of God
The value of human life is intrinsic, for it derives from God, who made human beings in his own image (Gen. 1:26–27). Consequently, the person who takes the life of another will be held accountable and punishable by God through his human representatives (Gen. 9:5–6; Rom. 13:1–7). The sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13), and its explanation in Exodus 21:12–32 clearly teaches this. The Hebrew word for “murder” (ratsakh) in Exodus 20:13 not only refers to intentional killing (e.g., Jer. 7:9; compare Ex. 21:12, 14, 20) but also to human death caused by carelessness or negligence (e.g., Josh. 20:3–6; compare Ex. 21:13). It is important to note, however, that in the Old Testament, the prohibition against taking a person’s life is to be understood as the taking of life outside of the boundaries set by God (such as capital punishment or war).
With this basic principle of the value of human life in place, we will consider a number of ethical issues concerning the beginning and the end of life such as abortion, euthanasia, and the treatment of children, the disabled, and the elderly.
The Beginning of Life
Abortion was a known practice in the ancient world. The Bible does not mention explicitly the practice of abortion. Yet when we listen carefully to the teaching of the Bible regarding what it means to be a human being and what it means to take the life of another, we find that the Bible speaks very clearly on the issue of abortion. Moreover, both Jews and Christians in ancient times explicitly condemned the practice of abortion.
The main issue concerning abortion revolves around when life and personhood begin. Various views have been proposed: (1) at conception; (2) at implantation; and (3) at birth. There is now widespread consensus within the medical field that human life begins at conception, when the egg and the sperm fuse together to form a human embryo. On top of established medical conviction, however, the Bible teaches that a fetus within a womb is a living human being bearing the image of God. In Psalm 139:13, David speaks of how God formed his “inward parts” while he was in his mother’s womb. This text clearly teaches that God forms a new person before birth, not during or after birth. Furthermore, David speaks of himself being conceived as a sinner (Ps. 51:5). Since only human beings can have moral responsibility, full personhood must, according to the Bible, begin at conception. We are compelled to conclude that destroying a fetus amounts to taking the life of a person, which the sixth commandment directly prohibits. The outrage God feels at the murder of the unborn is underscored in his forbidding the taking of innocent life (Ex. 23:7). He “hates . . . hands that shed innocent blood” (Prov. 6:16–17).
An abortion can be legitimately considered only in the event of an ectopic pregnancy, in which the pregnancy starts somewhere outside the uterus (usually in the fallopian tubes). The baby cannot survive such a pregnancy and, if allowed to develop, can endanger the mother’s life. The question here, then, is not one of murder but of the lesser of two evils—losing one life instead two.
Proponents of abortion also put forth other reasons for abortion, such as the choice of the mother, the case of rape, and the issue of quality of life. Yet surely a mother’s “choice” does not include choosing to end another person’s life any more than a murderer should be allowed to “choose” to end another’s life. And in the case of rape, a heinous crime (rape) should not be compounded by adding to it another heinous crime (abortion). Regarding quality of life, it is certainly tragic for a baby to be born into poverty, or with physical deformity. Such suffering is real and painful and must be tenderly addressed. Yet the answer to a difficult life for an infant is not to deny life itself to the infant, who is created in God’s image.
The End of Life
As a result of the fall, physical death is inevitable for all people (Rom. 5:12–14; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). The process of dying is frequently accompanied by illness, suffering, and pain. Euthanasia is one way people have sought to eliminate end-of-life suffering. Euthanasia occurs when a terminally ill person dies as a result of a deliberate act of commission (active euthanasia) or omission (passive euthanasia) by another person seeking to hasten the ill person’s death in order to end his or her suffering. The person who is ill may have given informed consent (voluntary), may have withheld consent (involuntary), or may have been incompetent to give consent (non-voluntary).
Active euthanasia is clearly prohibited by the sixth commandment, regardless of the ill person’s request. This moral principle is seen in the case of King Saul. Fatally injured, Saul commanded his armor-bearer to kill him so that he would not suffer humiliation from his enemies. His armor-bearer refused, however (1 Sam. 31:3–5). In contrast, when the Amalekite brought news of Saul’s death to David, claiming that he had killed Saul at the king’s own request in order to end his misery, David executed the Amalekite for taking Saul’s life (2 Sam. 1:1–16).
Passive euthanasia involves withholding either natural life-sustaining means (e.g., food, water, air) or unnatural life-sustaining means (e.g., life-supporting machines) in order to cause death and thus end suffering. Many Christian ethicists believe that withholding natural means of life-sustenance from helpless patients is comparable to withholding the same means from an infant, as it will directly cause death. This act of negligence leading to death is thus also viewed as being prohibited by the sixth commandment. A somewhat different question is whether doctors are ethically able to withhold futile treatments that do not improve the prospect of recovery and only prolong the process of dying when death is imminent and inevitable. In such cases, according to some Christian ethicists, it is morally acceptable to allow such a person to die, though whenever there is a reasonable chance of recovery or improvement of the quality of life this should be pursued.
The Treatment of Children, the Disabled, and the Elderly
How, then, shall Christians respond to pain and suffering in those who are unable to care for themselves? In considering this question, we must remember that the value and dignity of human life is grounded in the fact the God is the giver of life. Human worth does not fluctuate with the level of perceived usefulness of a person to society or the degree of suffering they are experiencing, for human worth is grounded in the image of God. A child, disabled person, or elderly person is no less the image of God than anyone else.
As we look at the Bible’s teaching, the prohibition of the physically disabled to serve as priests may seem at first glance to be a prejudice against them (Lev. 21:16–23). This requirement, however, has to do with symbolic wholeness in relation to God’s holiness. It by no means devalues the disabled. On the contrary, Moses exhorts God’s people to treat the disabled and the elderly with respect (Lev. 19:14, 32). The child, the disabled, and the elderly, even when they are dependent on others or are sick or dying, deserve the same respect granted to anyone else. Christians are to uphold the dignity of life, rooted as it is in the image of God.
How shall we handle such suffering? How can we help to improve the quality of life for those suffering from disability or terminal illness? Is there any meaning to suffering at all? Three comments are in order.
We first remember that Jesus had compassion not only for the sick (Matt. 14:14) but also for those with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs (e.g., Matt. 9:36; Mark 8:2; Luke 7:13). Likewise, Paul exhorts believers to “put on . . . compassionate hearts” (Col. 3:12). The disabled and the sick not only suffer from physical pain and discomfort, they are also often troubled emotionally and spiritually. It is therefore vital, and deeply Christian, to provide compassionate care, to both body and soul, to those who are suffering.
Second, although suffering in itself is not good but a result of living in a fallen world, suffering serves redemptive purposes in the life of the believer. Hardships of various kinds have the unique power to deepen our awareness of human frailty and mortality, to disengage our affection for the things of the world, and to lead us to depend more on God and to cherish more meaningfully the grace and mercy of God in Christ (see 2 Cor. 1:8–9; Heb. 2:14–18; 4:15–16).
Third, the Bible calls us to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). As believers engage those who are suffering, trite answers, however true theologically, may prove counterproductive emotionally. We must exercise wisdom and care for the suffering with deep sympathy.
The value and dignity of human life is derived from God the Creator and is rooted in the fact that all humans have been created in God’s image. As stewards of the life God has given, we are to uphold its sanctity from conception to the grave. Ending someone’s life in order to relieve suffering or inconvenience is not only unjustifiable; it violates God’s clearly defined moral order. Suffering should bring us not to end life prematurely but to entrust ourselves more completely to our faithful God no matter what befalls us or those whom we love (1 Pet. 4:19). We can find strength and ultimate hope in Christ, who has conquered death and can sympathize with human suffering (Heb. 2:14–18; 4:15). Based on God’s love, Christians are to extend self-giving compassion and care to those who are suffering or vulnerable—unborn or born, young or old.