A post on the Christian Left Blog (author unknown) argues from biblical grounds that a fetus does not become a human being until he or she first draws breath. The author employs numerous Scriptures in defense of the non-humanity of the unborn. I hope to counter these arguments using proper hermeneutics and respect toward the biblical texts – as much in what they do not teach as in what they do. The polarizing issue regarding when life begins deserves such care.
To begin, I agree with and champion much of what the Christian Left Blog writers state in their Our Mission page. Politicism has compromised too much of what we typically call right-wing Christianity. Yet the the Social Gospel has watered down too much of the doctrinal strength of left-wing Evangelicalism. I appreciate that this particular group of writers recognizes the central importance of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. When all else falls into disagreement, I’m thankful we do agree on this.
It is in this vein that I must disagree with much of what this author writes regarding the Bible’s stance on human life’s inception. The following are point-by-point analyses of each of the post’s arguments on exegetical grounds. My aim is to allow Scripture to speak for itself without reading socio-political bias into what is clearly not in the text, something I find the author has failed to do.
1. “According to the bible, a fetus is not a living person with a soul until after drawing its first breath. After God formed man in Genesis 2:7, He ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and it was then that the man became a living being.’ Although the man was fully formed by God in all respects, he was not a living being until after taking his first breath.”
The issue here centers on the definitions of human life and personhood in relationship to one’s drawing the first breath. The author accurately states the first man was “fully formed in all respects” before God breathed into him the first breath of life. So Adam already bore all the markers of a human being before this first breath occurred. Yet it was breath – the intake of oxygen into the lungs – that initiated the spark of life. On this we agree, in the specific case of Adam. I do not, however, find this logic applicable to the unborn.
Is this the case with an unborn fetus? Is this a fair comparison? Does a baby only become a “living soul” when it breathes for the first time? In the womb a fetus continually consumes energy drawn from the umbilical cord and produces waste material. The fetus’ heart beats and its brain produces electrical impulses. A fetus at certain points of development moves its extremities, sucks its thumb, experiences hiccups, and even enters recognizable patterns of sleep and wakefulness. The fact that the fetus is not yet capable of drawing air into its lungs (no air is yet available) cannot nullify these other obvious signs of life. The comparison here, then, with God’s first created man is unfair.
But let’s look back at the textual argument, itself. Consulting dozens of Bible translations I was unable to locate one that renders the language of Gen. 2:7 as “it was then that the man became a living being.” The New American Standard Bible (1995), considered the closest modern English translation to the original languages, has “; and man became a living being.” The Hebrew word translated “being” here is “nefesh,” which carries with it both the meanings of personhood and of the soul. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Dictionary explains it is this “nefesh” which, being a soul, exhibits the ability of drawing the breath of life.
So we see the language in this verse cannot fairly be understood to infer that the act of breathing is a litmus test we may use to bestow the label of personhood upon a human being. There is no cause-effect progression of human formation, then breathing, then the existence of a soul that we may equally apply to an unborn baby. This blog post’s author appears to have inserted this meaning into the text.
2. In Job 33:4, it states: “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
Same argument, different Scripture. The difference here is that Job wrote this part of his book using classic Hebrew parallelism. Specific interpretation rules apply to this literary genre: The reader cannot interpret the two clauses of the verse apart from one another; they are interdependent. In this specific verse, the second clause is really a repetition of the first. They say the same thing using different words.
Thus we understand “Spirit” in the first clause and “breath” in the second as referring to the same thing – or in this case, Person. In the first clause, “Spirit” is the typical Hebrew “ruach,” which often refers to the Holy Spirit. The word can also mean “wind” or “breath.” In the second clause, “breath” is a different Hebrew word – “neshama.” This word only means “breath.” So at first Job focuses on the Person doing the work of creation, and then he switches his emphasis to God’s act of giving him life.
The main point here, though, is that one cannot accurately interpret verse 4 as being a cause-and-effect progression. The logic is not “first A, then B.” It is “A; and A again.” Similarly to the error the author made with Gen. 2:7, it does not follow to say that God first created Job, “and then” Job became a person when the Spirit breathed life into him. On the contrary, because Job had to have been born of a woman, he bore all the markers of humanity in the womb – just like any other fetus.
3. Again, to quote Ezekiel 37:5-6, “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Of the first three Scriptures the author chose to bolster the argument, this is definitely the weakest. Ezekiel’s prophecy in this passage, which he received directly from Christ (Heb. YHWH; “LORD”), spoke a message of hope to the people of Israel as they faced judgment over their sin through exile. The vision of the valley of bones was God’s great word-picture to Ezekiel, intended to show that God would be faithful to return His people to their land. Verses 11-14 make this clear.
Context is so important when interpreting Scripture. We must not only know what is being said, but why and to whom, among other facts. That certain words or phrases in this passage are similar to those in Gen. 2:7 does not provide license to assume both Scriptures teach the same truths.
Then again, we have the Hebrew word “ruach” being used interchangeably in this passage for both “the Spirit (of the LORD)” and for “breath.” The agent that provides life to the dry bones in the valley, then, is not the substance of oxygen but the very Spirit of God, Himself. To suggest that this somehow correlates to human life commencing when a baby takes its first breath misses the whole point of this passage in Ezekiel.
4. In Exodus 21:22 it states that if a man causes a woman to have a miscarriage, he shall be fined; however, if the woman dies then he will be put to death.
At this point I have to wonder if the author is deliberately attempting to mislead, for a straightforward reading of this text provides no indication of what the author argues. Here is the text of Ex. 21:22-25 as the New American Standard Bible renders:
“If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
Only if one assumes that “gives birth prematurely” equates to miscarriage could this passage provide any hope of supporting the author’s point. But it simply does not. The construction of the Hebrew here makes clear that this law provides for restitution when the actions of men fighting with each other cause a woman to give birth prematurely. There is no Hebrew word in the text for “miscarriage.” A plain reading renders the second clause in verse 22 as, “so that the child [lit. 'the children'] come[s] out”. There is every indication that this refers to a live birth.
More than that, the verses that follow show ample evidence that the law provided like penalty if the actions of the guilty led to the death of an unborn child. “If there is further injury” – and death of the child certainly qualifies – the accused would have had to pay according to the consequences of his actions. It follows that a miscarriage in such a case would have called for the criminal to be executed. Understood this way, this passage actually defends the life of the unborn as being worthy of legal protection in ancient Israel.
5. “God has decreed, for one reason or another, that at least one-third of all pregnancies shall be terminated by a spontaneous abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy and that a number will be terminated after the first trimester. It would appear that God does not have any more regard for the loss of a fetus than he does for the loss of a placenta or a foreskin despite the fact that these were living tissue as the result of conception.”
To suggest that God “does not have any regard” for the loss of a fetus because of the number of naturally occurring miscarriages is both insupportable based on the ample refutations I have provided in the preceding arguments, and unthinkable given what we know of the nature of God as revealed throughout Scripture. The argument amounts to “fetuses die, therefore God doesn’t care.” The author is either unaware of what the Bible says contrary to this or unwilling to face the weight of its testimony.
Just a few examples:
1. Chapter 16 of Ezekiel is a long allegorical plea that God makes toward Israel, likening His people to an abandoned infant whom God rescues and cares for as His own child. These words are not those of a God who cares nothing for ones as helpless as the unborn.
2. God weeps along with the prophet Ezekiel over the plight of infants after Babylon has conquered Judah (Lam. 2:11; 4:4).
3. Speaking of the days when God brings about the Jerusalem for which He has prepared Israel, the prophet Isaiah says: “No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, Or an old man who does not live out his days; For the youth will die at the age of one hundred. And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred will be thought accursed” (Isa. 65:20, NAS95). In God’s economy where sin does not ravage the earth, infants don’t die.
The argument that because suffering exists God must not be loving ignores the reality of what the Bible reveals about the cause of suffering and God’s final remedy against it. A fair biblical exegete knows these things: It is only because of God’s grace that there isn’t vastly more suffering in the world. The sin of mankind is the cause of the suffering that does exist. And finally, God will eventually end all suffering and bring justice upon all evil when Christ returns to rule and reign over the earth. That this has not happened according to man’s timetable is no legitimate indictment of God’s love.
One might also suggest that if the author is so concerned about the plight of the unborn that, having read the preceding arguments, he might reconsider his belief about the personhood of the fetus and champion the right of these babies to live.
The remainder of the author’s post provides no further scriptural evidence worth considering. However, one omission should be considered by anyone struggling to form an opinion on the inception of human life based on the Bible.
“Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord’” (Luke 1:39–45, NASB).
In both instances in this passage where Elizabeth utters the word “baby” in reference to the yet-born John the Baptist, Luke chose to use the Greek word “brephos.” This is one of eight occurrences of this word in the New Testament. In every one of the rest of these the author describes a baby already born. (Peter’s use in 1 Pe. 2:2 metaphorically refers to “babes” in the faith, but the denotation is toward already-born infants nonetheless.) That Luke would use a word well understood in the Greek language to mean “baby” in reference to a fetus adequately proves the biblical support for the personhood of the unborn.
This is not a case of scientific ignorance on the part of first-century Jewish culture. This is not a late insertion of political bias into the ancient text. This is simply God, inspiring Luke through the agency of His Holy Spirit, to faithfully record what he and Elizabeth knew to be true by divine revelation: unborn “fetuses” are babies.
As Christians continue to struggle with critical issues – always wrestling with the truths of Scripture and examining our own sinful hearts – we must strive to bend our wills to what God has revealed to us, leaving what we don’t know to His sovereign care. It is my hope that the writers at the Christian Left Blog and those who read their work would seriously reflect on their conclusions, asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate His truth and guide them into greater understanding regardless of their political views.