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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When Does Human Life Have Value to God?

I have been teaching an adult Sunday School class on ethics, so I have been reading and reflecting on the question: When does human life have value to God? I think I have something fresh to add, but bowing to FaceBook pressure, I’ll split the essay into 2 or 3 parts. I hope you can stand the suspense.

There are, of course, some passages of Scripture that bear directly on the subject. We see God’s care for the unborn child in Job 10:8-13 and Psalm 139:13-16. Exodus 21 prescribes penalties for men who are fighting and incidentally strike a pregnant woman “so that her children come out” (v. 22). Whether this phrase describes a premature birth or a miscarriage, in either case there is a penalty. Not all instances of killing (fatal accidents, for example) received the death penalty in the Old Testament. Even the death of a slave a few days after a harsh beating was not punished because the slave was the master’s property (vv. 20-21), but the generally humane treatment required for slaves shows that God cared for them (vv. 26-27). Neither slaves nor the unborn child was regarded as sub-human.

However, abortion and end-of-life decisions are sometimes unhelpfully discussed in terms of two unanswerable questions: (1) When do we have souls? (2) When are we persons? Fortunately, there is a third question that sounds similar, but is actually quite different: When do human beings bear the image of God. This question has a clear scriptural answer, and it enables us to understand our true worth in God’s eyes.

1.      When do we have souls? There are three principle ways in which God may give us souls.

A.      Some suggest that God creates each soul directly since He is the Father of spirits (Hebrews 12:9) who gives us our spirits (Ecclesiastes 12:7). In this case, we still have the unanswered question of when God inserts our souls into our bodies. Also, the direct creation of souls leaves us wondering why our temperaments often resemble our parents so much.

B.      However, God is often does things by using intermediate agents or processes. (For example, He feeds the animals, but the carnivores still have to hunt Psalm 104:21, 27). So perhaps our souls are passed on from our parents, as Hebrews 7:9-10 may suggest. If that is the case, it seems possible that we inherit our souls at the time of conception. However, many fertilized eggs are expelled without ever being implanted in the uterus. If these all have souls and if they all go to heaven, they may constitute the majority of saved people. This is certainly possible, but it seems exceedingly strange.

C.      A third suggestion is that our souls may emerge from the physical development of our brains. At death, the soul could continue to exist apart from the body where it arose. Job says to God, “Your hands fashioned and made me,” and then he notes that he is clay or dust (Job 10:8-13; 33:4-6). Job does not say, “You made my body,” but “You made me,” apparently including the soul along with the body. If this is true, we still do not know when the developing baby has a soul.

The most we can say for certain (regardless of how God gives us souls) is that by the sixth month of pregnancy, the baby has a soul because by that time John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15, 41-44). We have even less revelation on when the soul leaves the body. Is the soul still present during the end stages of senile dementia or when an automobile accident leaves a twenty-year-old in a persistent vegetative state?

2.      When are we persons? This question may be answered in three ways, but none of them seems particularly helpful.

A.      We are persons when we have souls, but Scripture does not clearly indicate when we have souls.

B.      Perhaps we are persons when we have developed certain mental, emotional and volitional capacities. On this reckoning, the family dog has more claim to being a person than a newborn human being does.

C.      Perhaps we are persons when we have a unique, human genetic identity (in other words, at conception). If we accept this answer, then clearly we are valuable to God from that moment onward. However, to call a fertilized egg a person stretches the normal understanding of person almost beyond recognition. Another problem with this view is that genes were unknown in biblical days. Therefore, it is unlikely that the church needed to wait for modern genetics in order to comprehend our value to God. (It is helpful, however, in a modern context to insist that the developing fetus is not a blob of a woman’s tissue. He or she is a genetically unique individual.)

I have discussed souls and personhood mainly in order to show that Scripture does not give us enough information on these subjects to help us answer the question: When does human life have value to God? In my next post in a day or two, I’ll weigh in on a more fruitful approach: When do human beings bear the image of God? So stay tuned for the next exciting installment. J

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