The Value of Human LifeRev. Robert R. Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources
Northwestern Lutheran, August 1989; Reprinted with permission
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). To some come the blessings of wealth, health, prosperity, and popularity; to others 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 4:1113).
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 socalled 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 will 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 4:1317). 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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