When does life begin according to your study of scripture?
Question from a reader:
I recently read an article by Carrie Gordon Earll in Focus on the Family magazine titled “Stem Cell Research: Truth Vs. Hype”. The author states “Biologically, human life begins at conception (or fertilization) when sperm and egg unite.”. I called Focus on the Family and talked to someone there asking if they knew why the author states the biological start of life, but gives no scriptural reference as to when God says life begins. They tried to answer, but could not and then sent me a copy of your book, Pro Life Answers to Pro Choice Arguments. I looked through your book and could not find a scriptural answer to this either. I have been given several references about God knowing the number of hairs on our head, knowing us in the womb and babies leaping in the womb, but no “life” references citing God’s perspective on the instant life begins.
While studying myself, I have found three references (God creating Adam, the army raised from the valley of bones and those killed by the flood) which state that breath is key to life. God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living soul (breath being wind or air). This same “breath of life” is used to describe those killed by the flood which destroyed all “wherein lies the breath of life”. These certainly point to life hinging strongly on breath according to God. I have heard that this word “breath” can also be translated “spirit,” but this would not seem to work with the use of these words to those killed by the flood as they were “wicked” and with the army of bones, this “wind” is called for from the corners of the earth—again not seeming to indicate spirit. While there may not be any direct “life begins at....” references in the Bible, it sure seems to strongly indicate life beginning at breath.
What is your take on this? When does life begin according to your study of scripture?
Answer from Randy Alcorn:
I’ll cut and paste two portions from the book below. If you only want section specifically on breathing, go to 6f below.
As to Scripture and beginning of life, I follow with excerpt from Appendix B: Abortion in the Bible and Church History. The portion concerning Jesus and John the Baptist in Luke 1 is especially revealing I think.
ProChoice Argument: 6. “A fetus isn’t a person until implantation...or until quickening or viability or when it first breathes.”
6a. Implantation is a gauge of personhood only if location, nutrition, and interfacing with others make us human.
It is increasingly common for people to affirm that human life begins not at conception but implantation. This is especially true of physicians who wish to think of themselves as prolife while performing procedures or prescribing chemicals that can result in the destruction of those already conceived but not yet implanted.
To suggest that a newly conceived human being is not a living person just because she has not yet settled into her mother’s endometrium is illogical. The endometrium is simply the source of “housing” and nourishment that will allow the already conceived child to continue living. Would we say the homeless and the hungry are not really people since they aren’t living in a house or being fed? Just as we would do all we can to be sure adults who are homeless and hungry are not deprived of shelter and food, we should do all we can to be sure children are not deprived of the shelter and food of their mother’s endometrium.
Some argue that life begins at implantation because the unborn is “lacking the essential element that produces life: an interface with the human community and communication of the fact that it is there.”[i] But what does interfacing and communication have to do with whether or not someone is alive? If others are not aware of my existence (for instance, if I were stranded on a desert island or trapped in a cave), would that mean I would cease to exist?
Another argument comes from twinning, the division of a conceptus, and recombination, the reuniting of two concepti. These can occur up to fourteen days after conception, before or after implantation. Therefore some believe individual human life does not begin until that time. Robert Wennberg addresses this argument:
Imagine that we lived in a world in which a certain small percentage of teenagers replicated themselves by some mysterious natural means, splitting in two upon reaching their sixteenth birthday. We would not in the least be inclined to conclude that no human being could therefore be considered a person prior to becoming sixteen years of age; nor would we conclude that life could be taken with greater impunity prior to replication than afterward. The real oddity—to press the parallel—would be two teenagers becoming one. However, in all of this we still would not judge the individual’s claim to life to be undermined in any way. We might puzzle over questions of personal identity...but we would not allow these strange replications and fusions to influence our thinking about an individual’s right to life. Nor therefore does it seem that such considerations are relevant in determining the point at which an individual might assume a right to life in utero.[ii]
In the case of identical twins the genetic code each possesses is indistinguishable. If that meant either was somehow less human because of that exceptional condition, it would also mean they must be less human after birth. (And triplets less human still.)
6b. Quickening is a gauge of personhood only if someone’s reality or value is dependent upon being noticed by another.
Quickening is an old term for when the mother first becomes aware of the movements of the child within her. Because the uterus is not highly sensitive to touch, quickening often happens in the second trimester, long after the child has started moving. Some women feel their children very early, others don’t feel their presence until months later.
Surely we cannot believe that one child becomes human when his mother senses him at twelve weeks development, and another doesn’t become human until his mother senses him at twenty. One person’s ability or inability to recognize the presence of another has nothing whatsoever to do with the second person’s reality. Human life begins at conception, not at perception.
6c. Viability is an arbitrary concept. Why not associate personhood with heartbeat, brain waves, or something else?
In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court defined viability as the point when the unborn is “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.”[iii] The critical issue in when this point is reached is the development of the child’s lungs.
But why make worthiness to live dependent upon the development of the child’s lungs? Why not say he becomes human in the fourth week because that’s when his heart beats? Or the sixth week because that’s when he has brain waves? (Both are also arbitrary, yet both would eliminate all abortions currently performed.) Someone could argue that personhood begins when the unborn first sucks his thumb or responds to light and noise. Or why not say personhood begins when the child takes his first step or is potty trained?
There is only one objective point of origin for any human being—only one point at which there was not a human being a moment ago, and there is now. That point is conception.
6d. The point of viability constantly changes because it depends on technology, not the unborn herself. Eventually babies may be viable from the point of conception.
Like all points other than conception, viability is arbitrary, but it is even more arbitrary than most. The point at which heart and brain develop—though unscientific as measurements of personhood—at least remain fairly constant. Yet in the last three decades, viability has been reduced from thirty weeks to less than twenty weeks of development. A child has actually been born at nineteen weeks and survived.
Viability depends not only on the child but on the ability of our technology to save his life. What will happen when we are able to save lives at fifteen weeks or less? Will those children suddenly become human and worthy to live? Can we honestly believe that children at twenty-one weeks were not human twenty years ago but are human now, simply because of improved technology? Or can we believe that the unborn at eighteen weeks, who is just barely nonviable, is not a human being, but ten years from now he will be because hospitals will have better equipment?
Does the baby’s nature and worth also depend on which hospital—or country—he is in since some hospitals are equipped to save a nineteen-week-old child, and others could save a child no earlier than twenty-eight weeks? Technologies change, babies do not. Surely we cannot believe that the sophistication of life support systems determines the reality or worth of human life!
Dr. Landrum Shettles, a pioneer in fertility and sperm biology and contributor to fifty medical textbooks, made this assessment of the Supreme Court’s arguments based on viability:
An abortion law truly based on “viability” would require constant redefinition. What was not considered protectable human life last year might be this year. If we were to take the Court at its word, we would find ourselves with a law that makes last year’s “abortions” this year’s homicides in some cases. I have maintained human embryos in “laboratory wombs” for several days.... It appears inevitable that the day will come when the unborn will always be potentially viable outside the womb.[iv]
“Test-tube” babies have already survived for days outside the womb before implantation. Shouldn’t proponents of the viability theory then maintain that they were human from the point of conception since they were viable all along? As Dr. Shettles suggests, viability is ultimately an argument for the humanity of all preborn children since eventually science may find a way for an entire “pregnancy” to take place outside of a mother.
Despite all this, the Supreme Court cited viability as the point where the state has a compelling interest in the welfare of the unborn. (Ironically, the wording of the decision allowed abortion after viability anyway.) However, in the 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision, the Supreme Court began to dismantle the illogical conclusions of Roe v. Wade when it said, “We do not see why the State’s interest in protecting potential human life should come into existence only at the point of viability.”
The tiniest baby to survive in Oregon weighed just ten ounces at birth, born on March 5, 2000, able to be held in her mother’s palm. Following Sophia’s birth by Caesarian section she didn’t have cranial bleeding, which often causes blindness, mental retardation, and other problems in premature infants. She was breathing by herself and at five weeks, at one and a half pounds, she had more than doubled her weight.[v] Front page follow-up reports joyfully tracked the growth of little Sophia, showing her going home with her parents 91 days after birth.[vi] By then she was four pounds.
Remarkably, the updates on little Sophia appeared in the Oregonian, a newspaper that has frequently printed editorials defending abortion. Every day Sophia’s life was being celebrated, many Oregon infants bigger than ten ounces, and some bigger than four pounds, were being cut to pieces in Portland abortion clinics. In all the media coverage, no one voiced the incongruity of why one child’s life should be cherished and celebrated and other children’s lives, children of exactly the same kind and stage of development, were violently extinguished.
6e. In a broad sense, many born people are not viable because they are incapable of surviving without depending on others.
If viability is viewed in its broadest sense as the capacity to live without depending on other human beings, many people in our society are not viable. The premature baby still has to depend on someone for human care, even if it’s a team of doctors and nurses who hover over him day and night.
What do the sick, the handicapped, Alzheimer’s victims, infants, two-year-olds, many elderly, and the unborn all have in common? First, they are people. Second, they are not viable; they are dependent upon other people to live.
Many accident victims can’t survive on their own without medical help. Is the person whose lungs are punctured now a nonperson? I am an insulin-dependent diabetic. I can’t survive on my own. Without insulin I will die. Does that mean I’m not a person? The ability to survive without someone’s help is a poor criterion by which to evaluate his humanity.
An infant won’t survive two days without adult care. A two-year-old can’t survive on his own either. Though these children can be very inconvenient and interfere with the desires and lifestyles of adults, most of us do not believe their parents have the right to kill them. I say “most of us” not facetiously but in the interests of accuracy. Psychiatrist and anthropologist Virginia Abernethy of Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine said in Newsweek: “I don’t think abortion is ever wrong. As long as an individual is completely dependent upon the mother, it’s not a person.” The article goes on to explain:
In this view, which is shared by other prochoice theorists, an individual becomes a person only when he or she becomes a responsible moral agent—around three or four, in Abernethy’s judgment. Until then, she thinks, infants—like fetuses—are nonpersons; defective children, such as those with Down syndrome, may never become persons.[vii]
Those who doubt the logical and inevitable consequences of the prochoice position should consider carefully these words. Even Newsweek, which has never been known as a mouthpiece for the prolife movement, cannot help but point out what a short jump there is from abortion to infanticide.
6f. A child’s “breathing,” her intake of oxygen, begins long before birth.
Some prochoice religious groups argue that as Adam’s life began when God breathed into him, so each human life begins when the baby is born and takes his first breath. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of the unborn’s respiration:
While breathing in the usual sense does not begin until birth, the process of respiration in the more technical biological sense of the transfer of oxygen from the environment of the living organism occurs from the time of conception...it is the mode but not the fact of this oxygen transfer which changes at birth.[viii]
The creation of Adam was historically unique, never again to be duplicated, and has no parallel to the birth of a child. As Harold O. J. Brown put it,
If God took inanimate matter and made a man from it, as Genesis 2:7 seems to be saying, then obviously what he created was not a human being until it was given life. But the fetus is not “inanimate matter.” It is already alive. And it is already human....to apply Genesis 2:7 to human beings who were carried for nine months in a mother’s womb before birth is clearly ridiculous. This argument is seldom used by people who take Scripture seriously.[ix]
6g. Someone’s helplessness or dependency should motivate us to protect her, not to destroy her.
The issue of viability is that if someone is dependent upon an adult to survive, somehow she does not deserve to live. Yet this is contrary to our sense of what is right:
Normally when we see someone mistreated, our sense of outrage, our urge to protect, is inversely related to the person’s ability to protect himself: The more dependent he or she is, the more protective we become. With “viability” as our guide, we act completely contrary to our normal sense of moral responsibility. Rather than appealing to our best instincts, “viability” brings out the very worst in us.[x]
Some years ago the attention of our entire nation was turned to Baby Jessica, the little girl trapped at the bottom of a deep well. The amount of human resources poured into saving her was vast, but no one doubted whether she was worth it. What touched our hearts more than anything was her helplessness and vulnerability.
When we are thinking accurately, we realize that a helpless person deserves help precisely because she is helpless. It is a sad commentary on society when a child’s helplessness and dependence on another is used as an argument against her right to live.
[i] Nathanson, Aborting America, 216
[ii] Robert Wennberg, Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 71; cited by Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1993), 97.
[iii] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), 38.
[iv] Molly Yard, quoted in “Voices of the Abortion Debate,” New Dimensions, October 1990, 109.
[v] Kate Taylor, “Hanging in There at 1½ Pounds,” The Oregonian, 7 April 2000.
[vi] Micahel Ottey, “Oregon’s tiniest goes home, sweet home,” The Oregonian, 3 June 2000, B1.
[vii] Kenneth L. Woodward, “The Hardest Question,” Newsweek, 14 January 1985, 29.
[viii] Davis, Abortion and the Christian, 101.
[ix] Harold O. J. Brown, Death Before Birth (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1977), 124; cited by Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, 97.
[x] F. LaGard Smith, When Choice Becomes God (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1990), 146.
From Appendix B: Abortion in the Bible and Church History
There is a small but influential circle of prochoice advocates who claim to base their beliefs on the Bible. They maintain that “nowhere does the Bible prohibit abortion.”[i] Yet the Bible clearly prohibits the killing of innocent people (Exodus 20:13). All that is necessary to prove a biblical prohibition of abortion is to demonstrate that the Bible considers the unborn to be human beings.
Personhood in the Bible
A number of ancient societies opposed abortion,[ii] but the ancient Hebrew society had the clearest reasons for doing so because of its foundations in the Scriptures. The Bible teaches that men and women are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Mankind was the climax of God’s creation, with an intrinsic worth far greater than that of the animal kingdom placed under his care. Throughout the Scriptures, personhood is never measured by age, stage of development, or mental, physical, or social skills. Personhood is endowed by God at the moment of creation, when there was not a human being before but there is one now. That moment of creation can be nothing other than the moment of conception (see Arguments 1 through 8).
The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to refer to the unborn (Exodus 21:22-25) is yeled, a word that “generally indicates young children, but may refer to teens or even young adults.”[iii] The Hebrews did not have or need a separate word for unborn children. They were just like any other children, only younger. In the Bible there are references to born children and unborn children, but there is no such thing as a potential, incipient, or “almost” child.
Job graphically described the way God created him before he was born (Job 10:8-12). The person in the womb was not something that might become Job, but someone who was Job, just a younger version of the same man. To Isaiah God says, “This is what the Lord says—he who made you, who formed you in the womb” (Isaiah 44:2). What each person is, not merely what he might become, was present in his mother’s womb.
Psalm 139:13-16 paints a graphic picture of the intimate involvement of God with a preborn person. God created David’s “inmost being,” not at birth but before birth. David says to his Creator, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Each person, regardless of his parentage or handicap, has not been manufactured on a cosmic assembly line, but has been personally knitted together by God in the womb. All the days of his life have been planned out by God before any have come to be (Psalm 139:16).
As a member of the human race that has rejected God, each person sinned “in Adam,” and is therefore a sinner from his very beginning (Romans 5:12-19). David says, “Surely I was sinful at birth.” Then he goes back even further, back before birth to the actual beginning of his life, saying he was “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Each person has a sinful nature from the point of conception. Who but an actual person can have a sinful nature? Rocks and trees and animals and human organs do not have moral natures, good or bad. Morality can be ascribed only to a person. That there is a sin nature at the point of conception demonstrates there is a person present who is capable of having such a nature.
Jacob was given prominence over his twin Esau “though not yet born” (Romans 9:11). When Rebekah was pregnant with Jacob and Esau, Scripture says, “The babies jostled each other within her” (Genesis 25:22). The unborn are regarded as “babies” in the full sense of the term. God tells Jeremiah, “I knew you in the womb” (Jeremiah 1:5). He could not know Jeremiah in his mother’s womb unless Jeremiah, the person, was present in his mother’s womb. The Creator is involved in an intimate knowing relationship not only with born people but with unborn people.
In Luke 1:41,44 there are references to the unborn John the Baptist, who was at the end of his second trimester in the womb. The word translated “baby” in these verses is the Greek word brephos. It is the same word used for the already-born baby Jesus (Luke 2:12,16) and for the babies brought to Jesus to receive his blessing (Luke 18:15-17). It is also the same word used in Acts 7:19 for the newborn babies killed by Pharaoh. To the writers of the New Testament, like the Old, whether born or unborn a baby is simply a baby. It appears the preborn John the Baptist responded to the presence of the preborn Jesus in his mother Mary, when Jesus was probably no more than ten days beyond his conception (Luke 1:41).
The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be “with child and give birth to a son” (Luke 1:31). In the first century, and in every century, to be pregnant is to be with child, not that which might become a child. The Scriptures teach the psychosomatic unity of the whole person, body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Wherever there is a genetically distinct living human being, there is a living soul and spirit.
The Status of the Unborn
One scholar states, “Looking at Old Testament law from a proper cultural and historical context, it is evident that the life of the unborn is put on the same par as a person outside the womb.”[iv] When understood as a reference to miscarriage, Exodus 21:22-25 is sometimes used as evidence that the unborn is subhuman. But a proper understanding of the passage shows the reference is not to a miscarriage but to a premature birth, and that the “injury” referred to, which is to be compensated for like all other injuries, applies to the child as well as to his mother. This means that, “far from justifying permissive abortion, it in fact grants the unborn child a status in the eyes of the law equal to the mother’s.”[v]
Meredith Cline observes, “The most significant thing about abortion legislation in Biblical law is that there is none. It was so unthinkable that an Israelite woman should desire an abortion that there was no need to mention this offense in the criminal code.”[vi] All that was necessary to prohibit an abortion was the command, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Every Israelite knew that the preborn child was indeed a child. Therefore, miscarriage was always viewed as the loss of a child, and abortion as the killing of a child.
Numbers 5:11-31 is an unusual passage of Scripture used to make a central argument in “A Prochoice Bible Study,” published by Episcopalians for Religious Freedom.[vii] They cite the New English Bible’s peculiar translation which makes it sound as if God brings a miscarriage on a woman if she is unfaithful to her husband. Other translations refer to a wasting of the thigh and a swelling of her abdomen, but do not take it to mean pregnancy, which would presumably simply be called that directly if it were in mind.
The woman could be pregnant by her husband assuming they’ve been having sex, which Hebrew married couples normally did. It appears God was expected to do some kind of miracle related to the bitter water, creating a dramatic physical reaction if adultery had been committed. The text gives no indication of either pregnancy or abortion. Indeed, in the majority of cases of suspected adultery, there would be no pregnancy and therefore no child at risk.
The “Prochoice Bible Study” that cites the NEB’s unique translation suggests if God indeed causes a miscarriage it would therefore be an endorsement of people causing abortions. This is a huge stretch, since neither the wife, husband, nor priest made the decision to induce an abortion, nor would they have had the right to do so. The passage does not seem to refer to a miscarriage at all, but even if it did, there is certainly nothing to suggest any endorsement of human beings initiating an abortion.
[i] Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, “Reproductive Choice: Basic to Justice for Women,” Christian Scholar’s Review, March 1988, 291.
[ii] James Hoffmeier, Abortion: A Christian Understanding (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 46, 50; Eugene Quay, “Abortion: Medical and Legal Foundations,” Georgetown Law Review (1967):395, 420; Meredith G. Kline, “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (September 1977):200-201.
[iii] Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), 156-157.
[iv] James Hoffmeier, ed., Abortion: A Christian Understanding and Response (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 62.
[v] John Jefferson Davis, Abortion and the Christian (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984), 52.
[vi] Kline, “Lex Talionis,” 193.
[vii] “A Prochoice Bible Study” (Seattle, WA: Episcopalians for Religious Freedom, 1989).
Thanks for the quick response on when life begins. I appreciate it.
I read your references in Appendix B of the book. Again good, but not dealing with the instant life begins, specifically the references I had made to the three examples of life at breath.
Your reference to 6a:
6f. A child’s “breathing,” her intake of oxygen, begins long before birth.
Some prochoice religious groups argue that as Adam’s life began when God breathed into him, so each human life begins when the baby is born and takes his first breath. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of the unborn’s respiration: While breathing in the usual sense does not begin until birth, the process of respiration in the more technical biological sense of the transfer of oxygen from the environment of the living organism occurs from the time of conception...it is the mode but not the fact of this oxygen transfer which changes at birth.[viii]
The creation of Adam was historically unique, never again to be duplicated, and has no parallel to the birth of a child. As Harold O. J. Brown put it, If God took inanimate matter and made a man from it, as Genesis 2:7 seems to be saying, then obviously what he created was not a human being until it was given life. But the fetus is not “inanimate matter.” It is already alive. And it is already human....to apply Genesis 2:7 to human beings who were carried for nine months in a mother’s womb before birth is clearly ridiculous. This argument is seldom used by people who take Scripture seriously.[ix]
This section is good, but again is biological and worldly in nature, not scriptural; “The wisdom of man is foolishness unto God”. Mr. Brown’s reference to “Adam’s unique creation” is good, but what of the valley of bones reference I had sited and also the reference to the flood wherein all are destroyed “where in lies the breath of life”?
My point is that although there are many references to children, babies etc. in scripture, there is nothing that would as strongly counter the very strong scriptural reference that life begins at breath.
I think you must not have read the scriptural references in Luke 1, related to Jesus and John the Baptist. Since the text clearly refers to them as living beings—as it does to Jacob and Esau and David conceived a sinner, and hence a human being, in Psalm 51—before they took their first breath outside their mother’s body, it refutes your contention that Scripture teaches life begins with the first breath. It clearly demonstrates otherwise. What more would you want these passages to say if they were suggesting that life begins long before a child is breathing on his own?
I think you’re reading far too much into the metaphorical reference to breath of life in “wherein lies the breath of life.” The breath of life is from God, not a technical reference to a person’s ability to breathe, but even if it were the latter it would relate specifically to those bones in the valley, not to every human being in history. If that passage is really teaching that someone is not human when they’re not breathing on their own (i.e. when their mother is breathing for them) then anyone on a respirator or ventilator is actually dead. Since many fully recover to end up breathing on their own, this is clearly not true unless thousands of resurrections are regularly occurring in hospitals.
In the valley of the dry bones, the picture of life infused (speaking of God bringing back his people Israel to their land and heritage) is God placing the spirit in the body. But that’s a far cry from saying a baby isn’t human until he breathes on his own. Ezekiel’s words have nothing to do with that subject.
It’s reading into these texts to say they are teaching something far beyond the scope of their context—that the ability to breathe on your own is what makes a person a person. Not only do they not teach that, but other passages of Scripture—the ones I cited in the appendix—specifically demonstrate otherwise.
I read the references from Luke 1 and your other points. I think that you are confusing the instant life begins with references to the body, foreknowledge and movement. Not one of the references you mention even contains the word “life”, whereas EVERY reference I gave you does specifically mention this word. I suggest that you may want to do a bibical word study on “breath” and “life”. Pay special attention to the Hebrew root words nishma and ruach.
To look at several references in scripture that CLEARLY state that man becomes a living soul when air, wind (nishma) is put into his nostrils and then to rely, instead, on much more vague references (movement, foreknowledge) is not wise. The vague references must be understood in light of the clear ones, not the other way around.
Now keep in mind that I am not saying God approves of abortion or the destruction of a fetus, what I am saying is that scripturally, EVERY TIME the instance of the beginning of life is specifically mentioned, it occurs at breath. You have not been able to produce any scripture that shows this instant specifically occurs at any other time. This is apparent as you (as well as Ms. Earll) rely on a scientific/biological (thus man’s) definition of the beginning of life as opposed to any scriptural references in your writings (look at your book’s points 1b - 1d - where are the scriptural references?).
Remember, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16). You may rely on scientists and medical textbooks for the beginning of life, but I rely on the word of God.
I fear you are using a legalistic semantic approach, taking words such as “breath” and “life” and concluding that if one particular word is not used in a passage, therefore it has nothing to teach about life. This is proof-texting, but not true Bible study.
There is nothing vague about the passages that clearly demonstrate Jacob and Esau, David, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist were regarded as human beings before they took their first breath. (If you were taking a biblical approach, you would have to disprove that those passages actually say David was David before he was born and breathed.) This has nothing to do with science. I’m talking about Scripture. (Science simply backs up the assumption of Scripture that every human life begins at the beginning, i.e. conception.)
As for science, it is not a primary authority, only a secondary one. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. (I assume you believe in gravity, even though Scripture doesn’t address the issue?) And since science clearly shows us that the unborn takes in oxygen from his mother in the first trimester of pregnancy, why does this not qualify as breathing? Do you have to have lungs to breathe? If you have one lung removed due to cancer, are you now half a human being? Since Bill Bright is now capable of breathing only 40% of the oxygen he needs, is he now only 40% human, and 60% nonhuman? Are those thousands of people I spoke off before, who are incapable of breathing on their own, who are on ventilators, risen from the dead once they’re able to breathe on their own again? A legalistic association of breathing and humanness is not only unbiblical, it’s ultimately bizarre.
Clearly we will not change each others’ minds. But I would encourage you to ask yourself if you have vested interests in believing only those capable of breathing on their own are human beings. And do you really believe God intended the passages you cite to say that those too young and too small to breathe on their own—or those hurt in accidents who can’t breathe on their own—are really not human beings? It’s hard for me to understand why you would think that.
You say, “You may rely on scientists and medical textbooks for the beginning of life, but I rely on the word of God.” To take the high ground by saying you are only using Scripture as your authority, not science, may sound spiritual. But the fact that you aren’t coming to grips with the Scriptures I cited suggests you’re not relying on the whole counsel of God, only some verses out of context that support what you want to believe. Scripture is constantly taken out of context by people who then use it to justify things that are terribly unbiblical. If you’ve made up your mind to believe something you can always usher support by taking a passage out of context, then ignoring other passages that show that interpretation to be incorrect. (The Bible says “there is no God.” True? Yes. I just took it slightly out of context by leaving out “The fool has said in his heart....”)
You say you are not defending abortion, but in fact you are, by saying prior to birth there’s no human being created in God’s image. Everyone who’s taken this position with me before has admitted that they are using it to justify abortion—I’d encourage you to ask yourself honestly if this is part of your motive. If so, I would encourage you to be honest enough to admit it. This interpretation may make people feel better about past, present or future abortion-related decisions, but in my study of Scripture, I believe it’s nothing more than a distortion of God’s Word.
It’s like people who say “I’m not prejudiced against blacks, I’m just saying what the Bible says—they’re under God’s curse, the curse of Canaan, and they’re supposed to be ruled by others.” They cite Scriptures out of context, claiming to have no motivations other than being faithful to Scripture, while coming to conclusions that conveniently support their racist beliefs. (Some admit this, others don’t.)
This may not be true of you concerning abortion, but it is certainly true that some I’ve dialogued with who hold your position are determined to believe that abortion is acceptable. They cannot or will not look honestly at all the other passages of Scripture, because they’ve already made up their minds, for personal, psychological or relational reasons—not biblical ones—that they don’t want to believe children are children until they are born.
By the way, I would personally love to believe that life doesn’t begin until birth. It would take away mourning over miscarriages, grief for millions of children killed annually, great inconvenience and financial costs of helping save lives, and minimize any sense of guilt for apathy about dying children. (It would also make it easy to always immediately pull the ventilator plug from an older person or accident victim—”they’re dead already, so no big deal.”) Your position, were it true, would make life much easier and more convenient for me. Unfortunately, the logic of “no human life until birth” simply doesn’t hold up biblically OR scientifically.
For more information on this subject, see Randy Alcorn's book ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments.