The Sanctity of Life

Whether we watch the evening news on television or just read the headlines on a computer screen or smartphone, we are exposed to so much murder, suicide, racial violence, war, terrorism, genocide and other horrors that we can become desensitized to the deliberate ending of a human life. Is life nothing more than a disposable commodity?

Life is cheap! This seems to be an appropriate observation when we look around the world today and see how readily some people take the lives of others.

Consider the endless strife among peoples and ethnic groups who have long histories of violence against each other: ethnic cleansing in various countries in Africa; atrocities in Europe and Asia at various times; even longstanding tensions culminating in bloodshed in Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States and other highly developed nations. Friction between peoples—based on ethnic, religious, political and cultural differences—is found across the globe, leading to the murder and exploitation of groups that are weaker. Such behavior multiplies, it seems, where races and religions mix, causing people to promote their own separate cultures above others.

The moral teaching to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12, paraphrased) seems in today’s societies to have little or no resonance. Even in what we call the economic First World, there seems to be limited capacity for people of different views or cultures to live together peaceably. Societies around the world live on the edge in fear of some ideology or religious sect getting media coverage for its cause and imposing its beliefs—whether religious or political—on others, often with little regard for the value of life.

Intentional homicide caused the deaths of almost half a million people (437,000) across the world in 2012.”

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Study on Homicide 2013

Killing opponents in the cause of religious and political domination has a long history. In Nigeria, with its mostly Muslim north and Christian south, killing Christians and burning churches is an ongoing problem. We might likewise consider the history of the major Christian churches through the centuries, when burning one’s opponents at the stake because they would not convert to a particular dogma or denomination was practiced by both Catholics and Protestants. Recall the early days of Europe’s incursion into the Americas. Spain sent its soldiers, mostly with wealth in mind, but also with a command to impose conversion on the local peoples. It is not surprising that atheists see religion as the cause of most of the great evils that have occurred across the ages.

Life: Uniquely Special?

The sanctity of life” implies protection of other people’s unique being, which is of such value that it is not to be violated. This concept of the inviolability of the person is an important tie between religious values and “the law of the land” in most countries. Some religious zealots, however, seem not to regard the lives of opponents as being of great value, much less inviolable; they believe they can destroy the lives of others with impunity. Think about suicide bombers: they don’t mind who the victims are. Mostly, they don’t even know the victims. Their hope is to bring attention to their cause, or to bring themselves a better reward in the afterlife.

But religious and political strife, significant as it is, is not the only area where we witness the devaluation of life. Crime of various sorts can lead to violence and murder.

An especially troubling facet of the problem, though less common in most parts of today’s world, is best described as child slaying. Of course, China’s infamous one-child policy, enacted in the 1970s, has been broadly reported, along with the heartbreaking atrocities stemming from it—from forced late-term abortions to the killing of newborn girls because, being limited to only one child, families see a boy as more valuable.

But the sanctioning of infanticide has its proponents in the West. According to some, newborn infants are not yet people. In a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a philosopher and a bioethicist argued, “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.” They went on to say that “both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’ We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her” (“After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”). In other words, you have to have a developed mind, which would appreciate the loss of life as something serious, before you can actually be treated as a person.

The authors concluded, “What we call ‘after birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where an abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.” They also argued that parents should be allowed to have a baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when born.

Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”

Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”

Abortion in general is the topic of hot debate, of course. But abortion on the basis of gender is particularly contentious. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson noted that in parts of the Third World, baby girls simply disappear. In the old days in India, unwanted girls were killed at birth. This practice is now “frowned upon; aborting girls is seen as the civilised, modern alternative,” she said (“Third World ‘Gendercide’ Is Happening Here,” February 24, 2012). But if we find this chilling, she added, “just imagine the idea that babies are being culled because of their gender in the UK today.” An undercover investigation by the British newspaper revealed that doctors in that nation were secretly filmed agreeing to terminate fetuses purely because of their gender. One doctor responded to a request by saying, “That’s not fair. It’s like female infanticide isn’t it?” But he nonetheless assented, without noting that the mother’s reason was not officially acceptable. “I’ll put too young for pregnancy, yeah?” Another doctor just said, “I don’t ask questions. If you want a termination, you want a termination.”

Two years after the Telegraph exposé, there is ongoing concern in the United Kingdom about abortions performed on the basis of gender. In April 2014, several members of the House of Lords called for clarification of the Abortion Act of 1967 to make it clear that gender-based terminations violate the intent of the law.

Still, “the discovery that sexually selected termination of pregnancy is available in Britain should surprise no one,” remarked Telegraph columnist Theodore Dalrymple after results of the investigation were published in his paper. In addition, he noted, “more than one friend of mine in the profession has told me that pregnant women have asked for terminations because they did not want their holidays spoilt by pregnancy—and they duly signed the forms.”

When doctors take the Oath of Geneva or the Hippocratic Oath, it is to join a profession that is charged with preserving and protecting life, not facilitating its destruction.

A Higher Perspective

God gave life in all of its distinct forms—birds, fish, beasts, humans—and each life had a God-given purpose. As for man, he was given an additional spirit that provided awareness of his existence and the capacity to understand his environment and relate to his Creator (Job 32:8–9). Every baby, every child, every adolescent, every adult, every elderly person is of value in God’s sight. None are disposable. In God’s sight, they all have purpose; they have value and are to achieve certain ends in His plan. He does not show partiality on the basis of race, skin color, gender, age or nationality. He loves all humankind, all nations, all tribes, all peoples.

We have a responsibility to care for our own lives and for the lives of others, especially those in need. God’s Word shows us that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It’s not acceptable before God for one person to take the life of another.

Let’s review Exodus 20:13—one of the Ten Commandments. Like the other nine, it is given as a definition of the way we should conduct our lives. It says, “You shall not murder”—a very plain, straightforward statement from the Creator and giver of all life. To destroy life is to destroy what God has made and is thus to oppose God; and the ultimate destroyer is Satan, the adversary who opposes God and inspires all who murder, kill or make light of killing other human beings. It is possible to take on the nature of Satan by submitting our minds to his evil thoughts, allowing them to persist there, developing them and permitting him to use us as instruments of wickedness and evil.

The biblical record offers a glimpse of the origin of Satan’s intervention in human affairs. Adam and Eve did not value life. They didn’t fully believe that what they had been given was uniquely valuable, holy, sacred. Rather, they listened to Satan and came to believe that what they had been given was in some way inferior. They lost sight of its unique nature and sacred value and instead chose the way of death. As Eve told Satan, she had been instructed that she and her husband should not take of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When she did, the act was one of willful disobedience; it didn’t just happen by accident. She knew exactly what the instructions were, and she disobeyed, and Adam with her.

Their son Cain also walked the way of death, not acknowledging God’s sovereignty or the sanctity of his brother Abel’s God-given life. He killed Abel because he envied his brother’s capacity for doing right (1 John 3:11–12). When God asked him, “Where is your brother?” he attempted to deny that he had killed him. “How should I know?” Cain replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9, paraphrased).

Life has been cheap ever since these degrading events, with people showing their attitude to the life that God gives by serial and multiple killings, insurrections, wars and terrorist acts—even infanticide. Equally perplexing is the act of killing in the name of God or religion. The apostle John said something profound in this context: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).

Regard for Life

Human life devoid of God’s standards has been a painful, desperate struggle, and too often it has been tragic. War, civil strife, deliberate starvation of peoples, famines, human excesses, have made the lives of countless men, women and children grim beyond belief.

Disrespect for the creator of life is not something that most people take any note of, yet God says that to take a human life deliberately is murder. God gives life, and He values what He gives. After all, He made human beings in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:27). He made every human being unique. It is not for human beings to dispose of other human beings. Reading Psalm 139:13–16, we come to see that what God has done is very special: “For You formed my inward parts; You covered [or wove] me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. . . .”

Life that God gives is not a disposable commodity to be taken or destroyed at whim. Life and length of days are for God to determine for each of us. We should not take these things into our hands. It is His prerogative to begin and to end each life.

What person does not know that one of the Commandments says, “Thou shall not kill [i.e., murder]”? Even the most uninformed in society know—some would say by nature—that to deliberately kill another person is morally wrong.

“‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.’ Then He who sat on the throne said, ‘. . . I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts.’”

Revelation 21:4–6

And yet God, in His mercy, has dealt with murderers who are named in His Word. He has forgiven such people and will yet forgive others. What is required is a change of heart among those who slay the innocent. All life is God-given and holy. And what God has given, no man has the right to take away.