When Does Human Life Begin?
The subject that we are discussing on the origin of human life has to do with two aspects: the origin of human life, as described in Genesis 2 with the creation of man in v. 7 and the creation of the woman in vv. 18-22; but it also has to do with the transmission of life and when life begins. It is amazing how few people have any real objectivity when it comes to something of this nature. We have to look at what the Word of God says. We should never be afraid to accurately analyze what the Scripture says. We will look at what are deemed problem passages by some. Whenever we talk to somebody about these things they will usually bring up two or three passages, and there are one or two that are problems for either position. No matter how we want to take it, they present problems the way they are normally used. Sometimes things just aren’t what they seem to say on the surface and yet everybody wants to jump to an immediate conclusion that abortion is murder or abortion is wrong, or not wrong, or whatever. Very few people want to sit down and consider what the Word of God says. Some people are just uncomfortable with the truth.
In John chapter three Jesus is having His discussion with Nicodemus. “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That was a confusing statement to Nicodemus because in Judaism there were six different ways in which a person could be born again. Nicodemus had passed through all of these stages, so he just wonders, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?” He recognizes what is implicit in this conversation, that they were not talking about conception as the beginning of the spiritual life, but birth as the beginning. It is not until one is actually born again that there is the presence of eternal life. So what is implicit in this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is that birth is the starting point of the new life. In other words, there is a distinction between what is going on inside the womb and birth. In v. 5, “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water [physical birth] and of the Spirit [Holy Spirit], he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Born of water also has to do with the picture of cleansing as seen in the new covenant, Jeremiah 31:33. So the emphasis is that birth is what begins the new spiritual life.
What happens, then, in pregnancy? First of all there is an ovum that is fertilized, and at that point is becomes a zygote. The zygote is later going to split and that will develop into two cells, then there are four cells, then eight, and sixteen cells; and that beginning zygote does not have all of the genetic information that is necessary to produce human life in the long term. It will pick up and absorb information. But this is going to divide a couple of different ways. After it reaches a certain stage it is going to become a cell mass, and at that point some of these cells are going to develop some specialization. Part of it will break off and form the placenta. Other cells are going to break off and form into various fetal membranes. The point is, without getting too technical, is that this is cellular life, biological life, and the fetal membranes are cellular/biological life. But nobody would say that that is human life. There is no soul there. There are other problems with a soul creation at conception because if this mass splits at this point—so that you have triplets or quadruplets—was there one soul there before? What do you have now? Biological life does not necessarily imply the presence of a soul. There are physical traits there, a DNA, information that is then going to produce a biological life, a physical body that is going to have various physical traits, talents, limitations, and trends of the sin nature. That is part of the sin nature that is passed on genetically from father to children.
One of the problems you get into when talking about this is, if the soul is created at the time of birth, how then does that interact with the various traits and talents and limitations? The brain and the body is the home of the soul. So you have a physical home, and that physical home is going to have certain limitations, both in terms of the physical body and in terms of the physical brain. The brain is a machine that is run by a ghost, and that ghost, that immaterial thing that sits in the driver’s seat of the brain is the soul. But the soul is limited by what that physical structure can do. How does this affect volition? Volition isn’t affected at all because the soul can still use the physical body to sin. When someone has a stroke, the development of something like Alzheimer’s, or other forms of dementia, how does that affect the expression of the soul? There are many questions there that we can’t answer because we don’t know what is really going on inside that person. Perhaps the best explanation is that the physical genes, the genetic make-up, etc., limits how the soul can express itself, but the expression of the soul is still determined by volition and the ultimate issue in volition is going to be salvation. This also helps to understand how the soul that is created and simultaneously imparted by God to the human body is corrupted by sin, God is perfect and can’t create anything less than perfection. So when we were born, at that instant that we started to take that first breath of life, God had instantly created a soul and imparted it, and that is perfect. But as soon as that soul joined with a physical body that is corrupt because of Adam’s sin, the result is that the soul becomes corrupt. We have a physical body that inherits from Adam a sin nature, physically and genetically passed on from father to child. At the instant that soul life is imparted to the physical body, at the same time the justice of God imputes Adam’s original sin to the genetic sin nature, so that the person is born spiritually dead but physically alive. God is not the author of sin because in His justice He is imputing that which has affinity to the sin nature, which is Adam’s original sin, and just as the soul is created in the image of God as Adam’s was, so the sin nature comes to the genetic home of the biologically transmitted sin nature and the person becomes a fallen creature.
So this leads to the next question, which is, What then is the value of the physical body in the womb? For that we need to look at Psalm 139:13, 14, “For Thou hast formed my inward parts: Thou hast covered me in my mother's womb [bebeten]. I will praise Thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are Thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” Psalm 139 focuses on the development inside the womb of physical life. The verb that is used in Psalm 139:13 and Jeremiah 1:5 is the verb yatsar, which has to do with the formation of the physical body. “Inward parts” is a term used in the Hebrew to describe the physical organs inside the body. “You covered me inside my mother’s womb.” What this shows is that God is involved in the formation of biological life. This is done indirectly through the procreative processes that God set up in Adam and Isha at creation. But even though God uses indirect means to do something we still speak of the fact that God is the ultimate cause. When the Psalmist is talking about his own development inside the womb he is not just talking about himself. He is talking about himself as a human being, that God has designed each of us to have the physical home that would best represent His image and likeness. Because God is involved physical and biological life is important, but it is still only physical life, the soul isn’t there yet.
Jeremiah 1:5 is a passage that is often used to support the fact that there is full life in the womb, but that is not what the passage says. The Lord is talking to Jeremiah and says: "Before I formed you in the womb …” So what we have here is a temporal preposition of time indicating action prior to the event of the main verb. So this is going back before conception, actually hundreds of years into the plan of God. The verb is yatsar, and yatsar has to do with the physical formation of the body inside the womb—bebeten, not outside of the womb. Yatsar indicates once again that this is talking about physical formation. So God is saying, “Before I formed you, I knew you…” This is the qal perfect of yadah, a term for the omniscience of God. Omniscience refers to the fact that God knows all the knowable. He knows everything that will happen and everything that could happen. He knows every potentiality that could ever happen. In foreknowledge God knows what will take place, what will actually transpire in human history. God also on the basis of His foreknowledge sets forth a plan. He has a plan and He has purposes, and within those purposes and plan He has assigned certain goals to certain people, called their destiny. And because He determines that destiny for that individual before time began it is called pre-destiny or predestination. It doesn’t mean that God makes their decisions for them, it is not a form of fatalism; what it means is that before time begins there is going to be a man here named Jeremiah and God is going to make him a prophet, and he is going to have a unique ministry to Israel. It is not talking about Jeremiah as a full person inside the womb. Once again He is talking about the fact that “Before you were even in the womb, before I was even forming your physical life, I set you apart and ordained you a prophet to the nations.” In God’s foreknowledge He knew Jeremiah would be a believer and He decided to bestow upon him the office of prophet. All of this is to say that there is no mention of what is going on inside the womb.
Problem passages: Luke 1:15, talking about John the Baptist. “For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb.” String drink here is beer. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit—this is still the Old Testament dispensation and it is still talking about the special enduement of the Holy Spirit that was limited in the Old Testament. Very few people had this special enduement in the Old Testament. None of those who were filled with the Holy Spirit were unbelievers. What people try to do is say that this shows that in the womb John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit. The phraseology in the Greek is EK KOILIAS, which is the translation for mibeten—outside the womb. If John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit in the womb then he is the only person in history who is filled with the Spirit before he is saved. This is a major theological problem. John the Baptist cannot get the Holy Spirit, even as an infant, until he is old enough to understand the gospel. We cannot understand how John the Baptist can be filled with the Spirit prior to an expression of faith alone in Christ alone. That would violate everything else in Scripture. So that is a problem. He is filled with the Spirit from the womb or outside the womb at some point after he becomes saved.
The next passage that is a problem is in Luke 1:41, “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Why did the baby leap in her womb? In verse 41 it doesn’t mention the baby leaping for joy, that is mentioned in v. 44. But notice that in verse 44 this is a quote from Elizabeth. There are one or two ways to handle this. One has to do with the grammar. In v. 44 when she says, “the babe leaped in my womb for joy,” this is an EN plus the dative of AGALLIAO, a word for extreme joy or excitement. Interestingly enough, it is used in the Psalms to express the joy of salvation, and this would be related to the coming of the Messiah who would provide salvation. But this particular construction, the preposition EN plus the dative, expresses something that marks the circumstances in which the baby in the womb leaped. So this is not saying that the baby had joy but that the mother had joy. Another way that could possibly be used to handle this is that perhaps this is simply Elizabeth’s interpretation of what was taking place because this is her sentence; it is not necessarily a comment by the Holy Spirit but an accurate recording of what she said at the time imputing some sort of emotion to the baby. However, the best solution to the problem in the passage is that it was the circumstances in which the baby in the womb leapt. Why is it that the baby leaped? How can this take place inside the womb under the influence of the mother’s emotion?
There is one more in Exodus 21:22, “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.” The word “prematurely” is not in the original. Some versions will read that she has a miscarriage. Miscarriage is not in the original Hebrew. What is in the original Hebrew is, “strike a woman who is pregnant [she has conceived] so that the child goes forth,” and the Hebrew word there is yatsah, “and the child comes out,” literally. And it says, “no harm follows.” In other words, the child is born and there is no further harm. The person who struck the woman shall be punished. Then in Exodus 21:23-25 it states, “And if there is any injury, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The point is that if the child is born and then dies, then the law of retribution is imposed—or if there is some injury.
Some attitudes toward abortion. The view of creation, that the soul is created at the point of birth, is an ancient view. It goes back to the early church and goes further back in Jewish interpretation. Jews never thought of abortion, especially in the Old Testament. Why? The child might be the Messiah. The early church did not view abortion as a solution. For one thing it often meant the death of the mother, and for this reason abortion was outlawed in the Roman Empire. They were protecting the life of the mother.
What should the believer’s attitude toward abortion be? First of all, there is just biological life there and no soul. It cannot be murder. It may at times be a sin or immoral, but there are many things in life that we do that are sins and immoral that are not illegal and not a matter for law. No nation has ever given full rights to fetal life. Furthermore, if you cannot know when soul life is present except through revelation, then it cannot be a matter of general law. God never holds the unbeliever accountable for what the unbeliever can’t know. If the only way you can determine when that soul life is present is through revelation, then the unbeliever can’t know. All he can know is when there are signs of life but he cannot tell when the soul is actually present or not. An example is found in the Old Testament where God pronounced judgment on the nations. He never pronounced judgment of them for violation of the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law was for Israel only. Abortion, like slavery, was practiced in the Roman Empire, and yet the Scriptures don’t ever mention it. Why is that so? The silence says a lot.
As believers we need to recognize that when a pregnancy occurs God may be involved, and that God is involved in the process of biological life. So there may be legitimate reasons for an abortion at times—it is between the believer and the Lord—but abortion should not be used as a birth-control method of the masses, which is what is happening today. If you are going to stop something that God has started then you need to have a responsible reason for it.
What about someone who has had an abortion? Well it is not murder. It may have been a sin, but it is not a sin that is worse than any other sin or better than any other sin. All sins are handled by confession of sin, 1 John 1:9.