When does human life begin?

The question of human life's beginnings is one of tremendous importance and implications. Our view on issues like abortion, genetic research and engineering, and more rest in no small measure on our answers to this fundamental question.

The Bible consistently describes unborn children as human persons from the moment of conception. In this brief article, we'll note two distinct lines of evidence - one inspired testimonies, the other legal status.

Inspired Testimonies

First, the Bible contains several distinct, Spirit-inspired testimonies to the full personhood of unborn children. For instance, when Rebekah was pregnant with the patriarch Jacob and his brother Esau, the two struggled in their mother's womb (Genesis 25:22ff). Scripture speaks of these unborn combatants as children (Hebrew ben), each with unique identities and appointed destinies.

Later in the Old Testament, King David testified to God's creative activity and granting of full personhood when he declared, "You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13). Likewise, David viewed himself as a full person, one with a distinct identity and moral culpability apart from his mother even in utero, when he confessed, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51:5).

Moreover, the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah testified to God's creative knowledge and regard for unborn children as persons when the Lord spoke to him, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the New Testament accords well with these Old Testament testimonies. Receiving the news that he and his wife would conceive a son, John the Baptist, Zechariah learned that the Holy Spirit would fill the child from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15).

For this reason, we later read that Mary, the mother of our Lord, visited Elizabeth, then about six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Twice, Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, used the Greek word brephos, meaning "baby" or "infant," to describe John. Interestingly, we also read of unborn John's human reaction in response to the presence of Jesus - he leaped for joy in his mother's womb (Luke 1:41-44):

Over and over, both in the Old and New Testaments, the Scriptures testify to the full personhood of unborn children.

Legal Status

This case becomes even more evident (perhaps also stunning) when we consider how Old Testament law protected unborn children. The Mosaic law offered extraordinary and separate protections to pregnant women and their unborn children.

In Exodus 21:22-25, the law given to Moses stipulated penalties when the life of a pregnant woman or her unborn child was threatened or harmed, even accidentally. If there was premature birth but otherwise no harm to the child, the penalty was financial restitution. However, the accidental loss of life of either, whether the life of the mother or the child, required the most severe penalties: "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth..." (vv. 23-24). As Grudem notes:

This law is even more significant when we put it in the context of other laws in the Mosaic covenant. In other cases in the Mosaic law where someone accidentally caused the death of another person, there was no requirement to give "life for life," no capital punishment...This means that God established for Israel a law code that placed a higher value on protecting the life of a pregnant woman and her preborn children than the life of anyone else in Israelite society...And the law does not place any restriction on the number of months the woman was pregnant.

It's hard to imagine a stronger legal case from Scripture for protecting the lives of unborn children.

Conclusion

Taken together, these provide a consistent picture of unborn children as human persons from the moment of conception. For this reason, followers of Jesus Christ have affirmed the sanctity of human life, from the moment of conception to the point of natural death, throughout history.


Sources

Grudem, Wayne A. Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2010. Print.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.