Let’s consider some biblical teachings that have a bearing upon this issue:
“You shall not murder”
The sixth commandment of the Decalogue reads, “You shall not murder” (Exo 20:13; Deut 5:17). To appreciate the full significance of this command we need to go all the way back to Genesis chapter four. The first recorded sin after the Adam’s fall is murder—Cain’s brutal murder of his brother Abel (Gen 4:8). And God makes it very clear to Cain that what he has done is evil: “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Gen 4:10-11). Cain responded to God’s curse by pleading for leniency: “My punishment is greater than I can bear!” (Gen 4:13). And he goes on to complain that one of his siblings or relatives will surely take vengeance upon him and kill him (14). Certainly, Cain deserved to be punished. Nevertheless, God decided not to punish Cain—at least not in this life. So, in verse 15, “the LORD said to him, ‘Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the LORD set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.” On the one hand, God curses Cain for taking his brother’s life. On the other hand, God protects Cain’s life from vengeance.
But despite God’s leniency towards Cain, we find Cain’s descendants abusing God’s grace. In verses 23 and 24, Cain’s descendant Lamech makes a very proud declaration: “I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” In other words, “Let us sin that grace may abound.” Instead of leading men to appreciate the sanctity of human life, God’s protection of Cain caused some to treat human life with less dignity. And this depreciation for human life continued to increase until we read in Genesis 6:11-12: “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” And as a result, God’s poured out His wrath upon humanity in a worldwide flood (chapters 7 and 8).
But in His wrath, God remembered mercy. In Genesis chapter nine, we find eight souls spared from destruction. Verse one begins, “So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” God is going to give humanity another chance—a new beginning. Only this time, God affirms the sanctity of human life by demanding capital punishment for murder. Note verses 5 and 6:
Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast, I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother, I will require the life of man.
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God He made man (Gen. 9:5-6).
God institutes capital punishment as a means to restrain human violence and as a means to protect the sanctity of human life. And in this passage, He gives the very basis of this sanctity: “for in the image of God He made man.” This is why the sixth commandment of the moral law forbids murder and enjoins the protection of human life. According to the Bible, all human beings—male or female, black or white, adult or child, rich or poor, handicapped or healthy, Christian or non-Christian—are created as the image of God. This is what gives every human being dignity and worth. Secular humanism strives to exalt man, yet in the end it leaves him with no more dignity than an earthworm or a goldfish! Christianity, on the other hand, humbles man, yet it also gives him dignity. And because of this human dignity—because of the sanctity of human life, we must never unlawfully take the life of another fellow image of God.
The beginning of human life
Now at this point, we need to take the argument a step further and ask, “When, according to the Bible, does human life begin?” The Scriptures appear to answer that question by pointing us to conception as the beginning of human life. This can be derived from a number of passages in the Old and New Testaments. Let’s look at just one—Luke 1:8-44. Here’s a summary of this passage:
- 8-15: An angel tells Zacharias that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive in her old age and the child would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” A non-human entity cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit!
- 24-25: Elizabeth conceives just as the angel had foretold.
- 26-38: The angel Gabriel comes to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary and announces the miraculous conception and the birth of the Messiah. According to verse 31, Mary would conceive in the womb “a son” [Greek-huios]—not a mere “embryo” or “fetus”! And in verse 36, the angel informs Mary that her cousin Elizabeth has also “conceived a son” [Greek-huios] and is in her sixth month.
- 41-44: When Mary greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s “baby [Greek-brephos, ‘unborn or newborn child’] leaps in her womb.” Elizabeth explains the baby’s reaction in verse 44: “for indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” Here a human emotion is being attributed to an unborn child.
This passage along with many other texts strongly suggests that human life begins at conception (cf. Job 31:13-15; Pss 51:5; 139:13-16; Matt 1:20). And if human life does begin at conception, then such life deserves full protection against harm. In the words of Proverbs 24:11-12,
Deliver those who are drawn toward death,
And hold back those stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Surely we did not know this,”
Does not He who weighs the hearts consider it?
He who keeps your soul, does He not know it?
And will He not render to each man according to his deeds?
Some pro-abortion advocates have tried to undermine this conclusion by appealing to Exodus 21:22-25. This is a key passage, so let’s turn there and examine what it has to say. I’d like us to read this passage first in the KJV, then in the NAS:
If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, 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. And if any mischief follow, 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 (KJV).
The key phrase is the one in verse 22 translated “so that her fruit depart from her.” That phrase is somewhat ambiguous. Literally, the Hebrew reads, “so that her children come out,” which is precisely how the English Standard Version renders it. However, many other English versions aim to remove the ambiguity of what this verse is describing. Here is how the New American Standard Version renders verse 22:
And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide (NAS).
Douay Rheims Version, the New Jerusalem Bible, and the New Revised Standard Version also render the phrase “so that she miscarries.” In this case, the passage seems to be teaching that the forced miscarriage of a baby is not worthy of capital punishment. The conclusion drawn by pro-abortionists is that a human in the womb must not have the same value of life as a human outside the womb would have. Even a number of Christian theologians have drawn this conclusion. Citing this passage of Scripture, Norman Geisler asserts,
In the case of killing a baby, child, or adult, there was more than a fine exacted—the life of the murderer was demanded (Ex. 21:12). Apparently, the unborn baby was not considered fully human and, therefore, causing its death was not considered murder (i.e., the taking of an innocent human life.
This conclusion, however, rests upon a faulty translation. As I pointed out, the Hebrew phrase literally reads, “so that the child come out.” [Note: the plural for “child” is used, but it should probably be treated as a plural of indefiniteness and translated as a singular: “so that a child come out.”] In every case but one, this expression is used to describe the birth of a living child. The one exception, Numbers 12:12, explicitly describes the child “as dead” before birth. With this in view, we do better to follow the rendering of the NKJ, NIV or Updated NAS versions which correctly interpret verse 22 as a reference to premature birth rather than miscarriage: “if men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.” However, as verse 23 indicates, if there is injury, then you shall appoint life for life. In other words, if the man causes the death of the child or the mother for that matter, then he is subject to the death penalty.
To sum it up, this passage in Exodus 21 does not undermine our thesis; it supports it! Thus, to destroy the life of a human being at any point subsequent to conception is a violation of the sixth commandment—whether by tearing apart a human embryo, or sucking the brains out of a fetus, or abandoning a newborn infant in a garbage can. Once a child has been conceived, “You shall not murder”—no, not ever!
11 Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, 218-19.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.