When does life begin? Reckoning with surprising answers in Scripture
As Christians on both sides wade into the debate and make their voices heard, a common talking point is the question of when life begins. Some argue that life begins at the moment of conception. Of course, that calls into question the work of fertility clinics—which often create dozens of fertilized eggs in the effort to produce a single successful pregnancy.
Others argue that life begins once a fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus. Still others point to the detection of a fetal heartbeat, the ability to sense pain, or the formation of certain vital organs. For many centuries, Christians believed that life began at quickening—the moment a pregnant woman first feels the baby kick, which was believed to be a sign of the child’s soul entering its body. Of course, that belief was based on some problematic Platonism—and even more problematic medical science!
Still others point to the drawing of first breath, the moment of birth, and a myriad of other options for when life begins. Personally, I found Roe’s focus on fetal viability to be a decent compromise. Once a developing fetus has a fighting chance of surviving outside the womb, elective termination of the pregnancy (outside of serious health complications) is more or less objectively immoral.
As much as I have observed these debates as a minister and scholar of the Bible, I have always been struck by how rarely Christians support their view of when life begins on Scripture. While the Bible may not speak definitively to the matter, certainly (as Christians) our views on difficult ethical topics should find some basis in God’s word. To that end, here are a few biblical passages that should be considered in the debate over when life begins.
Psalm 139 and Genesis 2: Alive in the womb or at first breath?
Perhaps the most often cited Scripture passage in debates over when life begins is Psalm 139:13,
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
A similar sentiment is found in Jeremiah 1:5,
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.
Many on the pro-life side will argue based on these two verses that life begins at conception. Unfortunately, that’s not what these two verses are saying. Neither passage comments explicitly on when life begins—the Psalm verse deals more with God’s intimate knowledge and care for the psalmist, while the other verse focuses more on God’s foreknowledge in selecting Jeremiah to be a prophet. The fact that God formed the psalmist and the prophet says nothing about when they officially became alive.
For a more direct statement on when life begins, we should look to the formation of Adam in Genesis 2—a text that has been at the heart of both Jewish and Christian understandings of humanity and the nature of human life for millennia. The author refers explicitly to the beginning of Adam’s life in verse 7,
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
When does Adam become a living being? When God breathes the breath of life into his nostrils. On this basis, many strands of Judaism have taught for centuries that life begins at first breath. To connect this verse with the verses from Psalms and Jeremiah, one could imagine the serpent scattering the dust of the ground as God worked to form the first human being. Would that have been murder? Of course not—the man was not yet alive! God was still forming him.
As Christians engage in the cultural debate over abortion following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, perhaps the biggest takeaway from surveying the Bible’s teaching around life and when it begins is that we need to exercise some humility.
The counterargument could be made that Adam was a special case. One could quibble over whether a developing fetus receiving oxygen from the mother through the umbilical cord constitutes “breathing”—although the lungs are not capable of drawing breath on their own until the third trimester. However, our analysis of Scripture’s teaching need not end here. The Bible has more to say about the status of the entity growing in a mother’s womb.
Exodus 21: No death penalty for causing a miscarriage?
If there’s one law about life we find consistently in the Old Testament, it is that the punishment for taking a life is death. “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). God’s law in Exodus expands this principle, assigning the death penalty for premeditated murder, striking a person mortally (second degree murder), killing a slave, kidnapping, striking a parent, or even cursing one’s parents (see Exodus 21:12-21). However, the penalty for causing a miscarriage is significantly less severe:
“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22-25)
A person who strikes a pregnant woman—causing her to miscarry—is not put to death. Instead, they are fined whatever amount “the woman’s husband demands” (can you say: “patriarchy”) and only punished further “if any harm follows.” This comes directly after the death penalty is assigned to anyone who takes a life.
It would seem, therefore, that God’s law in the Old Testament recognizes a difference between human life outside the womb (once first breath has been drawn) and the potential life status of a developing fetus. Surely that should factor into our own conversations about the legality of abortion and whether or not the practice takes a life.
Numbers 5: Terminating pregnancies that result from adultery
This final example is (admittedly) the most bizarre of the bunch. Numbers 5:11-31 prescribes a procedure for dealing with an unfaithful wife which—in order to be fully grasped—should be read in its entirety.
Essentially, if a man suspects that his wife became pregnant through adultery, he is to bring her before a priest, along with a grain offering. The priest brings the woman before God and forces her to drink a concoction made of holy water and some dust from the tabernacle floor. Before she drinks, however, the priest messes up the woman’s hair, puts the offering in her hands, and makes her swear before God that she has not been unfaithful. After that, the grain offering is offered and the woman drinks the bitter water. If she has been faithful, nothing happens. But if she cheated on her husband, her uterus will drop, and the pregnancy will be lost.
I have never heard a pro-life Christian cite this passage—and for good reason. Aside from the downright zany nature of the ritual, it would seem (based on Numbers 5) that it is (at the very least) lawful to terminate a pregnancy that results from adultery. One could argue that the same standard should apply to pregnancies resulting from rape or incest—exceptions that are not found in some state abortion bans, and which often place undue burdens on rape victims to prove they’ve been raped. The argument could also be made that Numbers 5 justifies the termination of any pregnancy that occurs outside the confines of marriage—a notion that I find just as confounding as my pro-life counterparts.
The Verdict: An unclear picture with some surprising answers
In turning to Scripture for guidance on when life begins, the biggest difficulty we face is that the Bible does not tackle the question directly. Abortion is not mentioned in Scripture—not in the Torah (unless we count the bizarre ritual from Numbers 5) or the Prophets, not by Jesus or Paul. We are therefore left to grapple with what little clues we can find in Scripture.
On the basis on Genesis 2, we can say that life begins at the very least by first breath. Whether a fetus is truly alive prior to exiting the womb is a question for science and philosophers that is unfortunately not spelled out in the Bible. However, on the basis of Exodus 21, we can say that Scripture recognizes a difference between a life that is taken after first breath, and the potential life that is lost through miscarriage—the former being punished far more severely than the latter. Finally, we can argue that the termination of pregnancy was lawful in some cases when a woman was unfaithful to her husband. Whether such a teaching is ethical and what extent (if any) it remains applicable today is debatable.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from surveying the Bible’s teaching around life and when it begins is that we need to exercise some humility. As Christians, we should strive to relate all of our views and actions to Scripture. When the witness of Scripture is not fully clear—and especially when it clashes with our assumptions—that should call our own certainty into question and inspire humility.
Maybe we are not meant to fully understand when life begins. Maybe God—in God’s infinite wisdom—decided that such knowledge is beyond our paygrade. And maybe that’s okay.