When Does Life Begin, According to Scripture?

The abortion debate is a very hot-button topic, with a whole host of sub-issues that would need to be addressed if one wanted to articulate a comprehensive Christian perspective on it. And it is not my intention to do so here!

Instead, what I want to do today is address, very briefly, a specific viewpoint I’ve seen going around the Internet that has to do with what the Bible teaches about when life begins.

The viewpoint is this: Because Genesis 2:7 says that the first man (Adam) did not become a living person until God breathed “the breath of life” into him, we should not consider unborn fetuses to be human persons until they take their first breath outside the womb.

This argument has been used by Christians who want to appeal to the Bible for support of a pro-choice perspective.

Now, again, it’s not my intention in this post to dismantle or defend either side of the larger abortion debate. All I want to do here is make absolutely clear that this argument in particular is fatally flawed. The Bible does not present human life as only beginning at first breath outside the womb.

Two reasons the argument fails: 1) It involves taking Genesis 2:7 out of its context and applying it to situations it doesn’t bear upon; and 2) it overlooks other passages in the Bible where the unborn are depicted as living persons.

Genesis 2:7 portrays (in what many scholars would add is a very stylized and poetic fashion) God instilling life into the first human being. Taking the text literally, presumably Adam was formed from the dust with an adult body, and that body was an inanimate husk until God put the life-breath into him and he became the first living human.

One must not ignore the fact that the creation of Adam is a unique and unrepeated situation. We are talking about the special creation of the very first human — not about how babies are made (for one thing, they don’t come straight from the ground). This text says nothing about how life gets transferred from Adam and Eve to their offspring.

In fact, as some scholars point out, beginning in Genesis 9:4-6 and onward the Bible refers to life being “in the blood” (see also Leviticus 17:11; Deuteronomy 12:23). Later Jewish interpreters used this concept to explicitly argue against abortion, since fetuses have blood circulating in them! [1] This further makes it clear that one cannot say the Bible clearly and unequivocally presents life as beginning at a child’s first breath.

So, to restate the matter: the unique situation of the special creation of Adam does not give sufficient grounds to claim that human life begins at first breath outside the womb.

But then, when does it begin, according to Scripture? Genesis 9:4-6 and Leviticus 17:11 refer to life symbolically being “in the blood,” but does this mean life begins when the baby has a heartbeat and its own circulatory system? Or does it begin even earlier?

Whatever we conclude, one fact is crucial in the conversation: Numerous passages in the Bible affirm the full personhood of unborn children.

Consider these two passages where unborn fetuses are called “children” (Hebrew habbanim; Greek to brephos) and are portrayed as taking personal action:

“But the children inside [Rachel] struggled with each other, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.” — Genesis 25:22 (CSB)

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped inside her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and your child will be blessed! How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped for joy inside me.'” — Luke 1:41-44 (CSB)

Other Scripture passages are worded in such a way as to imply that the biblical authors may have linked the beginning of life with conception:

“Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” — Psalm 51:5 (CSB)

“For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” — Psalm 139:13 (CSB)

In the latter of these two verses, the Psalmist says God created his “inward parts” when he knit him together in the womb. The Hebrew term translated “inward parts” (kilyah) was the term ancient Israelites used to refer to the seat of a person’s inner life — what we in English would call the heart, soul, or personality.

Admittedly these verses are poetic in nature. However, they still reveal that the Psalmist envisioned the child in the womb as a human person, complete with a soul.

And if one wanted to dismiss these verses as merely poetic or as reflecting a “pre-scientific” view, but then turned around and used a literal reading of Genesis 2:7 to defend the “life begins at first breath” view, this would be a pretty egregious double standard (let alone, as explained above, a faulty application of that verse).

So, if you take Scripture seriously and you desire to defend your ethical and political stances from it, then no matter what other conclusions you draw, you must not ignore or dismiss the fact that the Bible presents the unborn as persons.

Not fetal tissue; not “pre-children” or “potential humans.”

Living, human babies.

Plenty of scientific evidence seems to say much the same thing (see here and here). But even without that, for me as a Christian, the biblical testimony mentioned above carries significant weight in the ongoing ethical discussions.

Now, what one chooses to do with this data involves a host of other complicated issues. I don’t presume to say that agreeing that the unborn are in fact living babies simply ends the discussion. Questions remain, like:

  • What rights are an unborn child entitled to, and to what extent do the rights of the mother take priority over the rights of the child?
  • Is there ever a circumstance where it could be justifiable to end the life of an unborn child? If so, why?
  • What is being done to help alleviate the plight of underprivileged women, to aid children in the foster system, and to address the larger systemic, socioeconomic issues that make abortion so common?
  • Are we, as Christ-followers, making clear the radical grace, forgiveness, and healing available in Jesus for mothers who’ve had abortions?

These are all very important questions to consider, whichever side of the debate you find yourself on.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

See you down the path.

[1] https://carm.org/does-human-life-begin-at-our-first-breath; the Jewish source referred to is Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57b.

Categories: Contemporary Issues/Ethics

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2 replies

  1. This is an extraordinarily well written essay. Thank you for such a clear biblical exposition. I also point to Jeremiah 1:5 as further support for your thesis.

    I will go a step further than your tactful decision not to expicity state a conclusion from your examination of the Biblical texts and say abortion is the unjust taking of a human life, which cannot be biblically, morally, or ethically supported by a follower of Christ. Any other conclusion after examining the Bible is intellectually dishonest or woefully ignorant.


    • Thanks again for your praise. In general I am in agreement that abortion is not a morally good thing. The reason I remain hesitant is because there are some important scientific/medical considerations that need to be covered, but they would have taken me beyond the scope of this article’s focus.

      One such nuance is the fact that so many millions of fertilized zygotes fail to implant or develop into a viable fetus. If one assumes that “ensouled” human life begins immediately at conception, this raises the very uncomfortable question of why God would allow so many millions of “lives” to die before even reaching viability. And what becomes of the souls of these millions of babies (again, if we assume ensoulment happens at conception). This is related to the question of whether IVF embryos are “ensouled” humans or not.

      There are also issues of medical complication, such as ectopic pregnancies or fetuses developing with vital organs missing, where the procedure that would be necessary to save the mother’s life is technically considered an abortion, and thus would be in danger of being legally prohibited if all abortions are outlawed without careful exception clauses for these procedures.

      These issues make me hesitant to be dogmatic, even if Scripture does indicate human life begins at some point before the child is born.


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