What the Bible says about life in the womb
Working toward a theology for the Church
This is part 1 in a collaborative series on the sanctity of life and abortion.
A particular aim in a confused world
With the latest Supreme Court case regarding the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate has resurfaced into the cultural eye. This particular debate has seen an interesting evolution since the landmark case in 1973 protected women’s choice to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. The heat of this debate has been extraordinary and evangelical Christians have often been at the frontlines of the pro-life movement. However, there has been an increasing secularization of the worldview of many who claim Christianity. Most studies on the general consensus show the majority opinion to be far more nuanced than most realize. But, at the least, the pro-life position holds that abortion (the intentional ending of the life of a fetus, either through medicine or surgery) involves the termination of an actual human life and, therefore, is wrong. This description does not delve into possible exceptions or nuanced cases (such as ectopic pregnancies where the mother’s life is in peril). However, it provides a foundation for understanding the pro-life position in general.
The pro-life movement has gained a substantial “secular” following, a surprise to many. This is an issue that many see as self-evident on both sides. Many form their opinions based on cultural norms, personal experiences, or moral preferences. However, for Christians, we have more than personal preferences and moral sensibilities. We have a rich trove of biblical theology, historical doctrine, and ethical philosophy at our disposal that we need to glean from. So, in a sense, this article is not intended to convince the pro-choice atheist. This article is also not intended to provide debate points for the secular conversation. Rather, this article is intended to lay out (briefly and thoughtfully) why the pro-life position is the only viable position for Christians who seek to align their beliefs with biblical doctrine. My hope is that if you, as a Christian, are wrestling through this issue, that this would provide clarity in a sea of confusion.
In light of that, here are eight realities that inform this issue.
1) All human beings are inherently valuable and worthy of protection
What does it mean to be “inherently valuable”? If this phrase has any meaning at all, it must mean that we are talking about life that comes with certain substantive rights. We are not talking about a “subjective value” which flows from one’s personal value for something else. We are talking about something that is inherent, objective, and unchanging. When we come to the first chapter of the Bible, we see God creating “man in his image” (Gen. 1:27). This image of God (imago dei) sets humans apart and is the basis for the idea of “sanctity” of human life. This means that life is valuable, precious, and worthy of protection.
This is why God is adamant that we do not “murder” (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17; Rom. 13:9), which is the unlawful taking of an innocent human life. It is why the punishment for such an action is death in the OT (Gen. 9:5-6; Lev. 24:17; Ez. 33:8-9) and why God will judge the act of murder so seriously (Ex. 23:7; Matt. 5:21; Rev. 21:8). In this, God also makes it clear that the government is in place to protect this right to life and punish those who violate it. Consider Romans 13:4 which says, “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
2) God is the one who determines life and death
Though life is valuable, all human life comes to an earthly end. The evil of murder is not that life is taken but that life is taken apart from the authority of God, himself. God states himself that there is “no god besides me; I kill and I make alive…” (Deut. 32:39). Hannah, when praying for a child, acknowledges that only the Lord can kill or bring to life (1 Sam. 2:6). The psalmist acknowledges that the length of his days is determined by the Lord (Ps. 39:4). Only God has the authority to determine who lives and who dies.
In this, we see that the default right to life of all humans should be protected from wrongful death. This is also why God grants authority to government and leaders to exercise the rightful taking of the life of the guilty according to his standards (Ex. 21:12, 16; 22:19; Lev. 20:10, 13; Deut. 13:5; 22:24). As humans, we protect each other from wrongful killing and punish murder seriously, in accordance with God’s commands. Only God has the right to give and take life. And he hates “hands that shed innocent blood” (Prov. 6:16-19).
3) God is sovereign over the conception of children
Here, we must state an emphatic biblical truth: God sovereignly determines every child that is conceived. In 1 Samuel, Hannah is barren because God has “closed her womb” (1 Sam. 1:6) and she prays to God for a child. In that prayer, she acknowledges that God is the one who “kills and brings to life” (1 Sam. 2:6). This is directly connected to the conception of a child. The psalmist declares that all children come from God (Ps. 127:3). God tells Jeremiah that he chose him before he was formed in the womb (Jer. 1:5). God is the one who closes and opens the womb to conceive. Every time that a child enters this world, God is the one who gave it life. We could go to many other places that talk about God’s sovereignty over much smaller things, such as every lot that is cast (Prov. 16:33). But the point is clear: every life that is conceived is orchestrated by God’s own hand.
4) God is intricately involved in the development of the fetus
God does not choose to enter the process of development after a point of viability or birth. We see in scripture that God cherishes the unborn life, is attentive to every detail of development, and displays his glory in that masterful work. Isaiah declares that, as the Lord has created all things, he “formed you from the womb” (Is. 44:24). God sets Jeremiah apart before he “formed [him] in the womb” (Jer. 1:5). Job trusts in the God who made him in his mother’s womb (Job. 31:15). In Psalm 139, we have exalted language as David reflects on God’s handiwork:
“For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise you because I have been remarkably and wondrously made. Your works are wondrous, and I know this very well. My bones were not hidden from you when I was made in secret, when I was formed in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began.”
Note in this passage the tone of wonder and celebration at God’s work. Note the glorious intricacies of God’s craftsmanship. 1) We see that this work in the womb is remarkable and worthy of wonder. 2) We see that the fetus is not ignored or disregarded. It is cherished and is not “hidden” from God. 3) See that even in a “formless” state, God’s eyes are on the baby. He is creating, forming, knitting, making, seeing, and planning everything about this baby. There is no room in the Christian worldview for the thought that the unborn child is any less important to God than any other human being.
5) Unborn children are treated as human beings
Many think of the child in the womb in a separate category because of their dependency on the mother or their lack of ability to perform certain functions. Some have attempted to create a distinction between a human being and a human person in order to create a distinction of value so that abortion can be normalized. However, we see in scripture that there is no distinction made between the child in the womb or the child outside of the womb. All unborn children are treated in ways that correspond to true human value.
First, we see that unborn children are referred to as persons. Everytime biblical authors refer to unborn children, they use the same personal references as they do to other human beings. For example, in Psalm 139, the psalmist says that when he was “formless” in his mother’s womb, God saw “him” (Ps. 139:16). Even right after conception (without human-like “form”), the psalmist recognizes it was still him. This is consistent throughout the bible. When Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Samuel, John the Baptist, Jesus, and others are described while in the womb, they are referred to as persons. Second, we see that unborn children experience God’s presence. The psalmist states that he depended on God from “before his birth” (Ps. 71:6). John the Baptist, when Mary drew near to Elizabeth, “leaped in her womb” and both of them were filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41). The angel declared of Jesus that he would be “filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb” (Luke 1:15). Third, we see that unborn children are chosen by God. Several times, we see that God chooses children for his service and even consecrates them before birth (Ps. 139; Is. 49:1; Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15; Luke 1). Fourth, we see that unborn children are in sin at the moment of conception. David reflects on his own sinfulness in Psalm 51 and states unequivocally that there was never a moment that he did not have sin as a part of his identity. He states, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). If David was not a true human being at that moment, this statement would make little sense.
6) The harm of unborn children is severely punished
A very insightful passage in this conversation is Exodus 21:22-25. In this passage, God is telling Israel how certain sins of physical harm should be punished and we find a striking statement about the harm of an unborn child:
22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Some have argued that this passage is talking about a miscarriage and is only concerned with harm done to the mother. It is said that this is proof that the Bible does not see the unborn child in the same way as another human life. However, this is a gross misreading of the text. First, the word for “child” (yeled) is universally used to describe a human child. The term commonly used for the death of an unborn is not used here (see nephel in Job 3:16; Ps. 58:8; Eccl. 6:3). Second, the verb for “come out” (yatza) is always used for the birth of a child, never a miscarriage. See other examples of this word in the OT (Gen. 31:38; Ex. 23:26; Job 2:10; Hos. 9:14; etc.). The situation described is when accidental injury leads to a premature birth. The following description determines the punishment based on additional harm that was caused. Third, the word for “harm” refers to injury experienced by either the mother or the child. If referring specifically to one party or the other, an additional pronoun in the Hebrew would be used. Its absence links the “harm” in verse 23 back to the “harm” left open in verse 22. In other words, the law pertains to harm experienced by the mother or the baby. Both are treated the same. Finally, the punishment for any harm done to the unborn baby is equal to harm done against any other human being. Even if the child is unharmed, the offender must pay a substantial fine. If harm is done, God states that it is “life for life.” If the baby dies, the perpetrator must die (even though it was accidental). This displays a powerful upholding of the value and personhood of the unborn child.
7) Children (even born from sin) are celebrated as a gift from God
When one looks at scripture, one will find a staggeringly positive description of the blessing and goodness of children. The bearing of children is one of the key responsibilities and privileges of humanity: to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28). Fertility is often a sign of God’s blessing in the OT. Children are regularly said to have been “given by God” (ex. Gen. 33:5; 48:9). Children are described as a “crown” and “pride” for their parents (Prov. 17:6). They are “heritage” and “reward” from God, making their parents blessed (Ps. 127:3-5). Jesus upheld a high level of love, care, and hospitality towards children (ex. Mark 10:14). Jesus also warned of severe judgment to those who mislead children from the truth (Matt. 18:6).
What is also striking is how God loves and uses children born out of sinful actions or relationships. Ishmael, born out of Abraham’s lack of trust in God, is blessed and God makes him into a great nation (Gen. 17:20). Joseph is born out of a polygamous relationship with Rachel after Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah; however, God uses him to save his people from famine (Gen. 37-47). Solomon is born to David from Bathsheba, who became David’s wife after a terrible affair and the orchestrated murder of her husband (2 Sam. 11-12). Even when children are born out of sinful situations, they are still valuable in God’s sight.
8) The Church’s belief has remained historically consistent
From the earliest times, Christians distinguished themselves from surrounding cultures by rejecting both abortion and infanticide. The earliest known documents of Christian teaching and practice after the New Testament (the Didache and Letter of Barnabus) condemned both practices, as did early Church councils. In the 5th century, St. Augustine rejected abortion at any stage of development and this was affirmed as the universal position of the Church. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas expanded on Augustine’s work and stated that abortion was a sin “against nature” and a rejection of God’s gift of new life. Luther and Calvin (16th century) both condemned the practice of abortion and affirmed the humanity of unborn children.
Even with inadequate understandings of embryology, the Church affirmed the sanctity (and necessary protection) of human life. When subsequent science discovered the human ovum in 1827 and confirmed the production of a new (unique) life at the moment of conception, all controversy was put to rest. That is, until the modern (and post-modern) winds of culture labored to fight against this understanding of the unborn child in favor of personal autonomous choice. Now, more Christians are moving away from the historic and biblical perspective. However, the Church has been historically consistent in its rejection of abortion and in upholding the sanctity of human life.
Conclusion: It is wrong to kill life in the womb.
In light of all the biblical information, we can confidently assert that the taking of an unborn child’s life is wrong, at any stage of development. The bible is consistent in affirming the inherent value and humanity of the child within the womb, from the moment of conception. Church history has consistently upheld this as the biblical worldview and has condemned the act of abortion. The child’s life is precious and its wrongful termination is appalling to God. God’s goodness is displayed when the life he has knit together is protected, cherished, and celebrated.
Some might point out that God sometimes commanded the death of sinful nations, including their children (such as the judgment of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15). Or some might point out times when God causes the death of children because of the sins of their parents (such as the death of David’s child in 2 Samuel 12). However, pointing to these examples does not (in any way) affect the pro-life argument from scripture. This is because, in both of these cases, God is one who determines life and death. There is great reason to believe that children that die go to be with God (see David’s prayer after the death of his child in 2 Sam. 12:22-23). God is not acting in evil by being God. We act in evil when we try to be God. Life and death are not in our hands.
With all that said, three things must also be stated.
First, as evil as the killing of a child is, there is forgiveness and healing available through Jesus Christ. The purpose of this article is not to condemn mothers who have had an abortion. Rather it is to plead on behalf of unborn children that God cherishes. God brought salvation to us through the death of his own child. He knows that pain. He knows that grief. He offers healing and forgiveness to all who come to him in repentance and faith.
Second, this cultural evil is too serious for Christians to be “private” about this issue. Many Christians disagree with abortion but believe they have no right to influence legislation or voice their disagreement because it is a “personal belief.” However, this was also the perspective of many Christians who kept silent during the era of American slavery. When a million babies are being killed every year, there is hardly anything more worthy of our voice, our vote, our giving, or our advocacy.
Third, Christians must pair our passion with sacrificial kindness. The world needs to see both passionate advocacy and the kind of sacrificial love that defined Jesus’ life and ministry. It is not enough to condemn the evil around us. We must provide a picture with our lives and churches that displays the heart of Christ for those who are scared, abused, and neglected. May the world see that we love both the unborn child and the scared mother. May we be the kind of people ready to lay down our own comforts to care for those around us. The gospel requires nothing less.