Sunday, 10 November 2013

What does the Bible actually say about life before birth?

The Bible does not support the view that some human lives are worth less than others. All are made in the image of God and all are equally precious.

Devaluing or discriminating against any group of human beings is therefore inconsistent with God’s justice. He does not show partiality.

The heart of Christian ethical teaching is that we must love as Christ himself loved (John 13:34), that the strong should make sacrifices for the weak and if necessary lay down their lives for the weak (Philippians 2:5-8, Romans 5:6-8). 

So to suggest that the weak might be sacrificed in the interests of the strong is simply not biblical morality.                                              

But what about human life before birth? Do these principles apply here too?

It is striking just how many references there are in Scripture to human life in the womb.

Perhaps the most famous of these is Psalm 139. The Psalmist, looking back to the beginning of his life declares:  

‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful...
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place...
your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’ (Psalms 139:13-16)

John Stott has argued that this passage affirms three important things about the human life before birth.

First, it affirms that the preborn baby is God’s creation. It is God who knitted him together. The Hebrew word used by the Psalmist for ‘knit’ (other versions translate it as ‘weaved’) is raqam, a comparatively rare word in the Old Testament, which is used almost exclusively in texts that describe the curtains and veils of Israel’s wilderness tabernacle and the garments of the high priest.  

To say that an unborn child is ‘roqem’ is therefore to say something about the cunning skill of the weaver and about the beauty of his fabric. The tabernacle was the place where the presence of God dwelt. The high priest acted as the mediator between God and man and was the only one able to enter the Holy Place. He also pointed forward to Christ, the true mediator and great High Priest to come who would deal with our sins once and for all (Hebrews 7:26-28).

With its allusions to the 'roqem work' of the tabernacle, the Psalm implies not only that God has made the infant in the womb, but also that the infant is being woven into a dwelling for God himself.

Next, God is in communion with the preborn baby. At this stage the baby in the womb can ‘know’ nothing and is in fact not even aware of its own existence. But this is not important. The key point is that God knows it. It is God’s love for the psalmist during his time in utero that gives him significance. We see echoes of John’s first epistle here, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). God’s relationship with the baby is a relationship of grace to which the baby itself contributes nothing. It is not its own attributes that give it value. It is the fact that God knows and loves it.

Finally, the Psalmist affirms the continuity between life before and after birth. The baby in the womb is the Psalmist, the same person, not a different person and not a non-person.

These three themes of creation, communion and continuity are seen in many other Old and New Testament Scriptures.

God calls the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah before birth (Isaiah 49:1, Jeremiah 1:5) and  before they are capable even of hearing or understanding his call. He forms Job ‘in the womb’ as well as bringing him out of it (Job 10:8-9, 18-19).  

The Isaiah reference is particularly noteworthy because it comes from one of the so-called ‘Servant Songs’ and therefore speaks prophetically of Christ himself. Jesus was also called from the womb.

Many other references to life before birth in the Bible reinforce these principles (eg. Genesis 25:22-23, Psalm 22:9,10, 51:5, 71:6,  119:73,  Ecclesiastes 11:5,  Isaiah  44:2,24, 49:5, Hosea 12:3, Matthew 1:18, Luke  1:15,  41-44).  

In Genesis 25, Esau and Jacob wrestle in the womb, displaying the beginning of the competitive and combative behaviour that would later characterise their family life. In Psalm 51 David talks about being ‘sinful from the time my mother conceived me’ and says that God ‘desired faithfulness even in the womb’ and ‘taught me wisdom in that secret place’.

The Psalm 22 and the Genesis 25 references also look forward prophetically to Christ. Jesus’ suffering is clearly foretold in the Psalm and he actually quotes its words from the cross to emphasise that his death was to fulfil its prophecy. The Genesis passage reminds us that Jesus is the new Israel.

In addition there are over 60 references which mention the event of conception explicitly underlining its importance.

One of these is Matthew 1:20 in which an angel tells Joseph, referring to Mary the mother of Jesus, that ‘what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’.

Particularly striking are the verses describing Jesus conception and inter-uterine development in Luke 1. Here we see Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, prophesying over Christ in his first month of gestation, and the baby John ‘leaping’ in her womb.

The timing is given in some detail. It was in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that the angel visited Mary (Luke 1:26). She then went to visit Elizabeth who gave the prophecy accompanied by her baby leaping (Luke 1:41). As we have already noted, a baby’s movement cannot be felt until about 18 weeks but ‘in the sixth month’ means at very least 22 weeks gestation.

The Scriptures record that, ‘Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home’ (Luke 1:51), and that Elizabeth gave birth after that (Luke 1:57). Given that pregnancy lasts nine months we can deduce from this that Mary must have left to see Elizabeth almost immediately after the angel’s visit and that Jesus must have therefore been in the very first few weeks, if not days, of pregnancy at the time of the prophecy.

Why is this relevant? It is important because Jesus’ humanity tells us something about our own humanity. We know that in order to act as our substitute on the cross, Jesus had to be ‘made like his brothers in every way’ (Hebrews 2:17). He had to be like us in his humanity so that he could take our place. So it follows that if Jesus was alive in the womb in the first month of pregnancy then so were we.

To deny the humanity of the human embryo is therefore to undermine not only the doctrine of creation, but also the doctrine of the atonement, Christ’s taking the punishment for sin on our behalf.

Although it does not state it explicitly, the Bible points very strongly to the conclusion that human life begins at conception, a process that we know from science begins with fertilisation, the point at which a new individual human life comes into being.

At very least then, should we not be giving the human embryo the benefit of any doubt?

The strong biblical testimony about life before birth points to the conclusion that human life, from the time of conception is, like other human life, made in the image of God and worthy of the utmost respect, wonder, protection and empathy.

Showing this degree of love respect to human beings before birth may in some circumstances be very costly for us personally. This brings us back again to the foot of the cross, and the willingness to walk in the steps of the master who gave himself fully for us and who calls us to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34,35).


  1. "the Bible points very strongly to the conclusion that human life begins at conception" [Peter Saunders]

    That a mammal's life (including a human's life] began at conception isn't a biblical doctrine, or, at least, a biblical doctrine that is still necessary, now that we have science. Nor is it a conclusion. It isn't even a premiss. It is a tautology.

    The definition of the verb to "conceive", is to become the mother of a new mammal specimen. The statement that a human's life began at his or her conception is therefore simply a statement that his or her life began when it began. That is not something that any modern, scientifically-minded thinker needs to read in the bible and to believe by faith, in order to know that the statement is true. It is true, because the statement is a tautology.

    The inequality of the pre-born human, with other humans, is always based upon a mere metaphysical doctrine. That doctrine takes various forms, but it always a mutation of an ancient myth called "ensoulment", rehashed as (what I have dubbed) "enpersonment". The enpersonment hypothesis does not belong in scientific biology, or any rational ethical system, not even utilitarianism. It is pure mumbo jumbo.

    Please see:

    The mumbo-jumbo of choice

    “ We can accept that the embryo is a living thing in the fact that it has a beating heart, that it has its own genetic system within it, it’s clearly human in the sense that it’s not a gerbil and we can recognise that it is human life… but the point is not when does life begin but when does it begin to matter. ”

    [ Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, major abortion service provider ]

  2. http://www.vasumurti.org11 November 2013 at 21:44


    Genesis 38:24. Tamar's pregnancy was discovered three months after conception, presumably because it was visible at the time.

    This was proof that she was sexually active. Because she was a widow, without a husband, she was assumed to be a prostitute. Her father-in-law, Judah, ordered that she be burned alive for her crime.

    If Tamar's fetuses had been considered to have any value whatsoever, her execution would have been delayed until after their birth.

    There was no condemnation on Judah for deciding to take this action.

    Exodus 21:22-24. If two men are fighting and one injures a pregnant woman and the fetus is killed, he shall repay her according to the degree of injury inflicted upon her, and not the fetus.

    Author Brian McKinley, a born-again Christian, sums up the passage as:

    "Thus we can see that if the baby is lost, it does not require a death sentence-it is not considered murder. But if the woman is lost, it is considered murder and is punished by death."

    Halacha (Jewish Law) does define when a fetus becomes a nephesh (person), a full-fledged human being, when the head emerges from the womb. Before then, the fetus is considered a "partial-life"; it gains full human status after birth only.

    The Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 69b) states that: "the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day." Afterward, it is considered subhuman until it is born.

    Rashi, the great 12th century commentator on the Bible and the Talmud, states clearly of the fetus 'lav nephesh hu -- it is not a person.'

    The Talmud contains the expression, "the thigh of its mother," i.e., the fetus is deemed to be part and parcel of the pregnant woman's body.

    This is grounded in Exodus 21:22. That biblical passage outlines the Mosaic Law in a case where a man is responsible for causing a woman's miscarriage, which kills the fetus.

    If the woman survives, then the perpetrator has to pay a fine to the woman's husband. If the woman is killed, the perpetrator is also killed. This indicates that the fetus has value, but does not have the status of a person.

    Some Jewish authorities have ruled in specific cases. one case involved a woman who becomes pregnant while nursing a child. Her milk supply would dry up. If the child is allergic to all other forms of nutrition except mother's milk, then it would starve.

    An abortion would be permitted in this case, a potential person, would be justified to save the life of the child, an actual person.

    Polls have found up to 90% of American Jews supporting abortion rights.


    Jesus repeatedly upheld Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:17-19; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 16:17) as did his apostles (see chapters 10, 15, and 21 of Acts). Paul, however, not only dismissed his previous adherence to the Law as "so much garbage," but claimed the risen Jesus said to him three times, "my grace is sufficient for thee" (II Corinthians 12:8-9).

    Some Christians misinterpret this verse to mean they're free to do as they please--ignoring all of the moral instructions Paul gives throughout his epistles altogether.

    Wouldn't "three times..." thus justify "choice"?

    The late Reverend Janet Regina Hyland (1933-2007), raised Catholic but went on to become an evangelical minister, a vegan, and author of God's Covenant with Animals (it's available through People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA), said they're quoting Paul out of context.

    Paul, she observed, was very strict with himself:

    "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." (I Corinthians 9:27)

    Regina Hyland said this verse indicates it's possible for one to lose one's salvation (a serious point of contention among born agains!).

    Conservative Christians usually are quick to condemn anyone preaching a false gospel!

    1. "There was no condemnation on Judah for deciding to take this action."
      Really? Later Judah condemns himself and commends Tamar, his widowed daughter in law, because she took responsibilty for her line of descent and Judah did not. There is often much to condemn in stories of patriarchs and while the passage may appear silent on condemnation when it is a narrative or story telling passage, we can be absolutely clear from those passages that clearly teach morality. The biblical view on murder and abortion is totally clear. To imply otherwise is either ignorant or willfully disingenuous.

  3. Peter Saunders has made very homophobic comments and clearly doesn't believe the Bible. If, as he writes, "The Bible does not support the view that some human lives are worth less than others. All are made in the image of God and all are equally precious." then why does he spend his life degrading and harming the dignity of others? He clearly thinks people who are gay are not fully human or worthy of full human dignity. He needs to explain himself.

    1. No explanation is required. I have simply expressed an orthodox Christian view about homosexuality. People who identify themselves as gay are as precious in God's sight as everyone else and Jesus died for them and calls them to repentance and faith as he does everyone else. Refs on homophobia and sexuality below:

      My take on homophobia -
      Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality -

  4. Peter, I totally agree that the baby in the womb should be protected and thank you for this article., but Psalm 139 v13--16 Reads "For thou hast possessed my reins" possessed means, in Hebrew, "to acquire, or set up" (speaks to me of God's purpose for David's future). Knit in the Bible is used a very few times, but not here and it means "bound together." The Ps goes on- "Thou hast covered me in my mother's womb" covered means to cover, or hedge in, which, to me, speaks of protection v14-"fearfully and wonderfully made, marvellous are thy works and that my soul knoweth right well = greatly. v15 )My substance was not hid from thee (substance in Hebrew can mean just substance or bone) when I was made in secret"-not even his mother knew him at conception and for a few weeks, but God knew him. "Curiously wrought" means embroidered ie made beautiful in God's sight for he was to be, not only His child, but a great King, "After God's own heart" and on the forerunner of Christ throne. Even though I beg to differ on small details, the human child should have all the rights of every other person for that's what they are, small people. We don't finish developing until 20-30yrs old. The womb should be the safest place on earth. Not all those born are the children of God. Most do not repent and Christ said, "Ye are of your father, the devil and the works of your father ye will do", only repentant sinner are elligable to be called sons of God. Not everyone is, or will be saved, The baby's development is a picture of the new born babe "in Christ".They make a lot of noise to say they have arrived (and how we love to hear that cry). but up to birth, the work has been done in silence and even in secret, just as in salvation-we have the "quickening of the Spirit" and begin to move in new ways, begin to recognise sounds and peole who love us ie other Christians, and there comes the day when they have fruit-fruit for our labour-another new babe in Christ. What a priviledged people we are, who are born again of the Spirit, what a hope, what a word to share but we need help to understand and grow in grace. As babes we crawl, walk and then run- let us run "race that is set before us"

  5. I am sorry to see the way Dr Saunders has misused Scripture to support his arguments. I have looked at many of his Bible references, and I believe that very few of them, when properly understood, actually support his arguments. For example, he quotes the Psalms (and other passages such as Isaiah 49:1, Jeremiah 1:5) without understanding the principle of Hebrew poetry where two successive lines are alternative ways of saying the same thing. He majors on Psalm 139, even though the last sentence quoted, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” counteracts his argument: the Psalmist is referring to a time before conception. Other Scriptures (e.g. Ephesians 1:4, Revelation 13:8) describe God’s knowledge of us before the foundation of the world; quite a lot of weeks before birth! Dr Saunders’ use of Luke 1 relating to the birth of Jesus is also incorrect; there is nothing in the passage to indicate that Jesus was even conceived when Mary met Elisabeth.
    Please can Christians base their arguments on what Scripture says, rather than twisting Scripture to support their pre-conceived ideas.
    I am a Christian who believes that a human is created by God with a soul. The Bible makes it very clear that the soul leaves the body at death, and ends up in either heaven or hell. For a Christian, the abortion question must be about the point at which the soul is created, or enters the body. How many Scriptures support the idea that a foetus is a person with a soul? I think there are a few, but let’s think carefully about them.

    1. Your case here seems to rest on the claim that the 'soul' enters the body after conception, but this idea can be challenged on two counts:

      1. The Bible does not support this kind of soul/body dualism. We are ensouled bodies or embodied souls - unified wholes.

      2. The timing of Jesus' birth is clear from the context. God sent the angel to Mary when Elizabeth was in her 6th month of pregnancy with John the Baptist (Luke 1:24,26,36). Shortly afterwards Elizabeth prophesied about the baby Mary would bear. Mary subsequently stayed with Elizabeth three months and then went home (1:56). Elizabeth would have this time been full term (nine months) and gave birth shortly afterwards. This means that no more than one month elapsed between the angel's visitation and Elizabeth's prophecy about Jesus, meaning that Jesus would have been in his first month of intrauterine life.

  6. The Bible does not support the view that some human lives are worth less than others . All are made in the image of God and all are equally precious." then why does he spend his life degrading and harming the dignity of others? He clearly thinks people who are gay are not fully human or worthy of full human dignity. He needs to explain himself.


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