Over the years there has been much contention among Christians and others about when a human embryo becomes a person. While it is obvious, one would think, that life starts at conception, is what is conceived in a woman’s womb rightly regarded as a human person? Anti-abortionists usually maintain that it is and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Part of the problem is the definition of a person but most assume that it is an individual possessing conscious intelligence. We say that mankind is made in the image of God but there is debate about definition even here. What is it that differentiates a man or woman who is flesh as deriving from the earth (Gen. 2:7; 3:19) from animals in general which are also earth-derived flesh (Gen. 1:24; 2:19)? So what does the Bible teach us either explicitly or implicitly. If we have no specific text to refer to, what legitimate inferences can we draw from the biblical or theological data?
According to Hebrews 11:6 we cannot please God without faith. This implies, first, that animals that do not have faith cannot be saved, and, secondly, that human babies, though made in the image of God at least in principle, cannot either. This is the consistent message of Scripture and it appears to be the implication of Hebrews 11. Paul tell us plainly that flesh and blood being naturally perishable cannot enter the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50), and Jesus asserts that what is born of flesh is flesh. Even the spirit as created (cf. e.g. Num. 16:22; Zech. 12:1) must necessarily be born again to enter the kingdom (John 3:6). Clearly at the start animals and babies, apart from the image of God, are in the same category. This is illustrated most obviously by Jesus who at his incarnation was born in an animal stable. Little wonder that he later taught that the flesh in contrast with the spirit is profitless (John 6:63, cf. Rom. 7:18).
But faith is based on knowledge (Rom. 10:17). Here again both animals and babies (Dt. 1:39, etc.) are affected by the same deficiency. Without knowledge of the law which promises life (Gen. 2:16f.; Rom. 7:10) there can be no faith. But by the same token there can be no sin, for without knowledge of the law, sin lies dead (Rom. 7:8, cf. 4:15; Gen. 2:16f., pace those who believe in original sin). The truth is then that (knowledge of) the law provides the basis for both faith and sin, and where it is absent (cf. John 9:41; 15:22,24), there is no room for either justification or condemnation, salvation or damnation for either animals or babies. So Augustine’s grotesque idea that all unbaptized babies who do not even know how to call for their parents (Isa. 7:14-16; 8:4) are damned is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. The plain truth is that knowledge is intrinsic to human personality.
Fundamental to our nature as persons is the ability to be either obedient or disobedient. Without the commandment Adam was innocent (Gen.2:16f.; 3:5,22). Once he learned the commandment, however, he epitomized disobedience (Gen. 2:17; 3:17; Rom. 5:12). Jesus on the other hand, the second Adam, epitomized obedience. As Paul says in Romans 6:16, we all establish our moral characters as persons not by being born either good or evil, righteous or sinful, but by the way we react to (the) law when we come to understand it (cf. e.g. Ex. 15:25f.; Dt. 8:2,16). Both Adam and Eve broke the commandment when they came to know it and became transgressors; by contrast Jesus uniquely kept the law throughout his earthly life and was eventually described as the Righteous One (Acts 7:52; 22:14; 1 John 2:1, etc.). He was thus able to offer himself precisely as the righteous one for us the unrighteous sons and daughters of Adam and Eve who all follow their pattern of behaviour (Rom. 5:12; 1 Pet. 3:18).
Righteousness and Holiness
At birth Jesus was clearly neither righteous nor holy but like all human persons had to attain to his status by his reaction to the law. (1* There is a sense in which Jesus as the Son of God was holy, that is, separate by birth. For all that, he still had to maintain his separateness in the course of his earthly life lived in total obedience to his Father, cf. Mt. 5:48; 19:21. He thereby proved his pedigree.) The OT laid far more stress on the righteousness and holiness of God than it did on his love and grace even if these were not absent. It is therefore not surprising that the need for the chosen people to be righteous (Dt. 6:25; 10:12f.) and holy (Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2) like their Creator is strongly emphasised. Just as righteousness and holiness are characteristics of the living God, so are they of his people who are intended to become his sons and daughters. Without them no one, least of all unknowing animals including babies, will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
Flesh and Covenant
According to Paul we are, first, flesh, the offspring of Adam who stemmed from the earth, and, second, spirit (1 Cor. 15:46). As modern procreated babies we are flesh as born of woman who typified the earth as stemming from Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 11) and are like animals that know nothing (cf. Gen. 2:16f.; 3:5,22; Dt. 1:39; 1 K. 3:7,9; Heb.5:12-14). Even Jesus as a genuine human being was born in an animal stable. When we consider that we are all born naked (Job 1:21), ignorant (Dt. 1:39), uncircumcised (Gen. 17:12,14), morally innocent, untested, live on a limited diet (note Gen. 2:16 and compare Gen. 9:3; Heb. 5:12; 1 Pet. 2:2) and require time to be weaned, it is little wonder that God did not make a covenant, no matter how minimally mutual, with Adam but simply commanded him. (2* For more detail see my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?) In fact the first divine covenant was made with Noah who by comparison with Adam had obviously undergone some development or evolution. Furthermore, in contrast with the majority of the churches even in the 21st century God did not baptise babies in the Christian sense but used the flood to cleanse Noah of his infantile filth (1 Pet. 3:21, cf. Ezek. 16:9) as he later used the crossing of the Red Sea to ‘baptise’ the people Moses led out of bondage to heathen Egypt (1 Cor. 10:1-5).
John 3:1-8 makes it clear beyond reasonable dispute that flesh, which is naturally corruptible (subject to decay, Rom. 8:20f.) and wear (Col. 2:22) like the earth (dust) from which it is taken, cannot be regenerated, but the spirit can and must (John 3:7). Only Jesus who kept the law, the precondition of salvation (Gen. 2:16f.; Lev. 18:5) avoided death on his own account (Acts 2:23f.) and, at his ascension transformation, achieved the perfection of God, his Father. If this is true, once more we are forced to recognize that regeneration is confined to human beings endowed with conscious intelligence and moral capacity. Admittedly, because we all sin (Rom. 3:23; 5:12) and fail to meet the condition, we all apart from Jesus have to rely on him as our covenant representative to save us, but this in itself proves yet again that only persons are capable of doing this. Animals and babies do not qualify for the simple reason that they are not capable of faith by which we attain to the righteousness or justification which precedes regeneration (Lev. 18:5, etc.). (3* Traditionally, almost all the churches have followed Augustine who taught original sin. This has forced them to posit regeneration (and hence infant baptism) as coming first in the order of salvation (ordo salutis). This is clearly a serious error. See, e.g., my Redemption Applied (Order of Salvation) ; Cart-Before-The-Horse Theology)
Since knowledge is of the essence of the image of God and is the prime point of difference between humans and animals, I conclude that babies who know nothing are only potential persons just as the children Jesus blessed were potential members of the kingdom (Mark 10:14-16). (In blessing them Jesus was imitating God at the beginning, Gen. 1:28; 9:1). This is further suggested by the difference made between a mother and her fetus in Exodus 21:22. Whereas the murder of an adult warranted the death penalty (Gen. 9:6, etc.), the destruction of the unborn fetus merely required a fine (cf. Dt. 22:6). Even the reference in 2 Kings 15:16 suggests that it is the injury done to the women that primarily involved reprobation. So the fact that mankind is not covenanted until Noah who on the assumption of recapitulation surely represents the childhood of the race leads us to believe that knowledge is essential to personhood. (4* The fact that certain antediluvians were capable of both sin and justification prior to the covenant with Noah is no argument against this contention. After all, though they were ‘infants’ from a racial point of view, they were nonetheless grown-up as individuals. See e.g. my Adam’s Genealogy and Destiny; Man’s Fourfold State; Christianity Simply and Briefly Explained) If this is in fact the case, anti-abortionists who insist that the fetus is a person are guilty of using a bad argument to support what is basically a good cause. Abortion on demand is surely contrary to the will of God. On the other hand, I see no biblical reason why in certain cases like rape abortion should not be permissible. God has taken the trouble to make us persons in his image and as persons we must be expected to act responsibly according to the abilities he has given us. This is surely the implication of Galatians 4:1-7. Paul, like the author of Hebrews 11, fails to include unself-conscious babies among the heirs of salvation. He begins with children as slaves, adolescent Jews as servants and believers as (adopted) sons. Only such were ever subject to testing which is the lot of us all here on earth. By this we shall be found either worthy or unworthy of eternal life (cf. Dt. 8:2; Acts 13:46-48; 2 Thes. 1:5, etc.). Babies like animals are out of the question since they cannot be either justified by faith or judged by works.
I deny the assertion of some that a decision on the time of qualification for personhood is completely arbitrary and subjective. If we give the biblical evidence its full weight, we qualify as persons at the onset of childhood, that is, when we begin to acquire knowledge and become capable of naming animals, recognising rainbows, sinning and exercising faith (Gen. 8:21; Jer. 22:21; 32:30; Heb. 11). By a strange coincidence this is precisely what happened to me!
Points to Ponder
If babies are saved or if unbaptised they go to hell as Augustine taught, then both heaven and hell must be full of babies – an impossible and absurd scenario!
The Bible clearly indicates that we are first (pro)created, that is, brought into being, then, secondly, subjected to evolutionary development. (5* I prefer to express myself this way. The notion of ‘evolutionary creationism’ (see e.g. Alexander, ch.8) seems to me to blur the biblical distinction between the creation of the race and its subsequent development.) An undeveloped or unevolved baby is effectively stillborn, a non-person (cf. Num. 12:12; Job 3:16; Eccl. 6:3). (My wife who is now nearly 86 had a twin sister who died when she was ten days old. The difference between the two is enormous. Both were (pro)created together, but only my wife under the providence of God evolved into the mature Christian and admirable person she now is. While the latter has been tested and tried as a true believer, the spirit of the other has returned to its Maker and her fleshly body consigned to the earth from which it came in the first place, Eccl. 12:7.)
In brief I conclude that flesh (dust) (cf. 1 Cor. 15:46-48) devoid of knowledge which is untested, without faith, covenant status and hope of regeneration is not a person as biblically understood. Between a fleshly infant born in a stable and a mature or perfected adult (Heb. 5:7-10) who was crowned with glory (Heb. 2:9) and took his seat at his Father’s side (Heb. 1:3) there is a yawning gap. It could only be bridged by the Son of God himself. Initially, he was made lower than the angels (Heb. 2:7,9) but, finally, he was worshipped by them (Heb.1:4,6; 1 Pet. 3:22). He alone was a fully perfected person (Heb. 7:28) who, having begun in the ground, ascended into heaven (Eph. 4:9-10, cf. John 3:13; 8:14;13:3; 16:28). He was the vine while those who abided in him were fruitful branches. The rest were consigned to burning like the earth from which they stemmed (Mt. 13:40-42; John 15:6, cf. Ezek. 15:1-8; Heb. 6:7f.; 12:27-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12).
See further my:
D.Alexander, CREATION OR EVOLUTION, Oxford, 2008.
Note: On personhood see, for e.g., R.T.France in The Living God, London/Illinois, 1970, pp.19f., 37.