The Old Testament and the Sanctity of Life


I have long promised to offer on this website glimpses into my new book on the sanctity of life, which will be published in the Eerdmans/CBHD “Critical Issues in Bioethics” series. I am happy to finally begin delivering on that promise.

In an earlier column I offered my working definition of the sanctity of human life. It is worth repeating here. I keep it in front of me as a plumb line as I write this book each day:

The sanctity of life is the conviction that all human beings, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, nationality, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., of any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as sacred, as persons of equal and immeasurable worth and of inviolable dignity. Therefore they must be treated with the reverence and respect commensurate with this elevated moral status, beginning with a commitment to the preservation, protection, and flourishing of their lives.

I argue in my book that this exalted moral vision flowed into western culture primarily as a legacy of biblical faith. This vision of human worth has been endlessly developed, refined, altered, and sometimes attacked by voices within western culture over many centuries until today. One key purpose of the book is to go back into the sources of the concept of life’s sanctity in order to renew this vision in the most compelling way possible before it perhaps disappears under the onslaught of competing visions of humanity.

In my chapter on the contribution of the Old Testament to the idea of the sanctity of human life, I offer an extensive discussion of the imago Dei. More broadly, I explore the significance of an Old Testament theology of creation for the understanding of the value of the human being posited in the definition above. Here is an excerpt from that section of the chapter:

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           One of the most important contributions of the Old Testament creation theology is its implicit universality. Those familiar with the Bible tend to take this universality for granted, but it is an enormously important dimension of Old Testament creation theology and must not be overlooked. Consider the fact that all references to humanity in the early Genesis narratives are references to all humanity. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” This explicitly includes “male and female” (Gen. 1:26-27), and implicitly includes every male and female. The shedding of anyone’s blood is banned in Genesis 9:5-6 on the basis of everyone’s status as the image of God. Delegation of dominion is extended to all humans—William Brown describes this as the “democratization of royalty in the creation account”—such that we are all kings.1 Psalm 8 reflects on the “glory and honor” with which humanity as such is “crowned.” There is no hierarchy offered here between subcategories of human beings: Jew or non-Jew, male or female, young or old, slave or free, sick or well, friend or enemy (cf. Galatians 3, where Paul can be taken to argue that this original human egalitarianism has been renewed in Christ). The fact that such distinctions dominate much of human history and even creep into biblical law and narrative represents a weakening of this implicitly egalitarian and universalizing theology of creation.2 There is but one God who makes one humanity. This is a non-negotiable element of biblical creation theology.

            The oneness of humanity in part results from our common origin not just in one Creator God but in one shared ancestor. The creation narrative found in Genesis 2 tells a story in which God begins to create humanity by creating one person first. Here the older, less gender-sensitive English style actually helps us: God creates “man[kind]” by creating “a man.” The first woman is then formed out of the first man. From them come absolutely everyone else. Paul put it this way at Mars Hill: “From one he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17:26). Paul actually offers a wordplay here—from enos (one) to ethnos (nations/peoples). However unlike each other the different ethnoi may seem, we came from the same place. From one person, came all people. One might say that Genesis 1 teaches the universality of the imago Dei, and Genesis 2 teaches a primal human unity by narrating a story in which all human beings come from one common ancestor. In our origins, we are one race—the human race.

            Every worldview based on an ontologically divided or fundamentally hierarchical view of humanity poses a threat to this theology of creation. In turn, most alien worldviews familiar with Genesis creation theology and the tradition it produced recognize the threat that tradition poses—sometimes even more clearly than Christians themselves do. Adolf Hitler, for example, in supporting his noxious anti-Semitism wrote that “The Jew is the creature of another god, the anti-man…He is a creature outside nature and alien to nature.”3 For Nazi ideology, “Aryans” shared neither a common origin nor a common humanity with Jews. In fact, Nazi instruction to primary school students emphasized the fundamental and irrevocable division of humanity into separate and hierarchically ordered “races.”4 There was no such thing as “humanity as such,” only distinct races and peoples competing with one another for supremacy on the planet. We will explore Nazi ideology more thoroughly later in this volume. Suffice it to say at this point that Adolf Hitler, that lapsed Catholic, was quite clear that the egalitarianism, democratization, and universality of biblical creation theology stood in stark contradiction to his authoritarian political racism, and he took every effort to subvert, seduce, and suppress a robust biblical theology during his reign of terror.


1 William P. Brown, The Ethos of the Cosmos (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 43.

2 See Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), pp. 85-86.

3 Quoted in Leni Yahil, The Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 44.

4 The Nazi Primer: Official Handbook for Schooling the Hitler Youth, translated by Harwood Childs (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938), see especially ch. 1, “The Unlikeness of Men.”


Editor's Note: Since this essay represents ongoing research by Dr. Gushee for his volume on Sanctifying Life in the CBHD series Critical Issues in Bioethics, he retains exclusive rights to the material included. This essay should not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Dr. Gushee.

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