The Great Controversy: When Does Life Begin?
January 2016 will mark the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in America. Since then, women have aborted 57.7 million babies in the United States1—more than twice the population of Australia.
The practice of killing unborn children has become so common that a New Jersey high school teacher recently presented it as an equally valid option to delivery. After administering fake pregnancy tests to girls in her early-childhood education class, she told them they could either abort their babies and do worksheet projects or keep them and care for “fake babies” (computerized infant simulators).
For more than four decades, abortion has been one of the most controversial and polarizing topics in American society, dividing the country into two camps: pro-life and pro-choice. Pro-lifers claim abortion destroys a human being and is morally wrong. Pro-choice advocates claim abortion merely destroys impersonal tissue and is not immoral.
At the heart of the controversy is the issue of when life begins. If the soul is present at conception, then abortion at any time is murder.
Although I have visited this topic in this column, it is so important that I want to take another look at what the Bible says about when life begins.
Origin of the Soul
Medical science has shed considerable light on the development of the human embryo from conception to birth. As far back as 1979, such research caused obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson to reverse his pro-abortion stand.
A former atheist, Nathanson once owned America’s largest abortion clinic. He crusaded to legalize abortion and in 1969 cofounded what is now the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL Pro-Choice America). Yet in the December 11, 1979, issue of the Chicago Sun-Times, he repudiated abortion. “Science has disproved my pro-abortion views,” he wrote.
“Biology,” wrote Dr. Nathanson, “requires any civilized society to react with revulsion at the Supreme Court’s policy of abortion on request for any reason when the embryo or fetus is there—alive—an inescapable part of the human community.” He concluded, “Only a life—that of the mother—can justify the taking of another life.”
In addition to the ﬁndings of science, there is divine revelation. God has said that He created mankind in His image and has provided revelation concerning the origin of the human soul.
God created mankind in His image, meaning He made humans to be personal beings—possessing intellect, emotion, and will—and moral beings, responsible to God for their conduct.
These facts indicate two important truths: (1) People are diﬀerent from and superior to animals and plants; and (2) it is wrong to murder a human being because a human soul resides within (Gen. 9:5–6).
If the soul is present at conception, then abortion at any time is murder.
Consequently, the real issue revolves around the question, “When does a person obtain a soul?” There are three major views: the preexistence theory, the creation theory, and the traducian theory.
The Preexistence Theory. Proponents of the preexistence theory claim a community of bodiless souls exists somewhere in the universe prior to each soul’s entering into a physical body. They claim that each soul leaves this community and enters a physical body either at conception or birth.
This theory is pagan. It has been advocated by Hinduism and other Eastern mystical philosophies and religions, by reincarnation proponents, and by some secular philosophers and psychologists.
Christians must reject the preexistence theory because it has no biblical support and contradicts the Bible’s teaching that all human beings sinned in Adam.
According to Romans 5:12–19, sin entered the world through the ﬁrst man’s original sin. As a result, physical death came to all mankind. All people are condemned to die, not because of individual sins they commit after birth, but because all human beings sinned when Adam sinned. In Romans 5:12, the active voice of the verb translated “sinned” in the expression because all sinned indicates all of Adam’s descendants participated in his original sin. The same truth is indicated again in 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, which declares all human beings die “in Adam.”
Adam decided to sin against God in his soul, where his mind and will resided and functioned. In fact, all humanity’s decisions to sin are made in the realm of the human soul because decisions are functions of the mind and will.
Consequently, the only way all people could have sinned in Adam is if their souls were related to or derived from Adam. If, as the pre-existence theory asserts, individual human souls exist somewhere in the universe before the conception of each physical human body, then each human soul could not be related to or derived from Adam.
The Creation Theory. Proponents of the creation theory claim each human soul is created directly and individually by God at conception, birth, or sometime in between.
Several secular philosophers have proposed this theory. Since it claims that human souls come into being by creative acts of God, many ﬁne Christians have advocated it.
However, the theory has several problems.
First, it does not ﬁt with the biblical teaching that all human beings sinned in Adam. Since sin is related primarily to the realm of the human soul, how could all humans have participated in Adam’s original sin if God created their souls directly and individually sometime after that original sin?
Second, the creation theory does not ﬁt with the sinful nature of all human beings from their conception. The Bible teaches that all people are sinful by nature (Rom. 3:9–18, 23; 5:19; Eph. 2:1–3) and are in a state of sin from conception (Ps. 51:5). Since sin is related to the soul, and since all people are in a state of sin from conception, then all people must have sinful human souls at the time of conception.
But how could each soul be in a state of sin from its beginning if God created each soul individually and directly? The holy God does not create sinful souls. The source of mankind’s sinfulness is mankind, not God.
Third, the creation theory cannot explain how children often inherit their parents’ intellect and character. If God created each soul individually and directly, why do children often resemble their parents in these qualities, which belong to the realm of the soul, not the body?
The Traducian Theory. The traducian theory asserts that each human soul is transferred to oﬀspring by parents through procreation. The individual soul comes into existence at the time of conception. Consequently, parents propagate entire human beings, not merely bodies.
Signiﬁcant biblical evidence exists for this theory. For example, Genesis 46:26 states, “All the persons who went with Jacob to Egypt, who came from his body, besides Jacob’s sons’ wives, were sixty-six persons in all.” The Hebrew word translated “body” refers to Jacob’s “loins, as seat of procreative power.”2
The word translated “persons” is the same word Genesis 35:18 and 1 Kings 17:21–22 use for the human soul. Genesis 35:18 states that Rachel’s “soul was departing (for she died).” 1 Kings 17:21 records that Elijah “cried out to the Lᴏʀᴅ and said, ‘O Lᴏʀᴅ my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.’”
Thus Genesis 46:26 implies Jacob played a signiﬁcant role in procreating total human beings—souls and bodies. Therefore, souls are procreated by parents.
Hebrews 7:9–10 implies the same concept: “Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak” (v. 9). Levi, Abraham’s great-grandson, paid tithes to Melchizedek “through” Abraham years before Levi was even conceived.
How could Levi pay tithes prior to his conception? “For he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (v. 10; Jewish people used the term father for any male ancestor). Levi was present in seminal form in Abraham’s loins when Abraham tithed to Melchizedek.
Since an impersonal body cannot pay tithes, Hebrews 7:10 implies that souls, as well as bodies, are seminally passed on from generation to generation until procreated by parents at conception.
The traducian theory is also the only theory that fits the biblical teaching that all human beings sinned in Adam:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned. By the one man’s oﬀense many died. . . . The judgment which came from one oﬀense resulted in condemnation. . . . By the one man’s oﬀense death reigned through the one. . . . Through one man’s oﬀense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation. . . . By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners(Rom. 5:12, 15–19).
The active voice of the verb translated “all sinned” (v. 12) indicates all human beings participated in Adam’s original sin and share in its guilt. King David declared, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity” (Ps. 51:5). Thus David indicated that at the time of his birth, he already bore the guilt of iniquity and deserved divine punishment.
Since sin is related primarily to the realm of the soul, the only way all humans could have sinned with Adam is if their souls are related to him. Each soul is related to Adam in the same way that Levi’s soul was related to Abraham; every human soul was present in seminal form in Adam’s loins when he sinned.
In conclusion, both science and divine revelation support the fact that human life begins at conception. Biology reveals the fetus is a human being; and biblical evidence, as explained in the traducian theory, maintains that the human soul comes into existence at conception. Therefore, abortion murders an innocent human life.
- Steven Ertelt, “57,762,169 Abortions in America Since Roe vs. Wade in 1973,” lifenews.com, January 21, 2015 <tinyurl.com/p2g6jrv>.
- Francis Brown, ed., with S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, “yarek,”A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (based on the lexicon of William Gesenius, trans. Edward Robinson; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 438.