“Now Death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets and breaks into almost every house, where any inhabitants are to be found.”
So one Puritan minister described the terrible summer of 1665, when a quarter of London’s population perished from the Great Plague. Many fled the city. Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) was one who remained. A physician and devout Christian, he was determined to care for the sick and dying.
Sydenham survived the plague and was later honored as the “Father of English Medicine.” He wrote what became, for two centuries, the standard medical textbook. All doctors will answer to God for how they treat their patients, he insisted. They must remember that the person they treat is created in the Almighty’s image.
And that’s why each human life deserves respect from conception onward (Gen. 1:26–28; 9:5–6; Ps. 139:13–16). “You shall not murder” was divinely inscribed on tablets of stone; it is also written on every human heart. For two millennia, Western medical ethics combined the best of Greek medicine (as summarized in the Hippocratic Oath) with the Judeo-Christian ethic of life (as laid out in the Scriptures).
This culture of life is eroding fast.
Culture of Life to Culture of Death
By the end of the 19th century, increased acceptance of evolutionary theory had contributed to a naturalistic worldview. The logical deduction of evolution (through random mutation and natural selection) is that there’s no absolute reason to protect human life above animal life. Humanist philosopher Jacob Bronowski (1908–74) put it simply: “Man is a part of nature in the same sense that a stone is, or a cactus, or a camel.”
When a society rejects the belief that all human life has been created by God, the value of life is increasingly assessed by other criteria—usefulness, enjoyment, awareness, and so on. As Francis Schaeffer (1912–84) warned, if humanity is not made in the image of God, nothing stands in the way of inhumanity.
If humanity is not made in the image of God, nothing stands in the way of inhumanity.
Karl Marx (1818–83) regarded religion as a false consciousness that obstructed the overthrow of capitalism. “Good” was whatever benefited the proletariat; “evil” was whatever harmed them. A century later in The Captive Mind, a Polish defector to the West named Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004) explained how “people’s democracy” leaders insisted that good and evil were defined in terms of service or harm to the interests of the Revolution. They viewed persons, therefore, as mere “human material.”
Miłosz’s contemporary, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008), experienced the grim outworking of that ideology as he endured eight years in a Soviet labor camp. His explanation for the hideous oppression that took the lives of some 60 million? “Men have forgotten God.”
This idea—that we exist merely as the result of evolutionary process—flowed directly into the flawed “science” of eugenics. By the early 20th century, many in the West contended that the human species can be improved through genetic engineering. More than 30 American states allowed disabled, ill, or socially disadvantaged persons to be forcibly sterilized. Such policies were only abandoned after World War II, due to the horror aroused by the Nazi atrocities.
In 1920, a book had been published in Germany titled Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life. The authors, Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, described people with brain injuries, intellectual disabilities, and psychiatric illnesses as “human ballast” and “empty human husks.” Eliminating them was seen as “humane.” When Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933, this belief that “some life is unworthy of life” would be applied with grotesque effect.
No Unique Dignity
In 1948, the World Medical Association issued the Declaration of Geneva in an attempt to prevent any repetition of the horrors of Nazism. Yet the Declaration lacked any reference to an external, transcendent authority—and medical ethics has drifted inexorably toward relativism since. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey majority opinion, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Kennedy’s words claim that we, not God, decide when human life begins. We decide which lives are worth living and worth protecting. Indeed, many now think of abortion as a “human right.” Increasing numbers want assisted suicide to be regarded as a human right as well.
Moreover, the Bible teaches principles of responsible creation care, but some radical environmentalists go much further, denying any obligation to protect human life above the environment. Finnish activist Pentti Linkola (1932–2020), for example, believed humans are like a tumor on the earth, consuming more than our fair share of nature’s resources. The majority of us should therefore be killed, and the remainder controlled by an authoritarian environmentalist state—complete with people forcibly sterilized and private cars confiscated. Such coercive utopianism denies any unique dignity for human beings, and it flows from a form of Darwinian theory.
Only Solid Foundation
When God’s truth is denied, the individual and societal effects are disastrous. As the Roman Catholic philosopher Michael Novak (1933–2017) warned, “To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.” During the 20th century, a series of totalitarian leaders assumed they’d never answer to a God for their deeds. They embraced ideologies that led them to treat their populations as “human material.” Indeed, it has been estimated that between 1900 and 1987, 170 million people were killed by their own governments.
When God’s truth is denied, the individual and societal impact is disastrous.
Those leaders will answer for their crimes, for God judges those who take innocent human life (Gen. 4:10; 9:5–6; Ex. 20:13). We’ve been created in God’s image with dominion over the rest of creation—“a little lower than the heavenly beings, crowned . . . with glory and honor” (Ps. 8; cf. Gen. 1–2). We exist to know, obey, praise, and enjoy God in this life and forever. The free offer of the gospel is still open to all.
Many today denounce Christianity as toxic and repressive. We shouldn’t be intimidated by such claims. The truth about God and about human beings—revealed in both nature and Scripture—is the only solid foundation for the protection of human life, human dignity, and human flourishing.