When does the Bible say human life begins?

One of the central questions in the abortion debate always comes to this, when does human life begin and does the unborn growing in the womb count among the human race? As Christians, we need to be able to answer that question two ways. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to record two different answers for that. The first being, what does the Bible say? And the second being, what does science say? As Christians, we need to be able to understand and communicate both because, contrary to popular opinion, the two do not disagree with one another. They actually reinforce one another. And as Christians, we must know what the Bible says. If we are sharing about the morality of humanity with the non-believer, the non-believer may not care what the Bible says, but they may listen to what science says. We need, as Christians, to be able to understand both.

Today I’m going to specifically be answering the question according to the Bible, when does human life begin? So we’ll start with just the short answer to that question. There is no distinction in the Bible whatsoever between the unborn child and the post-born child. God sees them equally as humans living along the normal continuum of life. Let me start with the old Testament phrase, Yelled. This is a Hebrew term, Yelled, which is used throughout the Old Testament. It means something that has been born, a lad, an offspring, a baby, etc. But there are nuances to it.

There are four Bible verses that are translated in the original Hebrew as Yelled. From Exodus 2 and 21, Genesis 4 and 21. In all of these, you have the term Yelled. In the first verse, you’ll see that Yelled translates to child or meaning from the context we know an infant child. In Genesis 21, we see the word Yelled again translated as child, but in this context it means a toddler or one who is old enough to be ready to be weaned from its mother. In Genesis 4, Yelled is translated in the English as young man or youth. And then in Exodus 21, we see the term Yelled referring to unborn children. There is no distinction in the word Yelled between referring to children who have been born and children who have yet to be born.

The Hebrew word habanim is often used the same way in the Bible. In some places you’ll see it referring to post-born children. In some other cases, you’ll see it referring to pre-born children. God makes no distinction between these. Now let’s move on to the new Testament. The Greek word for child is most often brephos. A brephos is an infant or a child and it can refer to an unborn or a born human life. If you look at chapter Luke 1, you’re going to see two verses with the translated word brephos.

In Luke 1, we have this famous passage where you have the greeting between Elizabeth and Mary as she goes down to visit her and we see the baby within Elizabeth leaps to indicate that they were in the presence of the Messiah. Then in Luke 2, just one chapter later, we find that the shepherds are hastening to find Mary and Joseph, who have now laid a baby in a manger. Again, same word referring now to a child who has been born. Just one chapter separated from from each other, the same word refers to a fetus or an unborn child and to a newborn or an infant.

But perhaps the most vivid picture in all of the Bible that proves that God sees human life as beginning at conception is also found in the entire story of Mary found in Luke 1. This point is most clearly made when Mary finds out that she’s going to be pregnant with a baby and she goes to visit her relative Elizabeth. I won’t read the entire passage, but I would encourage you to look specifically through these verses of Luke 1: 26-44.

This is a very famous Christmas passage. Mary is visited by the Angel Gabriel and he reveals to her good news. She is going to become pregnant and have a baby. But she is not going to have just any baby. This is a Baby that will be the Ruler of the nations and the Savior of the world. Now, Mary lives in Nazareth which is up in the northern part of Israel near the Sea of Galilee. Mary sets off to visit her relative Elizabeth, who lives in the hill country of Judea. The Bible specifically says that she sets off with haste to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. Elizabeth, when she arrives, is six months pregnant with Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.

We know that this is John the Baptist. If we follow the story along John the Baptist is a prophet and 30 years later he is going to announce the coming of the Messiah among the people. And yet, it’s in this passage from Luke 1 that we see John executing his prophetic ministry first because he announces the arrival of the coming Messiah to his mother. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the baby inside of Elizabeth greets the baby inside of Mary and we say that a womb-to-womb worship service breaks out. John the Baptist does his charismatic Pentecostal thing. He starts jumping in the womb to tell his mother, who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understands what John is saying.

“You are in the presence of the Messiah. The Messiah has come.” Now Elizabeth lives n the hill country of Judea. Where is that? It would be impossible to specify it with a pinpoint on a map, but here’s what we know about Elizabeth. Elizabeth is married to Zechariah. Zechariah is priest in the temple in Jerusalem. So when it says that she lives in the hill country of Judea, it means that they live in a community right outside of Jerusalem within walking distance. Maybe some small town or village right outside of Jerusalem. The journey between Nazareth in the north and Jerusalem in the southern part of Israel is about, depending on your route, anywhere from about 80 to 110 miles.

It was a long walk. Often took people 3-6 days to make that walk. Jesus made that walk three times during his earthly ministry. He walked from his home area up around the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum down to Jerusalem for various feasts as was common in those days. I will remind you that when the angel appears to Mary, she is not pregnant. He says, “You will become pregnant. The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” Now, we don’t know when Mary became pregnant, but we know that she left to visit her relative in the hill country of Judea, it probably means she left within 1-2 days of the angel appearing to her.

We know that she didn’t wait three weeks because she stays with Elizabeth for three months. When she returns to go back to Nazareth, that’s the time when Elizabeth is ready to give birth to John the Baptist. Mary didn’t wait three weeks after the angel appeared to her. How big is Jesus when John worships him? Jesus is anywhere from hours to a week or so old because she was not pregnant when the angel appeared. We don’t know where she became pregnant. Maybe right after the angel left her, maybe somewhere along the journey, she made a five or six stage journey in haste. So when John the Baptist recognizes that he’s in the presence of the Messiah, Jesus cannot be seen without the help of a microscope.

This is a joyful celebratory revelation for a lot of Christians to see because it’s right there in the passage of Scripture. It’s a delight for a lot of people to see that Jesus is a zygote when John the Baptist worships him as fully God and fully human. This goes along with the biblical narrative that God always sees the beginning of anyone’s life as having started at conception.

Now, I was a missionary in the far east on the high inner plateau steps of Eastern Asia. When a baby was born in those days in that area, they say that the baby is 1-year-old because nine months is the better part of a year for gestation period. They see life as beginning at conception. So when people ask me how old I am to this day, I have to remember are we talking about the way Asians count years or the way Americans count years. It’s a vivid picture, again, that the Bible always talks with consistency of life beginning at conception.

You’ll also remember that the children, Jacob and Esau, struggled within Rebekah. These are unborn children and we know from Genesis 4 that when Eve became pregnant with Cain, it says specifically that she conceived and gave birth to a son, Cain. From God’s perspective, Cain’s life began at conception. We are going to talk about the implications of that later on. In the next installment, we’re going to understand how does science answers the question of when human life begins. We know that the answer from the Bible is that human life begins at conception.

It’s a wonderful truth that should animate the way we see life in the womb. It should animate the way we celebrate life. From the very first day of conception that we or someone in our life has conceived a precious baby child. Let that arm you Christian with the confidence of knowing that.

God indeed sees human life as beginning at conception.