Genocide is a Gray Area

Genocide is a Gray Area

(This post is the first in a series of three.)

“Genocide is not a black and white issue,” “The Bible doesn’t specifically mention it,” “There’re good Christians who disagree about it,” “It’s a complex issue,” “We should leave it up to the individual’s choice,” “We really don’t know whether Jews/Tutsis/Cambodians are truly persons so we shouldn’t be dogmatic about systematically killing them.” I hope these statements shock you as being indefensible and wicked. We have learned all too well in the past century how much harm genocide can do. Yet these statements are all too often on the lips of professing Christians (especially those who lean towards the left on political issues) when it comes to abortion. Why is that? Is abortion really a gray area? Can Christians in good faith disagree on this issue? Before we answer these questions, we must recognize that they have massive implications. If abortion is not a gray area and truly is the murder of unborn persons – then it surpasses Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, the Khmer Rouge, and the Hutu government as the most massive human rights violation of all time. In the United States alone there have been over 60 million abortions since 1973, that is ten times more than the number of Jews killed by Nazi Germany in WWII. This is not an insignificant issue. If one is to argue for the morality of abortion he must be sure, absolutely sure, that it is not murder to kill unborn human beings.

I want to say up front that I am writing to those who claim to be Christians, that is those who self-consciously wish to submit themselves to Christ and His word found in the Bible (i.e. they don’t just go to church a few times a year and think Jesus is “pretty cool”). My thesis is simple: the Bible nowhere gives moral justification for the killing of unborn humans and everywhere treats them as persons, thereby rendering abortion murder. I am assuming for the purposes of this article (and the two following) that the reader will agree with me that killing innocent persons made in the image of God is, in fact, murder (Genesis 9:6).[1] So, if I can demonstrate that the Bible views the unborn as persons made in the image of God (there is no other type of person), then to kill them as is done in abortion is clearly prohibited in Scripture as murder.

Biblical Evidence

The first line of evidence is that man is made in the image of God. Genesis 1:26-17 teaches us that God specially created man as His own image – distinct from all the other creatures. The image of God is a complex subject in theology at the very least includes the fact that man is a spiritual and moral being, that is, he is able to relate to God and endowed with moral agency. Moving a few chapters ahead in Genesis, we see that this image of God (what it means to be human) is passed down by ordinary procreative means. Genesis 5:3 says, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke says of this verse, “Without a doubt, then, the author intends his reader to understand that through sexual intercourse – seminally – the essential feature of humanness…is handed down.”

This is why Paul can argue in Acts 17:26 that the entire human race is united and related. He said, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” Since God ended His creation week, He has rested from the work of creation. He isn’t throwing in new species every now and then, nor is he fashioning humans from dust as He did with Adam. Since we do not believe that God breaks His Sabbath rest every time a human being is created in order to endow them with the breath of life – it must be passed down from Adam to now at conception to each new individual.

That the Bible considers unborn human beings as persons made in the image of God can be seen through its doctrine of original sin. The Bible teaches that since the Fall every human being has been under death, condemnation, and sin (Romans 5:14-19). All of these things presuppose that humans are moral agents – after all a beetle (let alone a rock) cannot sin. Psalm 51:5 is an important testimony to this doctrine, David said, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” David here is not saying that his mother sinned, but rather he is tracing his sinfulness all the way back to the earliest point of his life – conception. However, the fact that he traces his sinfulness back to his conception testifies to the fact that he was a person made in the image of God from conception. Clumps of cells cannot be guilty of sin, persons can. This can also be seen by the simple fact that infants die. If infants are not counted guilty because of Adams sin, and therefore implicitly affirmed as the image of God, then why do they die? Death is the result of sin (Genesis 2:17).

Psalm 139 is worth quoting at length for it also teaches us that the unborn child is a special work of God,

13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

Of particular note in this passage is the fact that David consistently refers to himself as an unborn child with personal pronouns. He does not say, “You knitted what became me together in my mother’s womb,” he says, “you knitted me together in my mothers womb.” He does not say, “When the clump of morally insignificant cells was being made in secret,” he says, “When I was being made in secret.” This can also be seen in Psalm 51, David says, “In sin did my mother conceive me.” The implication is clear – that zygote/embryo/fetus in David’s mother’s womb was him, it was a person.

Luke 1 also gives us insights into the Bible’s view of unborn human children with the examples of John the Baptist and Jesus. When the angel appeared to Zechariah and told him that his barren wife Elizabeth would bear a son, he also said that the son would be “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). This is clear evidence that John the Baptist was a person made in the image of God before he was born – because the Holy Spirit fills persons, not clumps of morally insignificant cells.

Later in the chapter, an angel visited Mary and told her that she will conceive and bear a son – Jesus. She is also told that Elizabeth is pregnant with John and goes to visit her. When she arrives John, who was only six months old, leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41-44). Joy is a distinctly personal affection, not something a non-living clump of cells can have, it is not even something an animal can have, but rather is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) produced in persons made in the image of God. Furthermore, not only is John portrayed as already a person, filled with the Holy Spirit, made in God’s image, and capable of human affections, but Jesus is as well a few weeks at most from his conception. This can be seen by the fact that Elizabeth called Mary “The mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). If the child conceived in Mary’s womb were just a morally insignificant fetus then it certainly would not be right for Elizabeth to call him “her Lord” or refer to Mary as a mother. An impersonal clump of cells cannot be “Lord” and Mary cannot be a mother unless the weeks old infant in her womb is indeed a child and a person.

Lastly, we will examine in some detail, Exodus 21:22-25:

22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Both sides of the debate have used this text to justify their position – yet a close reading shows it to strongly support a pro-life interpretation. There are at least three main interpretations of this passage, and both pro-life and anti-life advocates appeal to it for support. The passage is one of Israel’s case laws dealing with criminal negligence.[2] It is closely related to the parallel law in verses 28-30. The law describes two cases (A and B) in which a woman is accidentally struck in a brawl between men. The cases are described in a protasis apodosis construction (if-then). The difference between the protasis of case A and B is that in case A “there is no harm” (‎וְלֹא יִהְיֶה אָסוֹן) but in case be “there is harm” (‎אָסוֹן יִהְיֶה). In both cases, there is a premature birth because of the blow delivered to the woman.

All interpretations hinge on their view of three things: 1) the “harm” statements, 2) whether 22a describes a miscarriage, and 3) the type of punishments accorded each case. The anti-life interpretation argues: first, that the harm statements in both cases only refers to the woman; second, that there is a miscarriage in both cases; and third, that the punishment in case A is significantly less severe than in case B.[3] The common pro-life interpretation argues: first, that the harm statements in both cases refer to the woman and her child; second, that a live birth is described in case A; and third, that the punishment in case B where there is a miscarriage (or the woman is harmed) is more severe than in case A. The second pro-life interpretation argues: first, that 22a does not describe a miscarriage; second, that the harm statement in both cases refers only to the child(ren); and third, that the punishment in both cases is equally severe.[4]

Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline give a number of arguments for the second pro-life interpretation, and I find them convincing. First, the word ענשׁ used to define the punishment in case A can refer to physical punishment (Proverbs 17:26) and so is not limited to a monetary fine. Second, the phrase “lays on him” (‎יָשִׁית עָלָיו) used in case A of the punishment is also used of the punishment for the goring of the ox in v. 29-30, which can include death but provides the option to ransom his life because the offense was one of criminal negligence, not premeditated murder. Third, the word‎ בִּפְלִלִים (translated “judges” in the ESV) is rare (only occurring elsewhere in Deut. 32:31 and Job 31:11 – both places in the context of serious punishment). The ב preposition can be used in the talion formula (Deut. 19:21) to convey equivalence and Kline suggest the translation “he shall pay for his forfeited life” or “he shall pay as one deserving death.” Kline sums it up so far, saying,

Therefore, no matter whether on interprets the first or second penalty to have reference to a miscarriage, there is no difference in the treatment accorded the fetus and the woman. Either way the fetus is regarded as a living person, so that to be criminally responsible for the destruction of the fetus is to forfeit one’s life.[5]

Fourth, the word used to describe the blow delivered to the woman is נגף. It is a strong word, often used for fatal divine judgments (1 Samuel 25:38) or slaughter in battle (Judges 20:35). In Exodus 21 itself, it is used for the fatal goring of the ox (21:35). Fifth, the word translated “harm” (אָסוֹן) is an unusual word to describe harm (only used in Genesis 42:4, 38; 44:29) and therefore probably refers to the unusual instance of loss of offspring by violently induced miscarriage rather than the more usual harm to the woman. Sixth, the order of victims in 22-27 parallels that of the case with the goring ox in 21:28ff – man/woman, child, slave – suggesting that the woman is the victim in case A and the child in case B.

Kline sums up his position well:

Case A envisages the death of a mother in giving birth prematurely to a live, uninjured child, and the law prescribes that the assailant must give for his forfeited life whatever the husband demands. In Case B the law requires that if the child suffers calamitous injury or death the penalty for the payment must be a just equivalent.[6]

Yet that is not all. Not all pro-life proponents accept Kline position,[7] and even if we grant the acceptability of the anti-life position, it does not follow that abortion is not morally evil. The anti-life position argues that because only a fine is prescribed for a miscarriage in case A that the fetus is not treated as a person. Yet this fails because in Israelite law one who committed manslaughter, accidental and unpremeditated murder, was not automatically put to death, but allowed to flee to a city of refuge or to pay a fine in ransom for his life (Numbers 34:9-34 cf. Exodus 21:13, 30). So even if 22a describes a miscarriage the punishment is not necessarily less than that for manslaughter. This is the case in 21:28ff in the case of the goring of the ox – if the ox gored a Hebrew the owner, “hall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him” (21:30). Therefore, even in cases of criminal negligence that resulted in death – a fine may be payed to ransom the life of the manslayer.

In conclusion, regardless of which interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 you take, the Bible speaks clearly that the unborn children are just that, children. They are persons in their own right and made in the image of God. Therefore, to kill or harm them is no different from killing or harming a two year old, a twenty year old, or an eighty year old. They are all persons and all have a right to life by virtue of their being made in the image of God.

[1] This is an important assumption because some more consistent anti-life advocates that even newborn infants are not persons and therefore it is not always wrong to kill them. For example, Peter Singer has said, “[K]illing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person.” In fact, I would argue that an atheist actually can’t make any convincing argument that killing anyone for any reason is wrong – but that is a matter for another time.

[2] See: Congdon, Robert N. “Exodus 21:22-25 and the Abortion Debate.” Bibliotheca Sacra, 1989: p. 135, for a description of the different kinds of laws in the Old Testament.

[3] An example of this interpretation can be found: Dunnett, Dolores E. “Evangelicals and Abortion.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 1990: 215-225.

[4] The classic example of this interpretation can be found in: Kline, Meredith. “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 1977: 193-201.

[5] Kline, p. 197.

[6] Op. cit., p. 200.

[7] See Congdon’s article for a pro-life critique of Kline’s position.


19 thoughts on “Genocide is a Gray Area

    1. I think John Piper presents a balanced view on the conquest of Canaan ( If you want a more in depth theological answer, I would recommend Meredith Kline’s article, “Intrusion and the Decalogue” where he argues for the paradigm of intrusion ethics regarding theocratic Israel (


      1. Still not a gray area, no matter interpretation you take. If you’re a follower of Yahweh and He tells you to exterminate a people, you exterminate them or suffer His displeasure.

        Now, applying that to abortion is both a stretch and a gray area since abortion and genocide are two different things, the former being abhorrent and that an unfortunate duty.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I think we have a misunderstanding. I do not think that genocide is a gray area, the purpose of that title is to grab attention because it would be shocking for someone to say that. The point about intrusion ethics is that Kline argues that the theocratic state of Israel operated in some ways under the ethics of the consummate kingdom of God whereas the church operates in the world under the principle of common grace.


  2. Religion does not apply to legislation in secular nations.

    Forced birth will never be reenacted into law in progressive, western nations because we have moved past such regressive, religiously fanatic ideology.

    “Pro life” is a benign, borderline fringe minority and will continue to shrink; Even Ireland lifted their abortion prohibition. It’s over, religion lost that one.


  3. Religions and their doctrines do not apply to people who don’t choose to practice them.

    Fertilized eggs don’t begin to have consciousness or the ability to feel pain or suffer for weeks & weeks & weeks into gestation, so they do not (can not) suffer during early term abortion.

    An early term fetus is essentially a seed, zero brain or central nervous system and zero sentience.

    There is no justification for forcing girls and women to continue early term pregnancies that they do not wish to continue, that is barbaric and will never be legislated back into United States law.


      1. Personhood is a concept that is irrelevant in the debate about early term abortion because the ethical issue should be whether or not the fetus can suffer or have conscious awareness.

        Medical science knows to nearly the day when a fetus begins to have conscious awareness and when they begin to have lower boundaries of feeling; Because of this science, we are able to perform abortions FAR before the time that it would be considered unethical (in the inhumane sense) to do so.


      2. According to what standard should suffering or consciousness be the determinations of whether or not it is ethical to kill someone? What about someone asleep, who does not have conscious awareness? Or someone who has congenital insensitivity to pain?


      3. The ethical standard for legal early term abortion has directly to do with the fact that preventing gestation of a fertilized egg is not “murdering” a “someone”.

        The phrase “murdering someone” is a hyperbolic emotional appeal, and it does not justify forced birth on girls and women against their will.

        Someone already born and asleep or insensitive to pain is in NO way comparable to an early term fetus in this context.


      4. You have just used different words – not provided any clear standard by which you make authoritative moral judgments. According to what standard can you make claims about personhood and morality?

        Furthermore, since you identified cognizance and sensitivity to pain as qualifications for personhood – how is someone asleep or unable to feel pain (or both) not, according to your definition, not a person?


      5. An authoritative moral judgement is the notion that a fertilized egg of three weeks should condemn a girl or woman to a forced full pregnancy and birth, under the guise of religious honor no less.

        This personhood obsession is standing in the way of the crystal clear facts of the matter; The science (I know, I’m going to burn in hell for using that word, just hear me out) shows that early term abortion causes no suffering, which added with common sense leads to a speculation that favors the already existing bodily autonomy right of the already existing person rather than the currently non-existent right of a future person to have completed gestation.


      6. The question is not about person or not person, quite obviously a human fetus is of the human species which is technically synonymous with person.

        Call it what you like, it is a blob of cells smaller than an apple seed and quite frankly my sympathy goes to all of the the animals in tremendous suffering constantly in the science and agriculture industries – Not to cell clusters that happen to have human DNA.


      7. So it is wrong to kill some persons and perfectly fine to kill others? I could call adults large clusters of cells, but I don’t think size has any bearing on the morality of the issue.


      8. There are certainly justified circumstances to kill people, if that’s what you’re asking.

        A fertilized egg of a couple weeks should not have human rights just like people who are already born do, that is extremely destructive and outdated ideology.

        The girls and women in secular, civilized, Western societies do not deserve to be treated like little Sharia house cats; They will NOT be forced to give birth by law in the United States ever again, because by and large we know better than that.


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