The question of the goodness and dignity of human life is not in the end a matter of indifference. It’s not a matter of different possible and valid opinions that we should just tolerate in a secular pluralist inclusive society. Nor is it a matter of private religious conviction. I have offered Christian arguments, certainly. But I’ve done that because they’re the only arguments that can secure the dignity of every human life on solid foundations. And these are not private religious opinions. They are statements about reality—the reality we all inhabit as creatures who have our lives not from ourselves, but from God.
When you encounter another human being, what are you encountering?
Is an encounter with another human being different from an encounter with an AI chatbot? Is it different from an encounter with a mouse, or a goldfish, or your pet dog? Intuitively we think it probably is. But is there a metaphysical underpinning for that belief? In other words, is it grounded in reality? Or is it just a free-floating intuition that might be wrong, a set of preferences that bear no real relation to what is real?
Or consider another set of questions: How do you know if someone’s life is worth living? Or if it’s no longer worth living? As a society, how should we decide whose life has value? Can we know whether all human lives are equally valuable? Or are some lives less valuable than others? Are all human lives equally worth protecting and preserving? And if they’re not, how can we know when someone’s life isn’t valuable enough to protect and preserve?
What value should we ascribe to the life of an unborn child? Does it make a difference if the parents don’t want that child? What about the life of someone who is old and frail, or terminally ill? Does it make a difference if they don’t want to carry on living? If they feel they’re a burden to others? If they feel like is too painful and hard?
More personally: what about you? Is your life worth living? What are you worth? What do you do when you reach the point when it feels like your own life is no longer worth living?
My aim in this talk is not to address directly questions of the beginning and end of life—abortion, assisted suicide—or questions about intense suffering, or social and economic inequalities.
I’m aiming to be more ambitious than that. I’m aiming to provide a deep metaphysical grounding (if you want to impress your friends later, tell them you’ve been to a talk on metaphysics!)—a consideration of the fundamental nature of reality. What is reality? And how does that provide solid ground for the belief that all human life is unimaginably precious and every human life has indescribable dignity?
I’m going to try to make a very simple point—although my argument is going to unfold in several stages. The simple point is this: All human life is precious because it is the good gift of the good God. Whoever the person is, whatever their age and stage of development (from conception through to old age), whatever their abilities and capacities, regardless of illness or weakness or frailty or suffering, regardless of how much or how little other people value them—all human life—the life of every individual human being—your life—has inestimable value. Because it is the very good gift of the very good God.
We live in a time when that is contested. When many people believe that some lives just have less value than others: the lives of the unborn, or the old and frail or terminally ill. The lives of those who are dying. Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Columbia, Canada, Spain, New Zealand. That’s a fairly predictable list of countries, and in the next few years it will get longer.
Peter Singer is an extreme example, but as he likes to point out, he’s been described as ‘the world’s most influential philosopher’. He’s certainly one of the most influential ethicists alive today. His book, Practical Ethics was first published in 1983. My copy, dated 2005, is the twentieth printing—so this is a widely read book! He states the issue with admirable clarity (NB: he’s speaking here about infants after they have been born):
[I]t is…characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore cannot be equated with killing normal human beings…No infant—disabled or not—has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.
At the other end of life, consider Canada’s ‘Medical Assistance in Dying’ scheme (MAID—a deeply sinister acronym). According to an article in the New Atlantis, 10,064 people used MAID to die in 2021. The article describes how:
A number of recent news articles have reported on Canadians who, driven by poverty and a lack of access to adequate health care, housing, and social services, have turned to the country’s euthanasia system. In multiple cases, veterans requesting help from Veterans Affairs Canada — at least one asked for PTSD treatment, another for a ramp for her wheelchair — were asked by case workers if they would like to apply for euthanasia.
It quotes a man, called Les: ‘“Even at 65, I don’t want to die,” he says. He says it again and again. “I really don’t want to die. I just can’t afford to live.”’
You might think that’s sad, but understandable and okay. You might be horrified by it and think it’s wrong. But why is it wrong? Why is it wrong to protect the lives of some people, and willingly end the lives of others?
In what follows, I want to give a Christian theological grounding for belief in the sheer goodness of human life, and extraordinary dignity of all human beings.
When God created the heavens and the earth, the Bible tells us that ‘God saw that the light was good’ (Gen 1:4). Then, God saw that the earth and seas were good (v. 10). Then that the plants and trees were good (v. 12). Six times in the opening chapter of Genesis, God sees what he has made and says that it is good. He then he makes man in his image, male and female, blesses us to be fruitful, and gives us dominion over the rest of creation (vv. 27-28). And then, he declares that his creation is very good. The whole creation is very good. Human life in particular is very good. And God wants more of it: much more. An earth filled with human beings is a blessing from God, and it is very good. God loves human life, and he wants more and more of it.
But let’s press pause, because before we get to humans, we won’t understand human life if we don’t understand God.
That repeated ‘good’ in Genesis 1 doesn’t just teach us about creation. First of all, it teaches us about the Creator. Creation is good because its Creator is good.
1. The Good God
In Mark 10, a young man comes up to Jesus and addresses him as ‘good teacher’. Jesus’ response is startling: ‘Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone…”’ (Mk 10:18). It seems likely that Jesus is making a startling claim to his own deity here. But he does so by making a startling claim about God—a claim that’s particularly startling in the light of Genesis 1: ‘No one is good except God alone.’
To call God good is not to put him alongside good things in creation and to say: he just is the biggest and best good in a series of goods. Even if you were to take the whole of creation, you could not put it alongside God and compare the amount of goodness in each.
There’s not this thing called, ‘The Good’ that God has the biggest share in. He’s not the biggest slice of the goodness pie.
Compared to God, nothing and no one is good. The only true God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is good, and he alone is absolutely good. The philosopher Robert Sokolowski captures it well:
(God plus the world) cannot be conceived as better than God alone…That is, no perfection would be lost if God had not created the world. The world and God must be so understood that nothing but God could be all that there is, and there would be no diminution of greatness or goodness or perfection. God is not better or greater because of creation, nor is ‘there’ more goodness or greatness because God did create.
God the Holy Trinity, is good in and of himself. His is good by his own goodness, not by a good imparted from somewhere else. And therefore God—the Christian God—is the absolute standard and source of all goodness. He is a vast ocean of goodness. And compared to him, the good of things in this creation, the good of the entirety of creation, is just a drop in a bucket.
And it’s worth us lingering for a moment to contemplate and delight in the God who is goodness.
God’s goodness is his utter perfection. He is the sum of all perfection.
He is good with a holy goodness: ‘God is Light and in him there is no darkness at all.’ (1 Jn 1:5). He is good with a noble goodness: entirely worthy of all worship and honour (Rev 4:11).
He is good with a desirable goodness: there is nothing desirable apart from him (Ps 73:25). He is good with an eternal goodness: his goodness will never end. He is good with an unchanging goodness: it is impossible for him to be better than he already is; and he will never be less good than he is.
He is good with a delightful goodness: he is a vast ocean of satisfaction and joy, so that all good, all delight, all rest, all joy consists in knowing and enjoying and communing with him forever. ‘Oh taste and see that the LORD is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.’ (Ps 34:8)
In the happy fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is good in himself with a perfect goodness. He has no need of anything or anyone else. But precisely because he is good, he is not locked up in his own goodness. His goodness is not self-revolving. God is good, and therefore, he also does good. (Ps 119:68). The good God does good works.