The Image of God and the Personhood of the Unborn as a Foundation for Thinking about Abortion

Abortion is one the most controversial and highly charged moral/political issues of the last quarter century, and it remains a hotly debated topic in the public square and even in the church. Forty years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state abortion restrictions and included abortion within the scope of a woman’s right to privacy (Roe v. Wade).

Since that day in 1973, over 55 million little lives have been ended in the womb. Sadly, that number is not static.

Because this is literally an issue of life and death, a biblical understanding of the concepts that inform the abortion debate is imperative. Many believers know for certain and feel deeply that abortion is tragically wrong but might pause when asked to articulate an answer to the question, “Where in the Bible does it say that?” As is oftentimes the case when responding to contemporary issues, the “biblical perspective” on abortion needs more than a single, simple proof-text.

There are a myriad of biblical texts, theological principles, and scientific facts that can be used to make a case against abortion. However, in order to make this case, two theological realities need to be assumed as a starting point: the Image of God and the Personhood of the Unborn.

This is a two-part piece of theological luggage that you will want to be able to unpack with gentle boldness in your sermons, at the dinner table, in the bookstore, on your Facebook feed, and at the doctor’s office.

The "Image of God" 
The preliminary theological consideration involved in this debate is that human beings are created in the image of God. In Genesis 1, God says, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness … God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:26-27), and God “blessed them” (1:28). The creation narratives make clear that the God who fashioned the heavens is also the one who crafted humanity. Therefore, taking the life of a person God brought into being is a serious offense.

This reality is the basis for the command the Lord gives to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17). Moreover, people were created for a purpose, namely, to glorify God: “Everyone who is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, even whom I have made” (Isa. 43:7). Isaiah echoes the original purpose given to Adam in the garden and Israel in the wilderness. The task of the creation is to worship and obey the Creator (see Gen. 2:15-17; Deut. 30:1-10). Human beings are created “in His image” and “for His glory.”

The Personhood of the Unborn 
This anthropological foundation is the basis for answering the question, “When does the ‘life’ of a human being begin?” The abortion debate hinges on this question. If life begins at birth, then abortion loses its horror. However, if life begins already in the womb, then abortion involves forcibly taking the life of a genuine human being. In addition to lines of scientific evidence (e.g., demonstrating early viability; showing a beating heart at three weeks; brain waves at eight weeks; the ability to feel pain at nine weeks, etc.), the testimony of Scripture is that the life of a child begins while still in a mother’s womb. More pointedly, a child begins in a mother’s womb.

This reality is seen primarily in the way that biblical writers speak of and characterize the unborn child. As He is seen as sovereign in creation, God is also seen as sovereign in conception. The Psalmist, for instance, poetically asserts, “You formed my inward parts; you wove me in my mother’s womb. … My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; your eyes have seen my unformed substance” (Ps. 139:13-16). The prophet Jeremiah also recounts that the “word of the Lord” declared to him, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer. 1:5).

Unborn babies are spoken of as actual people. In Genesis, after the Lord answered Isaac, “and Rebekah his wife conceived,” the writer relays that “the children struggled together within her” (Gen. 25:21-22). In the book of Ruth, Naomi speaks of her barrenness by saying, “Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?” (Ruth 1:11). In one of Job’s laments he contrasts the day of his birth with the night he was conceived, saying, “And the night which said, ‘A boy [man-child] is conceived’” (Job 3:3).

He further describes a miscarriage as, “infants that never saw the light” (3:16). When Eve conceives and gives birth to Cain, she says, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Gen. 4:1). Similarly, Luke records that Elizabeth “conceived a son” and then later “gave birth to a son” (Luke 1:36, 57). When a woman is pregnant, she is as Mary was, “with child” (Matt. 1:18; Luke 2:5).

A person’s a person, no matter how small 

The way that the biblical writers usually refer to the unborn implies full personhood. Therefore, human beings, even in conception and the earliest stages of development, are created in the image of God. The growing life inside a mother’s womb is not an animalistic fetus devoid of humanness but rather a “son” or a “daughter,” an “infant” or a “child.” There are many other biblical texts, scientific lines of argumentation, and political considerations that inform the abortion debate in America, but these two theological principles provide a strong foundation that believers can use to build a compelling case for what the “biblical perspective” on this matter entails.

Women everywhere have the right to choose this perspective. Lord willing, they will.
January 18, 2013


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