The Meaning of Life
Back in May of 2004, I had a life-shaking moment. This moment forced open my eyes to a reality I had never really considered before. It happened when my oldest daughter was born. I watched as she made her entrance into the waiting hands of the mid-wife, and I remember distinctly having this thought: Here is a life! This is actually a little person, and she’s breathing and she’s waving around her little arms and legs, and she has an existence.
I knew that she was alive prior to that, of course—we had seen the scans, heard the heartbeat, saw the strange movements in my wife’s belly—but to see our daughter there on the hospital bed was something like a revelation. God in his power and goodness had given new life! And now we get to take her home, and feed her, and change her diapers/nappies, and start saving up for her university education.
What is Life?
It’s a basic question, but what is life? I can give the dictionary definition: “The state of functional activity and continual change peculiar to organized matter, and especially to the portion of it constituting an animal or plant before death; animate existence; being alive.” That’s life. But as a definition of life, it’s pretty lifeless!
We could say that human life is the existence, energy and activity of a person in all his parts, body and soul. It is a human being’s daily presence here on earth; it’s what Ecclesiastes calls being “under the sun”—every day that the sun rises on us, we have life. And, of course, there are certain physical phenomena that make up our life here. This was something that I appreciated anew when our daughter was born: life means that we breathe, that we move, that we have brain activity. Life means that we can build and work and grow and believe and love.
The Source of Life
When we understand life rightly, we learn to value it rightly—and therefore we learn to protect life, promote it, and try to steward this gift responsibly. But certainly the opposite will also be true: when human life is misunderstood or when it is poorly defined, life can be considered cheap and it can be easily discarded—whether that is at the beginning of life, or at the end, or even somewhere in the middle.
Turning to Scripture, the Bible says a lot about life, but it never defines it. Still, it tells us key things to know about existence, and about the source and meaning of life.
· Only the living God has life in himself, without depending on another being: “God… alone is immortal” (1 Tim 6:16).
· God can speak life into existence by his power: “He commanded and they were created” (Ps 145:8).
· God maintains life by his faithfulness: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
· God requires worship from all of life: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD” (Ps 150:6).
These teachings of Scripture have a consequence that is simple yet profound. They compel us to reach this conclusion: Life is a sacred gift of God. There are three truths that are wrapped up in that, and each of them need unpacking.
· Life is a gift – so be grateful for it.
· Life is sacred – so protect and promote it.
· Life is from God – so it must be for God.
The Breath of Life
When Scripture speaks about the life that we have from God, it uses various synonyms. If you wanted to talk about a person’s life, you might refer to their “flesh” or their “body” or their “blood.” In Scripture, each of these can stand for “life.” Alternatively, you might refer to a person’s breath. The cessation of breathing is probably the most noticeable feature of the end of life. Over the years I’ve talked to many people who were sitting at the bedside of their loved one when they passed away. And something often mentioned is the poignancy of hearing that last breath: a sharp, sudden, and final breath.
When we read about creation in Genesis, we see that both humans and animals have the breath of life inside them. This is something distinctive that separates us from plants and everything else in creation. An important text reveals this truth is Genesis 2:7, “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” This describes the creation of mankind, but animals are also said to have the “breath of life” (Gen 7:22), the animating principle of a being that is so noticeable and so precious. This “breath of life” probably explains why we are sad when our dog gets run over, but not when our favourite rose bush dies in the summer heat.
Humans and animals are alike in having breath from God, but there are a few important differences. In Genesis 2:7 we notice three things. First, it is only man whom God forms out of the dust of the ground, an indicator of God’s close attention to detail in making human beings. During the first days of creation He simply spoke things into existence, but here on the sixth day God uses his “hands” to form and fashion the first human.
Secondly, God breathes the “breath of life” directly into man’s nostrils—this is a sign of profound intimacy and it underlines very clearly that our life as human beings comes directly from God: as He breathes, we live.
And thirdly, after God breathes life into him, it is said that the man “becomes a living soul.” This is an essential and weighty truth: every human being is a soul, every human being has a spirit. Consequently, for us there is possible a far higher and nobler life than that which is lived by animals.
These differences in creation and identity are probably why an over-emphasis on animal rights doesn’t sit too comfortably with us. We said that we’re sad when our dog dies, yet when we’re standing at Fido’s graveside, we all understand that we need to keep our grief in perspective: it was just an animal, after all. This is something that Western society doesn’t comprehend because it has made the value of life deeply subjective. That is to say, the value of a life—whether human or animal—is determined principally by whether society thinks that this life has worth. And many people have decided that animals have an inherent value, certainly no less a value than that of human beings.
Think of the stories that appear with striking regularity in the news about animals being mistreated or killed. Maybe it is elephants butchered in Botswana for their tusks, or horses in a nearby town starved by some neglectful owner. These stories have an undeniable appeal emotionally—and it is certainly Biblical to refrain from abusing animals, as they are a part of God’s good creation (see Prov 12:10).
But if you reflect on it, this attention to animal rights demonstrates how society has skewed reality. It’s completely out of proportion. To pick a tragically obvious example, in the regular media, abortion is not a story—at least not in the sense of debating it or criticizing the practice. Saving the lives of ten emaciated horses is considered more newsworthy (and thereby important) than protecting the lives of tens of thousands of preborn children. One is headline news, the other isn’t even mentioned. Clearly, something fundamental about the intrinsic value of human life has been missed. So what is the value of a life?
In God’s Image
We’ve already said that human life is the unique creation of God, evident in how He made mankind: He physically formed him, and intimately breathed into him. It’s also evident in what God says about mankind when He creates: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26). Human beings are like God as no other earthly creatures are. The special dignity of being human is that as man and woman we may reflect at our own creaturely level the holy God.
The Hebrew words used in Genesis for “image and likeness” speak of a manufactured copy of the original, a secondary representation of the real thing. In short, this means that God has made mankind similar to himself. He invested us with abilities and gave us responsibilities which resemble those possessed by the Almighty Creator himself. Being made in God’s image means that, like God, we are personal and rational beings. It means that like God, we are—or we were—morally upright. It means that like God, humans have a task of ruling and caring for other forms of life, whether plants or animals or the creation itself. And it means that just like God already possesses immortality in himself, humans have been given the capacity to live forever.
The image of God in mankind has been shattered by the fall into sin. By nature we’re not morally upright any longer, and we’re unable to mirror God’s holiness. Now our dominion over creation is badly impaired by our ignorance and selfish greed. We’re still destined to live forever, but now it will be a life under God’s curse—apart from God redeeming us through Christ.
But let’s understand that whatever else sin has damaged and destroyed, sin has not changed this structural reality of being human, this intrinsic aspect of our existence: we are created in God’s image. This is the way that God made us—it was his blueprint for human beings—which means that every human life has an inherent dignity and value.
Such an essential truth has important consequences for how we view life and how we treat life, topics which we hope to consider in a coming blog post.