What Love Is… and Is Not

The Bible is full of commands to love. The two greatest commandments, and thus our two greatest obligations, are to love God and to love others. In I Corinthians 13, Paul basically says that no good deed is worth anything if it’s not done in love. It seems the world agrees with us in this at least, to judge by the popular songs calling for love and the crowds chanting, “Love trumps hate.” Are they not just restating Paul’s command to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, KJV)? I think you’ll find that, examining Biblical love, the world’s version is actually a warped imitation of it.

The love that the Bible commands us to show is actually simply defined if complex in practice. Basically it wants the best for the object of its love, even if it involves sacrifice on the part of the lover. C.S. Lewis brilliantly explained how we are to love our enemies even when they’ve grievously offended us by looking at how he loved himself. He said that he angered himself at himself with his sins, but he never stopped wanting what was best for himself.

So what does that look like in practice? Love helps others to do things we can and they can’t (Galatians 6:2). It gives of its time and resources to those who are in need, even if those in need are the kind the world despises (James 1:27; Romans 12:16). It is hospitable (I Peter 4:9), though what constitutes hospitality might vary from occasion to occasion. In its speech, love is tactful, respectful, and edifying (I Corinthians 13:4-5; Colossians 4:6). You tell people in a considerate way what they need to know to build them up, not what you want to tell them to tear them or others down, as my pastor told me. It tries not to offend if at all possible and doesn’t impose conformity with its opinion upon others (Romans 14). It listens and tries to empathize with a person who has really good news or really bad news (Romans 12:15). Love is patient and overlooks little insults and injuries; it doesn’t like to be angry and tries to think the best of people (Proverbs 19:11; I Corinthians 13:5- see my prior post on the Judgment of Charity). It readily forgives and moves forward with the relationship without holding things over people (Ephesians 4:32). It doesn’t calculate what it can get or expect repayment (I Corinthians 13:5; Luke 6:35).

Now, so far, I’ve listed the virtues of love that only the most cantankerous, selfish people would object to. We all know we don’t live up to those standards, but I expect most of you would agree that they are all good. Well, here’s the one that people stumble over: while quick to forgive, love is also willing to rebuke (Matthew 18:15).

Here’s where the world parts company with love. Its version of love is apparently to make the other person happy at any price, and rebukes don’t make people happy, so they simply can’t be done. When a Christian says or does something in rebuke of another, you can see what the world’s love is truly like. The same people who tout, “Love trumps hate,” turn on the Internet or in the mail into the most hateful trolls, spewing death threats and maledictions against the Christian and their loved ones. They live out James’s observation that, “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (3:10, KJV). They seem to want to be like the Byronic heroes who pervade our action movies who feel free to sink to the villain’s level as long as the villain does it first.

But is it really loving to allow someone to stay in gross sin just because it makes them happy? Love wants the other person to be happy, yes, but it wants a deeper, more fulfilling joy for the person. Let’s say you give vodka to an alcoholic. Now, they’re probably going to be happy with you, but you haven’t done what’s best for them. You’ve contributed to them living a life of wasted potential probably ending in an early grave (or someone else’s early grave if they go driving after drinking it). Whom are you really loving? I posit that you’re actually loving yourself when you put your cravings for their approval above their own well-being.

When you add God’s ineluctable judgment on sin into the equation, the stakes get infinitely higher. Rather than trying to keep an alcoholic from a simple hangover, you’re trying to save someone from an eternity of abject misery. How is it loving to let them go merrily off to Hell rather than risk them becoming angry with you? By the Biblical definition of seeking what’s best for them, you’ve failed to love them dismally.

Now, I grant that often the rebuking is not done in a loving way. This gives the world ammunition to use against Christians, even if they’d resent rebukes all the same. At any rate, there’s really no call for hateful rebukes from positions of moral superiority. The process Jesus prescribes in Matthew 18 makes it clear that we’re to keep this as private as possible. Even if it goes so far that the person must be put out of the Church, love is still the guiding principle, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 5. Most of all, the Church is to love God such that it doesn’t let it appear that He condones gross sin, then it is to love its members and remove the temptation from them. But, in the end, it also excommunicates the person so they’ll miss the benefits of Church and come to repentance. At no time is the goal of excommunication to destroy the person, contrary to the papacy’s practice during the Reformation. In II Corinthians 2, after the man who was guilty of incest repented, Paul tells them to receive him back into the fold.

In the New Testament, when Jesus and the Apostles issue rebukes in the form of invectives, it’s almost always against someone actively interfering with another’s salvation- i.e., false teachers and deceivers- and not, say, the sexually immoral. In fact, when Jesus deals with an adulterous woman in John 8, a loose Samaritan woman in John 4, and the sinful woman in Luke 7, He astounds everyone with His courtesy to them. Likewise, when Paul presents the Gospel to the Athenians, even though they’ve greatly distressed him with their idolatry, he observes the rhetorical format and devices they’d expect, compliments them on their zeal, and builds common ground by citing the poets they’ve all read. What Jesus and Paul don’t compromise in their attempts to reach out to people, however, is the command, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV).

Also, we can easily rebuke too much. There are plenty of people who will correct anything, be it a slip of etiquette, a spelling/grammar mistake, or something more serious. This is actually a bad idea for a few reasons. For one thing, you’ll make people uncomfortable and not want to be around you. For another, it’s counterproductive since it exhausts what I call your “critical capital.” If people come to see you as someone who criticizes everything, your opinion’s not going to count for as much when someone does something that actually does need criticizing. We all know the story of the little boy who cried wolf. Besides, it’s not good for you. I think constant criticism is what Jesus has in mind when He says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1-2, KJV). In other words, if we want God to be patient with us, we should be patient with other.

I think we as a society have made compassion into an idol, and an idol made out of compassion is still an idol. In the name of compassion, we turn blind eyes to things God has forbidden to keep ourselves out of hot water and others happy. We thus love ourselves above Him. That kind of compassion is not pleasing in His sight. It’s not true Biblical love, and it’s not good for anyone involved.

A Little-Known Spiritual Duty

I don’t hear much about the Judgment of Charity in Christian circles. I get the impression it strikes them like it strikes nonbelievers, as hopelessly naïve and even dangerous. At least, that’s how it struck me. A lovely thought, to be sure, but just not that practical in a depraved world. It’s only been recently that I’ve become convicted that it is in fact a Scripturally required duty.

The Judgment of Charity is basically a presumption of innocence in our dealings with people. Where there’s uncertainty, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. To illustrate how the Judgment of Charity works, suppose someone says something that really hurts your feelings. The Judgment of Charity tries to assume that they didn’t mean it in an offensive way, that they spoke out of ignorance or without thinking, etc. If you know they did it deliberately to offend, you assume they didn’t mean it in as vicious and hateful a way as you took it in, and so on.

Now I know what you’re thinking: sometimes people are clearly trying to hurt us maliciously. True. Jesus and Paul gave very specific instructions for how to deal with people who flagrantly sin against us. They even go so far as to throw the offender out of the Church. Please note this is a last resort and that they make clear that the goal is to bring the person back into the Church as soon as possible once they repent.

Obviously there’s a limit to the Judgment of Charity. There’s nothing in there that says we shouldn’t exercise due diligence before we make a business deal with someone. Proverbs, in fact, says we should. There’s certainly nothing against investigating someone’s record before we decide whether to vote for them. Paul tells the Thessalonians in his second epistle (3:10) that they shouldn’t show charity to the extent that people use it to avoid working for a living. And when Jesus tells us, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16, KJV), He obviously meant we’re to keep an eye out for danger.

But, if we’re honest, how much are we following the duty and how much are we appealing to the exception? Do we find ourselves predisposed to think the best of people, or do we assume the worst first and then pull out Matthew 10:16? Are we like the federal government, stretching the Elastic Clause of the Constitution until it snaps? It sounds dangerous to assume the best of people in such a world as this, but I’ll give you some examples where the Judgment of Charity would have actually saved lives.

We all know the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. William Bligh was tyrant who terrorized his men until Fletcher Christian had no choice but to remove him from command. This is at best fiction and at worst slander. Even a movie that tries to be as fair to Bligh as possible, the 1984 version with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson, finds itself forced to make stuff up to keep Fletcher Christian from looking like the monster he was and make the mutiny look even plausibly justified.

In reality, when you consider the vast authority to punish that British captains had over their men, Bligh looks remarkably lenient. There wouldn’t have been a court-martial in the Royal Navy that would have batted an eye if he had hanged the Bounty’s deserters, which he didn’t. What emerges from the record is a conscientious captain who was concerned for the welfare of both his men and even the natives he was dealing with in Tahiti.

Bligh’s problem was he couldn’t keep his tongue bridled. Caroline Alexander’s explanation of the real reasons for the mutiny makes the most sense to me. Basically Bligh blew up when he found some of his coconuts stolen, and he accused Christian in a fit of pique. Christian became terrified that Bligh would flog him (despite the fact that Bligh often went off the handle without doing anything and that he was still scheduled to eat dinner with him) and was willing to basically murder Bligh and anyone loyal to him by setting him adrift in the middle of the Pacific in a tiny boat. Bligh had had no intention of flogging Christian, but had rather just been blowing off steam. If Christian had taken the words for what they really were, a lot of people would have lived longer.

What happened afterwards anyway? Well, the subsequent events show who was the hero and who was the tyrant. Bligh navigated by memory across the Pacific and got his men to a Dutch colony, but the malaria there and their weakened state after the arduous trip meant some of them died before they could return home. Meanwhile, most of the mutineers returned to stay on Tahiti, where they were captured and many hanged. Christian kidnapped some Tahitians to help the remaining mutineers, and they settled on Pitcairn Island. There Christian’s tyranny led to war between the English and the Tahitians in which most were killed, including Christian himself. By 1800, a year before Bligh saved the day at the Battle of Copenhagen by transmitting Nelson’s order to keep fighting rather than the order to retreat, John Adams had become the sole survivor of the mutineers on Pitcairn Island. It’s hard not to see the blood of the men who died from Bligh’s boat, the mutineers who were hanged, and John Adams’s confreres as being on Fletcher Christian’s head.

Or to take a much bloodier example, consider the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. When the Spanish realized they needed to bring in a new king, they offered the throne to one of Prussia’s royals. The French couldn’t stand the idea of Hohenzollerns to their south as well as to their east, so they sent their ambassador to meet with King Wilhelm even after the plan fell through to make sure no attempt would be made to repeat it. Wilhelm met with the ambassador at Ems with all due courtesy even though he declined to grant his request. A telegram was drafted to report the meeting’s results, but Bismarck, who wanted a war, edited it to make it seem like Wilhelm had insulted the French envoy and released it to the press on Bastille Day. The French in a patriotic huff obliged Bismarck with war without even bothering to ask their ambassador if the telegram had depicted events correctly. As a result, France suffered a devastating defeat in the course of which its capital was shelled and its people had to slaughter the animals in the zoo for meat.

If still you think me naïve, you will think so no longer when I describe the Scriptural proofs that convinced me that the Judgment of Charity is a duty. I’ll start with the example my pastor gave me when I was wondering if it was required or just a nice thought. The Bible has stringent words about anger. Matthew 5:22 basically says it can be a sin that will get you sent to Hell (note: can be, not always is). I John 3:15 says hating your brother is murdering him. With such things at stake, is it not the wisest, safest course to put the best spin on things and use anger only as a last resort? Thinking the best of someone is one of the best ways to avoid becoming angry and wrathful.

Jonathan Edwards in Charity and Its Fruits said that the Judgment of Charity is explicitly commanded in I Corinthians 13:5 when it says that Charity “thinketh no evil” (KJV). If we love someone, obviously we should not want to think ill of them but rather think the best of them we can. This seems to be in the same vein as what Peter is getting at when he says, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves, for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).

Most tellingly, there’s the famous Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (KJV). Now, when we get caught saying or doing something sinful, what’s one of the first things we do? We start making excuses and rationalizing to make it less evil. Surely we want people to do the same for us and not think basely of us just because of a moment of indiscretion, and therefore we should extend the same courtesy to them. Actually, Jesus explicitly says we should because, “With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2, KJV).

And simply as a practical matter, there’s C.S. Lewis’s observation that we’re not allowed to judge probably because we’re not omniscient. If someone says something we don’t like, we tend to assume they know everything we know and deliberately meant to be hurtful, but we just don’t know everything. I know I’ve had my share of mortifying moments where I’ve heard something, become highly critical (even citing Scripture), and then had to eat crow when I heard the rest of the story. If I’d used the Judgment of Charity, I might have avoided such embarrassment.

The Judgment of Charity sounds impractical in a world marked by sin, but it is thoroughly Scriptural. It usually just means deciding doubtful matters in favor of the other person. Be as shrewd as a serpent, of course, but that doesn’t mean you have to put everything in the worst possible light.

Christians and Harry Potter

When I was in fifth grade, Harry Potter was becoming all the rage, so our teacher had us read the first book to see what it was all about. Or, I should say rather, she had most of us read it. A couple of students’ parents forbid them to read it, so they got another book instead. After all, the Bible has harsh condemnations of magic and sorcery. It’s one of the reasons God gives for destroying Jerusalem and sending the Jews into exile in Babylon. So, how should Christians respond to such art that glorifies things like magic and idolatry? My blog title refers to Norse mythology, so you can guess what my answer will be, but I didn’t arrive at it without struggling myself and exploring what the Scriptural answer was.

This issue vexed a lot of Church Fathers as well. They enjoyed Greco-Roman literature and oratory, but they felt bad about it. These were works that praised gods that committed all sorts of debauchery and taught the values of a culture that put their brothers and sisters to death. There’s a famous story of St. Jerome. While he was working on his translation of the Bible into Latin, he started out writing in the polished style of the Roman elite, the kind of language that marked you out as a Senator or official. One night, though, he dreamed that God threw him out of Heaven saying, “You are not a Christian; you are a Ciceronian.” When he woke up, he resolved to write in a more accessible- or, if you prefer, a vulgar- style, hence the name of his translation, the Vulgate. Charlemagne’s lead scholar, Alcuin of York, had a similar dream nearly four hundred years later. One Church Father said that pagan literature should be approached like the pagan captive in Deuteronomy 21, carefully separated from all her pagan background before you married her. Much of ancient literature survives because of medieval copyists, but many tried to just extract the quotes they thought were edifying and compile those.

Whatever qualms Jerome and Alcuin had, it appears the actual Biblical writers themselves didn’t share them. Paul directly quotes four pagan Greek writers. In Acts 17:28, he cites two who are praising Zeus and the gods but happened to say things that are correct about the true God as a way to reach out to the pagan Athenians. Even when he’s talking to fellow Christians, he draws on pagan authors in I Corinthians 15:33 and Titus 1:12. To be able to pull up two quotes on the spur of the moment when he was brought to the Areopagus seems to mean he devoted considerable study to the pagan Greeks. Peter we know had some familiarity with Greek mythology as well, since he refers to Tartarus in II Peter 2:4. Because He was speaking to a largely Jewish audience, Jesus called Hell by the name of Gehenna, referring to the valley outside of Jerusalem where they burned the garbage, but when Peter speaks to a wider readership, he explicitly uses the place of eternal torment from Greek mythology.

Matthew Henry thought the “learning” that Festus claims is driving Paul mad in Acts 26:24 was worldly learning, but I’m not so sure. As a Roman noble, Festus would have been steeped in the classics, so I don’t think he would have said that such an education could drive you mad. More likely he thought Paul had just delved too deeply into another one of the Eastern mystery religions Rome constantly had to deal with. Given the context of Acts 17, though, I like the suggestion better that Paul describing humanity groping for God is a subtle allusion to Polyphemus after being blinded by Odysseus in the Odyssey. Many of them would have known, and Paul would have known that they knew, Homer by heart. If he was trying to make such an allusion, it would not have gone unnoticed.

If we could prove that Paul had read the Odyssey, I think we wouldn’t have to worry so much with books like Harry Potter. The Odyssey contains a lot of material the Bible condemns, like magic, consulting the dead, adultery, personal revenge, and of course idolatry. However, I won’t really trace this too much further since it’s less certain. We’ll stick with the explicit stuff.

The fact remains that Paul was willing to read and even memorize material that praised pagan gods. With his Scriptural discernment he could filter through the erroneous imaginings of the heathen authors and find nuggets of truth with which to reach out to nonbelievers who had read and enjoyed the same material.

Critics of Christianity love to suggest that Christianity ripped off the Eastern mystery religions of the day, particularly Mithraism. I don’t think we actually know as much of Mithraism as they think, but they claim there’s stuff about Mithras being born on December 25 and sacrificing himself for his followers. (Some go far enough to claim that the West came within a whisker of turning Mithraist rather than Christian. Rodney Stark disproves this in Cities of God. He points out that most Mithraist sites are found on the border- i.e., where the Roman soldiers were stationed- rather than among the broader population.) Evidently there were enough similarities, though, that the Church Fathers found this accusation leveled at them as well. Their answer was essentially the same as Paul’s: God had let people incorporate such things into their fictional religions so that it would resonate with them and they couldn’t attack it when it was preached by the true religion.

Famously, this was how C.S. Lewis was converted. Even while he was a skeptic towards religion, he loved pagan mythologies. J.R.R. Tolkien and another friend showed him that the stuff he loved from pagan mythology was largely true about Jesus. In Norse mythology, for instance, Baldur is the purest and most beautiful of the gods, and he is murdered by the malicious Loki, only to return to life to preside over the restored creation after the cataclysm of Ragnarok. Tolkien asked Lewis why he delighted in such stories when he knew they were false but rejected the one that was presented as fact, which opened Lewis’s eyes and created one of the greatest Christian writers of all time, a Christian author who was never afraid to work in pagan literature and fairy tales into his own work.

This might surprise you, but it appears that even a group of people as purist as the Old Testament prophets were willing to appropriate pagan literature for the purpose of glorifying God. Psalm 104:4 says that God “maketh his angels spirits, his ministers a flaming fire” (KJV). In all the literal (that is, nonpoetic) depictions of angels in the Bible, that’s not a very common motif. They can be associated with fire, have it in their eyes, or be half-fire from the waist down, but you don’t see many angels looking like the Human Torch. But do you know who really was believed to be served by angels of fire? Ba’al, of all people! The previous verse about God riding on the clouds and the wind is also used to depict Ba’al in pagan literature. In Exodus 11:7, I find the suggestion that Moses says about the Passover, “Against the children of Israel shall not a dog move its tongue” (KJV), as a reference to Anubis, the part-jackal Egyptian god of the dead, almost irresistible. Certainly both Moses and Pharaoh knew of Anubis. It seems that the prophets did like Paul and appropriated imagery from their opponents that they could use to glorify God.

The Bible also more explicitly uses mythological creatures from other religions as symbols. Leviathan is a creature from the Canaanite religion the Israelites were commanded to wipe out, and Isaiah compares Egypt to another sea monster, Rahab. You’ll notice that nowhere are these creatures the worthy opponent of the gods like they are in the original mythologies; they are always under God’s control and no match for Him.

The difference between a Paul or a psalmist reading pagan literature and a Virgil writing an invocation to the Muses, to me, is that Paul and the psalmist knew such things weren’t true. I think we can read and write fiction that we know is fiction and won’t be tempted by. This isn’t license to read and watch just anything (more on that later), but it does resolve how men of God could read and apparently enjoy things that were written in opposition to God.

And I think I can back this approach up with Scripture. You might have noticed how II Samuel refers to Ish-bosheth, Mephibosheth, and Jerubbesheth, but I Chronicles 8 refers to the same men as Eshbaal and Merib-baal, and Judges lists Gideon’s nickname as Jerubbaal. What accounts for this? I doubt anyone called them the names in II Samuel in their lifetime since the root “boshet” means “shame” in Hebrew. Maybe some called Ish-bosheth that during David’s time after his ignominious end (it means Man of Shame), but why would a Biblical author want to attach shame to one of Israel’s greatest judges or a man David was determined to show kindness and honor to because of his honorable father, the hero Jonathan? Well, if we go with the dates and situations of composition theorized by some, it makes sense and backs up my own theory. Chronicles was written after the exile when Israel had been shocked out of its idolatry, and Judges was possibly written as a piece in support of David’s reign (notice how it laments what happened when there was no king of Israel and the extremely bad light it portrays Saul’s hometown and tribe in), another time when idolatry wouldn’t have been put up with. II Samuel was probably written in between- i.e., during the period when Israel had its greatest struggles with idolatry. Thus the authors of Chronicles and Judges could feel free to use the actual names of the people with Ba’al in them without fear of tempting anyone, but the author of Samuel wanted to avoid the slightest whiff of idolatry.

Of course the verse that perturbed me was Exodus 23:13: “And make no mention of the names of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth” (KJV). At the time I was writing a novel heavily influenced by Celtic and Norse mythology with the Morrigan as an important character, and this verse wounded my conscience. I did know the answer wasn’t as extreme as one person I read who said he was resolved not to use a single English word derived from a pagan god’s name. My response is, “Good luck with that. You’ll be unintelligible. You won’t be able to mention most of the days of the week, some months, or even cereal. You can’t even call Easter or Hell by those names (yes, to all you Thor: Ragnarok fans, that goddess is where English speakers get their name for God’s place of eternal punishment).” Anyway, I resolved my dilemma when I realized that the New Testament refers to the believers Dionysius the Areopagite (named for the Greek god of drunken orgies) and Apollos (meaning one who belongs to the Greek god Apollo). If the early Church had taken that verse in Exodus at its most literal meaning, how hard would it have been for these two men to adopt non-pagan names so that we would have no record that any Christian ever bore such a designation? Keeping their pagan names meant that everyone who addressed them would be breaking Exodus 23:13. Isaiah 46:1 refers to the Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo as though they were real people (albeit bowing down in defeat before God). I think now that what God is getting at in Exodus is more that there should be no references to gods arising from faith in them, like an actual invocation. You see that again in II Samuel. When idolatry was a problem, the writer avoided using the name of a false god, but once that problem was largely solved, the Chronicler didn’t mind writing Ba’al with his pen.

Like I said, though, knowing something’s fiction isn’t an excuse to read or watch just anything. Paul instructed the Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (4:8, KJV). Those are the kinds of things we are to be devoting our reflective moments towards. I think you’ll find the common denominator in all the pagan references in the Bible is that they’re being used to glorify God.

Certainly there’s plenty of art out there that we shouldn’t be exposing ourselves to. Let’s face it: it’s not getting any more wholesome (not that Greco-Roman art was that wholesome either). The difference, which I’ll examine in a later post, is between depicting a sin and glorifying it. When a work of art is portraying a sin and you find yourself wishing you could do that too- stop reading!

Consider the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Here’s a book all about demons, but it’s about the various ways they tempt people so the readers will be on their guard. I don’t think that writing about them in this way even when they’re evil things is any more wrong than when Biblical writers do so for the same reason. Lewis doesn’t glorify them in the least, unlike some artists.

With regards to Harry Potter itself, I only read the first book, but I didn’t find anything in its actual message that a Christian should find particularly objectionable. Obviously it wasn’t teaching that there are real wizards and witches, but it was conveying the value of loyalty, friendship, and bravery. Looking back on it now, I can safely say there are going to be a lot of Neville Longbottoms on Judgment Day who get recognized for trying to do the right thing even though they failed to accomplish their objective.

Or consider the Odyssey that Paul very possibly read and used in his evangelism. As I explained, it’s got a whole lot of stuff that’s antithetical to the Christian religion, but look at the broader themes. It’s about a husband and father desperately trying to return to his family and using his ingenuity to survive in a harsh world, a wife trying to remain faithful to him in spite of enormous pressure upon her, and his son desiring to maintain his father’s honor while longing for his return. Who can object to that? (And there’s not a dog-lover in the world who doesn’t want to cry when Odysseus finally returns home and his dog Argos, who has grown decrepit waiting for him for twenty years, is the only one to recognize him, wags his tail, and then dies.) The Iliad tells the story of Achilles sulking over the seizure of a concubine, but he returns to his sense of duty when his inactivity causes his best friend’s death. The Aeneid is essentially propaganda for the Roman Empire, but it depicts steadfast Aeneas letting nothing stand in his way of accomplishing his divinely given task. Germanic heroes like Beowulf are far too concerned with their personal glory, but they get it by fighting for their families and their nation when they know it will probably (or even certainly) cost them their lives. A religion that praises its martyrs can’t really find too much fault with that.

Has anyone ever criticized you for reading books like Harry Potter? I can certainly understand their scruples, and many of their honorable forefathers shared them. I think that as long as the book isn’t tempting us to actual sin (i.e., where we can distinguish between the fiction and the underlying reality), what the writers fantasize about isn’t as big a deal. Certainly there is Biblical precedent for harnessing pagan mythology and putting it to work to glorify God.

When Does Life Begin According to Science?

I actually don’t like arguing all that much, but I’m going to go ahead and make a really controversial post because I feel the arguments for life beginning at conception are usually lacking. They seem rather dogmatic to me, presented as something you either believe or you don’t. Anyway, I intend to remain courteous, and I would ask my readers to do the same. Baiting your traps with vinegar satisfies certain instincts, but you won’t catch many flies that way. What may surprise you is that I feel the strongest case for life at conception actually comes from science, not the Bible.

Of course, if I were to go off of nothing but the Bible, I would come to the same conclusion, but it’s not ineluctable if someone’s determined to be cantankerous. David writes in Psalm 139 how God superintended his development in the womb and had a plan for his entire life the whole time. He also says he had a moral nature (albeit a sinful one) at the time of conception in Psalm 51. A baby in the womb in Exodus 21 receives the same protection from the law of retaliation that an adult does (that is, any injury done to the baby who is caused to be born prematurely is to be done to the one who caused it). It certainly sounds to me like God cares what happens to a baby from conception onward.

Our specific question, however, of how early we can kill something in the womb before it’s murder is not explicitly addressed in Scripture. After all, it wasn’t the hot-button issue it is today. People generally wanted as many children (or sons, at least) as they could have in Biblical times. I’m pretty sure they knew of substances that would cause an abortion if ingested, but I don’t know of any censures of abortion as such in the Bible (other than the law protecting babies in the womb from assault). After all, if they were going to get rid of a baby, the Jews were more likely to incinerate it on an altar to Molech or the Greco-Romans to abandon it to die on a barren mountainside after it had left the womb.

Before looking at my scientific reasoning, I think we should be more precise about our terminology. The question isn’t really about when the baby is alive. I would that it were! We pro-lifers would win every time. A cell by definition is the basic unit of life, so a zygote is as alive in a scientific sense as the mother. Of course, you could say that about every other functioning cell in the woman’s body. It might be more helpful to think of the question as when the baby becomes a distinct life form. I think everyone agrees that until something in her is distinct, a woman can do with her bodily members whatever she wants.

Well, personally, I find the baby distinct from the moment of conception. Out of 30 trillion cells in her body (give or take), this one is different from all the rest. That’s 30 trillion copies of the same genetic information, and the zygote has different genetic combinations from each one of them. At 46 chromosomes per somatic cell, that’s 1.38 quadrillion chromosomes, and the zygote has 46 unique ones of its own. Half of its genetic code came from outside the woman’s body, and the half that came from within her was rearranged and recombined during meiosis such that even that isn’t an exact copy.

It behaves entirely different from the other normal cells of the woman’s body. The rest of them are team players, taking nutrients in and serving some function to sustain the woman’s life. This cell only takes; it will not give. It does not contribute to the mother’s survival or well-being. It acts like its own distinct, separate organism, not just another part of the team.

Really, the only reason we could have a debate about killing it is its total dependence on the woman it is inside. Location and dependence don’t really seem that relevant to me considering all the genetic differences. A newborn baby is fully dependent on someone, usually the mother, and it is outside the mother’s body, but with the exception of a few new cells, it is substantially the same being that existed just a little while before inside the mother. A minority of people are willing to allow the baby to be killed right before birth, but if location and dependence are the critical factors, I see no reason why that should stop anyone about to murder a full-term baby- or a newborn, for that matter.

What we’re left with under the current judicial system is a rather arbitrary set of state-by-state definitions about when the baby becomes distinct subject to the one-trimester floor set by Roe v. Wade. Does anyone really think a few days of development is going to make as big a difference in the baby’s life as the creation of an entirely unique genetic code? Which is more essential to life: a particular organ or two or the genetic code that underpins them all? DNA is one of the most fundamental aspects of life. You can’t have life without DNA. If we’re going to take the safest course, which I would recommend when human life and dignity are at issue, and find the boldest line of demarcation, I can’t think of anything bolder than conception.

Once the baby is recognized as a distinct individual, you’ll find that all utilitarian arguments for eliminating it have been tried before in other contexts and condemned. The baby will grow up unloved? The Greeks and Romans did not expose the babies that they wanted on mountainsides. The baby will become an impoverished burden on the economy or possibly a criminal? Reportedly, Vlad III of Wallachia practically eliminated beggary and crime in his province. Of course, to do so he had to burn all the beggars up in a banquet hall, impale and torture people for virtually any crime whatsoever, and leave his name for everlasting infamy (he is world-famous when called by his patronymic, Dracula). Besides, I’m not fully satisfied we have the prescience to prove a child’s future misery and/or criminality beyond a reasonable doubt before we execute it. Further, I’m not comfortable with passing a capital sentence on potential drug-users and thieves when we wouldn’t dream of executing actual ones. I think the solution to unwanted children is reworking the values we glorify as a culture so people don’t produce children before they’re ready for or want one, not condemning the innocent.

And while I’m addressing weaknesses in Pro-Life arguments, I should like to address the “holy triad” of exceptions to any proposed abortion ban. They are so common I’m sure every politician has them memorized, and I’m surer no abortion ban could be passed without them: “except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother.” I don’t have a problem with the third one. It’s ghastly arithmetic to say you’d rather lose one life than two (especially when the one you’d be saving has people counting on her), but that’s sometimes sadly necessary in a fallen world. Sometimes life presents us with those hard choices, and we have to pick the least bad option.

I’m not entirely sure how Pro-Lifers get behind the other two, though. I can understand the desire to limit misery and emotional distress, but I don’t think murder is the answer. Murder it must be, since I fail to see how the means of conception alters the essential personhood of the baby. Is their genetic code somehow fundamentally different? To borrow from Shakespeare, “Prick them, do they not bleed?” Do they lack neurotransmitters to feel pain and pleasure? Rape and incest are horrible things, but I don’t think we rectify the situation by adding murder to them. We rightly feel sympathy for a woman forced to carry the memory of that tragedy, but why should we take it out on someone innocent? Having been wronged so grievously herself, will she then turn and grievously wrong someone who means her no ill?

I understand this is a very sensitive issue and that people are truly trying to be compassionate when they permit an abortion in this case. There was a time I agreed with them. Then I saw the other side of the equation. We were in class discussing abortion, and the question came up of whether we would permit an abortion in the case of a rape. I gave the standard answer of how the woman shouldn’t suffer because she didn’t make a choice in this case. Then one of my friends asked, “Well, what would you say if I told you that my mother was raped when she was engaged and became pregnant, everyone thought she was loose such that her fiancee broke up with her, and… she decided to have me anyway?” I felt ashamed. Here he was, as much a person as I, and I had just said it would have been okay to have killed him.

Killing a person because their father did something heinous is eerily similar to the supposed curse of Ham, which Southerners once used to justify slavery. In Genesis, Ham looked on his father Noah’s nakedness while Noah was passed out stripped and drunk (or, some posit, he did something even worse). When Noah sobered up, he cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, that he would be a servant. Misquoting the story to be a curse on Ham, and saying that Africans were descended from him, the Southerners claimed that God had decreed that Africans should be the slaves of those descended from Japheth, like themselves. We can debate what exactly is going on in the story of Ham and Noah, but I think the clear Biblical mandate in the case of a child of rape is, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children; neither shall the children be put to death for their fathers. Every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16, KJV). It’s not an easy answer at all, I grant, but sometimes the right answer in an imperfect world is really hard.

As far as incest goes, the Bible shows abundantly that God can work through that. Isaac was the son of half-siblings, Jacob and most of his sons were the offspring of cousins, Moses and Aaron were their father’s nephews, and Ruth was descended from a union of a father and daughter. If they had aborted those babies, they would have cut off the Levitical priesthood and the line of Christ! If God can work such things from such beginnings, I don’t see where we have the right to conclude that the situation is so hopeless it requires a human sacrifice.