Does human life begin at our first breath?

by Luke Wayne

Human life begins long before we take our first breath. The Bible is clear that a human person is already alive while in the womb. Some people, however, misunderstand Genesis to teach that all human life begins at the first breath.

"Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being, (Genesis 2:7).

This, of course, is a description of how the first human life began, not how all human lives begin. Nothing in this passage says that we are formed in the womb out of dust from the ground and born lifeless bodies only for God to breathe life into us after birth. This isn't about the beginning of each individual human life, but rather the beginning of humanity as a whole. We see this elsewhere in Scripture as well. For example in the book of Job, Elihu says:

"The Spirit of God has made me, And the breath of the Almighty gives me life. Refute me if you can; Array yourselves before me, take your stand. Behold, I belong to God like you; I too have been formed out of the clay," (Job 33:4-6).

Elihu was not literally, personally formed out of clay. His point has to do with the nature of man, not the process by which each individual human life becomes a human life. In fact, the pairing of "the breath of the Almighty gives me life" with "I too have been formed out of clay" implies that the breathing of life into man was a one time act in Adam for all mankind. Once God breathed life into Adam, He never needed to breathe life into another person again. Human life had begun. It continued from that point forward, ever remaining the breath of God in man.

What's more, Genesis goes on to say that life is in the blood (Genesis 9:3-6) which the rest of the Old Testament frequently affirms. We have blood long before we have breath. Indeed, just four weeks after conception our heart is already pumping blood.1 It is not surprising that early Jewish commentators even appeal to Genesis 9 as explicitly prohibiting abortion.2 The fact that unborn children have not taken a breath didn't seem to matter. They have their own lifeblood flowing through them, so they have life. The biblical case for life beginning with blood is much stronger than the case for life beginning with breath. Yet, the scriptures actually go even further, tracing human life all the way back to conception.

David wrote in one of his great Psalms of repentance:

"Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me," (Psalm 51:5).

One can hardly imagine David being sinful at conception if he was not yet a living person. Even more, when the eternal Son of God became flesh and took on human life, He Himself began his human life at conception. Matthew 1:20 even describes Him as "the child who has been conceived." It also happens to be a biological reality that, at the moment of conception, a distinct organism comes to be. There is continuity of life from that moment forward, with no identifiable point where the human embryo suddenly becomes something different than it was before. There seem to be both biblical and practical reasons to assume that human life begins at conception and is morally significant from that very instant.

At any rate, the Psalmist plainly says:

"For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret," (Psalm 139:13-15).

Our life does not begin out in the open and visible to human eyes where we take our first breath. It begins hidden in the secrecy of the womb.

  • 1. (Accessed 11/7/16)
  • 2. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57b