“Thou shalt not kill.”
The scope of this command regards any act that unjustly takes innocent life, acts that do physical harm, and acts concerning other people’s temporal welfare.
The positive force of this command is to act in ways that promote human welfare. This begins in the heart, out of our attitude toward life the life that God has created, and out of a desire to keep the image of God from being injured. And it is out of an attitude of the seriousness of this grave consequence of sin. John Calvin adds that the force of this command necessitates that since “the preservation of all should be dear to us,” then if our neighbor is in “peril or distress, we are to help and assist them.” (Institutes, p. 148)
Negatively, we are to never act in a way that could harm another (without justification). This also begins in the heart. 1 John 3:15 and Matthew 5:22 show us that the hatred toward another is already committing murder in the heart. Calvin again says, “For although it is the hand that begets murder, the heart nevertheless conceives the deed when sullied by anger and hatred.” (148)
“Could” equals any negligence of a proper duty in a blameworthy way that could lead to serious harm or injury, or even involuntary manslaughter. The verb in this command, “kill” in the KJV, is often misunderstood. Some think that “kill” means that no death is to be administered period, while others think “kill” is only limited to murder.
But the word “murder” does not get to the whole essence of the Hebrew word for “kill” used in this command, either. This word is broader than just “murder,” but narrower than just “kill.” Not all death is murder, like acts of manslaughter, which is the taking of one’s life unintentionally, perhaps through negligence. Yet because of the word used in this command, if you are guilty of committing manslaughter , then you are morally culpable for breaking this command. So, all sorts of acts are in view when it comes to this command- not just the forward action of taking someone’s life, but it is putting in the due diligence to ensure the safety and protection of yourself, those under your care, and all those around you.
For example, it is your responsibility to make sure your car is in safe and working order before taking it upon the highway. If you do not take the proper steps of maintenance to make sure that your giant box of steel is in good, working order and it breaks down going 70mph on the highway causing other giant, moving boxes of steel to pile up, you are morally culpable, at least in part, for the harm it causes. There is a responsibility that comes with owning and using such a dangerous machine. Or, if your animal is in the habit of doing harm or is aggressive, then it is on you to take the proper steps to make it safe.
Lock up your guns, muzzle your dog, fence in your pool, take measures for proper safety because it is for the welfare of your neighbor. John Frame says, “So the commandment does not tell us just to abstain from murder. It also commands us to take precautions against the loss of life. We must guard against the possibility that someone might be killed, being alert to correct life-threatening elements in situations.” (The Doctrine of the Christian Life, p. 688)
We need to note a difference between harm and hurt. Not all hurtful things are harmful, like emotional hurt. This is not necessarily working any harm against someone. It can be like discipline, too. No discipline is pleasant in the moment, but it is designed for their welfare. This is not to say that overly harsh discipline and abuse, even if intended for one’s ultimate welfare, is permitted and justified. No, discipline must be done thoughtfully, soberly, and not in the heat of anger, and its outworking must be appropriate. Abuse has an adverse effect upon one’s wellbeing and is therefore harmful. Harm is any undue or excessive hurt.
There are ways that we can do an act that would be regarded as harmful under normal circumstances, but is justified, like in the case of a government punishing criminals. This is because the act that befalls them is justified and this justification removes the act from being harmful. If you have justification to take someone’s life (like capital punishment), then that justified action is not doing them harm. Perhaps a failure to do so is an act of harm because they may be a menace to society, like a remorseless murderer bent on wreaking havoc. If we say that someone like this is not deserving of capital punishment, then what are we saying about the life (or lives) that was taken? Nor are you treating that murderer as an accountable human being. If they’ve done a heinous act and only get a comparative slap on the wrist, then they are being treated as less than accountable and less than human. What happens to a child that does not get disciplined? They will begin to ask themselves after a while: “Do I count? Do I matter?” Not disciplining a child is treating them like they are less than human and do not have a standard like the rest of us. So, not executing capital punishment is doing harm because it undermines their humanity.
A principle to follow: you should only use the minimum amount of force necessary to prevent the harm that was intended. For example, if a person comes at you with the intent to do harm and all you need to do is point a weapon at him for him to stop, then that is enough. If you proceed to pull the trigger after that, you are unjustified in doing so and are committing murder. However, it may very well be that the minimum amount of force needed to prevent the harm to you and your family is for the would-be criminal to be killed. And in a situation like this, with the adrenaline pumping and decisions needing to be made in a split second, you do not have time to think whether two shots or three shots are enough to stop him, if one should be put in his leg or his arm (as if you would even be able to pull off an accurate shot like that in the heat of the moment), so the best course of action that you can think of at the time is to point your weapon center-mass and pull the trigger repeatedly.
The intention should be for the preservation of life, motivated by love, never retaliation, vengeance, or simply to kill another person. And that preservation is of yourself and of your loved ones. Though we do have the right to resist and to defend ourselves, we do not always have to exercise that right. But before you consider exercising the right to not defend yourself, count the costs of this decision. Think of the lives of your own family. They are souls entrusted by God to your care and your priority in life is to care for them, promote them, defend them, and seek their wellbeing. Think of who will be affected if you decide to not exercise your right to defend yourself and you get harmed or killed: those who greatly desire to be with you and enjoy your presence, or the dependents you have who rely upon you as the breadwinner of the home, as the caretaker, or manager of the home.
I know of too many people who think that “turning the other cheek” obligates them to let an intruder loose within the home and those with malevolent intentions have their way. But they fail to recognize that this command mandates them to take the necessary steps to ensure the wellbeing of those under their care. Yes, we are to bless those that curse you, but this does not take away your right to defend yourself, especially when considering those around you who are dependent upon you. Be obligated to defend your own family. Seek their wellbeing in all situations, even in one such as this.
But, self-defense is exactly that: self-defense. If a person is not posing a violent risk to you or your family, then you cannot take excessive violent measures. If a guy is walking away with your TV, you are not justified in using such disproportionate force to get your TV back. His life is more valuable than your property. This is not to say that you are not permitted to defend your property, there is an appropriate defense for it, but one’s life is more valuable than a thing, no matter if they are a criminal. You cannot claim self-defense in matters of things or items, it is to be in regard to the defense your own life and the lives of your family whom you are entrusted to protect.
War is an unfortunate reality of our world that is a result of man’s fall into sin, stemming from people’s lust, greed, and anger. Because of its horrors and evil, many fall into the camp of pacifism and therefore conclude that no war is ever to be waged- period. However, pacifism does not completely settle in line with the Biblical view of the state and the role of the government, whose job it is to promote the welfare and wellbeing of her citizens. So, what if another nation or people were to rise up and threaten your own nation? Is national defense unjustified then? Certainly the principles of self-defense ought to apply to a nation. There are those who say that in order for war to be justified, it must always be defensive, never offensive, all aggression is condemned. If everyone were to follow this principle, there would be no war. Just War Theory comes from the knowledge that war is a terrible thing. It spreads harm, collateral damage, sickness, poverty, just to name a few. It is a colossal waste of human life and resources. So, the only way to justify war is if it is defensive, if it aims to reduce the amount of harm caused by the rising nation, and if its goal is for restored peace and order.
Because of the number of lives involved and the number of soldiers that are fighting for the government, who each are morally culpable beings, the threshold to get it right is very high upon those who decide to wage war. War should be a last resort after all peaceful means have been pursued first. But if war has been considered as the last option with the intention of producing good and calculated that there is a reasonable chance for success, it may be justified. Because a soldier has been commissioned and deputized by the state to kill enemy combatants, he need not over-burden his conscience as to whether or not he is committing murder when engaged in combat. It is justified for a soldier to do this, especially under a just cause for war, and it is not always the soldier’s duty to sort out whether or not his country is the aggressor or if the other country is- it is not always clear who is in the right- which brings in the responsibility of the leaders to be just and upright in their position and in their commands.
Just War Theory, guided by the 6th Command’s implication for the respect of life, dictates not only the motivations to wage war, but it also guides the kinds of actions that are done within war- hence the notion of “war crimes.” So, only enemy combatants are to be targeted, no more force than necessary is to be used to stop the aggression, just because you can annihilate doesn’t mean you should, and cruelty is to be avoided and condemned.
John Frame gives a list of Arthur Holmes’ principles for a Just War: “1. Just cause. All aggression is condemned; only defensive war is legitimate. 2. Just intention. The only legitimate intention is to secure a just peace for all involved. Neither revenge nor conquest nor economic gain nor ideological supremacy are justified. 3. Last resort. War may only be entered upon when all negotiations and compromise have been tried and failed. 4. Formal declaration. Since the use of military force is the prerogative of governments, not of private individuals, a state of war must be officially declared by the highest authorities. 5. Limited objectives. If the purpose is peace, then unconditional surrender or the destruction of a nation’s economic or political institutions is an unwarranted objective. 6. Proportionate means. The weaponry and the force used should be limited to what is needed to repel the aggression and deter future attacks, that is to say to secure a just peace. Total or unlimited war is ruled out. 7. Noncombatant immunity. Since war is an official act of government, only those who are officially agents of government may fight, and individuals not actively contributing to the conflict (including POW’s and casualties as well as civilian nonparticipants) should be immune from attack. [Others have added] 8. Comparative justice. War should not be waged unless the evils that are fought are grave enough to justify killing. 9. Probability of success. There must be a reasonable likelihood that the war will achieve its [just] aims. 10. Good faith in treaties and agreements.” (708-709)
This brings us to consider the Atomic Bomb. Was it justified? We are talking about the elimination of a whole city in one go- indiscriminately killing women, children, and the elderly. The dropping of this bomb has the same concept of the carpet bombing in Europe. It is bombing cities just to bomb cities. Dresden was a city that was carpet bombed to nothing, and it was a city of marginal strategic importance. War begins with scandalous acts that all parties eventually begin committing. At some points, the Allies became unjust. Just because you are justified in going to war does not give you free license to do anything within war.
But with the bomb, there are a number of factors that went into making this decision. 1 million American lives were estimated to be lost if Japan was invaded. This is not factoring in the Japanese casualties, which may have been more staggering than U.S. casualties, especially after experiencing the reality of the brutal and desperate measures the Japanese took to defend Okinawa, which was considered to be the bloodiest and most intense battle in the Pacific theater because it was so close to Japan’s homeland. So, the Allies concluded that the first bomb was justified as a reasonable attempt and a necessary amount of force to end the war. The desire was not to take over Japan, but for them to stop and surrender. The Japanese had plenty of reason and warning to stop fighting before the bomb, but they did not. Unlike carpet bombing, which was intended to terrorize, this first bomb was intended to stop the war. It was far more humane than waging a land war.
These kinds of moral dilemmas are not unusual in war, which adds to the terribleness of it. The more complicated something is, especially in matters of war, the more difficult it becomes to definitively discern right and wrong. Just like many of our sinful things are not devoid of good things, many of our good things are not devoid of sinful things. Take the Hebrew midwives in Egypt for example: was it right for them to lie? No. Was it good that they preserved the lives of all those Hebrew babies? Yes. Just because an overall act may have ended up good, we do not have to endorse everything that goes on in these acts. Just because a nation is justified in going to war and may have had a good motive and end overall, it does not mean that all things they do within it are justified.
Abortion is not merely an American phenomenon, it is something that occurs worldwide, and there are even places where this act is encouraged. Think of the one-child policy that China had for a time, think of the value some cultures place on boys over girls, or the healthy (“fit”) over the unhealthy (“unfit”). This is certainly the direction that our culture is going, and fast. There are thousands and thousands of reports of parents being told by doctors that, upon the belief that their child is going to have a physical or mental handicap, it would be best for the child and for the parents’ ease of life if the pregnancy was aborted. But this act of abortion is simply impermissible. It is the harming of a human being and you may not act to terminate the child out of mere convenience.
One of the arguments used to advance abortion is that the developing fetus within the mother is not a full human, it is simply a mass of cells with the potential of human life. There are many arguments out there treated in many places that are against this line of thought, so I won’t get after it here, but I will propose something that may not be as common: If you are about to go through with this, are you absolutely certain that this mass of cells is not a full human? The first rule of medical ethics can be likened to the first rule of shooting or hunting in this situation- you have to identify your target and be absolutely certain of what it is before your pull the trigger so you know that you are not going to do any harm. For those who are unconvinced by the pro-life arguments that what is in the womb is a unique person, this does not mean that you can shoot first and ask questions later. It is reckless and irresponsible.
John Frame was debating another professor on this issue, and implicit in the other professor’s argument was that “we could kill anyone whose personhood could not be absolutely proved from Scripture” (725). Frame goes on to give an illustration about him and this professor going on a hunting trip and eventually being separated in the woods at some point. Soon, Dr. Frame “sees a rustling in the bushes, and I raise my gun, thinking that my deer was in the vicinity. But the thought came to me: What if the movement is not a deer, but is actually Prof. Gottfried? I cannot prove that the movement is caused by a person; certainly I cannot prove that from Scripture. So, on Gottfried’s principle, I would be free to shoot first and ask questions later. But of course every Christian (certainly including Prof. Gottfried) would repudiate such an act. When in doubt, we avoid any action that might destroy human life. This is a biblical principle, and it necessitates a pro-life stance, even for people who are not persuaded…” (725).
You pro-lifers who are arguing with pro-choicers do not have the burden to demonstrate that this is a human life, they have the burden to demonstrate that it is not. They are taking the action to end a development. Can they know for sure that the development that they are ending is not human life, and can they demonstrate it, especially when there are very good reasons to believe that this is human life (Ex. 21:22-25; Ps. 139:13-16; Ps. 51:5; Judges 13:3-5; Luke 1:35; see pp. 725-726 of Frame’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, and pp. 26-38 of Gilbert Meilander’s Bioethics.)? Arguments of instrumental value have no bearing upon the medical ethic in this decision to arbitrarily end this life, especially considering the duty of a medical professional who is in the business of having the propensity to preserve life.
What if the life of the mother is genuinely on the line? Again, if this is in an abortion discussion/debate, do not let this come to the conclusion that free, no-questions-asked abortions should be legalized because this would be a red herring, a logical fallacy that misleads to a false conclusion. We do not need legalized abortion to save a life. What you are aiming at, the intention, is vitally important in questions of ethics.
Once the conception occurs, we are to view this as a conceived human and it ought to be treated as such. But when there is more than one life on the line, then this adds more things to consider, like viability. Being pro-life extends the favor of life to the mother, too. And in this situation, it does not mean that we are to only save the life of the fetus at all costs. My opinion may be unpopular here, but hear me out- intentions matter, so aim at life for both in whatever steps that need to be done, do all that you can, and give the best chance you can for both. If the decision comes down to the wire and if you are aiming at life, it is not abortion. The medical procedure to save the mother’s life may still be called “abortion,” lots of things are called that, but, morally, it is not the same thing as what we understand abortion to be today. Morally, it was a decision to save the mother’s life. The very same act that may end the baby’s life may be impermissible if the intent is simply to terminate the baby, yet permissible (not obligatory) if the intent is to save the mother.
Again, intentions matter. On the one hand, there is the arbitrary decision to end a life out of personal convenience or simply to end it for the sake of ending it- on the other, we have a life for life. This scenario may be the one exception where it is permissible, but deciding either way is not easy, especially out of a sincere desire to see both lives preserved. (see Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, pp. 726-727).
The unfortunate, and thankfully rare, scenario like that is the bitter effect of the fall and sin in our world. We will regularly be placed in situations where no outcome of a decision will be pleasant or easy. But it is in these desperate circumstances where we have to use sanctified wisdom, guided by scripture, and count the cost of our decisions, so the instrumental value of the mother must at least come into consideration for this decision. In many cases, it may be better to favor the mother’s life in this setting- she is viable, capable, and independent, but the baby is dependent, and especially dependent upon the mother who would then be gone. The mother may often feel inclined to give her life for the baby, but the husband needs to step up and make a decision- they must have a relationship to where the wife will trust the husband and not hold it against him if he were to decide to save the wife. I do not envy any husband, or any couple who is placed in this situation and must make the choice.
Pre-natal screening involves a medical procedure that is minimally invasive, yet not free from all risks. We need to examine our motives in doing this- to what end is this child being examined? Does it justify the risk? What are you going to do with that information? It might make you more worrisome in life, it might make you more stressed and have more anxiety before the baby is even born. We want to know something because we want to feel in control instead of trusting in God’s sovereign and Fatherly hand providentially placing us in this situation.
Here is a tool for self-examination: we can be interested in Bible knowledge insofar as it gives us power and control over our lives- just think of how many of us would more easily go to a book study or Bible study than a prayer group? Why do we hunger and thirst after this kind of knowledge? Is it a kind of Reformed “self-help?” Shouldn’t the study of the Bible lead to prayer? Shouldn’t it be for a hunger to know God and not to help ourselves? So, for pre-natal screening, why are we pursuing this knowledge, and what are we going to use it for? Is it for something that can be done in the womb and nowhere else? Or is it that we can have control over our lives in this manner, to aid in our convenience or fulfilment? Is it so we can know our “options,” like a soft eugenics, and prevent a “wrongful life” if the child comes out with mental or physical disabilities? Is it so we can shoot for a “perfect” baby? It is a typical reflection of the attitude we have when it comes to starting and raising a family- it is to advance one’s own life, to fulfil themselves, give them status and control. It is a selfish and unloving way to have children and does not fit with Josef Pieper’s wonderful definition of love where one can genuinely say “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world!”
In other words, this is self-murder. It is the taking of your own life, the destruction of God’s image-bearer, the same as murdering someone else, and it is impermissible. So, we are not to promote things that would aid or abet this no matter the shape or form it comes in. This includes things like encouraging your friends or whoever to consider it, egging them on, affirming the negative and depressive thoughts that may precede the act, downplaying its seriousness, making it a lighthearted trend, etc. There is a recent case of a young lady encouraging her boyfriend via text message to remain in his car while an engine was on in the garage so he would die of carbon monoxide poisoning from the exhaust. While being miles away, and not touching any of the equipment, she abetted his suicide by using the right phrases and words to encourage this young man to follow through. She was tried in court and found guilty, rightfully so. But it also includes things like doctor-assisted suicide, euthanasia, and mercy killings. Just because someone is suffering and may arbitrarily judge that they have such a low quality of life that is not worth living anymore does not give you the right to assist them in this. Yes, there are appropriate times to give up your life and to accept when your time has come, so at this point it may be appropriate to decline care, let the person die if they are truly dying and all concerted efforts to heal are no longer viable. No longer is the goal to heal, but to bring comfort then becomes the primary goal.
But providing comfort does not include making a forward act that brings an earlier, unnatural death that has the intent to kill. This comes from a twisted view of death where one tries to make it your friend. Death is not comfort. Though death is defeated and we as Christians should not fear it, and is presently used as a tool to transition us to glory, it is not our friend or deliverer. Christ defeated death as an enemy. It is disarmed, but it is still our enemy. The very suggestion that death is our friend and deliverer is an evil notion.
Arguments of independence and autonomy have no bearing here. We do not have a “right to die” upon our terms (also, if the notion of one’s “right to die” becomes unashamedly prominent within society, when will the motto become one’s “duty to die,” and who determines this duty?). It is clearly a Christian principle that just as we are not able to determine the nature of when our life is brought into this world, do nothing to keep our souls within our bodies, do nothing within ourselves to keep our hearts beating and all the systems of our bodies moving, have so little control over the external circumstances that occur in life, and can do nothing to remain in existence by our concerted efforts, so it is the same for the way we exit this world. Gilbert Meilander said, “We are dependent beings, and to think otherwise- to make independence our project, however sincerely- is to live a lie, to fly in the face of reality. Thus, suicide as a rational project expresses a desire to be only free and not also finite- a desire to be more like Creator than creature.” (59). We always live in relation to God, and we recognize that all people’s lives are not their own, but have been created and given, even those who do not believe in God.
Cadaver Care and Organ Donation
In some mysterious way, Christ remains united to the body as it lies in the grave. Though a person may be dead, it still belongs to them and Christ is still united to it. What you do to your body while you are living, you do to yourself and this same thought should apply to dead bodies. We know that death, this tearing of the soul from the body, is temporary and we will be reunited to our bodies in the resurrection. At all times, we are to maintain that we are two parts- body and soul, and know that redemption is not complete without the resurrection. Without the resurrection, the grave and sin still reign. Therefore, what you do with that body is morally significant. You are dealing with an object that God has given to a person and it still belongs to them. So, human remains are not to be disregarded as mere dirt or reduced to mere curiosity or morbid interest, like putting them on display in various states of dissection as a circus side-show. It is okay to donate for training so that other may learn to heal the living, but the bodies are to be handled with dignity. There is to be a dignified burial or cremation, and not to be tossed in a pit like a dog.
Where do we define death, at what moment does it happen? For a time, it had been determined death happens when the breathing stops. Think of all the Bible passages that refer to someone’s breath departing from them. But this could be an expression referring to the spirit that God had breathed into man at creation, or just an expression of observation that the dead no longer breathe. Others have said it is when the heart stops, but we can re-start the heart and keep a person alive. Now, people are saying that a person is dead when they are “brain dead.” This is the moment where medicine says death happens, but this may change sometime in the future just as the other definitions have changed. All we can say is that death happens at a mysterious moment when the soul leaves the body.
In order to keep the organs of the body functioning after someone dies to allow for a more “fresh” transplant, we must commit to the fact that the person is dead even though the organs are still being artificially kept alive. But this is where things get grey. At what point are we simply oxygenating a corpse instead of keeping a human being alive? It is for this reason why coming to a precise and certain moment of death is important, otherwise we will alter our definition simply for the reason of maintaining a fresher supply of organs, which is out of the question. We don’t kill others like this so we can harvest their body parts. I believe that brain death is an acceptable place to determine whether or not someone is dead, so long as the whole brain is dead, and not just some cognitive functions. It is the brain that regulates a lot of things like the beating of the heart and breathing, so without the artificial stimulation of those things, the brain would not be working to keep those organs moving- it is no longer an integrated whole necessary unto life. But if there is any point of uncertainty in determining whether or not one is appropriately “brain dead,” it is always best to incline our decisions and judgments that the person is still a living human being.
When it comes to medical research, there is a difference between treating a disease versus trying to desperately cling to life by transcending human finitude. There is an interesting paradox within the medical community: the continual fight to stave off the diseases that cause death, and the knowledge that people will inevitably die. Meilander says, “This paradox is likely to incline us feverishly in the direction of experimentation and research” (109). We have a lot of medical knowledge of the diseases that cause death and have cured a few of them, so, in principle, these causes of death can be “picked off, one by one” (110). This effort can be seen in things like cryogenics and genetic manipulations. Yet this is all guided by evolutionary transcendental humanism and the idolatrous mission to escape death by man’s efforts. This is the scientific quest to live forever, searching for more than what we have, transcending our current limitations, finding eternal life, with the eschatological hope of eventually evolving into an existential singularity or utopia. These thoughts parallel Christianity in some ways- it even parallels a resurrection. If you talk to some emergent scientist/philosophers, they think and are hoping that they can upload old people into this singularity and have them live forever in it. This is science trying to reach salvation from death’s sting by man’s efforts and it is an artificial copy of the real thing, an imitation, and a twisting that settles for far less than what God offers. This kind of hope is ingrained into humanity, but can only be truly and fully realized within Christ.
We can see that so much of the ethical dilemmas we face today are linked to this command. We live in a culture that is increasingly de-valuing the life that God has given and increasingly following this doctrine of demons that focuses much of its teachings and proddings toward a favorable view of death and dying. We live in a culture of death and a culture of human pride. Men wrongly place themselves upon the pedestal of godly reign, fancying themselves to be the arbiters and determiners of life and death. If we want to see how badly we have slipped into secularization and godlessness, this aspect of man’s relationship to his fellow image bearers is one of the features to look at.
Disclaimer: The content of this series is drawn from much of my notes of Dr. Bruce Baugus’ lectures. The language and arguments are adjusted to fit an easier reading flow, the content is catered to my writing style, and may not always accurately reflect Dr. Baugus’ sentiments or statements. Other sources are also used to draw in information.