Are Human Embryos Made in the Image of God?

One of the great things about BioLogos is that we have the opportunity to think deeply about the biology of development, but also about the implications of that biology especially contextualized for our Christian faith.

Let me start by highlighting a countervailing voice to a Christian perspective, Peter Singer, a bioethicist a provocateur. Singer said, “In this respect, experimenting on a human embryo is not to be compared in significance with experimenting on a living sentient mouse.” Singer’s doing something here that some thinkers certainly do: he’s denying the human difference. And we as Christian believers want to affirm the human difference. Let’s talk about what that means for ethics.

First, does biology have anything to tell us about how we can define that human difference in an ethically meaningful way? The problem here is that we’ve talked about the continuity of development. We all started as that one celled zygote (Diagram 1: upper left)and then we all end up looking something like my son (Diagram 1: lower right).

Jeff Hardin: Diagram for Embryos and Ethics (2019 BioLogos Conference)

Diagram 1 (from “A Child is Born”)

But the problem is that that process is a continual unfolding of potentialities that are already present in that one celled zygote. They haven’t all been actualized at the same time, but it’s a continual unfolding. So looking for a magic dividing line that willjust through dint of the factshelp us to decide the value of human embryos is probably going to be difficult.

The Ramsey Colloquium a long time ago said, “The (embryo) is human … Any being that is human is a human being. If it’s objected that, at five days or 15 days, the embryo does not look like a human being, it must be pointed out that this is precisely what a human being looks likeand what each of us looked likeat five or 15 days of development.”

The point is well taken. All of us traversed this trajectory of development. In fact, one thing we can affirm is that God knows that whole story. The Bible clearly affirms that children, before they’re born, are begotten gifts (Ps. 127:3-5). Not only that though, the weak and the seemingly insignificant deserve special protection (Ex. 22:22, Deut. 10:18, Isa. 1:17, etc). And this is a theme throughout the entire Old Testament.

So all of this suggests that embryos matter deeply to God. But let’s be honest, can we say in modern language that the embryo is an image bearer? Can we say the same things about an embryo that we can say about more advanced humans? Well, we need to be honestthe human biblical authors didn’t know about blastocysts. So that’s a problem. The Bible is pre-scientific in that way. And so its language doesn’t resolve this issue with a certainty that we’d like. And as a result of that, sincere Christians may disagree about some of these things. I think we can all affirm that passages like the ones we’ve been discussing may not establish when human life begins, but they establish God’s care and involvement from the very beginning. We know when human life begins, it’s just a question of the moral status of the embryo.

But I think this encapsulates very well what we can all say about God’s deep care for us as embryos.

Given the preponderance of the biblical data, and the inability of biology to provide absolutely clean dividing lines about watershed moments in development, causes me to fall back to a more conservative position. This is articulated really well by the great Lutheran bioethicist, Gil Meilaender. He says, “If we’re genuinely baffled about how best to describe the moral status of the human subject, we should not go forward in a way that peculiarly combines metaphysical bewilderment with practical certitude by approving even limited (use) for experimental purposes.” So Meilaender is saying we should be careful, and I call that the wisdom of reluctance.

I think we should be very reluctant not to treat the embryo as an end in him or herself. We have a balancing act. As Christians, we desire to use technology to prevent disease. That’s beneficence. And we should seek to treat embryos as patientsan end as opposed to a means at all stages of development. And in our modern society, sometimes those first two points can potentially come into conflict.

We should also be wary as Christians of technological optimism, and that’s because of human limitations. Genesis 2 says God placed limitations on human knowledge. That was before the fall. Genesis 3 adds to that the human sinful condition. So we should be aware of technological optimism.

And the result of all this is that we are in tension as Christians, and that is something that we need to work out together in community.

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Jeff Hardin
About the Author

Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin is chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to numerous scientific research articles relating to embryonic development, Hardin is senior author of World of the Cell. He received a Master of Divinity degree at the International School of Theology in Southern California, where he met his wife, Susie, who worked in campus ministry with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ). He is on the national advisory board for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship’s Faculty Ministry and serves as faculty advisor for the Navigators and InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship on the UW-Madison campus.
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