What follows is a very lightly edited version of a talk I gave recently for a student pro-life group in Cambridge, on why human life is valuable.
When you encounter another human being, what are you encountering?
Is an encounter with another human being different from an encounter with an AI chatbot? Is it different from an encounter with a mouse, or a goldfish, or your pet dog? Intuitively we think it probably is. But is there a metaphysical underpinning for that belief? In other words, is it grounded in reality? Or is it just a free-floating intuition that might be wrong, a set of preferences that bear no real relation to what is real?
Or consider another set of questions: How do you know if someone’s life is worth living? Or if it’s no longer worth living? As a society, how should we decide whose life has value? Can we know whether all human lives are equally valuable? Or are some lives less valuable than others? Are all human lives equally worth protecting and preserving? And if they’re not, how can we know when someone’s life isn’t valuable enough to protect and preserve?
What value should we ascribe to the life of an unborn child? Does it make a difference if the parents don’t want that child? What about the life of someone who is old and frail, or terminally ill? Does it make a difference if they don’t want to carry on living? If they feel they’re a burden to others? If they feel like is too painful and hard?
More personally: what about you? Is your life worth living? What are you worth? What do you do when you reach the point when it feels like your own life is no longer worth living?
My aim in this talk is not to address directly questions of the beginning and end of life—abortion, assisted suicide—or questions about intense suffering, or social and economic inequalities.
I’m aiming to be more ambitious than that. I’m aiming to provide a deep metaphysical grounding (if you want to impress your friends later, tell them you’ve been to a talk on metaphysics!)—a consideration of the fundamental nature of reality. What is reality? And how does that provide solid ground for the belief that all human life is unimaginably precious and every human life has indescribable dignity?
I’m going to try to make a very simple point—although my argument is going to unfold in several stages. The simple point is this: All human life is precious because it is the good gift of the good God. Whoever the person is, whatever their age and stage of development (from conception through to old age), whatever their abilities and capacities, regardless of illness or weakness or frailty or suffering, regardless of how much or how little other people value them—all human life—the life of every individual human being—your life—has inestimable value. Because it is the very good gift of the very good God.
We live in a time when that is contested. When many people believe that some lives just have less value than others: the lives of the unborn, or the old and frail or terminally ill. The lives of those who are dying. Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Columbia, Canada, Spain, New Zealand. That’s a fairly predictable list of countries, and in the next few years it will get longer.
Peter Singer is an extreme example, but as he likes to point out, he’s been described as ‘the world’s most influential philosopher’. He’s certainly one of the most influential ethicists alive today. His book, Practical Ethics was first published in 1983. My copy, dated 2005, is the twentieth printing—so this is a widely read book! He states the issue with admirable clarity (NB: he’s speaking here about infants after they have been born):
[I]t is…characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore cannot be equated with killing normal human beings…No infant—disabled or not—has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.
At the other end of life, consider Canada’s ‘Medical Assistance in Dying’ scheme (MAID—a deeply sinister acronym). According to an article in the New Atlantis, 10,064 people used MAID to die in 2021. The article describes how:
A number of recent news articles have reported on Canadians who, driven by poverty and a lack of access to adequate health care, housing, and social services, have turned to the country’s euthanasia system. In multiple cases, veterans requesting help from Veterans Affairs Canada — at least one asked for PTSD treatment, another for a ramp for her wheelchair — were asked by case workers if they would like to apply for euthanasia.
It quotes a man, called Les: ‘“Even at 65, I don’t want to die,” he says. He says it again and again. “I really don’t want to die. I just can’t afford to live.”’
You might think that’s sad, but understandable and okay. You might be horrified by it and think it’s wrong. But why is it wrong? Why is it wrong to protect the lives of some people, and willingly end the lives of others?
In what follows, I want to give a Christian theological grounding for belief in the sheer goodness of human life, and extraordinary dignity of all human beings.
When God created the heavens and the earth, the Bible tells us that ‘God saw that the light was good’ (Gen 1:4). Then, God saw that the earth and seas were good (v. 10). Then that the plants and trees were good (v. 12). Six times in the opening chapter of Genesis, God sees what he has made and says that it is good. He then he makes man in his image, male and female, blesses us to be fruitful, and gives us dominion over the rest of creation (vv. 27-28). And then, he declares that his creation is very good. The whole creation is very good. Human life in particular is very good. And God wants more of it: much more. An earth filled with human beings is a blessing from God, and it is very good. God loves human life, and he wants more and more of it.
But let’s press pause, because before we get to humans, we won’t understand human life if we don’t understand God.
That repeated ‘good’ in Genesis 1 doesn’t just teach us about creation. First of all, it teaches us about the Creator. Creation is good because its Creator is good.
1. The Good God
In Mark 10, a young man comes up to Jesus and addresses him as ‘good teacher’. Jesus’ response is startling: ‘Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone…”’ (Mk 10:18). It seems likely that Jesus is making a startling claim to his own deity here. But he does so by making a startling claim about God—a claim that’s particularly startling in the light of Genesis 1: ‘No one is good except God alone.’
To call God good is not to put him alongside good things in creation and to say: he just is the biggest and best good in a series of goods. Even if you were to take the whole of creation, you could not put it alongside God and compare the amount of goodness in each.
There’s not this thing called, ‘The Good’ that God has the biggest share in. He’s not the biggest slice of the goodness pie.
Compared to God, nothing and no one is good. The only true God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is good, and he alone is absolutely good. The philosopher Robert Sokolowski captures it well:
(God plus the world) cannot be conceived as better than God alone…That is, no perfection would be lost if God had not created the world. The world and God must be so understood that nothing but God could be all that there is, and there would be no diminution of greatness or goodness or perfection. God is not better or greater because of creation, nor is ‘there’ more goodness or greatness because God did create.
God the Holy Trinity, is good in and of himself. His is good by his own goodness, not by a good imparted from somewhere else. And therefore God—the Christian God—is the absolute standard and source of all goodness. He is a vast ocean of goodness. And compared to him, the good of things in this creation, the good of the entirety of creation, is just a drop in a bucket.
And it’s worth us lingering for a moment to contemplate and delight in the God who is goodness.
God’s goodness is his utter perfection. He is the sum of all perfection.
He is good with a holy goodness: ‘God is Light and in him there is no darkness at all.’ (1 Jn 1:5). He is good with a noble goodness: entirely worthy of all worship and honour (Rev 4:11).
He is good with a desirable goodness: there is nothing desirable apart from him (Ps 73:25). He is good with an eternal goodness: his goodness will never end. He is good with an unchanging goodness: it is impossible for him to be better than he already is; and he will never be less good than he is.
He is good with a delightful goodness: he is a vast ocean of satisfaction and joy, so that all good, all delight, all rest, all joy consists in knowing and enjoying and communing with him forever. ‘Oh taste and see that the LORD is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.’ (Ps 34:8)
In the happy fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is good in himself with a perfect goodness. He has no need of anything or anyone else. But precisely because he is good, he is not locked up in his own goodness. His goodness is not self-revolving. God is good, and therefore, he also does good. (Ps 119:68). The good God does good works. And the first of his works is the work of creation.
2. The Good God’s Good Creation
From the infinite and unchanging stores of his own goodness, God ‘distributes his goodness… bit by bit to everything’ he makes. Rocks and rivers, bluebells and beech trees, dandelions and dragonflies, fields and forests, kestrels and kingfishers, lions and lemurs. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’. And so you get this repeated drumbeat in Genesis 1: ‘it was good…it was good…it was good…it was good…it was good…it was good…’ Each thing in creation, good with its own, particular, distinctive, tiny little share in the ocean of goodness that is God himself.
But all the beauties of creation, in their differing degrees, are just traces of the goodness of God. Only one creature surpasses all the others and reveals to us the image of God (Gen 1:27). And so when man is created, male and female, in Genesis 1, the rhythm of the drumbeat changes: ‘God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good’ (Gen 1:31).
I live close to Salisbury Cathedral. It’s a magnificent 13th century building, with a very tall, narrow early gothic nave, supported by polished Purbeck marble pillars. And as you stand in the nave, you can look up and be overwhelmed by the majesty of the building.
But my favourite feature in the cathedral is the font, which stands towards the west end of the cathedral, in the centre of the nave. It’s an elegant piece of modern sculpture by William Pye. And the water forms a perfect mirror. So to see the cathedral, you can look up and see the grandeur of the architecture. Or you can look across the surface of the fairly shallow water in the font, and see the nave reflected.
That reflection is what it means for us humans to be made in the image of God.
So, what is it you encounter when you meet another human being? God created us to reflect his glory in creation. No matter how young or old, impressive or unimpressive, strong or weak, brilliant or dull…Dull people are only dull to our dull eyes. To be sure in another sense, sin has dulled us all—sin degrades and diminishes us. But the dullest of people, the weakest of people, the least impressive of people, are extraordinary!
In the words of John Webster, ‘God the creator gives life, and the gift of life includes the bestowal of inalienable and inviolable dignity.’ ‘God has crowned us with glory and honour’ (Ps 8:5). Creation is exaltation! We are kings and queens in creation, with exceptional dignity because we have been dignified by God. We are mirrors created to reflect the sheer goodness of God himself. We are crowned with a small reflection of his infinite goodness and glory.
This means that human dignity—and a right understanding of the sheer goodness of every human life—is only found in relation to God. Our glory and dignity are real, but they are not our own possession. They are a gift—a gift received from God, and seen only in relation to God.
But that is not how our post-Christian world sees it. Immanuel Kant, writing in 1785‚ located our dignity in our autonomy—our freedom from the rule of another: ‘autonomy [being a self-legislator; having ‘a share in universal legislation’] is…the ground of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature’.
Downstream from the Enlightenment, we’ve been trained to believe that dignity is found in independence. That takes a rather different shape today than it did for Kant. But it’s a fundamental article of faith in our time that dignity is freedom to be myself, with no one else telling me what to do. Dignity is freedom to craft a life for myself in my own way.
But what actually happens when we seek autonomy by trying remove God from the picture? Well, what would happen if someone removed the font from Salisbury Cathedral, and put it in a dark space, with nothing to reflect? You’d be left with an attractive container for a shallow pool of water, but nothing more.
We do not see the dignity and glory of other humans, we are not awed by the beauty and goodness of the weakest and least impressive human life, because we do not see the majesty and glory of God. God bores us. And so humans shrivel and shrink before our eyes. To quote John Webster again, and not for the last time:
[God] is the ground of creatures; without him, all is surface, and apart from him appeals to dignity can scarcely be more than cries of alarm, or prohibitions, or commands which lack final authority to compel action. Apart from God, dignity is precarious, hovering in an order of obligation untethered to an order of being.
If life is about autonomy and self-fulfilment, what happens if someone gets in the way of me living the life I want to live? How will I regard someone who hurts me deeply? What happens if an unwanted baby threatens to upend a couple’s life? What happens when someone gets old and ill and weak and feels themself to be a burden on others? What if that person no longer feels that they have a good enough quality of life? What will happen to me if, instead of a life of happiness and fulfilment, I find my life to be filled with darkness and trauma or failure and despair? What if I feel worthless?
As good creatures of the good God—made in his image to reflect his likeness, deeply loved and wanted by him—even at our worst, even at our lowest ebb, our lives and the life of each and every person have unimaginable dignity and value.
But as sinners—rejecting God, seeking life without him—we erode our dignity and attempt our own unmaking. Even if we want to value the lives of others—if we rightly care about modern day slavery, or the grinding poverty and hunger that so many endure, if we rightly care about victims of abuse, or the lives of the elderly or of unborn children—if we cut God out of the picture, there is no solid ground for our concerns. All that is lift are ‘cries of alarm, or prohibitions, or commands that lack any real authority’, an order of desire and obligation ‘untethered to an order of being’.
And yet, in the face of our sinful attempts to reject our maker and unmake ourselves, the good God was remained perfectly and unchangeably good. Therefore he continued to do good.
3. The Good God’s Good Appearing
In Titus 3, Paul paints a bleak picture of human life apart from God: ‘For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.’ (Titus 3:3). Alienated from God, of course we are unable and unwilling to treat his image-bearers with the dignity that is their due. But God remained good. And he did us good. ‘But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy’ (Titus 3:4-5). God not only continued to do good to our world. God’s goodness itself has appeared in our world.
(a) The Good God Took Our Flesh
The good God, in all his perfect goodness, appeared by assuming our flesh.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (Jn 1:14). God’s eternal, only begotten Son took to himself a human nature—a human body with a rational soul. Even as he filled heaven and earth, he came into our world, small and weak like us. Small and weak like the smallest and weakest among us. In the unforgettable words of John Donne, the Virgin had ‘Light in dark, and shutt’st in little room / Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb /…Weak enough, now into our world to come.’
When the word became flesh, for thirty years he lived a very ordinary human life in an unimportant family in a small community in a rural backwater of an occupied nation. Even as he filled heaven and earth as God, as a man he took on profound limitations! ‘He grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him’ (Isa 53:3)
There was nothing eye-catching about Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing obviously striking or desirable. But in becoming so small and weak—without form, without majesty, with no beauty that we should desire him—he further dignified our human nature, and showed the incredible dignity of a small, unattractive, unnoticed, unvalued human life.
The full glory of being a human was not revealed in creation, when we were crowned with glory and honour. The full glory and dignity of human life—ordinary, unimpressive, overlooked, unvalued human life—is revealed in the fact that God created us so that he could become one of us as this man.
But more than that: he took our flesh so that he could die our death.
(b) The Good God Died Our Death
For he grew up before him like a young plant,Isaiah 53:2b-5
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
The Lord Jesus took upon himself our debased condition and our degradation, our sorrows and our suffering, our wounds and our woes, and the punishment of our sin. As he suffered and died in agony and shame he showed the dignity of a suffering, beaten, broken human life.
In anguish he cried out and sweat blood for us in the Garden. He watched his friends abandon and betray him. In silence, he stood as his accusers lied and slandered him.
He was jeered at, and spat on, and whipped until his flesh was raw, crowned with thorns, dressed in an imperial robe, blindfolded and beaten round the head. And then they brought him out.
And what does Pilate say, as the eternal Son of God stands there so utterly degraded? John 19:5: ‘Behold the Man’ (Jn 19:5). Not just ‘Behold, a man’, but ‘Behold The Man’—The True Man; the Good and Glorious Image of God, laying down his life willingly for our salvation.
From the darkness and weakness of the womb, to the darkness and stillness of the tomb, and then on to eternal light and life on Easter Morning, the Lord Jesus Christ—the Goodness and Loving Kindness of God, who appeared for our salvation—shows us the dignity of even the most degraded human life. And he shows us the immense value that our God and Father sets on human life, that he would give his Son in this way for us and for our salvation.
Human dignity—the goodness and value of every human life—is a dignity that is given by the good God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is therefore a dignity that can only be grasped when we see ourselves in relation to him.
But even if we do not see God’s goodness, the dignity of human life remains. Understood in relation to God, ‘dignity may properly be attributed to creatures and is not finally contingent upon social affirmation. Dignity is encountered, not simply ascribed, and encountered in such a way as to be beyond manipulation.’
You and I do not get to decide which human beings have dignity and value. Ethicists do not get to decide. Legislators do not get to decide. Doctors do not get to decide. Parents do not get to decide. Children, or spouses, or caregivers do not get to decide. I do not get to decide for myself about myself. Dignity is not contingent upon social affirmation. It is simply there, because God is good, and therefore his works are good. And the human products of his work bear the very image of God himself. And so we are very good.
As I encounter the extraordinary goodness and beauty and dignity of another human being, if I do not recognise and ascribe dignity to that person what does that say about me? If a society does not lavish all the associated love and care and protection from harm that every human being deserves, what does this say about that society? It says that we are profoundly ignorant—blind to reality. And deeply wicked and corrupt. It tells us that somewhere deep inside of us, we are hostile to God, and therefore hostile to all that is good.
The question of the goodness and dignity of human life is not in the end a matter of indifference. It’s not a matter of different possible and valid opinions that we should just tolerate in a secular pluralist inclusive society. Nor is it a matter of private religious conviction. I have offered Christian arguments, certainly. But I’ve done that because they’re the only arguments that can secure the dignity of every human life on solid foundations. And these are not private religious opinions. They are statements about reality—the reality we all inhabit as creatures who have our lives not from ourselves, but from God.
Our contemporaries fear the idea that God could interfere in questions about the beginning and end of life. They fear the idea that, in the meantime, God could interfere in the laws that govern how we live in all kinds of ways. They fear the idea that God could interfere personally, deeply, radically in my life. For we live in the world forged in the wake of thinkers like Immanuel Kant. We have been taught to fear what’s known as heteronomy—the law-giving rule of another. We believe, deep in our bones, with Kant, that ‘autonomy is…the ground of the dignity of human nature’—autonomy is the ground of my freedom and dignity.
But that is a lie. The truth—reality—is this:
‘To be human is in every element of our being to be referred to a source of life; and that reference is not dark heteronomy but the deeply happy reality that, though we might not have been, by divine generosity we are and live.’
 Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1983), 182.
 Alexander Raikin, ‘No Other Options’, The New Atlantis, Winter 2023. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/no-other-options
 Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Catholic University of America Press, 1995 ), 9.
 Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 2: Faith in the Triune God, trans. Todd M. Rester (Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 1.12.16.VII.
 John Webster, ‘The Dignity of Creatures’ in God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume II: Virtue and Intellect (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 35.
 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Oxford University Press, 2019), §436.
 Webster, ‘Dignity of Creatures’, 29.
 Webster, ‘Dignity of Creatures’, 29-30.
 Webster, ‘Intellectual Patience’, in God Without Measure, Volume II, 187.