How Precious Is One Human Life?

May 23, 2020 by C. Bryant Glisson

As we slowly begin to emerge from the various degrees of lockdown prompted by the now infamous Coronavirus pandemic, I have often found myself pondering this question. I began to reflect upon it shortly after a well-known politician, commenting on the shuttering of small businesses under his governorship, benevolently proclaimed something to the effect, “Every life is precious, and if by all of these measures we can save just one life, all of it will have been worth it.” Now, of course, the politician in question is avidly pro-abortion, so the idea that he values life on principle is comical at best. But the thought itself does raise some worthwhile questions that all of us ought to be contemplating during these difficult days. How precious is a human life, and what is it worth sacrificing to preserve?

First of all, let us divide truth from error in the statement above. Human life is precious. It is not precious because we say that it is or because we bear emotional attachments to certain people or because of our commonalities with one another. All of these things are circumstantial. Were I to measure the worth of a life by any of them, I could at best say that a particular life is subjectively precious to me, never that it is precious in any absolute sense. If human life is indeed precious in any universal sense, then it must be so regardless of how I feel about other people or what I see in them and solely as a result of their membership in mankind. Such is precisely the Bible’s message. God created every man and woman in His own image (Gen. 1:26-27 ), whether strong or weak, intelligent or feeble-minded, brave or cowardly, sociable or reserved, beautiful or disfigured. All people everywhere have their worth by virtue of His image, which is itself the reflection of ultimate worth. Just as life comes from life and intellect from intellect, so worth comes from worth. Human life is precious only because God Himself is precious, and we are made in His image. Thus far, this esteemed leader of men has spoken truly.

However, the remainder of his statement, compassionate and romantic as it may ring in our ears, is demonstrably dishonest. If we say that saving one life is worth the grave consequences that we will all inevitably experience from crippling or even destroying our economy, then, to be consistent, we should also say that any and every less destructive course of action is justifiable and ought to be pursued on the same grounds. For example, I have heard more than one talking head point out that we could save many thousands of lives annually by banning automobiles. That being so, shouldn’t we expect this noble politician to be an outspoken advocate of returning to horse and buggy? And one would think that he would be even more incensed by restaurants and groceries that would dare to sell anything remotely unhealthy, given that heart disease claims many times the lives of auto accidents. But why stop there when a ban on such a simple object as a knife could prevent who knows how many stabbing fatalities?

We could go on, but I think the point is clear. None of us, least of all this politician, actually believe that saving one life is worth the sacrifice that we would have to make in how we live to eliminate the dangers posed by these and other “threats,” which are statistically certain to result in loss of life for as long as we permit them. If any of us did so believe, then we would have acted upon our convictions well before the current crisis. Our silent acquiescence to the way things are proves that we have no such convictions and that we corporately acknowledge a certain loss of life to be acceptable in view of the great benefits that such things offer us in our daily comings and goings. But if we are not willing to pursue these lesser disruptions to save a life, how is it that we now find ourselves justifying far greater disruptions to the selfsame end?

I suspect that many who advocate for the extreme measures that our country has taken probably do so more for the emotional satisfaction that they enjoy by their stance than for its intellectual or moral soundness. It does indeed feel quite good to think that we are sacrificing to save lives. Besides, what is mere money when compared to human life? But then what are mere cars and trucks? What are mere morsels on a plate? Why are we so willing to embrace these everyday killers, whose fatal effects are so far reaching and regular? I suspect, for the great majority of us, that we do so because we realize just how much good and happiness they and things like them have brought to the lives of billions of people across the planet. Automobiles, for example, not only deliver us to our loved ones but food to our supermarket shelves and time-saving gadgets to our homes. They enable human exchange on a level that could not otherwise be accomplished. They may in some instances reduce the quantity of years that one individual spends on this earth, but they dramatically improve the quality of those years for as long as he is with us. And the same can certainly be said for delicious food, which serves as a centerpiece for all kinds of human relationships and one of those daily pleasures that make hard times that much more bearable.

If we are capable of recognizing the benefit in these things and of judging the loss of human life that they will surely incur to be worth the good that they bring to both present and future humanity, why then would we approve of the economy, of which they are both a part, being brought to a standstill based on the notion that doing so might save a human life? Is this not akin to tearing down the car that would otherwise be used to transport a patient to the hospital or denying a starving man a much needed meal because we are concerned that it might be bad for his health? Our economy is the fuel that feeds the very industries responsible for finding a cure for both present and future viral threats and the mechanism which for so long has enabled our government to carelessly toss about unimaginable sums of our money in pursuit of its various excesses. If we kill the economy to save a life today, what will be left of it to employ towards saving a hundred lives tomorrow or to provide for the governance and defense of generations to come? Is the future of an entire nation worth the preservation of one life?

Of course, I think that we all intuitively understand that this politician’s statement is an exaggeration, a sound byte for the cameras meant to play upon his viewers’ emotions, so as to make him appear righteous and empathetic. None of us, upon reflection, really believe that a single life is worth the ruin of an entire nation, especially when we understand that a strong economy is critical both to improving and saving human life through rapid innovation and the distribution of new technologies and treatments. But what if we were talking about a hundred lives, or a thousand, or a million? At what point do we draw the line and deem the exchange permissible? How many lives must be in mortal peril before the shutdown that we have witnessed would be justifiable?

The extraordinary complexity inherent to this question cannot be overstated, for to understand a free market economy is to understand the individual aspirations and circumstances of every free person who composes it—something that lies well beyond us finite men. I think perhaps the best that we can do is to try to be consistent. If we let a man drive his car, knowing that he may kill himself or others in doing so, or if we let him eat whatever quantity and quality of food he prefers, knowing that it may soon bring about a fatal heart attack, then perhaps, to be consistent, we should allow a well-informed public to make up their own minds as to how they will conduct themselves around one another, each person choosing according to his individual conscience whether or not it is worth the risk to himself and his fellow man to leave his home for one reason or another. This self-governance is at the heart of our country and constitution and is the lifeblood of a free people. If we remove from the common man the opportunity to fail on his own, we guarantee that all of us will fail together, and the country with us, for it is only a matter of time before our enlightened overseers—whoever they may end up being—lead us merrily into the pit for which their own unchecked shortcomings have prepared them.

I do not see any other approach for a free people. Of course, freedom comes with a cost, and we have known this as a country from our founding. How many men have given their lives for the freedom that we presently enjoy? Was our freedom worth their sacrifice, and if so, is it not also worth our own? When we come to look at our own lives as so precious that we feel justified in clinging to them at the expense of our neighbors, we have made idols of ourselves. We have treated a thing that cannot last—our life in this world—as if it must last and as if any and every expense is justified in its preservation. Yet we will die. The only thing that remains to be seen is how we shall spend this precious gift of life that we have been given (Mat. 25:14-30 ). Will we spend it on ourselves or on the love of others? If we are not willing to die for our fellow man, neither can we live for him, and if we refuse to live for him, then we prove ourselves slaves to our own selfish desires and unworthy of the freedom that so many gave their lives securing for us.

If our lives are to have any meaning whatsoever, then we must learn to lose them daily, whether in living or in dying, for the sake of our fellow man. We should never think our lives too precious to be given. To the contrary, our lives are far too precious to keep to ourselves and must be given if they are to retain their value. A life unspent is like a car that is too expensive to drive or an outfit too fine to wear. It has lost its purpose, having become an object of vanity, condemned to mere existence without any regard for its proper use. The fact is, a car is meant to be driven, and all the more so the greater its cost. An outfit is meant to be worn, and all the more so the finer its make. Likewise, our lives are meant to be spent on one another, and it is the incredible preciousness of every human life that demands that it be spent to the fullest. Life is simply too precious not to give in the love of our fellow man.

Now you may be thinking, “I understand that I should not cling to my own life, but how can I presume upon others to give up theirs? How am I loving my neighbor when I act in a way that may put his life at risk?” As I consider this question, I think of Philippians 2:3-4, which instructs us, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Two things seem clear to me from these verses. First, we are to live our lives in consideration of others, esteeming them more highly than ourselves and putting their welfare before our own. Second, we are to look out for their interests. But is it any more in my neighbor’s interests to have an unhealthy, idolatrous obsession with this present life than it is in mine? And am I serving him by enabling such obsession through the choices I make?

In Matthew 22:39, Jesus tells us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If I am to love my neighbor in the same manner as I love myself and if I am to love myself out of a complete and uncompromising love for God (Mat. 22:37 ), then I must not think of my love for my neighbor as an absolute or as a thing in itself, but as an outflow of my love for God. And God is not concerned with sentimentality, but truth. My neighbor is just as prone to death as I, and for me to pretend that his life in this world is so precious that I am morally obligated to make any and every sacrifice required to preserve it not only places me in the impossible situation of trying to preserve what must eventually be lost, but stands to do him lasting harm by encouraging him to spend all of his energies grasping at a thing that cannot help but slip through his fingers. If, then, I truly love my neighbor, I will treat him as a man destined to die and one who ought to be preparing himself for the life to come. And as a bearer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I will instruct him as best I can in how to do so.

Perhaps my neighbor will inform me at this juncture that he does not believe in life after this world. But if that is so, why does he still value his present life? If death is an end to personal existence, then it is also an end to personal consequence, beyond which all that we are and all that we have done fades like a vapor in the wind. If death is merely an end, why should anyone fear it or seek to avoid it? If it is merely an end, why should it not be celebrated and joyfully embraced by all as a natural part of life? If in departing this world we are merely casting ourselves into the depths of a dreamless oblivion, then why hold to this life at all? Why not cast off the very moment the smallest pain or trial comes into view? What is the point of enduring such things when the comfort of death awaits?

Of course, the reason that we sinful people endure these things is because we do not really believe that death is an end at all. We know in our souls that how we live this life matters and that the memory of how we have conducted ourselves will live on, either to condemn us or vindicate us in days to come. And the reason that we cling so desperately to this world is because we know that the intent of our hearts in how we have acted does indeed condemn us. We know that every man is destined to die once and then face judgment (Heb. 9:27 ), and we would rather face all the trials and pains of the world we know than the judgment of a holy God whom we do not. We know these things because God has made each of us, believing or not, to know them by what He has made (Rom. 1:18-32 ). And it is because of this message that God has written into each of us that we are all well aware of both the tragedy of death and the preciousness of life, though not all of us are eager to admit to the implications of such things upon our lives.

The man who does not know God and continues to rebel against Him in the way that he lives will always make an idol of this life. He will say that life is precious, not because he believes in the innate worth of every human soul, but because he himself cannot abide the judgment that he knows awaits him on the other side of death. He will tell himself that death is an end yet in all that he does will live as if it is not, as if his life is actually heading somewhere, as if every moment and cherished relationship matters. He will strive and struggle to build a lasting home in this world, even though he knows that its foundations will one day erode and that all that he has built will come to ruin (Mat. 7:24-27 ). And even as it crumbles all about him, he will worship this life as his god. He does not cling to it because doing so makes sense, but because his wayward heart can adore no other. And ironically, in holding with all his might to the world that he knows, he betrays his belief in the world into which he must eventually and inevitably arrive by letting it go.

Given the predicament of my unbelieving neighbor, I do him no service by pretending that this world is the end of all things, simply to make him more comfortable on the road to his destruction. If I love him and truly have his best interests in mind, I will warn him of what lies ahead and advise him of the amazing grace available to him through the blood of Jesus. Only then, with the peace of God living within him, will he find the composure of spirit to release his grip on this world and love life in all its fullness, both in this world and the next—not merely for its longevity but for the quality of every moment with which God has blessed him, regardless of the world in which he finds himself.

A moment lived only to pursue the next has not really been lived at all, for what is the point of another moment when we fail to fill the one that we’ve already received with goodness and substance? Mere length of years is a prison from which God graciously will set all of us free in the end. But a moment lived well in the love of God and neighbor is worth another, then another, and still another. This is what it means to live in spirit—to live unconcerned with the time that binds us, confident that God will sustain us, so that we may focus our full attention on the quality of the lives that He has called us to lead. This is how we overcome the world and even death—by our faith (1 John 5:4 ).

With all of these things in mind, though I cannot presume upon my neighbor to give his life for my sake, neither can I treat his life as if it were so sacred that it must be cut off from all of the things that make it worth living. Nor can I so idealize it that I feel comfortable in excusing myself from loving him by my every labor. No human life is so precious that it must be “saved” at any cost, but even if it were, we men simply do not have the power to save one another. By our most heroic, sacrificial efforts, we can at best postpone the inevitable. This fact does not negate the honorable intent inherent to such efforts, but it does beg the question, “If we cannot ultimately save anyone, to what extent ought we sacrifice this and future generations’ quality of life merely to extend someone’s stay in this world?”

In exploring this question, I would like to consider two extremes. Let us suppose that we could look into all possible futures and know with certainty the consequences of our actions. In so doing, suppose we found that, by resolving to live in abject poverty and constant misery for generations to come, we could save every life threatened by this virus without exception. Suppose on the other hand that by not sacrificing any quality of life, every infected person would die. Which extreme should we prefer? I suspect that most anyone with the smallest trace of empathy would reject the latter course, which so reeks of selfishness and vanity that only the most heartless of us would follow it. But is the former any better?

Consider a fruit tree. Which is better, the tree covered in fruit which cannot be plucked so as to be enjoyed or the tree which cannot produce fruit at all for having been starved of the nutrients needed to do so? If the point of a fruit tree is to produce fruit that can be enjoyed, then these two trees are equally useless. In the same way, were we to so empty our lives of all that makes life worth living, we would have nothing with which to love our neighbor, and the person who cannot love is no better off than the person who will not love. I can only love my neighbor as myself if I have grounded my own soul firmly in the love of God. Only then can I bear the fruit that my neighbor needs to live.

When it comes to what I personally ought to sacrifice of myself for my neighbor’s welfare, this of course is a matter of conscience and the leading of God, who gives more to some and less to others in various forms and at various times. I may not be capable of giving in the same way or to the same extent as someone else whom God has supplied more amply, nor should I feel guilty for being unable to give what I do not have. I am only responsible to give of myself out of what I have been given and only in the measure that God leads. The tree which foolishly sacrifices the limbs and roots by which it bears fruit will soon find that it can no longer bear any fruit at all, and such is not God’s will for anyone in this world while we still live (Mat. 3:8, John 15:8 ). So in loving my neighbor, I should give what I can as I am able.

However, just because I am able to give so much of myself for my neighbor’s sake does not mean that I have any right to demand that another must do the same, for in so doing, I may well be demanding that he be pruned of his branches or starved at his roots, crippling his ability to bear fruit and love his neighbor out of the provision which God has allotted to him. I cannot love one neighbor by harming another. If I steal from that pool of provision with which God has gifted one neighbor in order to artificially extend the life of another whose pool God has dried up, not only am I failing to love God and the neighbor from whom I have stolen, but also the neighbor to whom I would give the proceeds of my theft, for the man who gives out of another’s bounty has not actually sacrificed anything of himself and proves that he does not understand even the most fundamental aspect of love. Only when a man voluntarily draws from his own pool to water another does he love. Love defies compulsion and exists only in the individual human heart. No government can mandate it, and no group can offer it—only one man freely choosing to serve another.

Sadly our nation, along with the rest of the world, has forgotten this. We have allowed “compassionate” policies, whereby the government cares for our neighbors for us, to take the place of love, and we have deceived ourselves into believing that by affirming such policies we are loving our neighbors. We are not. But when enough of us selfishly convince ourselves that we are, we empower the state to act on our behalf, absorbing our time and energy and resources, that it might “love” those in need in our stead. And what we are seeing in this pandemic is simply the next logical step. If the government is beholden to love on behalf of its people, then it must use its collective “conscience” to weigh livelihoods versus lives. But of course this conscience is nothing more than a cold calculation of popular sentiment. The idea that we must do whatever is necessary to save the one no doubt has the sound of nobility, so naturally our politicians are pursuing it, forcing business to close and citizens to stay in their homes because it is the “loving” thing to do.

But as I have said, love defies compulsion. By forcing our businesses to close and preventing our citizens going about their lives as their consciences dictate, not only has our government not loved its citizens, but it has prevented its citizens from freely loving one another. And in the same motion, it has done great harm to the vast majority of its people by seizing upon the waters that are their families’ livelihoods in order to supply the needs of the few. It has robbed the many neighbors to supply the one and, in doing so, has despised both. And it has done it all in service of the idol of worldly life, which taken as an end in itself is certain death (John 12:25, 1 John 2:15 ). But I do not mean to place the blame for all of these missteps solely on our government, for in a republic, what is the state but a reflection of its people? If our leaders have acted foolishly and immorally in their handling of this present crisis to the lasting harm of their constituents, what does this say of “we the people” by whose wills they have their office? Whether by our negligence or ignorance or naivety or malice, we each have our share of responsibility for their failures and the course on which they have set us. And until we learn that loving our neighbors cannot be outsourced to others, we should not be surprised when our leaders rob us of our time and energies and freedoms, all in the name of love.

Now why have I made such a big deal of love, and how exactly does this pertain to the question of this chapter? Allow me to finally tie my thoughts together and answer this question in the most certain terms that I know how.

The reason I have made so much of love is because this is what makes life worth living. God is love (1 John 4:7-8 ), and He has created us in His image that we might follow after Him in His most essential nature (Gen 1:26-27 ). Love is at the heart of His every command (Mat. 22:37-40 ) and that which makes all human action meaningful (1 Cor. 13 ). True love cannot die (Acts 2:24 ), and inasmuch as we participate in the love of God, neither can we (1 John 4:15-18 ). Whatever angle one glimpses it, the reality of love demands a life beyond this present world, one which extends into the infinite and without which any pretense of love in this life would be pointless. If love is both the source and substance of life and if life must continue beyond this world on its account, what sense does it make to cite the preciousness of human life as a justification for indiscriminately destroying the ability of so many to love one another well through the fruits of their labor only to keep some from entering into the very future by which their present has its meaning? Only the eternal love of God, echoing through the image that He has made in us, lends value to our lives. Thus human life does not end at death, but the moment our hearts cease to love, and anything that would lead us to this perilous end is a far greater threat to us than the mere stilling and dissolution of our bodies.

But this is precisely the path that governments the world over have chosen. Rather than informing their citizens of circumstances and allowing them to deal with one another freely according to their consciences, they have decided for their people what it means for them to love their neighbor and have mandated that they conduct themselves accordingly. This forced “love” is the very heart of socialism and the reason why this unfortunate philosophy brings death and devastation wherever it is tried. Socialism may seem quite noble to those who are only concerned with the outward appearance of love, but in reality, for all its apparent benevolence, it is perhaps the most efficient means known to man of the mass destruction of human souls. When a man cannot love freely, he cannot love at all, and when he has ceased loving, he is already dead in the most important sense of the word. He is a hollow man, slowly collapsing year after year back into the dust from whence he came. Such is the love of the world, which makes a casket of men’s bodies and delivers their souls to the grave even as they walk the earth. And such is the path that our own government is pursuing whenever and however it thinks to legislate men to love.

But is it not worth the sacrifice if we can save one precious life? Quite simply, no. One human life is so very precious that it is worth the greatest sacrifice that I personally am able to offer in love—myself (John 15:13 ). But no human life is so precious that I may cease living for my neighbor and loving him as myself, nor is any so precious that I may deprive my neighbor of his ability to love others as he sees fit. To meet death full of God’s love for the sake of my neighbor is itself the essence of what it means to live, but to esteem life in this world so highly that I am willing to sacrifice love is idolatry. If I freely choose to shutter my business or isolate myself for the sake of my neighbor, then however wise or ill-advised my decision may be in my particular life-setting, I am loving my neighbor. If the government forces me to such acts, I am not. When we as a society become so obsessed with remaining on this side of death that we can no longer abide our fellow citizens’ acting according to their consciences and insist that the authorities coerce them into doing “the right thing,” we become idolaters, worshipping time and circumstance over the God who formed them both. But when we trust in God to secure our future and sustain us on the road ahead, we also trust Him to work through the free decisions of our fellow men to bring us home. And in that trust we find the power to love our neighbors by allowing them the freedom they need to love theirs and to do so however they wish within the bounds of the law.

Such love as this can only arise within our hearts when we release our grip on this world, and we will only ever do so once we have grasped the firm love of Jesus Christ, whose enduring life is the seal of our hope and the promise of the future that awaits us. This is why Jesus tells us, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mat. 16:25 ), and “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal” (John 12:25 ). Only in the selfless surrender of those limited moments with which we’ve been blessed do we love our fellow men, and only in loving do we truly live. The Bible warns us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10 ) and that we cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13 ). I would offer that the same is true of time. Time is simply the currency of life, and like any currency it is entirely worthless taken as a thing in itself. Its only value lies in how we use it to invest ourselves in the lives of others. Time is the vessel by which we trade with one another in the substance of life. And what is more important, the vessel or that which it was designed to carry? When we begin to esteem the vessel over that which it was meant to carry or the coin over that which it was meant to buy, we will inevitably neglect the far more valuable things of life that we might have acquired with each. So it is with our time in this world.

Our time here was given us to love one another, not to be insatiably sought after and hoarded for our own pleasure—not as an end but as a means to an end, and that end is everlasting, overflowing, unstoppable love. But we cannot reach the end until we have put the means in its proper place. Nor can we live well in this world until we have embraced the necessity and imminence of the next. Nor can we love others as we ought when we insist on measuring the worth of both our and their lives by the brief time that we have in this world. Nor can they love us properly when for fear of death we compel them to act according to our consciences rather than allowing them to act according to their own. If we are to love and live, then we must do so for another life. In the end, that is the only life that any of us will have left to us.