Leaving all other arguments to the side, Scripture’s authority is absolute. Scripture is not the word of man, but the Word of God. We must submit our judgments concerning abortion to Scripture, where the duty of God’s people to uphold His image placed in mankind is everywhere revealed, both implicitly and explicitly.
We begin with the doctrine from which flows the clearest condemnation of abortion. God created man in His own image:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26–28)
While all creation proclaims God’s glory, the singularity of man is clearly stated to be that he alone—both male and female—bears the imago Dei. None of the rest of God’s creatures bear His image and likeness, and although we may argue concerning the precise meaning of “image” and “likeness,” God doesn’t leave us guessing as to its central significance in life-and-death matters.
We find this significance stated in connection with Scripture’s second mention of man bearing God’s image and likeness in Genesis 9:
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.
“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man.
”As for you, be fruitful and multiply;
Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”
Today, intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists (as well as some pastors and theologians) join together in assuring man that God is not his Maker, and he need not fear returning to God for judgment following his death. They contradict Scripture’s declaration, “It is He who hath made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3). From their fervid religious commitment to evolution, they declare the opposite: “It is not He who hath made us, but we ourselves.”
Abortion is the godless pagans’ most terrible violation of nature, but this violation didn’t start with abortion. It began with their denial that God created all things, and that man as male and female is the crown of His creation. Consider the ways the text above from Genesis 9 teaches this truth and could not be more contrary to the spirit of our age.
First, through Noah, God commands the race He named “man” (Hebrew 'āḏām) to “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth.” Not just “be fruitful,” but “multiply.” Not just “multiply,” but “fill the earth.” This series of commands is then repeated at the end of the passage.
Man is God’s priority on His earth, and He goes on to make man’s primacy more clear by declaring, as a blessing, that man will strike “fear” and be a “terror” to all other creatures. This is God’s doing, and therefore it is good. Then He makes it even more clear by stating to man concerning all other creatures of His creation, “into your hand they are given.”
He adds that, just like plants, animals are His gift to man for food, and that man is free to kill the creatures, whereas the creatures are forbidden to kill man: “Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it.”
Then, not only animals are forbidden to kill man, but man himself is forbidden to kill man. Why? Because man is God’s image-bearer:
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man.
Flip this upside down and we have the spirit of our age. Man’s population must decline. Man must discipline his fecundity so that his numbers on the earth stop expanding and begin to contract. Rather than subduing the earth and its creatures, man must subdue his multiplication because his multiplication is unsustainable. Man must not rule creation. Such anthropocentric thinking is not creation-keeping, but creation-destroying.
Contradicting God, the spirit of our age declares nature must not serve man, but man must serve nature. It declares there is no distinction in principle between man and animal, and thus the high priest of paganism, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, writes:
My suggestion, then, is that we accord the fetus no higher moral status than we give to a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel and so on. Because no fetus is a person, no fetus has the same claim to life as a person. Until a fetus has some capacity for conscious experience, an abortion terminates an existence that is—considered as it is and not in terms of its potential—more like that of a plant than of a sentient animal like a dog or a cow.162
We see how deeply this rebellion against God has infiltrated the church in any number of ways, but note particularly how many believers choose dogs and cats over children. Also note how many Christians today decline to eat the very animals God gave us to eat when He declared, they “shall be food for you.” Of course, Christians who are vegans and vegetarians are eager to reassure other believers this is only their preference—not their principle. But note how meatlessness grows in the church even as Singer promotes his ethical anarchy—and then the entire world prattles on about cruelty to animals and free-range chickens. Five centuries ago, Calvin made this observation which is still true:
It is usual with hypocrites to reckon it a greater crime to kill a flea than to kill a man.163
Given this flipping of God’s order of creation, it should surprise no one that we’ve also flipped capital punishment upside down. God commands that murderers be executed because murder destroys an image-bearer. Today, though, man outlaws the execution of murderers. Today, it’s murderers who awaken the compassion of men and women. Murderers are protected from execution while innocent babies are abandoned.
The various Green advocates of sustainability have repudiated God as the Creator of the universe, and have thus inevitably denied man’s dignity as the crown of God’s creation. These pagans have replaced the truths of God with the worship of creation, ushering back into Christendom the very idolatries and sexual perversions condemned by the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the church in Rome. Refusing to honor and give thanks to their Creator, pagans are turned over by God to the same unimaginable horrors that led God to command the sons of Israel to wipe out the Canaanites of the Promised Land.
The image of God marks man’s whole being, body and soul. Thus to kill a man is to destroy God’s image in that man, and thus openly defy the God who placed it there. To kill a man or woman, boy or girl, is wrong not only because of the harm done to the individual, but also because of the assault upon God. When one man murders another, it is an act of war against God. God declares the shedding of innocent blood pollutes the land and must be avenged by the execution of the manslayer:
So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live. (Num. 35:33–34)
God is Creator, and every child conceived reveals the purposeful and formative hand of God in His design.164 Scientific advancement has done much to open up the astonishing nature of conception, yet this ought not cause us to be materialists in our understanding, supposing that new life can be explained simply in terms of sperm, egg, DNA, mitosis, and so on. To be sure, our Lord shows us His glory through these means, but He also fashions each child in invisible, spiritual, and unfathomable ways:
Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things. (Eccles. 11:5)
Abortion is an assault on this secret and divine creation. It takes the greatest mystery in our lives, the creation of life, and destroys it. It takes one of God’s greatest mercies to sinful man and mocks it. It is an extolling of death, and thus a denial of God. God creates life. Satan hates and destroys life.
The gift of procreation was only given to man when God created woman. As companion to Adam, she was to be a help meet (fitting or suitable) for him, and central to that suitability for man is woman’s gift of bringing life into the world. When Adam named her “Eve” (“living one,” or “life-giver”), this was not merely descriptive, but prescriptive:
Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. (Gen. 3:20)
Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the Lord.” (Gen. 4:1)
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” (Gen. 1:27–28)
Life-giving is fundamental to the mission of woman. God is pleased to bring life into this world through her:
For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. (1 Cor. 11:12)
Life-giving is woman’s highest calling and most noble purpose. This is not to say woman’s only value is her ability to give life. Many women are single. Many married women have not had their wombs opened by God. Nevertheless, to declare that God created woman’s physiology, nature, and being as life-giver is no abuse of women who are childless. It is simply to state what is the doctrine of Scripture and has been obvious to all men everywhere across the ages. Moreover, this blessing of God will continue to be obvious both in Scripture and nature until our Lord returns. We may strive against it and seek to twist and deform our sisters, daughters, and wives until their lives are a visible effort to deny this truth, but nature and nature’s God will have the victory.
It is this life-giving nature of woman that abortion attacks. Turning God’s creation and distinctions upside down once more, the modern worshiper of Molech tells woman that God’s greatest gift is only a gift if she herself desires it. He repeats the serpent’s lies, assuring woman that by denying God’s command she may be like God.
Thus, Satan promises the very thing we lose if we believe his lies: fertility. Human and child sacrifice have been connected with fertility cults down through history. “Molech” may be a separate deity that we know little about, but the name may also simply be an epithet for Baal,165 the Canaanite god of fertility.
Why would a woman sacrifice her child?
Dr. Josephine Quinn of Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics suggests that Carthaginians did it because they believed “the good the sacrifice could bring the family or community as a whole outweighed the life of the child.”166 Likewise, in 2013 an author in Salon acknowledged the same motivation for abortion, saying, “She understands that [abortion] saves lives not just in the most medically literal way, but in the roads that women who have choice then get to go down, in the possibilities for them and for their families. And I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time—even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.”167
Similarly, in 2010, the “Urban Shaman and ritual expert” Mama Donna Henes wrote an article in HuffPost titled “Harvest Rites: The Connection Between Fertility and Sacrifice.” She begins her explanation of the fertility benefits of human sacrifice as follows:
At the harvest, one can easily imagine that the Earth Goddess has offered up Her life in the form of the fruits of the land, and that in doing so, She commits the supreme sacrifice. She expends all of Her generative energy. It is as if Mother Nature in autumn is in the midst of Her menopause, Her sacred seed spent. In grateful response, people fed Her fresh blood to replenish Her powers of procreation.168
She then proceeds to recount unapologetically the cruel, barbaric practices from civilizations around the world that have given themselves to human sacrifice in a quest for fertility. Starting with “the Kandhs of Bengal” who “sacrificed a person for the Earth Goddess, Tari Pennu, in order to ensure healthy crops,” then moving to “the Uraons of Chota Nagpur [who] offered human sacrifices to Anna Kuari, who blesses the harvest. And the Lhota Naga of Brahmapootra severed the heads, hands and feet of their victims and planted them in the fields for fertilizer.” She then describes the Aztecs: “At the celebration of the broom harvest of the Earth Mother, first an older woman, and then a young girl were beheaded and their blood spread on fruit, seeds and grain to guarantee abundance.” After numerous other examples, she concludes with a defense of the practices:
With the martyred death of the sacrificial victim, the fertile blood seed, like the grain, brings life anew to the world. And, thus, the circle is complete. The death of the old grain, the old sun, the old season, feeds the continuing life of the people. The death of a representative person is then offered in obeisance as repayment of the ultimate debt of life. Death feeds life feeds death, the enduring saga of the eternal cycle of survival.
So it is today as women seek control over their own fertility, sacrificing some children in order to have others through IVF, or choosing the sacrifice of abortion, supposedly for the sake of the financial benefits that will accrue to her and the greater community as a result. This is nothing less than blood sacrifice to the goddess of fertility.
Thus this beautiful creature, woman, whom God has made life-giver, enticed by the serpent and his willing helpers, turns her womb into a grave. She is convinced her individual destiny, the integrity of her personhood, and the well-being of the community require her to destroy the life God gave her as a blessing to husband, family, and God’s green earth.
God sanctifies and calls us from the womb. Not only does He form and fashion our substance, but from the womb He also establishes our course and sets our feet on His path. Note His words to the prophet Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
And before you were born I consecrated you;
I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.
Through his movements inside his mother, the yet-to-be-born prophet John the Baptist testified to the presence and glory of our yet-to-be-born Savior Jesus Christ, who was then inside the womb of His mother, Mary:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.” (Luke 1:41–44)
To the ancient world, the true scandal of Christianity was not so much the divinity of our Lord, but His manhood. It was unthinkable the divine Word would enter into physical creation, take on human flesh, and experience the suffering, indignity, and weakness of our mortal frame. Yet conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a woman, our Lord sanctified what was considered the indignity of man and woman’s corporeal existence:
“For thou,” says He in the Psalms, “art He that took Me out of the womb.” Mark that carefully, He that took Me out of the womb, signifying that He was begotten without man, being taken from a virgin’s womb and flesh. For the manner is different with those who are begotten according to the course of marriage.
And from such members He is not ashamed to assume flesh, who is the framer of those very members. But then who tells us this? The Lord says unto Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you: and before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you.” . . . It is God who even now creates the children in the womb, as it is written in Job, “Have you not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? You have clothed me with skin and flesh, and hast knit me together with bones and sinews.” There is nothing polluted in the human frame except a man defile this with fornication and adultery. He who formed Adam formed Eve also, and male and female were formed by God’s hands. None of the members of the body as formed from the beginning is polluted. Let the mouths of all heretics be stopped who slander their bodies, or rather Him who formed them.169
That the ineffable God should become the weakest of all creatures, an embryo seeking to attach himself to his mother’s womb, opposed all the wisdom of the world. Yet our Lord flew in the face of that wisdom, putting on eternal display the glory of the womb by His divine presence and occupancy there for nine months at the very inception of His incarnation. Conceived by the Holy Spirit there, He was nourished in the body of the Virgin Mary, dignifying for all time the glorious motherhood of conception, gestation, and birth. Thus every woman who presents her womb to God in obedience to His will of fruitfulness follows blessed Mary in her own submission of her life-givingness to her Creator.
Children are a gift from the Lord. This is the categorical and unequivocal declaration of God:
Behold, children are a gift of the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;
They will not be ashamed
When they speak with their enemies in the gate.
Throughout Scripture, then, a barren womb is the occasion of grief. Elkanah’s wife Hannah is typical in Scripture, which records that it was God who “closed her womb” and caused her heartache:
When the day came that Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and her daughters; but to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved Hannah, but the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival, however, would provoke her bitterly to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. It happened year after year, as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she would provoke her; so she wept and would not eat.
Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:4–8)
Throughout the sacred text of Scripture, fruitfulness is declared one of God’s greatest blessings. The endless statements that fruitfulness is God’s blessing never vary. We may say without hesitation that children are still as much a blessing today as they were when God presented Eve to Adam, then Cain and Abel to Eve and Adam. Even the children of evil, pagan rulers are given by God’s blessing and creative power (Gen. 20:18).
God’s decrees flow from His character, and are the final standard for all ethics and law. His law from Genesis onward, revealed most directly in the Ten Commandments, explicitly forbids murder (Exod. 20:13). Who could ever conceive of this not including the murder of the unborn child? Is he not also our neighbor?
And what is the penalty for murder? Scripture declares murderers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 John 3:15).
Deuteronomy 21:1–9 teaches that God holds whole communities accountable for the shedding of innocent blood:
If a slain person is found lying in the open country in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, and it is not known who has struck him, then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance to the cities which are around the slain one. It shall be that the city which is nearest to the slain man, that is, the elders of that city, shall take a heifer of the herd, which has not been worked and which has not pulled in a yoke; and the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which has not been plowed or sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the Lord your God has chosen them to serve Him and to bless in the name of the Lord; and every dispute and every assault shall be settled by them. All the elders of that city which is nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley; and they shall answer and say, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it. Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, O Lord, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.” And the bloodguiltiness shall be forgiven them. So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.
Notice that even if the people are not guilty of slaying the man, nor of standing idly by when the crime was committed, they still bear responsibility before God for the innocent man’s blood. They must investigate the death, ensure that justice is done as far as possible, make a sacrifice to atone for the blood, and, essentially, recommit themselves to protecting the innocent. Until they do all these things, God holds them responsible for bloodguilt.
Alongside God’s command not to murder our neighbor and our obligation to deal with the shedding of innocent blood is God’s promise of justice to all whose blood is shed. He will vindicate those robbed by the murderer of their lives. His retributive justice will fall on the murderer (Gen. 4:10; 9:5; Deut. 19:10). This promise of God’s retributive justice against the manslayer is repeated throughout Scripture—from His condemnation of Cain for his fratricide (Gen. 4:10), to His overthrowing of the Canaanites whose bloodshed and child murder caused the land to vomit them out (Lev. 18:25), to the denunciation of King Manasseh for filling Jerusalem with blood (2 Kings 21:16), to the final judgment when God our Maker will judge and condemn the nations “drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (Rev. 17:6).
God’s retribution against those who shed blood is clear and severe. He has promised He will not hear the prayers of those whose hands are covered in blood (Isa. 1:15). He has promised to bring retribution on those who practice this evil, but also those who give bloodshed their hearty approval (Rom. 1:32). And specifically, He has promised He will set His face against, and cut off from His people, those who act as if they don’t see or know about the shedding of the blood of innocent babies:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You shall also say to the sons of Israel:
’Any man from the sons of Israel or from the aliens sojourning in Israel who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. I will also set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given some of his offspring to Molech, so as to defile My sanctuary and to profane My holy name. If the people of the land, however, should ever disregard that man when he gives any of his offspring to Molech, so as not to put him to death, then I Myself will set My face against that man and against his family, and I will cut off from among their people both him and all those who play the harlot after him, by playing the harlot after Molech. (Lev. 20:1–5)
Not one drop of blood will be forgotten. When Cain killed his brother Abel, God said to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). He has promised retribution against those who kill his prophets; that He will exact all their blood from Abel down to this present generation (Matt. 23:35). Finally, note particularly God’s condemnation of the sons of Ammon for their heinous sin:
Thus says the Lord,
“For three transgressions of the sons of Ammon and for four
I will not revoke its punishment,
Because they ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead
In order to enlarge their borders.”
Consider the eye-for-eye passage found in Exodus 21:22–25.170 Elsewhere in the law, punishment was only demanded when actual physical harm was brought upon one of the parties, but here restitution is required for the harm caused to the child (and thereby to the mother, father, and family). Whether “life for life” refers to mother or child, God opposes even the accidental bloodshed of the unborn.
The condemnation of child sacrifice is ubiquitous across the Old Testament, and what’s horrible to read is that these condemnations are pronounced alike against the Canaanites and the sons of Israel.171 The people of Israel were surrounded by Canaanite religion and its demon gods worshiped through the sacrifice of the Canaanites’ little ones. Molech worship required that a child be placed in the mouth of the god as a burnt offering. This is a sin so heinous to God that it is the only evil said never to have entered His mind (Jer. 32:35).
This ancient child sacrifice reached its nadir in Carthage where the burial ground Tophet, containing infants in their urns, was excavated, first in 1925, then again in 1970. It proved to be “the largest cemetery of sacrifice of humans ever discovered,” containing infants’ remains who were sacrificed over the course of six centuries. Archeologists have estimated that between 400 and 200 BC, as many as twenty thousand urns containing the remains of little children were buried there.172
What was the nature of these child sacrifices? Here is a paraphrase of a description from an ancient Greek writer, Kleitarchos, during the third century BC:
Out of reverence for Kronos [the Greek equivalent of Ba’al Hammon], the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, whenever they seek to obtain some great favor, vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity, if they are especially eager to gain success. There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing, until the contracted [body] slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the “grin” is known as “sardonic173 laughter,” since they die laughing.174
Tertullian, the church father of the late second and early third century AD, lived in Carthage and wrote:
In Africa infants used to be sacrificed to Saturn, and quite openly, down to the proconsulate of Tiberius, who took the priests themselves and on the very trees of their temple, under whose shadow their crimes had been committed, hung them alive like votive offerings on crosses; and the soldiers of my own country are witnesses to it, who served that proconsul in that very task. Yes, and to this day that holy crime persists in secret. . . . Saturn did not spare his own children; so, where other people’s [children] were concerned, he naturally persisted in not sparing them, and their own parents offered them to him, were glad to respond, and fondled their children that they might not be sacrificed in tears. And between murder and sacrifice by parents—oh! the difference is great!175
Now then, we read with some understanding this most awful judgment by God against His people spoken by His prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord, “Go and buy a potter’s earthenware jar, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests. Then go out to the valley of Ben-hinnom, which is by the entrance of the potsherd gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Behold I am about to bring a calamity upon this place, at which the ears of everyone that hears of it will tingle. Because they have forsaken Me and have made this an alien place and have burned sacrifices in it to other gods, that neither they nor their forefathers nor the kings of Judah had ever known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter My mind; therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this place will no longer be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but rather the valley of Slaughter. I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those who seek their life; and I will give over their carcasses as food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. I will also make this city a desolation and an object of hissing; everyone who passes by it will be astonished and hiss because of all its disasters. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh in the siege and in the distress with which their enemies and those who seek their life will distress them.”’” (Jer. 19:1–9)
We too must tremble at the wrath of God against our own filling of our place with the blood of our own innocents.
Advocates of permissive abortion laws commonly argue that Scripture never addresses abortion. Aside from disregarding the texts of Scripture enumerated above, they also take no account of New Testament passages which condemn pharmakeia (Greek φαρμακεία) and those who pay for these services.
Words with this root occur five times in the New Testament. While the basic meaning of pharmak- is “drug,” its derivatives have a broad semantic range encompassing “poison,” medicinal and psychotropic “drugs,” “potions,” etc. These words often carry nuances of magic or the occult.
Most significant for our purposes, though, throughout the ancient world these words referred to drugs, potions, and spells that were associated with abortions.176 John Riddle, a pro-abortion Harvard scholar whose work has overturned prior assumptions about birth control in the ancient world, writes:
Some statements by the Christians indicate that they did not approve of drugs employed for birth control. . . . In Galatians 5:20 Paul provides us with a list of sins of the flesh, and among them is the sin of pharmakeia, often translated into English as “sorcery” or “magic.” . . . This is the same word that Socrates through Plato had used in reference to birth control: “drugs [pharmakia] and incantations.” . . . There is likely a direct connection between the pharmakia [sic] of the New Testament and the “root poisons” of Hebrew literature.177
English Bible translations have had difficulty expressing the range of pharmakeia’s nuances. It was not this way when Jerome produced his fourth-century Vulgate. He translated this word into Latin as veneficium, and here, the Latin closely matches the Greek, admirably preserving the choices possible among pharmakeia’s variable meanings. In English, though, we have nothing close to these Greek and Latin words, so translations have overly emphasized the occult element, translating pharmakeia as “witchcraft” (KJV) or “sorcery” (more recent translations).
Why have scholars translated pharmakeia as “sorcery”?
In the ancient world, many of the categories we think of as distinct were blurred. This is particularly evident reading the medical authorities of the time. Like us (especially if they were what we might refer to as middle or upper class), they would consult a doctor about their illness. But unlike us, they might also hire a conjurer—someone with spiritual power who used incantations in conjunction with chemicals we today refer to as “drugs.” In other words, the line between medicine and magic was blurred in a way it isn’t for us today.
Moderns are tempted to sever the body from the soul, thinking medicine has only to do with the body. We congratulate ourselves on having arrived at a time when medicine is an entirely empirical science.178
Not so in the ancient world where the spiritual and physical were inseparable. Commitment to specific deities of Greco-Roman polytheism varied over time, but overall, men were acutely aware of the spiritual. The Apostle Paul made this simple observation:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)
Concerning conception and childbirth, the intermingling of flesh and blood and the spiritual forces of wickedness was not yet subjected to any post-Enlightenment hermeneutic.
The ancient world lived for children in a way our world finds incomprehensible. They had higher rates of fertility, and mother and child faced much higher rates of death during childbirth.179 Childbirth was far more dangerous for them than for us today.
But whereas a woman today would rest her confidence in all kinds of “specialists,” including her gynecologist, obstetrician, and midwife, in the ancient world a single figure often performed these roles. For the upper (and perhaps middle) class, that might have been a doctor; for the lower classes, more often it was a midwife (even a family member).
Thus when we consider the practice of pharmakeia, we must not think in modern medical terms—say, for instance, physicians and pharmacists. Pharmakeia did not include FDA-approved drugs whose agency and side effects were researched, graphed, and charted. It is more accurate to think of a shaman or medicine man, someone who is as connected to the occult as he (or she) is to medicine. In other words, the biblical prohibition of pharmakeia was closely connected to the prohibition of the occult.
In Greek, the terminology used to designate these figures is often ambiguous. A number of terms are used, including mageos, pharmakeus, and pharmakos.180 Their semantic range is broad and overlaps. Such figures sold both drugs and incantations. They were as mindful of the spiritual as they were of the physical, for potions and incantations both accessed and manipulated the spirit world.
For this reason, Scripture forbids pharmakeia to the people of God. God’s people are to have nothing to do with magic, mediums, incantations, amulets, and potions. The members of Christ’s church are not to make the slightest effort to access or control the “secret things” of God (Deut. 29:29). Manipulation of this unseen world is a crime among God’s covenant people of the Old Testament, and the New Testament condemns these practices also.181
The book of Acts records the interface of such occult practices and practitioners with the church of the Apostles in its record of the conversion and subsequent sin of Simon Magus:
Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic [mageuōn] in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts [mageiais]. But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (Acts 8:9–24)
Scripture does not explicitly designate Simon Magus as one who practiced pharmakeia, yet he well may have. It is not easy for us to be done with our lucrative past, so naturally Simon’s temptation to continue profiting from manipulating the spiritual realm of secret things manifested itself immediately following his conversion. This temptation was also present in the church at large. Simon Magus was not a one-off, but representative of a larger danger among the people of God, and thus Scripture’s New Testament condemnations of sorcery, whether the manipulation of the unseen world was referred to as mageia or pharmakeia.
Thus far, we have unpacked the nature of pharmakeia in the ancient world, focusing on its usage by mageoi and other occult figures. What remains, then, is to consider the specific instances of pharmak- words in Scripture and related documents, opening up the fact that “witchcraft” and “sorcery” don’t give moderns a full enough picture of the sins being condemned.
Most of us have never known a sorcerer. Such figures remain within the realm of fairy tales or Disney movies. We think of the old man or woman with a hat, maybe with a magic wand, maybe standing over a cauldron, but of course we’re sure such figures perished with the medieval world. Though the ancient mageos or pharmakeus did use spells and lurked in the shadows, they were far more common than we might think, with wide swaths of society employing their services. More to the point, pharmakeia included things we today do not think of as sorcery.
Given the universal importance of the fruitful womb in the life of man, few things were more subject to the desires to employ magic or occult control through pharmakeia than sex, marriage, conception, and childbirth—and this desire for control was both positive and negative. Women desired to possess a man as their husband or lover,182 women desired to conceive a child,183 women desired their child to be born safely; but women also desired a lover other than their husband,184 as well as the prevention of their own conception and birth of the children they were carrying in their womb. Further, evil women employed magic’s potions and incantations for the purpose of destroying other women’s marriages, conceptions, and safe childbirths.185 Thus pharmakeia was bound up with love, sex, and childbirth. In a world where the processes of life and death were recognized as obscure and under the gods’ control, those who could manipulate the levers of such divine powers also dispensed the pharmaka.
These men and women, then, had a specialized, and often occult, trade. They were marginal figures bearing some resemblance to yesterday’s medicine men or snake oil salesmen, or today’s theosophists, practitioners of mindfulness and yoga, naturopathic and holistic doctors, and faith healers.
In the ancient world, those intent on preventing pregnancy or aborting their children purchased their potions from similar marginal figures. Statistics on this are unavailable, but sources indicate the number of people making use of these pharmaka was significant. We also know that, even in the church, converts to the Christian faith included mothers (and fathers) who had aborted their children.186 Luke records the conversion of Simon Magus, showing that the New Testament church did not just include former fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers,187 but also mageoi. As there were mageoi, so the church also included those who formerly had employed the mageoi, and thus were tempted to continue to employ their services.
We have the historical record of Simon’s temptation to continue his practice of magic, but we also have a New Testament record of the ongoing temptation of Christians to pay for those services, including pharmaka used to murder their children.
This explains Scripture’s warnings not being limited to the practice of magic, generally, but also pharmakeia, specifically. New Christians had paid the so-called pharmakoi, but also doctors and midwives, all of whom commonly dispensed pharmaka for the purpose of killing preborn children. Following the practice of the pagans who were their neighbors, Christians made use of pharmakeia, and thus had to be warned against it by the Apostle.
But if with pharmakeia we only think of a wizard in a pointy hat and miss the fact that abortion is the reality that often underlies the use of pharmakeia, we do not fully grasp the weight of Scripture’s condemnations. Consider Galatians 5:19–21:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality [porneia], impurity [akatharsia], sensuality [aselgeia], idolatry [eidōlolatria], sorcery [pharmakeia], enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Here, the first three terms pertain to sexual immorality of various sorts. The next term, idolatry, also has here a likely sexual component, given that pagan temple worship was often associated with sexual immorality. Next is pharmakeia, followed by seven terms that do not pertain to sexual immorality, but rather to “relational” sins.
Note the clear pattern and order of these terms. Where does pharmakeia fit in? It doesn’t fit with the “relational” sins mentioned, such as jealousy, wrath, and ambition. But keeping in mind pharmakeia was employed for contraceptive and abortifacient purposes, its presence next to sexual sins is natural, for then the Apostle here condemns, first, the general category of impurity (porneia), then the specific manifestations of that impurity (adultery and lasciviousness), then idolatry (almost always at the core of sexual sin); and finally, the use of contraceptive/abortifacient potions to destroy the evidence of these sins.
All the above opens up the nature of pharmakeia, and we now have some understanding why it is translated into English as “sorcery.” Killing the little one bearing the image of God safely nestled in his mother’s womb prevents the normal course of nature, and thus defies our Creator who Himself gives life, the womb, and safe delivery to His little ones.
Consider also Revelation 9:21:
And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries [pharmakeia] or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
Here again, note pharmakeia is placed immediately between “murders” and “sexual immorality.” Compare Revelation 21:8 where again the pharmakoi are listed alongside “murderers,” the “sexually immoral,” and “idolaters.”188
Perhaps most revealing of the contraceptive and abortifacient nature of pharmakeia is evidence from the contemporaneous (AD 50–100) Didache. In its second chapter, this most ancient of the non-canonical documents of the church forbids a number of “grave sins”:
You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication [porneuseis], you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic [mageuseis], you shall not use potions [pharmakeuseis], you shall not murder a child by abortion [phoneuseis teknon en phthora], nor kill it after it is born [gennēthen apokteneis].189
This passage is especially helpful because the terms we’ve been discussing are placed in close proximity, yet also distinguished. Mageuseis, “practice magic,” refers to a broad array of occult practices. Phoneuseis teknon en phthora and gennēthen apokteneis in the last two clauses forbid, respectively, abortion and infanticide. But then, right between mageuseis and the mention of abortion and infanticide is pharmakeuseis. What does this mean?
It could be another condemnation of “sorcery” (i.e., restating mageuseis), yet no other sin is repeated in this list. There’s little reason to take pharmakeuseis as synonymous with mageuseis, nor with the condemnations of abortion and infanticide that follow.
The better choice exegetically is to understand this reference to pharmakeuseis to be the condemnation of any dispensing or use of the agents of a pharmakos (denounced likewise in Revelation) for contraceptive/abortifacient purposes. Such agents would generally have been in an occult context, though pharmakeuseis here condemns all uses, whether occult or not. Here, we’ve translated it “use potions,” and this is a good, broad translation. What it condemns would then include (1) chemical contraceptives, (2) abortion (whether chemical or surgical), and (3) incantations or other tools of an occult pharmakos.
This understanding gives insight into the Didache’s thought progression. Knowing that “practice magic” (mageuseis) could encompass giving of potions (or poisons), abortion, and infanticide, what follows mageuseis could express a progression of time: pharmakeuseis indicating the first attempt to destroy the child, phoneuseis teknon en phthora the abortifacient recourse when the pharmaka failed, and gennēthen apokteneis being the final solution. Or, the continuum could express the ancients’ awareness of the little one’s development: the broad, mysterious pharmakeuseis representing the uncertainty of conception and how pharmakeia functioned; phoneuseis teknon en phthora making it clear that what was at issue was flesh and blood, a child (teknon), and he was being murdered; and finally, gennēthen apokteneis showing the sin in all its nakedness, for the child had been born. As our awareness of our sin’s severity grows, so does the iniquity if we follow through. The Didache’s progression, from magic to potions to abortion to infanticide, recognizes this.
Given how close the Didache is in date, vocabulary, and style to the New Testament, we should assume that the NT uses pharmakeia and related terms in a way similar to that found in the Didache. Thus when Scripture condemns the use of pharmakeia, it is not simply sorcery as we understand it that’s being condemned, but the related use of contraceptive/abortifacient potions.
Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 136.↩︎
Calvin, comments on John 18:28, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2 trans. William Pringle (Wipf & Stock, 2021), 205.↩︎
Psalms 119:73; 139:13.↩︎
One biblical argument for this position is that “the pagan altars in the valley of Ben-Hinnom where children were sacrificed are also described as altars to Ba’al by the prophet Jeremiah.” Caleb Strom, “Was Moloch Really Ba’al, the Ancient God Who Demanded Child Sacrifice?” Ancient Origins, February 10, 2019, https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-asia/identity-moloch-0011457. For more information, see the sources referenced Strom, as well as the references in the article on “Moloch” on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch#References.↩︎
“Ancient Carthaginians Really Did Sacrifice Their Children,” News & Events, University of Oxford, January 23, 2014, https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2014-01-23-ancient-carthaginians-really-did-sacrifice-their-children.↩︎
Mary Elizabeth Williams, “So What If Abortion Ends Life?” Salon, January 23, 2013, https://www.salon.com/2013/01/23/so_what_if_abortion_ends_life/.↩︎
October 4, 2010, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/harvest-rites-blood-for-b_b_746169.↩︎
Cyril of Alexandria, Catechetical Lectures 12.25–26, trans. Edwin Hamilton Gifford.↩︎
“And when men strive, and have smitten a pregnant woman, and her children have come out, and there is no mischief, he is certainly fined, as the husband of the woman doth lay upon him, and he hath given through the judges; and if there is mischief, then thou hast given life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Young’s Literal Translation).
There has been much debate over the interpretation of this text. Perhaps the biggest question is how to understand the Hebrew here translated “mischief.” Some modern scholars have even tried to make the case the text supports elective abortion. Evangelical scholars have responded by arguing “mischief” (Hebrew 'āsôn, יצא) does not refer to miscarriage, but premature birth. Cf. U. Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem Magnes, 1967), 275; H. W. House, “Miscarriage or Premature Birth: Additional Thoughts on Exodus 21:22–25,” Westminster Theological Journal 41 (Fall 1978): 108–123; W. C. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Zondervan, 1983), 102–104, 168–172; also J. Calvin, Commentary on the Four Last Books of Moses (Baker, 1979); C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Exodus (Eerdmans, n.d.). See also John Makujina, “The Semantics of יצא in Exodus 21:22: Reassessing the Variables That Determine Meaning,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 23, no. 3 (2013): 305–321.
The interpretation held more broadly across history is “miscarriage.” See Russell Fuller, “Exodus 21:22–23: The Miscarriage Interpretation and the Personhood of the Fetus,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37, no. 2 (June 1994): 169–184; also Makujina.
A second, related matter involves the LXX reading of this passage, which, instead of understanding the issue as one of “mischief” or “no mischief,” distinguishes between a “formed” and “unformed” fetus. This distinction depends upon ancient opinions about ensoulment, and represents the interpretation of most of the church fathers. A majority of modern exegetes prefer the Hebrew Masoretic reading here, yet arguments in favor of the LXX’s reading are substantial, and should not be dismissed out of hand in reference to the “formed” and “unformed” child. Cf. Stanley Isser, “Two Traditions: The Law of Exodus 21:22–23 Revisited,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52, no. 1: 30–45.
Regardless of one’s conclusions concerning the text’s meanings and interpretations, Exodus 21:22–23 provides no support for elective abortion.↩︎
See, e.g., Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 17:31; 21:6; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; and Ezekiel 16:21; 20:26, 31; 23:37.↩︎
Lawrence Stager and Samuel Wolff, “Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or Population Control?” Biblical Archeology Review, January/February 1984: 32–51. For a time scholars attempted to deny that child sacrifices to the gods really happened as reported, but new research published in the journal Antiquity leaves it beyond question, even suggesting that it might be one of the reasons the city was founded in the first place.↩︎
The word comes, through French and Latin, from Greek sardonios, itself an alteration of Greek sardinia, associated with a plant from Sardinia. The ancients believed that eating this plant caused facial convulsions and led to death. See Stager and Wolff, 33.↩︎
Translation by P. G. Mosca, Child Sacrifice in Canaanite and Israelite Religion: A Study in Mulk and Molech, PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 1975, 22, as quoted in Stager and Wolff, 33.↩︎
Apology 9.24, from Apology and De Spectaculis, trans. T. R. Glover (Loeb Classical Library, 1931).↩︎
Thus, for φαρμακεία, the Liddell, Scott, Jones Ancient Greek Lexicon gives “of abortifacients” as one definition, citing Soranus (1.59; fl. 1st/2nd century AD). By contrast, BDAG does not include this specific gloss for either pharmakeia or pharmakon despite Soranus having written within the New Testament time period and BDAG’s inclusion of citations from several less significant medicinal writers. One might anticipate a correction of this oversight in future editions. See also Hippocrates, Oath 18–20: “Neither will I administer a poison [pharmakon] to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion.”↩︎
Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (Harvard University Press, 1997).↩︎
For an extended discussion of medicine as “art,” and not simply “science,” as well as a stunning essay on abortion, see Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1974). Selzer was a second-generation physician and denied the existence of God.↩︎
Precise data is absent, but a ballpark figure for the maternal mortality rate is between 0.5 and 2 percent.↩︎
These and other terms were broad, overlapping, and often used interchangeably; see, e.g., Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World (Routledge, 2001), 34; but on the other hand, Richard Greenfield, “Magic and the Occult Sciences” in The Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 220.
Even a single term’s meaning was often context dependent; cf. magos in the New Testament, which is used with reference to the magi of Matthew 2 as well as Simon the Magician in Acts 8. On balance, it is best to consider magos, pharmakos, etc., as related terms that sometimes retain their nuances
—and indeed the standard lexica generally hold to this practice.↩︎
Cf. Revelation 18:23.↩︎
Cf. Alciphron, Epistolae 4.10.3; also Basil, Letters 188.8.↩︎
Cf., among many others, Theophrastus, Περὶ φυτῶν ἱστορία 9.18.5.↩︎
Cf. Euripides, Hippolytus 509–516.↩︎
See, e.g., Apuleius, Metamorphoses 1.9ff. For more on reproductive spells, see also Jean-Jacques Aubert, “Threatened Wombs: Aspects of Ancient Uterine Magic,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 30, no. 3 (1989): 421–449.↩︎
See Jerome, Ad Eustochium (Letters 22.13).↩︎
1 Corinthians 6:9–11.↩︎
“But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Revelation 21:8.↩︎
οὐ φονεύσεις, οὐ μοιχεύσεις, οὐ παιδοφθορήσεις, οὐ πορνεύσεις, οὐ κλέψεις, οὐ μαγεύσεις, οὐ φαρμακεύσεις, οὐ φονεύσεις τ́κνον ἐν φθορᾷ, οὐδὲ γεννηθὲν ἀποκτενεῖς. Didache 2.2.↩︎