The Value of Life
Over the course of my life, I have heard from many people who have lost a loved one due to an unfortunate accident petition and clamour for some new safety regulation. Objectors will point to the added cost, which can take the form of the raising of prices to fit new technology – for example, it costs more to put air bags in cars, or it can be a regulatory cost in the sense that it will cost the government more to oversee and enforce the new regulation. No matter what the cost is, though, these proponents of safety will say, ‘Yes, but if just one life is saved it will all be worth it.’
Those of us who are not like the tin man and have a heart will nod our heads and think, ‘Yes, if it was my wife/husband/child/parent/loved one who was saved by this new rule, I would be willing to pay extra.’ It is hard to disagree. However, every now and again we are afforded opportunities to put a quantitative value on human life. Often this is done by our buying life insurance policies. We think about what we’d like our surviving family to receive to keep them financially comfortable, factor in the cost of a policy and come up with a rough approximation of what our life is ‘worth.’ Usually it is substantially less than the cost to add air bags or anti-lock brakes to every single car sold in the country.
More recently I read about another valuation of life. On 11 February the captain of the ill-fated Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia was sentenced to 16 years in prison after sinking the ship due to navigating it into an underwater rock that was off the prescribed course. The news agency that I saw reported that the 16 year sentence amounted to 6 months in prison for every life lost. According to the court, the sentence actually breaks down to ten years for multiple manslaughter, five years for causing the shipwreck, one year for abandoning the passengers, and one month for providing false information to port authorities. Using the court figures it comes down to 3.75 months of prison per life.
This seems like a pretty low value to human life, even though the accident was certainly not intentional and not deserving of the higher penalties associated with murder. It is certainly a far cry from the ‘if just one life is saved it will be worth it’ valuation that is so common. I wonder which is right. More specifically, I wonder if we over-value human life?
The Bible certainly takes a dim view of murder, no doubt. Murder is the first crime mentioned when Cain kills Abel in Genesis chapter 4. The punishment is swift and severe: ‘So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.’ (Gen 4:11, 12) It’s not the death penalty, but it is harsh and does reflect a high value on human life.
Similarly people have generally heard the Biblical quote, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (Exodus 21:24), which indicates taking a life for a life. If you don’t know the context of this quote you can walk away thinking that God instructs us to take a eye for an eye, or life for life. However, what God was doing was putting a restriction on retaliation. In ancient times people acted more like thugs than civilised people. You kill my brother, my family will kill all of your brothers! So the law came down saying, ‘No, you mustn’t wipe out somebody else’s family because one of yours was killed.’ Interestingly this the chapter just after the Lord gave the 10 Commandments, which of course includes ‘Thou shalt not murder’ (Exodus 20:13). The Lord considered murder to be evil enough that it made the list of 10 Commandments, but it seems that in chapter 21 He had to add the ‘eye for an eye’ to it because He was aware of the people’s tendency toward murderous rage.
Things take a different turn when we go to the New Testament, though. While there is still murder happening – Herod had the little boys killed – Jesus then raises the bar on the Old Testament teachings. ‘But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.’ (Matthew 5:39) Jesus goes on, saying, ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:43-45) Telling people to do good for those who have done bad to them is a big ask. It doesn’t mean that life is lightly valued, though, just that those who are wronged are asked to be the bigger person and deal with the situation as God would.
So it seems that life is greatly valued, right? I’m not entirely convinced. When I look at True Christianity where it examines the 10 Commandments, it goes down the same track that Jesus took in that it raises the bar as to what murder is. ‘In a broader earthly meaning, murdering includes hostility, hatred, and revenge, which involve longing for someone’s death. Murder lies hidden inside these feelings like an area that is still burning inside a piece of wood under the ashes. Hellfire is nothing else. This is why we say someone blazes with hatred or burns for revenge.’ (TC 309). This teaching comes across to me as a dire warning about what murderous thoughts do to the person who has them, and it is notable to me that it does not say, ‘Life is precious, so we shouldn’t destroy it.’
When I look around at the world I don’t see that the Lord has set up as His primary objective to preserve the earthly life of His people. There’s no way around it: He lets people die. Young people, old people, rich people, poor people, it doesn’t matter. Lots of people die before their time. When Jesus walked the world His priority wasn’t preventing preventable deaths. He didn’t go around handing out hard hats and steel-tipped boots. His goal was to keep us from eternal death by preserving our spiritual freedom. We read that ‘the Lord guards freedom in man as man guards the pupil of his eye’ (Divine Providence 97). This is what the Lord values! Spiritual freedom, which is the ability to freely choose whether we will do good or bad things. Earthly life? Well, yes, I’m sure it is valued, but not nearly as much.
This is why we really have to make our belief in the afterlife essential to our mental well-being. If we think this is all there is, it certainly makes our time here extremely valuable. If we think that we’ll live forever in a much nicer place, then maybe having our lives cut short by accident isn’t actually that big of a deal. Okay, I admit it, I’m sounding a bit like the tin man now: all cold and heartless. For me, this low valuation of earthly human life helps keep me feeling compassion for those who do acts of evil because I worry for their eternal souls, and I can still feel confident that the people who have suffered loss will be reunited with their loved ones in due time. God is asking us to not be like thugs and feel that need for revenge, because all will be made right in the end.