Putting People First
Some people think it would be good if humans had fewer children and more humans died of disease. Some think there are cases where it’s better to kill a human than to kill a cow or a cat. Some thinks it’s better to kill babies than murderers.
Who thinks humanity needs a lower birth rate and a higher death rate? Those who think the world is overpopulated and needs fewer people. Various authors and officials worry about overpopulation and promote policies that do more to prevent births than to prevent deaths.
Who thinks it is sometimes better to kill a human than a cow or a cat? A professor of ethics at one of the world’s foremost universities. Princeton professor Peter Singer says in his book Animal Liberation, “Surely there will be some nonhuman animals whose lives, by any standards, are more valuable than the lives of some humans. To give preference to the life of a being simply because it is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists.” A severely retarded baby, he says, has less right to life than a happy cat. Singer’s belief in animal rights is shared by some prominent educators and entertainers.
Who thinks it’s right to kill some babies but wrong to execute murderers? Every politician, judge, and preacher who approves of abortion but opposes the death penalty for murder. Millions of people think women should have the right to kill unborn babies but that governments should not have the right to punish vicious killers by executing them.
What Does God Say?
People have their own opinions on these things, but what does God say? In the Bible God puts people first in importance above all other living things on earth. In Genesis 9:1-7 God shows what putting people first means for population growth, human use of animals, and the death penalty.
God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
“But you must not eat meat that has the lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply upon the earth and increase upon it.”
What God said to Noah after the flood had much in common with what he said to Adam and Eve. When God created Adam and Eve in his own image, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:28). From the very beginning, God wanted human population to grow, and he gave humans authority over all other living things.
But God’s words to Noah also differed in some ways from what he told Adam and Eve. In the beginning, God told Adam and Eve to rule over the animals, but he never told them that animals would dread them or that they could eat animals. God told Adam and Eve to eat plants. But in the new situation after the flood, God gave humans permission to use animals for food.
In the beginning, God did not speak to Adam and Eve about the penalty for murder. At that point, people were sinless and earth was a peaceful paradise; there was no need to deal with murder. But the situation Noah and his offspring faced was not paradise. People were sinful. Some would become violent and kill others. God told Noah that taking a human life is so serious that a murderer deserves to lose his own life.
What God said back then is still important for us now. God values people and wants a large human population. God permits people to use animals for various purposes, including food. God regards people as his own image, so anyone who deliberately kills another person forfeits his own life. Each of these policies is based on God’s principle of putting people first among all things on earth. Putting people first should be our approach as well.
Are Babies Blessings?
One way of putting people first is by regarding children as a blessing and rejoicing that the world has a large human population. When God said to Noah and his sons, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth,” it wasn’t a curse; it was a blessing.
But all too often, population growth is treated as a plague. Molly Yard, former president of the National Organization for Women, said, “The abortion question is not just about women’s rights, but about life on the planet –environmental catastrophe awaits the world if the population continues to grow at its present rate.” Killing millions of unborn babies is said to be a good thing, a way of avoiding worldwide disaster.
Finnish environmentalist Pentti Linkola takes this line of thought even further. He wants governments to make abortion mandatory for women who already have two children. He wants no aid for poor countries and no asylum for refugees, so that more people will die. He thinks another world war would be “a happy occasion for the planet.” Linkola says that humanity is like a sinking ship with 100 passengers and a lifeboat that can hold only ten. “Those who hate life,” he says, “try to pull more people on board and drown everybody. Those who love and respect life use axes to chop off the extra hands that cling to the sides of the boat.”
In this view, earth has too few resources and too many people. For some to live, others must die. There are at least two problems with this. First, it is morally wrong. It’s hateful and murderous. It ignores the value of each person made in God’s image. Second, it’s not only morally wrong but factually wrong.
In 1968 biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb and predicted, “In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” But Ehrlich was wrong. While population increased, hunger decreased. World food production more than doubled, thanks to agricultural advances. The only famines came from war, corruption, and failure to distribute food properly, not from shortage in the world’s food supply.
Population alarmists have been wrong in predicting worldwide food shortages, and they have been wrong in predicting worldwide energy shortages. In 1865 a prominent social scientist predicted that England’s industry would soon grind to a halt because England would run out of coal. But more coal was found, other forms of energy were developed, and today, proven coals reserves are larger than humanity may ever use.
Nowadays nobody worries about running out of coal; they worry about running out of petroleum. But these worries, too, have been misguided. Presently known oil reserves already surpass 10 trillion barrels, enough to last over 400 years at present consumption rates, and more oil awaits discovery. It’s likely that other forms of energy will replace oil-based energy long before earth’s population uses up all the petroleum.
Nobody know more about oil supply and demand than Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister for over 20 years. He recently complained that allowing oil prices to go too high would bring short-term profits but long-term disaster for oil-producing countries like his. Why? Because high oil prices will prompt greater oil production and at the same time hasten development of technology that uses less oil. Hybrid engines and hydrogen fuel-cells will drastically cut petroleum consumption. Eventually the worldwide oil supply will rise and demand will shrink. “The real victims will be countries like Saudi Arabia with huge reserves which they can do nothing with –the oil will stay in the ground for ever,” says Yamani. “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil.” Population alarmists worry that we’ll run out of oil, but the man who really knows oil has a different fear: that demand will dry up long before the oil is used.
People who see the earth as overburdened with people often use present trends to predict future problems. But as one author put it, “In 1883 one could extrapolate from the existing transportation system that our cities today would be covered by six feet of horse manure. Our urban areas have many problems but that is not one of them.” Technology keeps changing as people keep making discoveries.
It’s foolish to speak of earth as an overcrowded lifeboat. God knows our needs, and he provides plenty of resources. We should use his gifts wisely and not wastefully, of course, but we be confident in God’s care and not worry constantly that our planet can’t sustain so many people. Who can predict the new ways that human invention will find to use God’s generous provision? If we look at people as just so many mouths to feed, our main question will be how to keep the number to a minimum. But if we see people as God’s image-bearers, as creative producers, and if we consider each child a blessing from the Lord, then our main question will be how to support human dignity and supply human needs. As more children are born into the world, we may find ways of meeting their needs that we never dreamed were possible, and some of those children may be the very ones who make the much-needed discoveries. Of all the resources God provides to help people survive and thrive, the greatest resource is other people!
Worrying about overpopulation is nothing new. About 1800 years ago someone wrote, “Everywhere there are buildings, everywhere people, everywhere communities, everywhere life … We weigh upon the world; its resources hardly suffice to support us.” Well, earth’s population has grown a lot since then, but there are still more than enough resources.
Some alarmists describe population growth as an explosion, or as people pollution, or as cancer multiplying out of control. But Christian professor E. Calvin Beisner says, “The human race is not the population explosion but the population blossom; not the population boom but the population bloom; not people pollution but the people solution; not cancer but an answer.” Rather than panic about the world’s large population, let’s thank God for this blessing. Bible-believing Christians, in particular, should rejoice in every child God adds to their family, since the Bible calls children a blessing from the Lord.
I’m glad my godly parents weren’t fanatics for zero population growth, or I wouldn’t exist. I’m the fifth of six children. My father is the youngest of six children. My wife and I have eight children of our own, and now we are welcoming grandchildren. We prize every child God has given us. We count on the Lord to make them godly, productive persons who bring blessings to others.
May People Use Animals?
Putting people first involves gladness that the human family has grown large, and it involves belief that people are superior to animals. Some of the most extreme opponents of population growth are radical environmentalists who think animals should have the same rights as humans. In fact, some wish there were no humans at all. “The optimum human population of earth is zero,” said one extremist. “The human race could go extinct and I for one would not shed any tears.”
Ingrid Newkirk, representing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said, “We [humans] have grown like a cancer. We’re the biggest blight on the face of the earth.” She thinks it’s wrong to have so many humans and wrong to think humans are superior to animals. “The smallest form of life, even an ant or a clam, is equal to a human being,” she says. “When it comes to feelings, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals. They all feel pain. There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights,” insists Newkirk. “6 million Jews died in concentration camps, but 6 billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughter houses.”
If animals are equal to people, then eating chicken is as bad as genocide, and medical research using animals is as evil as Nazi experiments on people. “Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS,” said Ingrid Newkirk, “we’d be against it.” Another animal rights organizer said, “If the death of one rat cured all diseases, it wouldn’t make any difference to me.”
Drinking milk and wearing wool are also wrong, in this view, because humans may not use animals for our own wellbeing. Pet ownership is wrong, too. It’s as bad as human slavery. If people and animals are equal, one may not be master of the other. “One day we would like an end to pet shops and the breeding of animals,” says one activist.
All this is based on the idea that all animals are equal to people and should have the same rights. “We’re not superior. There are no clear distinctions between us and animals,” claims Michael Fox of the Humane Society. “The life of an ant and the life of my child should be granted equal consideration.”
Philosophy professor Tom Regan was asked which he would save, a dog or a baby, if a boat capsized in the ocean. He replied, “If it were a retarded baby and a bright dog, I’d save the dog.” Princeton ethics professor Peter Singer is the dean of animal rights thinking. Unlike some, he doesn’t make all animals equal to people, but he does think a happy cat has a greater claim on life than a very unhappy person or a newborn baby that is unwanted by its parents.
Some religions have long taught that all forms of life are one and that all animals are of equal value with humans. Now a growing number of non-religious evolutionists have a similar opinion. But the Bible distinguishes people from animals and says people matter most. Peter Singer knows this and hates it. He declares, “Christianity is our foe. If animal rights is to succeed, we must destroy the Judeo-Christian religious tradition.” Singer insists, “It can no longer be maintained by anyone but a religious fanatic that man is the darling of the whole universe, or that other animals were created to provide us with food, or that we have divine authority over them, and divine permission to kill them.”
But according to the Bible, we do have authority over animals and divine permission to eat them. In Genesis 9 we find that God decided to protect people from most animal attacks by making animals afraid of humans, and God also gave people permission to use animals for human wellbeing. This doesn’t mean it’s okay to torture animals for fun or to wipe out entire species carelessly. Animals are God’s creatures. We should appreciate and preserve the wonderful variety of wildlife and avoid needless damage to their habitat. We shouldn’t inflict useless pain on them. Livestock and pets should be fed well and treated with care. Scripture says, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10). But animals were not created in God’s image and do not have the same God‑given rights that humans have. God permits you to be a vegetarian, if you wish, but he does not require it. Scripture clearly permits eating meat and using animal products. God told Noah, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you” (Genesis 9:3). All through the Bible there are countless cases of God’s people using animal skins and eating meat.
Jesus himself helped catch fish and ate fish (Luke 24:43). Every year Jesus took part in Passover meals and ate roasted lamb. Jesus valued animals, but he also exclaimed, “How much more valuable is a man than a sheep!” (Matthew 12:12) Jesus said that God cares about each sparrow, but he added that a human is “worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31; Luke 12:7). Jesus does not equate people with animals. Jesus puts people first.
Should Killers Be Killed?
Now for a final controversial question: should killers be killed? How does putting people first apply to the death penalty? Some think that if we consistently value human life, then we must oppose any taking of a human life through capital punishment. But according to the Bible, killers deserve to be killed.
To murder a fellow human destroys a brother, a member of the human family, and it is an assault on God himself. Mistreatment of other people is something God takes personally. Killers deserve to be killed, for humanity’s sake and for God’s sake. God told Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Later God told Moses, “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:12), if the killing is intentional and premeditated.
The death penalty is a way of putting people first. How? By honoring the value of the victim, by making sure the killer will never murder anyone else, by making other potential killers consider the consequences, and by treating the killer himself not merely as an animal to be caged but as a responsible person to be punished justly in a manner that fits the crime.
The death penalty is not a matter of personal revenge but public justice. It is not to be carried out by vigilantes or death squads but by legitimate government under the public rule of law. The Bible says a government official “does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
A government must take great care not to execute the innocent, and it must not discriminate between people of different social or racial groups. If a killer from a racial minority is more likely to be executed for his crime than a killer from the majority race, then something is amiss. If wealthy murderers with high-powered lawyers get lesser sentences, while the with less money get punished with death, then the system needs reforming. The Bible says, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15). If a government uses the death penalty, it must do so fairly, without prejudice or partiality.
God calls government to judge justly, but God himself remains the supreme Judge. God told Noah that the Lord himself would demand an accounting for the lifeblood of every man. The Bible says God “will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days” (Psalm 55:23). Jesus himself declared, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). People who live violently tend to die violently, and killers who manage to get away with it still have to face the judgment of the Lord. God puts people first and will not leave the guilty unpunished.
Humanity’s Ultimate Dignity
We’ve looked at three issues—population growth, human use of animals, and the death penalty—which may seem totally separate. But they are related. God deals with all three in the same statement in Genesis 9, and all three involve putting people first and honoring the God-given dignity of humanity.
From the early days of humanity God emphasized that being made in his image and likeness gives us great dignity. And in the fullness of time, humanity received its ultimate dignity when God made himself into our image and likeness. Christ Jesus, “being in very nature God” was “made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). The Son of God became one of us—that is humanity’s highest honor and greatest blessing. The Lord of glory put people first, laying aside his own majesty in order to save people from sin and hell. He came “in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” (Romans 8:3). By being crucified and enduring the death penalty himself, Jesus has opened the way for sinners of every kind—even murderers who die under human law—to receive forgiveness and heaven through faith in him.
If you and I believe in Jesus as our Savior and Lord, says the Bible, someday we shall “bear the likeness of the man from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). A huge population of people from every nation will reflect the beauty and goodness of Jesus and enjoy his riches. In that final paradise, the world and animal life will be blessed along with humanity, and there will be no more tears or death.
Until that perfect future arrives, live by faith in this Lord who puts people first among all he has made. Honor his instructions for this present life. Seek his mercy to forgive your failings. And rejoice in the dignity of being part of his family and sharing his likeness.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.