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The Value of Human Life

(This blog is a follow-up to last week’s post, Evil and the Existence of God.)

I read a thought-provoking quote from a secular intellectual. He asked this question: “The request to ‘feed the hungry’ seems to have the most compelling claim on us, but how rational is it?”

Science does not tell us to feed the hungry. Moreover, feeding the hungry is defeating to the purpose of natural selection. On the one hand, science seems to suggest against it.

You know he is right. Human life, if there is no god, is cheap. In a godless universe, man is nothing more than a mass of chemicals.

Frederick Nietzsche said that humans are merely animals. B. F. Skinner, the famous psychologist at Harvard University, reduced people to the status of a machine. Jean Paul Sartre, the French existentialist, regarded mankind as nothing more than a “useless passion.”

Mortimer AdlerBefore he became a Christian and recanted his opinion, Mortimer Adler, one of the most prominent philosophers of the last century, saw human beings as nothing more than sophisticated animals. For this reason, he said, “There is no logical reason to treat mankind differently from any other animal. Therefore, to exploit minorities or to exterminate the homeless could not be condemned any more than killing steers in a slaughterhouse.”

Again, if there is no God, Adler is logically correct.

Contrast this with the life of Mother Teresa, the benevolent Catholic nun who dedicated her life’s work to caring for the sick and poor of Calcutta, India. These people lived out their lives in pain, fear, and loneliness. Many times, Mother Teresa was asked why she cared for those who were doomed. She responded, “They are created by God; they deserve to die with dignity.” She clearly believed that every person is precious and had a great value that was formulated by God’s creative act.

So whose perspective is correct? Over twenty years ago, I was in Germany and had the opportunity to Dachau death campvisit Dachau, a Nazi death camp from World War II. It was a sobering experience.

I then read an article in Christianity Today that its editor, Philip Yancey, had written.  The article summarized an interview that he conducted with a pastor who had fought in World War II, and, in fact, had been at Dachau as it was liberated in April 1945. The following account of Yancey’s experience is from my first book, Remembering the Forgotten God.

It was a blustery Chicago day, and I sat hunched in a wool sweater next to a hissing radiator . . . The pastor looked off to his right, seeming to focus on a blank space on the wall. He was silent for at least a minute. His eyes moved back and forth rapidly, as if straining to fill in the scene from forty years before. Finally he spoke, and for the next twenty minutes he recalled the sights, the sounds, and the smells – especially the smells – that greeted his units as they marched through the gates of Dachau.

For weeks the soldiers had heard wild rumors about the camps, but believing them to be war propaganda, they gave little credence to such rumors. Nothing prepared them, and nothing could possible prepare them, for what they found inside.

“A buddy and I were assigned to one boxcar. Inside were human corpses, stacked in neat rows, exactly like firewood. The Germans, ever meticulous, had planned out the rows – alternating the head and feet, accommodating different sizes and shapes of bodies.

“Our job was like moving furniture. We would pick up each body – so light! – and carry it to a designated area. Some fellows couldn’t do this part. They stood by the barbed wire fences, retching.

“I couldn’t believe it the first time we came across a person in the pile still alive. But it was true. Incredibly, some of the corpses weren’t corpses. They were human beings. We yelled for doctors, and they went to work on these survivors right away.

“I spent two hours in that boxcar, two hours that, for me, included every known emotion: rage, pity, shame, revulsion – every negative emotion, I should say. They came in waves, all but the rage. It stayed, fueling our work. We had no other emotional vocabulary for such a scene.

“After we had taken the few survivors to a makeshift clinic, we turned our attention to the SS officers in charge of Dachau, who were being held under guard in a bunkhouse. Army Intelligence had set up an interrogation center nearby. It was outside the camp, and to reach it you had to walk down a ravine through some trees. The captain asked for a volunteer to escort a group of twelve SS prisoners to the interrogation center, and Chuck’s hand went straight up.

“Chuck was the loudest, most brash, most volatile soldier in our unit. He stood about five-feet, four-inches tall, but he had overly long arms so that his hands hung down around his trees like a gorilla’s. He came from Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, known mainly for its racism and its association with Al Capone. Chuck claimed to have worked for Capone before the war, and not one of us doubted it.

“Well, Chuck grabbed a submachine gun and prodded the group of SS prisoners down the trail. They walked ahead of him with their hands locked back behind their heads, their elbows sticking out on either side. A few minutes after they disappeared into the trees, we heard the rattling burp of a machine gun in three long bursts of fire. We all ducked; it could have been a German sniper in the woods. But soon Chuck came strolling out, smoke still curling from the tip of his weapon. ‘They all tried to run away,’ he said, with a kind of leer.

I asked if anyone reported what he did or took disciplinary action. The pastor laughed, and then he gave me a get-serious-this-is-war look.

“No, and that’s what go to me. It was on that day that I felt called by God to become a pastor. First, there was the horror of the corpses in the boxcar. It could not absorb such a scene. I did not even know such Absolute Evil existed. But when I saw it, I knew beyond doubt that I must spend my life serving whatever opposed such Evil – serving God.

“Then came the Chuck incident. I had a nauseating fear that the captain that the captain might call on me to escort the next group of SS guards, and an even more dreadful fear that if he did, I might do the same as Chuck. The beast that was within those guards was also within me.”

I could not coax more reminiscing from the pastor that day. Either he had probed the past enough, or he felt obligated to move on to our own agenda. But before we left the subject entirely, I asked a question that, as I look back now, seems almost impudent.

“Tell me,” I asked, “after such a cosmic kind of call to the ministry – confronting the great Evil of the century – how must it feel to fulfill that call by sitting in this office listening to middle-class yuppies like me ramble on about our problems?”

His answer came back quickly, as if he had asked himself that question many times.

“I do see the connection,” he said. “Without being melodramatic, I sometimes wonder what might have happened if a skilled, sensitive person had befriended the young, impressionable Adolph Hitler as he wandered the streets of Vienna in his confused state. The world might have been spared all that bloodshed at Dachau. I never know who might be sitting in that chair you’re occupying right now.

“And even if I end up spending my life with ‘nobodies,’ I learned in the boxcar that there is no such thing. Those corpses with a pulse were as close to nobodies as you can get: mere skeletons wrapped in papery skin. But I would have done anything to keep those poor, ragged souls alive. Our medics stayed up all night to save them; some in our company lost their lives to liberate them. There are no ‘nobodies.’ I learned that day in Dachau what ‘the image of God’ in a human being is all about.”

Ask yourself a very simple question. Do you believe that you – and all other human beings – are unique in a way that cannot be explained by the idea that you are sophisticated animal or an elaborate machine? Do your family members and all the people in your life have value beyond the emotional, physical, and financial support that you get from them? The only way that human life can be extolled and held sacred is if God in His divine wisdom created humanity as a reflection of Himself.

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