The fact that life is a gift from God bestowed upon us for a specific purpose implies a limitation. Human life is not a goal in and of itself, but is designed for service to God and neighbor. One poet put it well: “Living is not life’s greatest good.” Life is something we receive, something we can lose and, sometimes, something we may even need to give up entirely.
Therefore, we must be careful with the expression “reverence for life,” especially if that involves having absolute reverence for life. We have already observed that such absoluteness does not apply to animal and plant life, since we have received permission to use both for our needs. But neither does human life have absolute value. True, it is of higher value than plant and animal life – but that does not justify absolutizing human life. We shall see, in a moment, that situations occur where one person does have the right to take another person’s life. That would be nearly impossible if everybody’s life possessed absolute value.
Occasionally, we speak of an immortal soul and of an eternal value that every person possesses. But, even with these expressions, we must always remember that immortality is bestowed upon man. Immortality is not simply a natural property embedded in our humanness, for only God possesses immortality (1 Timothy 6.16), whereas we must be clothed with immortality by God (1 Corinthians 15.53-54).
We can leave this eternal perspective for what it is, since the expression “reverence for life” is intended to generate respect for human life in its earthly form.
Now, it may be possible to use this expression profitably because “reverence” literally means nothing more than offering or showing honor. Honor is owed to God, to our parents, and to others who are in positions of authority. For all these ways of showing honor, we can use the word “reverence.” Nevertheless, this word easily obtains a religious nuance, such that we would prefer to reserve it for describing the honor due to God and use the word “respect” for those other cases.
Certainly, where people speak of reverence for life – very generally and abstractly – we need to sound a warning note. Reverence for life gives the impression that life is sacred. Albert Schweitzer [1875-1965] viewed reverence for life as the highest norm for ethics. Life, in itself was, for him, something sacred, so that we should not so much as pluck a leaf from a tree or pick a flower or kill a fly. Schweitzer advised people of his day (before air-conditioning!) that, if someone were to work indoors on a summer evening, it would be better to keep the windows closed and breathe stale air than to watch insect after insect fall to their deaths with wings singed by the candlelight!
We cannot share this perspective, since we prefer to speak of reverence for God rather than reverence for life. Where God demands respect for life, we may not cut life short. If God gives us the animals for food, then we may put animals to death. If God entrusts the sword to the state, the state receives, along with the sword, the right to curtail the lives of those who act unlawfully, that is, the right to kill. “Reverence for life” is, therefore, a maxim that is far too broad, one that separates life from the relationships in which God has put it and from the task for which God has created it.
From: The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life by Jochem Douma; translated from the Dutch by Nelson D. Kloosterman (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1996), pp. 213-214. Dutch original published in 1992.