Basic Bioethics: How Christians should think about bioethics

April 6, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a monthly series on what Christians should know about bioethics. You can find the first article here

Last month I proposed five reasons Christians should care about bioethics. Over the next few months we’ll examine a broad range of individual issues of ethical concern, everything from abortion to xenotransplantation. But this week I want to provide a couple of conceptual tools that will help us to categorize the various bioethical issues and think about them from a Christian perspective.

Influential Christian bioethicist Nigel Cameron has proposed a useful framework for thinking of the three main generations of bioethics as taking life, making life and faking life.

Taking life

In the fourth century B.C., a Greek physician named Hippocrates included in his oath a pledge to forbid the taking of life: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.” Two thousand years later, the profession Hippocrates helped to create has abandoned these very prohibitions. The first category of bioethics addresses the issues that were once common in the pagan days before Hippocrates: abortion (including “abortive remedies” such as abortifacient drugs), infanticide (i.e., partial-birth abortion), euthanasia (both voluntary and involuntary) and physician assisted suicide.

The taking life stage progressed as individuals began to expect complete autonomy and control over their bodies. When disease has progressed to the point where we can no longer control our health we choose euthanasia—“good death.” When we want to regain control over our bodies after becoming pregnant we choose abortion. When we lose control over our will to live we expect physicians to assist in our suicide. We are willing to kill our children or ourselves in a desperate attempt to regain one last measure of control.

Making life

Until the 1970s, all but one child ever born was the result of sexual intercourse; today, there are at least thirty-eight ways to make a baby. In an attempt to conquer infertility we’ve developed dozens of methods, a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms, to create a child: IVF, IUI, ICSI, DI, AI, ET, etc.

The growing number of reproductive technologies has undoubtedly been a blessing to thousands of infertile couples. Yet the methods raise an equal number of ethical concerns. 

A number of the reproductive methods and technologies violate God’s ideal for the family by involving a third party (i.e., egg or sperm donation, surrogacy). Other problems arise from the creation of “spare” embryos that will either be discarded or donated for “research.” The technology has also paved the way for new evils such as human cloning, the creation of “designer” babies and the individualistic eugenics of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).

Faking life

Think of this third category as the third act of a story. However, this third act does not resolve the story. Instead, like a postmodern tale, this third act of bioethics only complicates the situation further by, as Nigel Cameron claims, faking life: ‘dis-integrating’ the biological human and melding him with other species or machines.

The issues in this category will be familiar to science fiction aficionados: Genetic Engineering (the creation of designer humans); Neuroethics (such as the use of psychotropic “enhancement” drugs or implantable brain chips); Nanotechnology (the manufacture of molecular machines; cybernetics); Transhumanism (merging of man and machine to create a new form of existence).

All of these concerns seem fantastic and bizarre—yet they are all being considered, debated and pursued by biotechnologists.

The controversies in each of these categories—taking life, making life and faking life—raise serious challenges for the Christian community. How should we respond as Christians? Two bioethicists who have explored that question in detail are John Kilner and C. Ben Mitchell. They offer a model for addressing bioethics from a Christian perspective that is God-centered, reality-bounded and love-impelled.


Our radical dependence on God must be our primary point of reference (Matt. 22:37-40, Deut. 6:5, Lev. 19:18). Because of our fallen-ness, our human reasoning is inadequate. A God-centered model, however, acknowledges that inadequacy and recognizes that God is more than adequate for the task (Rom. 3:12, Ps. 14:3, Rom 8:7, Gal. 5:22-23, 1 Thess. 4:7-8, Rom. 12:2, Heb. 1:3, Col. 3:12-13, Luke 10:29-37, Ps. 16:7, Prov. 12:15)


To be realistic is to understand reality—the way things really are—and to live accordingly. Because God alone sees all of the reality that exists, we must put our trust in him and what he has revealed, both in creation and in Scripture. Indicators of God’s intentions serve as guides or principles for moral living. Past and present realities include that God is the author of all creation (Gen. 1:1, Ps 89), including humans who are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6, Jas. 3:9) yet are fallen and sinful (Rom. 3:23). The most important future reality is that Christ will return (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11) and will restore all of creation (Rev. 21:1).

By reflecting on these realities we can gain a better understanding of the legitimate boundaries. We will gain a better grasp of the forms, freedoms, and limits of autonomy, control and technology.


All of life is to be directed by love for God and love for your neighbor. We are to seek the greatest possible well-being of all persons within the bounds of reality as God has created and intended it. Love considers the consequences of our decisions (Rom. 13:8-9, Gal. 5:14, 1 Cor. 10:24, Matt. 22:34-40, John 13:34, John 15:12, 1 John 3:16-17) and the motives for our actions (1 Cor. 13:3, 2 Cor. 9:7). Jesus shows us what love looks like in the face of suffering, whether from infertility or from impending death, and calls us to live in the same way (Mark 16:18; Luke 16:19-31).

Note the hierarchy in the layers of this model. An action that is not God-centered will not be consistent with reality and actions that are not reality-bounded, particularly bounded by the realities of Scripture, will not be love-impelled. Furthermore, this model is unidirectional: Decisions must accord with the layers above it in order to be ethical and consistent with a Christian worldview.

Armed with these categories—taking life, making life, faking life—and this model—God-centered, reality-bounded and love-impelled—you’ll be able to inform yourself, educate others, and work toward bringing a Christian perspective to bear on issues of bioethics.

Note: Portions of this article were adapted from an essay I previously co-wrote with Matthew Eppinette, the executive director for The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

Other articles in this series: 

Why Christians should care about bioethics

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24