The Early Christians and Abortion

A large bronze image of the god Cronus stood in the Tophet of Carthage. His hands extended with palms facing up and arms sloped gently toward the ground so that children placed in his arms could be rolled down into a pit of fire.

During the sacrifice, loud drums pounded to drown out the sound of the children’s screams as the fire melted their flesh. Children were sacrificed whenever desperation struck the Carthaginians. In the year 310 BC, Agathocles, the tyrant of Greece, invaded Africa. The people alleged that Cronus had turned against them. So, “in their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly” (Library of History, 20.14).

Throughout history, children have been the victims of sacrifice. But does this relate to the modern debate over abortion? Yes! Children may no longer be sacrificed to bronze statues, but they’re sacrificed in staggering numbers to the living god of self. Convenience has replaced superstition, but the crime is the same.

Because of advances in modern science and the ongoing debates over the past century, many assume abortion is a new practice. It’s not.

Because of advances in modern science and the ongoing debates over the past century, many assume abortion is new. It’s not. At this critical juncture in the modern debate, as the Supreme Court considers whether to overturn Roe, it’s important for Christians to hear the church fathers’ convincing arguments that unborn life is worth protecting and learn how the early church responded to child sacrifice, abandonment, and abortion.

Pro-Life Voices Among the Fathers

Christianity’s earliest writers universally condemned the practice of abortion. The late first century Didache set the tone: “You shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (2.2). Likewise, the Epistle of Barnabas (AD 70–135) commands, “You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor again, shall you destroy it after it is born” (19).

Again and again, early Christian writers declare that abortion is murder:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder. (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians)

The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. (Basil, Letters, 188.2)

[By abortion] life is snatched away from them before it has been given. (Ambrose, Hexameron, 5.18.58)

Some go so far as to take potions that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and . . . (as often happens) they die with their offspring. (Jerome, Select Letters, 22.13)

No woman should take drugs for purposes of abortion, nor should she kill her children that have been conceived or are already born. (Caesarius, Sermons, sermon 44)

Chrysostom (AD 349–407) took it a step further by arguing that abortion is “even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born” (Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans, homily 24).

Non-Negotiable Stance

Why was speaking up for life a non-negotiable for Christians from the church’s earliest days? The answer lies in the church fathers’ conception of the soul and their belief that God’s indelible image is given to human persons from conception (Gen. 1:26–27; Ps. 139:13–16).

Tertullian rejected Plato’s view that eternal souls are inhaled at birth and exhaled at death (On the Soul, 25). His contended that this view denied life in the womb. Tertullian asked mothers, “Tell us, then, whether you feel in the embryo within you any vital force other than your own, with which your bowels tremble, your sides shake, your entire womb throbs, and the burden which oppresses you constantly changes its position?” (On the Soul, 25). The same evidence remains true today. Many women find they can no longer deny the life of an unborn child once they hear the heartbeat, the child begins to turn, or they feel his first kick.

As he went on to describe in his Apology, a seed is planted at conception that grows into a full fruit-bearing person. To dig out the seed is tantamount to chopping down the tree. So just as slaying a full-grown adult is condemned, annihilating its seed should be condemned as well.

Offering Grace

Surrounded by a culture where children were dismantled, discarded, and sacrificed, the early church fought vigorously to protect unborn life. Christians adopted children who had been abandoned and spoke with vehement rhetoric about the heinousness of abortion.

But the fathers’ writings offered regrettably little grace to men and women who chose abortion. Christians today should follow their example in hating abortion and speaking boldly, and we must also be quick to offer the grace of the gospel. To men and women who are grieving their sin against a child in the womb, Christ offers forgiveness. Parents can run to him and find freedom from guilt that only he can give. Only his blood can wash white the crimson stain of abortion that has been smeared across the souls of millions.

Only Christ’s blood can wash the stain of abortion that has been smeared across the souls of millions.

I’m encouraged by how many Christians care for unborn and vulnerable lives through crisis pregnancy centers, women’s shelters, foster care, and adoption. I’m thankful for Christians who show love to those who have had abortions. It’s this work that ensures we’re not only anti-abortion, but pro-life.

What Now?

Until Christ returns, Cronus will thirst for the blood of children. Even today you can hear the drums beating through the shouts of the pro-choice movement, beckoning those who want a different life to come and offer their children to him. But the cross of Christ sounds forth a better word, resounding with hope that the right child has already sacrificed himself.

Unlike child sacrifice, God’s own Son gave himself for us at the cross, the “holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal” (Epistle to Diognetus, 9.2). Unlike pagan rites that simply appease an angry God, Christ’s sacrifice paid the just penalty for our sins, accomplished our forgiveness, and secured new life. In Christ, God has taken the sins of selfishness, greed, lust, and even the murder of innocent children. He’s placed these sins on his own innocent Son so we may both be welcomed and loved, and share his love with others.

Roe may be dead soon, but the fight for life will continue. As Christians, we have a rich heritage of both defending life and offering life anew. Let’s learn from the past and carry on for our generation.

B. Arnold

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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