Simply put, life may be the most important metaphor in the Bible – specifically physical life, the kind we share with plants and animals, and even bacteria. Let me explain.
God, like any good teacher, starts with something familiar and uses it to explain something unfamiliar. Jesus promises something like life in this world, but better. He begins with the life we all experience and uses it to explain something infinitely better – life eternal (zohn aiwnion, Mt 19:29, Jn 3:16). It’s not only something of the future, but something of the perpetual now. We are asked to choose life (Deuteronomy 3:19) and told that life is central to Jesus’ ministry (Jn 10:10).
If these passages were all, I would say that life was important, but perhaps not central to scripture and the gospel message. What of salvation, redemption, atonement? Are these not also important? Yes of course, but the more I read the more I recognize the key place of life. In English, it may not be so apparent, but in the Hebrew and Greek it jumps right out. The life (נֶפֶשׁ) of the animals created in Genesis 1:20-30 is the same as the “soul” breathed into humans in 2:7. It means to have breath. In Hebrew and Greek, to have life/a soul (נֶפֶשׁ, psyche) is to have breath (רוּחַ, pneuma) and to “give up the ghost” or “commend one’s spirit” is to permanently give up that breath of God that gives life.
This same word for breath in Greek and Hebrew translates to Spirit in English. So, to be alive is to be filled with breath (breathed into us by God) while to have eternal life is to be filled with the Holy Spirit (the breath of God). In English the capital letter and the common honorific “Holy” distinguish the two breaths, but in the original languages, the distinction is not so clear. Both kinds of life involve the breath of God.
The spirit/breath that gives life and the Holy Spirit/Breath that brings everlasting life are not quite the same. To say otherwise would deny the significance of the New Creation. And yet we still use the first gift of God in creation as the primary metaphor for the ultimate gift of God in Christ Jesus. Indeed, God’s first gift may be the only thing we have of sufficient value to even hint at the value of the later gift. We should not shy away from the important parallels between four divine acts:
1) Creation: God’s breath moving over the face of the deep (Gen. 1:2).
2) Creation of life: God’s breath in the animals (Gen 1:20) and perhaps by extension in every living thing, including plants.
3) Creation of humans: God’s breath enlivening or quickening the dust (Gen 2:7).
4) Divine Adoption in Christ: the reconciliation of humanity through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in baptism (John 3:5-8, Rom 7:6).
These represent not only fundamental issues in Christianity, but in almost every philosophy of humanity. We might phrase them differently, but we all recognize them as profound matters for human life. As I scientist, I might ask:
1) Why is there something rather than nothing? How did the universe as we know it come into being?
2) How did life arise from non-life? What are the necessary precursors of life as we know it?
3) How did intelligence arise in humans? What differentiates human individuals and societies from those of other animals?
4) How can one live a good life?
From the perspective of science, these may prove ill formed questions. Perhaps we can reframe them in different ways so that we can more readily address them with experiments and experience. And yet, even in science, we have been focusing on these exact questions, because people care. Apparently the human condition includes profound curiosity about our origins, purpose, and place in the universe. To frame the questions in a new way is not to give them up. Nor does it necessitate abandoning the lessons learned from thousands of years of asking them in exactly this way. It does mean being open to the Spirit moving in a new way and revealing new truths.
I fear we have spent too much time arguing about the dignity of one miracle at the expense of the others. As Christians, we recognize (and seek) the breath of God at every level of our existence and know that matters of life and breath matter. How we talk about life affects the way we treat living things. Indeed, it impacts how much we value our own life, both biological and eternal. I would challenge you to think on this word and how you use it, to be thoughtful when you hear it. We are building new understandings of “life,” both as a community of faith and as a wider community and the meaning of life has a role to play in defining who we are.