Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 40 - You Shall Not Kill
- The sixth commandment:
You shall not murder.
Question 105: What does God require
in the sixth commandment?
Answer 105: I am not to dishonour, hate, injure,
or kill my neighbour
by thoughts, words, or gestures,
and much less by deeds,
whether personally or through another;
rather, I am to put away
all desire of revenge.
Moreover, I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself.
Therefore, also, the government bears the sword
to prevent murder.
This commandment addresses topics such as violence, traffic rules and corporate safety, euthanasia, abortion, suicide, daredevils, the seeking of revenge, and so on. No commandment appears to be more topical than this one.
Absolute Respect For Life?
Do not kill. Do not take another person’s life. It sounds absolute. Invoking these radical words, some choose to oppose the killing of any creature.
The appeal of this position is that it takes this commandment without any reservation, simply as what it says. What about, on the other hand, those who consume meat from animals without any objection — not to mention those who support the killing or executions of people in the defense of the country or in the liberation of hostages. Do they bend the rule with this commandment?
Consider someone like Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). For the greater part of his life, this famous missionary doctor worked in the former French Congo. The highest standard for all his actions was: absolute respect for life. He not only nursed people in the jungle, but also treated animals. He protected wounded antelopes, pelicans and chimpanzees. Yet even he could not always uphold his absolute respect for life. Once he saved a young osprey from the hands of the natives. This caused a dilemma for him: the life of fish would need to be destroyed in order to keep the fish-eating bird alive. And he, too, was pleased with the new remedy for the dreaded sleeping sickness.1But when he saw the myriad culprits of this disease under the microscope he knew: I need to destroy these. Wryly he called himself “mass murderer of bacteria.”2
Yet according to the Bible it is not life itself that is the highest standard but the Creator of all that lives. He decides what we may use of it. In Paradise, he clearly gave Adam and Eve permission to eat fruits and vegetables.3
They were allowed to rule over the fish and over all the animals. Whether that meant they were allowed to eat fish and meat is not stated in as many words. In any case, following the flood, God gave Noah permission to consume animals.4
So the slaughtering of animals is not self-evident! Permission needed to be given.5 Now that permission has been given, the profession of a butcher or a hunter is just as legal as that of a gardener or a farmer. But Noah — and later on the people of Israel — had to realize that the life of such an animal remained God’s property. Therefore its blood, as representing its life, was not to be consumed.6 The question is whether this prohibition of consuming blood is still in force. We believe that is not the case.7
Throughout all of this the core message of this prohibition still stands: i.e., that people will recognize that God is the Creator of all that lives. Slaughterhouses and meat departments can only exist because of his special permission.
Whereas this property right of God already applies so strictly to the life of an animal, how much more does it apply to that of a human being? Every human being — Christian or not, brilliant or demented, born or nine months before birth — represents a value to God that far exceeds that of the animal. His main motive against the killing of human beings lies in their high value. What does that consist of?
The Unique Value of Man
Both humans and animals are called breathing or “living beings” in the creation account.8
Externally, they have much in common: eyes, ears, skin, hair, muscles, bones and blood. A dog and its owner can be startled by the same bang and enjoy the same sunshine. In terms of smelling, seeing, feeling and hearing, animals often score even better than humans. Yet the Creator positions man far above animals. In the same conversation in which he gives Noah permission to use animals as food, he strictly forbids the shedding of human blood: “for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). This determines the unique value of every human being, regardless of skin colour, intelligence, age or health. God still regards in any human being someone whom he made in his image. It is and remains a great honour to be human. The Catechism is consistent with this. Its first explanation of this commandment reads: I am not to dishonour...my neighbour. For it is his honour to be human — to be made in the image of God. Therefore, I may not hate or hurt him even “with thoughts”. You are always dealing with a high-ranking person.
Everyone — even the most unsavoury and shabby individual — is made to praise God! That is not a glory that has been lost, but it is everyone’s lasting purpose and destiny. People may have resigned on their part, but the Creator did not accept that from anyone. That is why he continued to regard man as his image after the fall.9
By redeeming the Israelites from slavery he proved how serious he is about this, as he took them back into his service. Once again they were allowed to be what they actually were: the image of God. That was equally true for the pagan Rahab of Jericho and all her family. God had never written them off. For that matter he had promised centuries before that he would bless all nations through Abraham. Right up to our present time they are accountable to their original destiny of serving God. All people are candidates to praise God.10 Moreover, for his part, God still offers an open door for them! Christians should be well aware of this when dealing with whatever kind of people.
What is Murder?
How absolutely is it forbidden to kill people? A hostage taker threatens to shoot his hostages. Does God then forbid that he be shot dead as soon as the opportunity arises?
Those who take “murder” to mean killing under any circumstance are allowing this commandment to say something it cannot mean. After all, God himself ordered death sentences to be carried out and nations to be exterminated. The word for “murder” used in this commandment refers to the killing of innocent victims. Unlawful or unjustifiable killing is forbidden. A crude example is someone deliberately beating another person to death with an iron object. It is premeditated killing.11 The translation: “you shall not murder” is therefore better than “you shall not kill”. But even then it is more comprehensive. The commandment also condemns someone who causes the death of another entirely by accident. We might call that an industrial accident. When cutting wood, an axe head could fly off the handle and kill someone. The perpetrator was not a murderer, although he had caused a death.12 By his actions a person died, without any lawful reason. This unintentional killing also falls under the heading of the sixth commandment.13 Whoever killed another person unjustly — intentionally or by accident — had violated this commandment. However, such a manslayer was given the option of defecting to the nearest city of refuge.14 That gave the opportunity to investigate his case. If the culprit was not at fault, then it was understood that he did not set out to do this, but that God made it happen.15 In such cases acquittal would follow, yet he was forced to remain as an exile in such a city of refuge until the death of the high priest.16
Furthermore, one had to avoid unnecessary risks to the lives of others. If someone had neglected to install a fence on his roof terrace he was responsible for this life-threatening situation. If a fatal accident occurred, the owner brought “blood guilt” upon his house.17
Meanwhile, God does not take away from the government the “sword” with which it protects its citizens from aggression.18 He does not forbid a soldier at the front lines to use his weapons for the defense of his homeland. Killing and murder are two different things. When a police officer kills a hostage taker in the course of his professional duty, it is not “manslaughter”. On the contrary, his targeted shots are intended to ward off manslaughter and are therefore in full compliance with this commandment.
To summarize, God does not want anyone to be unlawfully deprived of life, whether wilfully, accidentally, recklessly, or through gross negligence. That is how great the value of a human life is to him.
Suicide, Abortion, Euthanasia
According to this commandment, “I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself”. 19 Even sincere Christians can be driven to commit this act by persistent feelings of loneliness and despair. We believe that even in death they belong and remain to belong to Christ. On the other hand, this comfort should not lower the threshold to suicide. God does not encourage anyone to put an end to his or her life in this way. What is the alternative? Does God demand that someone would sink into despair for his/her entire life? Is that not unmerciful? Should an unmarried girl become a mother and sacrifice her future to that? Should a person who is incurably ill and who longs for the end, continue to live? No one should have the power to decide about his or her own life or the life of others. It needs to be added immediately that this commandment is not a harsh, loveless command. It is connected with the opening words of the law. There the Lawgiver introduces himself as the deliverer of all who trust in him. You may feel so lonely and forsaken that you no longer have the courage to go on living. It is precisely then that this Lawgiver guarantees that he has saved you and is with you. This brings perspective even in the most hopeless existence.20
This comfort is also there for those who become pregnant in an unwanted way. He who forbids abortion is the caring Father of Christ. He does not leave such a girl or woman out in the cold, but he promises his help to her.
Finally, a prolonged physical or mental deterioration can make human existence seemingly valueless and meaningless. Yet the demented elderly, for example, remain people in the image of God, without any diminishment. Therefore, no one has the right to end their existence. For Christians among them, the consolation is that such suffering does not compare or outweigh the eternal glory afterwards.21
Question 106: But does this commandment
speak only of killing?
Answer 106: By forbidding murder God teaches us
that he hates the root of murder,
such as envy, hatred, anger, and desire of revenge,
and that he regards all these as murder.
You can have an intense dislike for someone, but as long as you do not touch him or her with a finger, we do not call it “murder”. We do not, but God does. That is a shock to people who do not think twice about beating another person to death.
Where Murder Begins
Everyone will agree that “envy, hatred, anger and desire of revenge” can end up in manslaughter. Cain was the first to be caught up more and more in this dangerous list of four. He hated his brother. It was at that stage that God had still warned him.22After this he beat Abel to death. One thing led to another.
Let no one draw the conclusion from this that you do not yet commit murder as long as you have such negative feelings under control. The Catechism helps us out of that delusion. For God, “hatred” is not just a root of murder, but it is murder. Given that, the number of murderers increases shockingly. They may not be behind bars, yet every person who harbours envy or other negative feelings in his heart, is one.
The Catechism refers to 1 John 3:15, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer”. He does not just run the chance of becoming one, but he is one already.23 This agrees with what Jesus says about this commandment: whoever falsely calls a fellow human being a fool or a madman (“Raca”) deserves to be condemned by the highest court on earth, and then to the highest punishment imaginable: to the hell of fire.24
So we must not hold the slightest grudge against our neighbour. And still this is not enough!
Question 107: Is it enough, then,
That we do not kill our neighbour
In any such way?
Answer 107: No.
When God condemns envy, hatred, and anger,
he commands us
to love our neighbour as ourselves,
to show patience, peace, gentleness,
mercy, and friendliness toward him,
to protect him from harm as much as we can,
and to do good even to our enemies.
Do not murder. That is all God demands in this commandment. That is all there is to it. Yet the tantalizing question is whether it is enough that we “do not kill our neighbour” in any such way. The Catechism does not think so. Does it therefore assume that this specific commandment is not strict enough? The Catechism does not claim this to be the case. That would mean criticism of the law, by the way. It only means to ask whether enough has already been said about that “do not kill’”. The conclusion is an obvious “no”.
Loving our Neighbour
As mentioned earlier, God forbids envy, hatred and anger. That is not sufficient, for in place of these God demands that we love our neighbour as ourselves. This requires more than that we not put any obstacle in his way or that he will not be bothered by us. Specifically, to love means that we “show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy and friendliness, protecting him from harm as much as we can.”
God commands us to treat our neighbour as we would want to be treated ourselves.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a deadly poison. If a room starts to fill up with it, the first thing you need to do is to get rid of this gas. But at the same time fresh air has to flow into the room. No one can live in a vacuum. Similarly, envy, hatred and anger must leave our hearts, but patience and mercy need to flow into that same heart. Envy needs to make way for appreciation, hate for love, and anger makes room for kindness. Only then does God consider it enough. What does this mean when the neighbour is our enemy?
Doing Good Even to Our Enemies
Enemies are people whom you keep at a distance as much as possible. That is the safest thing to do. But we must “do good” to them. According to Jesus, that means:
love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.25
Through this loving, benefiting, blessing and praying, you treat these enemies as if they were your best friends!
To accomplish this Jesus does not appeal to the goodwill of his followers, but to the example of their heavenly Father. He makes the sun — his sun — to rise over all people every day. It is no accident that evil people also enjoy this. God purposefully gives and grants his sunshine to them as well.26 Those who want to be a child of this Father must therefore have that same generous attitude toward all people.27 Something is not right when Christians hate their enemies, while their own Father allows those same people to enjoy the beautiful weather or a day at the beach. Christians should not only be kind to each other. That is typically pagan! For he who only greets his “brothers” is acting like the Gentiles.28
By these enemies Jesus does not mean merely some difficult characters, but “those who persecute you”.29So they could also be colleagues who act hateful to you in matters of faith.
Why should Christians actually love them? After all, they are not to love the devil under any circumstances. Why this huge difference in treatment? Why should we hate the devil and love these enemies? What is decisive is that for the devil conversion is out of the question. Nowhere does the Bible call him to it. In contrast, God earnestly calls all men until the last day to give up their rebellion against him. As long as they live, there is a way back thanks to Christ. God is still waiting for them. Meanwhile, he is good to them. They may enjoy his lovely sunshine and mild rains. In this, Christians are to join. It is not enough that they are against abortion and euthanasia. In their dealings with others, they are to radiate something of God’s goodness and love. The purpose of this is to win them over to this merciful God and to deprive them of any excuse.
People beat each other to death because they consider each other worthless. To God, all people have value because he made them in his image. Therefore he is pleased when they repent and live.30 That is his deepest motivation for this commandment.