The first time Dan Pollock and I bumped wheelchairs, I was taken aback by the severity of his paralysis and his thin, frail body. Dan was born with a significant neuromuscular disease, and some people have said that he’d be better off dead than disabled. But Dan is full of life. It troubles me when people say he’s suffering needlessly or that he is imprisoned in his body. Such phrases allege to be compassionate but reveal a fundamental fear that actually means, “I would hate to live like that.”
The last time I visited with Dan, it was on a rainy afternoon. He was resting inside his transparent iron lung due to a recent heart attack that had forced him to spend more time lying down. Through the plastic cylinder I could see how scoliosis had severely bent his small body. I positioned my wheelchair so I could see him in the mirror above the cylinder.
“Joni,” he said, “I used to think I wouldn’t want to live like this. But time always changes a person’s ideas about life and how valuable it is. And now I don’t think of my iron lung as a life-support. It’s just my lungs and not ‘extraordinary care’ or ‘heroic treatment.’ For me, it’s normal. That’s why I don’t like the phrase ‘quality of life.’ Most people would say my life lacks any quality—that it’s not worth the cost or effort for me to live. But in this iron lung, I can pray. I can witness to others. I treasure my friends and family. And that makes me very happy. It gives my life meaning.”
You can understand why Dan Pollock detests the phrase “quality of life.” Such terminology reflects an outsider’s assessment of how a patient’s life-meaning is impacted by a disease or disability. Many people look at Dan and think, “Who would want to live in such a condition?” But their evaluation is highly subjective. They look at Dan and impose on him their own ideas about pain, discomfort, inconvenience, cost, and what they believe makes for a happy life.
At our core, we are predisposed to our own self-centered values, and we have no right to place those standards like a template over a person like Dan. We cannot judge another’s “quality of life” based on our one-sided prejudices. We need the biblical worldview to supplant our preconceived notions about life and its value. We need to give up our subjective criteria and accept an objective, transcendent worldview that ascribes true life-worth to someone like Dan.
Sanctity of Life
Dan’s experience shows us that no matter how physically or mentally debilitated a person may be and no matter how young or old, people should be treated with respect and dignity. But on what basis do we ascribe human dignity? Genesis 1:26 has the answer, “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us.”
Each of us is an image-bearer of God. As such, human beings are utterly unique in the realm of God’s creation. Because humans are the only ones created in God’s image, we have dominion over the rest of creation (Gen 1:28). We are like no other creature that God has formed, and although we do not bear God’s physical image, we bear more of a resemblance to him than we do to apes that have hands and feet like we do!
God is Spirit and we carry his imprint—he has impressed upon our nature the reflection of his likeness. Although sin has badly tainted his image within us, we nevertheless are human beings who not only possess volition but also have virtues such as compassion, courage, and an innate sense of what is good and right. We have an immortal soul, and we were made to glorify and magnify the Lord.
As image-bearers, we are all equal. This is so critical to how we relate to people with disabilities. My friend Trillia Newbell writes, “Understanding our equality as image-bearers changes everything about our human relationships. As image-bearers, we should view others as God views us. One way the Lord identifies us—and I’d argue this is the most important differentiation—is as either in Christ or not in Christ. C. S. Lewis said it best when he wrote in The Weight of Glory: ‘There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these things are mortal. Their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.’”
This is the true biblical worldview on life. This way of seeing fellow human beings is what constitutes life-value. This is what makes our lives so precious. And so, we treat the elderly, the marginalized, the unborn and newborn, and all people with disabilities with the same care and tenderness we would reserve for any representative of God on earth.
“Sanctity of life” means that human life is sanctified by God, separate and set apart from the rest of his Creation. The sanctity-of-life ethic stands in utter opposition to the quality-of-life ethic. One is objective and based on absolute truths; the other is subjective and based on people’s biased values. The sanctity-of-life ethic informs how we think about people with disabilities and how we relate to them. Life is a God-given gift, and people deserve not only the respect but also the necessary treatment that sustains their life (Gen 1:26; Deut 30:19b-20). Life is the most fundamental and irreplaceable condition of the human experience, and it should be safe-guarded at all costs.
Part two of this article can be found here.
 Newbell, Trillia. “Bearers of God’s Image” (Tabletalk Magazine, November 1, 2014).