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What is Life?


Richard M. Ritland

The stately majesty of a giant forest redwoods, the brilliance and beauty of the butterfly and the orchid, the graceful movement of the trout gliding through a mountain brook or the sea gull on air currents, the cunning of the fox – these have always inspired awe, wonder in man. Man, fascinated and intrigued by life and by living things, expresses his delight in prose and poetry. In ancient times Solomon “spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and the birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.”- (1Kings 4:33, 34, RSV)

Yet what is life? We have reviewed ancient ideas of its origin, but we still have not defined what life is. Even the beginning student in science knows that the first step in the solution of any problem is to state clearly the problem and to define precisely the issues. Then one can collect, analyse, and attempt to apply all the relevant data. Can we then discover what life is?

We face an embarrassing question, for although every biologist knows basic features characteristic of the living things, no one knows what life is. No one has yet been able to define completely and precisely what life is to the satisfaction of the scientific community. 1

When the biologist Julian Huxley stated in a popular book, “Life is not a special force,”2 he was expressing dogmatically a statement of faith that represents the belief of most biologists today, Life, he maintains, is only a process that occurs in a natural way in specific complex arrangements of matter. According to his view, life may be interpreted and defined in terms of physics and chemistry. This view which stresses the material organisation is known as “materialism” or “mechanism,” and its adherents are often called “materialists” or “Mechanists.” In recent years many hitherto mysterious life processes have yielded to laboratory investigation. Materialists therefore confidently expect that life will eventually prove to be strictly a matter of organisation. Many scientists expect that man will eventually create life in a test tube.

Other students believe that although life is manifested in processes that behave according to natural laws, and although living things display specific arrangements of elements and compounds, there is still something beyond chemistry and physics that provides the “spark,” “essence,” or “vital force,” which proceeds from God. This view is known as “vitalism,” and its adherents are called “vitalists.” In medieval times the “vital force” was commonly thought to be responsible for many “vital processes” such as the circulation of the blood. Many life processes were thus not open to explanation. Both views of life, however, as scientific knowledge has increased, have naturally undergone modification.

A comprehensive understanding of the secrets of life is so elusive that it has defied thousands of brilliant investigators for centuries, leading vitalists, now in minority, to feel there must be something more than process and organisation involved. They point to the power of the mind – reason, appreciation, love – as evidence of powers that transcend material organization.

Traditionally most Christian churches have held that the material body is separate and distinct from an immortal soul. Such a view was common in Egypt and Greece centuries before the Christian era.3 According to this view the soul continues to exist apart from the body after death. But such a dualistic view does not seem well supported in the Scriptures. In recent years many Biblical scholars have agreed that such a dichotomy is not justified.4

What does the Bible teach of the nature of life? Throughout the Bible the doctrine that God created all things is a central theme.5 The prophets point to the continual dependence of the world and life upon God. Paul said: “In Him we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28). And the writer of Hebrews points to Christ as one “upholding all things by the word of His power.” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

The Bible assumes a continual sustaining divine power in nature without detailing how it functions. The wording in the statement, “upholding all” by “His power,” seems to affirm that energy from God continues to sustain. But there is no reason to suppose that God does not operate by orderly natural processes employing nature’s laws as His instruments. He may be viewed as a God of law – not a fickle, capricious deity of medieval times.

It may be that God’s support of life occurs at the level of the forces operating within and between atoms and molecules and through the radiant energy continually provided to the earth. If this is true, life may present a complex process operating within an intricate organisation of matter, continually sustained by the Creator. Until much more is known about the nature of life and the material world such a view cannot be fully evaluated. It would be premature at the present time for Christians to attempt to define the level at which God supports life. His support of life may occur at a more fundamental level than anyone has hitherto suspected.

While the Bible excludes atheistic materialism, it does not (because it does not specify at what level or levels God’s power operates) necessarily support classical views of vitalism.

With the spread of atheism in recent decades, particularly the last one, men have excluded God and the supernatural in seeking explanations for the origin of life. This resurgence has been especially prominent in the Soviet Union, a country where atheism is promoted through all the instruments available to a highly centralised state. During August 19-24 1957, scientists from sixteen nations, including the major Western powers, met in Moscow for the “First International Symposium on the Origin of Life on the Earth.” Moscow had been chosen for this conference by the General Assembly of the International Union of Biochemistry, which convened in Brussels. The reason stated was: “It was suggested that the place of this symposium should be the Soviet Union, the scientists of which had made a considerable contribution to the solution of the problem of the origin of life.”6

Within the last two decades biology has undergone a revolution as a result of tremendous advances in chemical or molecular biology, population studies, biostatistics, and kindred fields. The high school biology textbooks (BSCS) developed by a team of biologists under the sponsorship of the American Institute of Biological Science all favour the spontaneous origin of life. One version devoted well over 100 pages to the presentation of data basic to the theory in its most recent form. At the heart of the newer emphasis, as evidenced by the current scientific literature and textbooks, lies the problem of the origin of life.

  1. Usual definitions list features common to all or most living organisms. Webster’s is a typical: “The quality or character which distinguishes an animal or a plant from inorganic or from dead organic bodies and which is especially manifested by metabolism, growth, reproduction, and internal powers of adaptation to environment.” – Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition.
  2. Julian Huxley, The Wonderful World of Life, page 6.
  3. See G. Steindorff and K. C. Seele, When Egypt Ruled the East, page 146.
  4. See Ian Barbour, Issue in Science and Religion, pages 360-363; see also Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection for the Dead?
  5. See Genesis 1 and 2; Exodus 20:11, Isaiah 40 to 43, John 1:1-3, et cetera.
  6. A. I. Oparin, et al. (eds.), The Origin of Life on the Earth, page ix.


Barbour, Ian. Issues in Science and Religion. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. High School Biology. Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, 1963.

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. Biological Science: An Inquiry into Life. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1963.

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study: Biological Science: Molecules to Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

Cullmann, Oscar. Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? New York: The Macmillan Co. 1958.

Huxley, Julian. The Wonderful World of Life. New York: Garden City Books, 1958.

Lwoff, Andre. Biological Order. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1962.

Oparin, A. I. Et al. (eds.), The Origin of Life on the Earth. New York: Pergamon Press, 1959.

Steindorf, G. And K. C. Seele. When Egypt Ruled the East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

(An article from the book Search for Meaning in Nature, A New Look at Creation and Evolution, chapter four. Pacific Press Publishing Association.)