For the harvesting of vital organs from bodies that appear to be alive to be considered acceptable, it becomes important to be able to define a person as dead while their body is still “alive.” Taking of vital organs, necessarily, results in the death of the body. To harvest vital organs before a person is dead is not acceptable within biblical Christianity, since the Bible contains commands against killing. See blog posting Vital Organ Donation – The Most Important Question. Biblically, people are body and soul and at death there is a separation of body and soul. For biblical Christianity to accept vital organ harvesting from living bodies, death needs to be declared while the body is still alive. If death is defined by the moment the soul leaves the body, and we can show that the soul can leave the body while the life blood is still flowing, then those who follow the tenants of biblical Christianity can accept vital organ donation.
Genesis 2:7 says,
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
God’s “breathing” of “the breath of life” into man corresponds to man receiving his soul and is the beginning of the living body-soul creature that man is.
Does Genesis 2:7 and the Bible describe a connection between breathing and soul such that it is right to say that once breath has left the body, so has the soul?
In answering this question we need to define what we mean by “breath” or “breathing.”
Is the “breath of life”, that God breathed into man, speaking simply about the ability to move air in and out of the body, which can be substituted with artificial respiration in intensive care units? Is it right to say, if the brain-lung function needed to breath is absent then the soul is absent? What if blood still flows and the vital organs are still functioning? Are we to believe what God formed from the dust of the ground was a man with a beating heart and functioning vital organs in a body waiting to receive the finishing touch of respiration? If this is the case, if this respiration ceases, even though organs are still functioning, then the person would no longer be a living soul. There is nothing that I am aware of in the Bible that suggests God formed a man with a beating heart and functioning vital organs that just needed the finishing touch of respiration, which was added via the breath of life being breathed in by God.
Is it possible God made man initially like animals, fully functioning but without a soul, which God then breathed into man, making him a living soul? If this was the case, the soul of a man could depart, leaving a fully functioning person without a soul. Then, assuming that it is ethical to kill an animal, it could be ethical to kill a man by removing vital organs, as long as we could be sure the soul was gone. I am not aware of anything in scripture supporting this idea. The creation of animal and man were different. Animals are said to simply be created, while man was formed from the dust of the ground. Assuming this situation was possible a problem remains. How can we know that the soul has left? The topic of this blog posting addresses one suggested way to know the soul has departed from a functioning body. The claim is that if breathing has irreversibly stopped the soul has departed. Is this true?
As implied above, it is ridiculous to think that God formed a body from the dust of the ground with blood flowing and fully functioning organs only requiring the the finishing touch of respiration. The ridiculousness of this ideas is even more apparent when respiration is considered in a more complete sense than just the movement of air in and out of the lungs that can be accomplished by a mechanical respirator.
The “breath of life” God breathed into man must refer to either the “soul only” or to something much greater than simply the ability to move air in and out of the body.
A brief look at the Science of breathing may be helpful. Prior to modern scientific discovery, the definition of breathing was simple. Air moved in and out of the body. We have suggested the “breath of life” means far more than simply the movement of air in and out of the body. It also involves spirit, but it involves even more than just the movement of air and spirit. Somehow, it also includes the life that is in the blood. A look at the science of breathing may help. When a person takes a breath, air moves into the lungs. Oxygen moves from the air into the blood. For this to happen the blood must be flowing and have blood cells distributed throughout it. The blood cannot be clotted. Oxygen is then carried by the blood to the cells that make up the body. The oxygen then moves into the cells. Inside the cells there is a process scientists call cellular respiration, where oxygen combines with carbohydrates that come from food. This produces energy. The by-products of cellular respiration are water and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide leaves the cells, is picked up by the blood cells, and then carried in the blood to the lungs. In the lungs, the carbon dioxide moves from the blood into the air in the lungs. The air that is breathed out then has less oxygen and more carbon dioxide in it. Another breath is taken in and the cycle continues.
The movement of air in and out of the lungs is only part of the process of breathing. When air ceases to move in and out of the body and blood is still circulating, the other breathing processes continue to occur. From the oxygen that is left in the air in the lungs, oxygen continues to be transferred into the blood, but more slowly. Carbon dioxide continues to be released from the cells into the blood. The level of carbon dioxide will increase in the blood and it will continue to be moved into the air in the lungs. If air is not cycled in and out the lungs, the oxygen in the air in the lungs will continue to fall and the carbon dioxide will continue to rise. The rising carbon dioxide level causes the blood to become more acidic. If the carbon dioxide continues to rise, the resulting acidosis will eventually cause the heart to stop beating. Once blood is no longer flowing, the process of oxygen moving into the cells and carbon dioxide moving out of the cells quickly ceases, at which point respiration, in its larger scientific sense, will have ceased. From this perspective, respiration and circulation, or breathing and living blood, cease at almost the same time. If both breathing and circulation have ceased, a person’s body will quickly appear dead. Without circulating blood and continued cellular respiration the organs in the body will also die in very short order. Once respiration in this larger sense has ceased, organs will almost immediately be beyond usefulness for transplantation.
In conclusion, Genesis 2:7 supports a direct connection between being able to breath and the soul. Based on this scientific description of breathing, the “breath of life” that God breathed into what God formed from the dust of the ground included breathing, which is inseparably tied to the circulation of blood. This breathing, along with the soul, made man a living soul. When breathing is consider in this larger sense, when breathing has ceased, the person is dead and the soul can depart. It does not support a direct connection between simply being able to move air into and out of the body and the presence of soul.
Genesis 2:7 does not teach that the absence simply of the ability to move air into and out of the body, even irreversibly, means the soul has departed and death has occurred. To say the absence of breathing in a person to mean that the soul has departed, depends on how you define breathing. If breathing refers to the mechanical process of the movement of air in and out of the lungs, then one can not say irreversible absence of breathing means the soul can depart. If breathing refers to the movement of oxygen and carbon dioxide, alone with cellular respiration, (that is also inseparable from circulating blood,) then it is reasonable to say that irreversible loss of breathing means that the soul can depart.
 Leviticus 17: 11 says, “the life of the flesh is in the blood”, and Deuteronomy 12:22 says, “the blood is the life.” The shedding of a man’s blood in Gen 9:4-6 is generally understood to refer to the killing or taking of the life of a person. We also see the connection of a person’s blood to his life in Genesis 4 when Cain killed Abel. The Lord says to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” Somehow, life is in the blood.