What a Difference the Breath of Life Makes
Breath is a marvelous thing that makes all the difference in living.
The Greeks used the word pneuma to signify both breath and spirit. That’s not scientifically inaccurate, because most animals cannot survive for long without breath, and will “give up the ghost” if they stop breathing. First Aid students learn that of the ingredients needed for a body—food, water and oxygen—breathing is the most critical. Seconds count. Thankfully, we don’t have to think about breathing. The autonomic nervous system keeps the chest and diaphragm filling the lungs with air automatically, even in our sleep. The Pentateuch says the “life” of the flesh is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11), but it’s clear from the creation that the “spirit” of the flesh is in the breath (pneuma). The first human body, wonderfully designed as it was, was just an object on the ground until God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7, KJV). This became true of the first woman as well.
To appreciate what a difference the breath of life makes, we can think about a paper that appeared in PLoS One this week. We owe much of what we know about human anatomy to people who willed their bodies to science after death, rather than being buried or cremated. Scientists treat these ‘cadavers’ with utmost care and honor, seeking only to understand anatomy so as to cure the living. That was the purpose of the seven Czech scientists who wrote this paper, “Cadaveric biomechanical testing of torque – to – failure magnitude of Bilateral Apical Vertebral Derotation maneuver in the thoracic spine.” Wanting to understand the physical limits of spinal motion, they built a contraption that could measure the torques and angles when the spines of cadavers were rotated. This required inserting special pins called pedicles into thoracic vertebrae. (Don’t worry; the cadavers felt nothing.) The new knowledge gained, they hoped, would help surgeons cure people with scoliosis and other spinal deformities without causing worse damage.
Turn your attention in this open-access paper to a short movie clip near the end under Supporting Information. Don’t worry; it’s not gruesome. A test cadaver is far enough away from the camera not to haunt the viewer. The movie demonstrates the device. As one scientist monitors the measurements on a screen, the operators use a lever to rotate the body’s thoracic vertebrae. They wanted to find out how far they could rotate the spine without causing tears or fractures. OK, that’s enough to know for the squeamish.
The point to recognize here is that a cadaver without breath is just a physical object. It’s a lifeless thing, helpless against the laws of nature or manipulation by other humans. The scientists had gathered ten cadavers from the Forensic Medicine Department of the Medical University of Gdansk, average age 34, indicating that all the subjects—9 males and 1 female—had died young. In the paper, the scientists note that evidence they gathered on the limits of spinal motion is very hard to come by. Most previous work had been done on elderly subjects. Also, it goes without saying that time is short when cadavers become available to researchers. It doesn’t take long for decay and corruption to set in; remember Mary’s remark to Jesus about Lazarus? (John 11:39). After just 4 days, the amount of decay in a body can make it worthless for a study like this. These ten subjects must have died suddenly, under conditions where rapid transfer to the lab was possible.
The man on the table in the movie appears young and (formerly) healthy: full head of hair, firm musculature – but lifeless. Perhaps a day before, he had been breathing, moving, working, and enjoying life. Something terrible had happened, and now, without breath, he was just a “cadaver” or “object” that could not resist as the scientists rotated his vertebrae with a big lever. In short order, all that good design in what was a healthy human being would decay and, in time, revert to dust, however the scientists disposed of the body in a respectful, dignified manner. It’s a sobering thing to see.
The breath of life allows an animal or human to fight the Second Law of Thermodynamics, at least temporarily. When you lift an arm, you are doing something a cadaver cannot do. What mysterious force allows a spirit inside a body to do that? A living soul can will to move its body physically in ways the cadaver cannot. He can leap over high hurdles. She can play a concerto in exquisite detail. An infant child can stand up and learn to walk. With the breath of life, the possibilities for moving, thinking, and doing become almost limitless. What makes breath so potent?
Scientists can describe what happens. The oxygen in each breath becomes captured by hemoglobin in the blood (showing how blood and breath cooperate in life). Red blood cells squeeze the hemoglobin in the capillaries, causing it to release the oxygen into every cell of the body; the unoxygenated blood returns to heart, which pumps it into the lungs for another oxygen delivery. The cells have to handle oxygen carefully; loose oxygen can form free radicals that destroy essential molecules. The oxygen is ferried carefully into the mitochondria, where enzymes transport it to machines in the respiratory chain. The end of the oxygen seems mundane after all that work; cells use the oxygen as a final electron receptor. The result of the charge separation is a proton flow, which drives the famous ATP synthase machines. Quadrillions of those machines in our bodies generate ATP which is used for energy in most cellular processes. The spent oxygen is attached to carbon, forming the carbon dioxide we breathe out as we exhale.
That’s what the “breath of life” does at a technical level. But breath is so much more than that! It’s the nexus of our interaction with a perfect atmosphere on a perfect planet designed for life. Michael Denton has written marvelous books, Fire-maker and The Wonder of Water, that reveal how the fine-tuning of the sun, the Earth, and the compositions of our atmosphere, oceans and minerals work in sublime harmony. The Earth has enough oxygen to support life, but not too much to cause too-frequent wildfires. Plants use what we exhale, and generate more oxygen. It’s an amazing cooperative system, involving astronomy, geology, chemistry, and biochemistry. We often fail to appreciate just how valuable each breath is.
Eventually, the Second Law catches up with us, and we expire. James said, “For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (James 4:14). Vapor—humid air—becomes a synecdoche by James for the spirit that distinguishes us from nonliving material. The body uses air, but is not air. Breath is like spirit, but spirit is more than breath. Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecc. 12:7). To man “under the sun” who might have done great works and received high honors while breathing, it does look like “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” But followers of Christ can look forward to resurrection from the dead, enjoying a new kind of breath of life in a glorified body that will never see decay again.
I thought of a question while writing this: how did God “breathe into his nostrils the breath of life”? Is that purely a figure of speech? To breathe into the man’s nostrils seems to require physical contact and the ability to force air. But God is a spirit; He does not need Earth’s atmosphere or a physical body to live. We know, however, that many times in the Old Testament, the pre-incarnate Christ appeared in human form as the Angel of the Lord. We also know that Jesus, the Son of God, was intimately involved with the entire creation, as much as were the other members of the Trinity, the Father and the Spirit (Genesis 1:1-2). As the agent of creation, in whom all things were made “through Him and for Him” (Col 1:16), Jesus may have entered the creation in some visible human form at this occasion: the climax of creation on Day 6. Jesus would have been the one forming man out of the dust of the ground (the chemical elements) according to the Father’s plan, and actually breathing into Adam the “breath of life.”
If that is true, the first person Adam saw when he opened his eyes was Jesus Christ! What a thought. The same would be true for Eve, when she was formed from Adam’s rib and brought to Adam. It would make sense that they could relate to a Being that in some way was like them, and who could walk with them in the garden. After they sinned, their first Companion would become the “Seed” who would one day bruise the serpent’s head, and as the Second Adam, sacrifice His incarnate human body for Adam’s fallen race. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22).
From Romans 5:
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
From Hebrews 2:
5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere [Psalm 8],
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.”
And again,“Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.