Voluntary Euthanasia: Dying with dignity?
A Christian Biblical response.
(Talk given at Flinders Medical Centre, October 20, 2011)
The Christian Scriptures contain no direct instructions or statements about euthanasia. This may be partly for the same reason they are also silent on cyber bullying and traffic laws. But it is also because for the Biblical authors and characters, the concept of euthanasia would run contrary to their worldview, and their understanding of the nature of human life in the context of a relationship with God.
There are (among others) three key themes running throughout the Bible which inform this worldview, and which preclude euthanasia as an option for those who affirm Biblical Christianity:
The doctrine of creation is much more than a question of origins. The Bible spends relatively little time on the mechanics of how this world, and we, came to be, and much more time on the question that was forefront on the hearts of the Biblical writers: ‘What is the nature of the relationship between God and this world He has created?’
As the Creator of this universe, including human beings, God has ‘divine prerogatives’. He is described as the ‘Author of Life’ (Acts 3:15), as the one who, ‘gives and who takes away’ (Job 1:21), who determines both the lifespan of all creatures as well as the events that happen in the intervening years between birth and death. (Psalm 139) He is shown to be intimately involved in the humdrum of daily life, and the one upon whom all people depend for life and breath and everything (Acts 17:25). Ultimately all creatures owe him their complete trust and allegiance.
This is a God to whom we are all accountable - not because this world is simply a cosmic chess game in which he insists on his own way out of some kind of egotistical hubris; rather, our existence as creatures is because of God’s nature as love; He creates so that we might be the beneficiaries of his goodness.
Our presumption to be wise in determining the best timing and method for the ending of life is a dangerous foray into attempting to usurp God’s role as the Author of life. The scenario of the opening chapters of the Bible is one of human beings wanting to take to themselves the divine prerogatives; something the Bible calls ‘sin’.
Christians are called to ‘Entrust our souls to a faithful Creator, while doing good,’ (1 Peter 4:19) particularly when faced with suffering. This means a trust that God who is all knowing, all wise and all good will always do what is right, and we need not fear that His timing for the end of our lives is either too soon or too late.
Related to the first, the Bible presents a ground for a certainty of hope for both this physical world as a whole, and for those who are in this trust-relationship with Him as a God who is not only the Creator, but the ‘Faithful’ Creator. Both the Old and New Testaments speak of the promise of ‘a new Heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells - ie. in which everything works together rightly and in the context of perfect relationships between humans and God, and between fellow humans.
What this means is, this ‘creation has an ultimate goal’; a goal that it has been moving towards since the moment of creation, and a goal which is intrinsically linked with the destiny of human beings, to be fulfilled at what the Bible calls, ‘The appearing of the glory of our great God and saviour, Jesus Christ.’ (Titus 2:13)
What this means for Christians is that all that happens in life has a purpose. All things, regardless of our assessment of them being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, are a stitch that contributes to the full, magnificent tapestry of God’s good purpose for his creation. And so suffering is transformed, from an evil to be avoided at all costs, to something that, astoundingly, can be accepted with ‘pure joy’ (James 1:2), because we know that ‘suffering produces patience, patience produces character, character produces hope - a hope that does not disappoint.’ (Romans 5:4-5). This does not mean Christians are to pursue suffering in a masochistic narcissism; however the certainty of this hope enables joy even at times of intense pain, anguish and uncertainty.
This is the theme which ties the two themes of creation and consummation together and gives them coherence. The Bible contains many stories of redemption, all of which serve as pointers to the climactic act of redemption in the sending of Jesus Christ; his life, crucifixion and resurrection, and the pledge of his return as judge and king. Central to this story of redemption is a death: His own death. This death is entirely voluntary, both on a cosmic level, as he enters this creation willingly and in love, and temporally as he deliberately manoeuvres himself through his public teaching and confrontations with the religious authorities to a place where we might say his arrest and execution were inevitable.
This is the closest the Bible comes to speaking of ‘voluntary euthanasia’ - if we take the word euthanasia literally to mean ‘good death’. Yet it differs radically from our modern conceptions in one significant way. This voluntary death was entirely selfless. There was not thought to personal gain, as he faced not only suffering, but intense humiliation, ridicule and shame, in a scenario that was completely devoid of dignity - apart from the fact that here hung a human being who was entirely self-giving, thinking only how his suffering may benefit others; a true human being living as human beings are ultimately designed to live.
It should be acknowledged that there may be for some a sense of altruism in choosing euthanasia - to spare family and friends or even the health system the trauma and expense of prolonged medical treatment and palliative care. However the primary motivation - the desire for preserving my own dignity and securing my own release from suffering at all costs - even that of my own life - is counter-intuitive to the core Christian ethic of other-person centred love, which was both taught and embodied by Jesus.
Christian ethics in a ‘Post Christian’ society?
These three themes - creation, consummation and redemption summarise the Christian worldview that precludes euthanasia - voluntary or otherwise. Yet as a Christian I do not stand in a position to demand or enforce this ethic on a society that is largely what some have dubbed ‘Post-Christian’. I understand that my citizenship is not primarily in Australia or any other nation of this world, but in the Kingdom of God; I can speak only as someone who is visiting; a passer-by who has observed the culture of the land I am visiting and who wishes to offer an alternative to a path that potentially is lined with danger and destruction.
If you are not a Christian, I cannot insist that you accept or adopt this Christian perspective on voluntary euthanasia. However I can call you to consider the worldview I have presented: one in which the Creator, Ruler and ultimate Judge of this world has, in self-giving love, entered into our pain and suffering, who knows and sympathises with our weakness and battles of conscience, and has provided a way forward to a place of secure hope. This worldview produces an ethic not just about end of life issues, but about all matters crucial to living a life of authenticity where theory and practise are in harmony.
James Krieg is a staffworker with Flinders Evangelical Students. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for a PDF copy of this talk.