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Death and Dying


Is it permissible?

Lesson audio

Time to Die?

Consider this opening from an article in a seminary Journal:[1]


Henry was dying of throat cancer. He knew it; his wife, Joan, knew it; their two grown children knew it; and the doctors knew it. But he wasn't dying quickly, and it wasn't painless. It was a slow, agonizing, painful dying. The most the pain medications could do was take the fiercest edge off the pain. He could live for weeks before his body succumbed to the cancer. The disease and the pain it brought had already beaten down his will to live, as well as the will of everyone else involved. Everyone wanted the pain to stop, even if it meant Henry's death. A side issue was the cost of sustaining his life; he had already run up the tab to over $75,000, and every day he lived tacked on another $1500. Henry hated the pain, and hated how much his life was costing his family.

Henry wanted to die. When he told Joan, at first she objected, but after a while she, too, started to wish he would die, for his own sake. What made it easier for her to wish such a loss was the fact that Henry and she were both committed Christians. She knew that his death was, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, "our entrance into eternal life" (Q&A 42). What he seemed to be enduring was a prolonged death, and eternal life loomed as a much better option. For Henry, to live is to be in pain, to die is to be with Christ. But their shared understanding of what a Christian may do also blocked them from actively doing anything that would end his life prematurely. They told the hospital staff they did not want any intervention that would prolong his life, and waited patiently for Henry's disease to end his life. So they prayed for his death, and together endured what would remain of his life.

The death of a Christian like Henry, suffering the agony of a fatal illness, seems to be a good thing, and it is not wrong to pray for it. Henry and Joan believed that their Christian faith did not permit them to end Henry's life, even when his death was something they prayed for. Were they right? Are there things we may pray for that we should not cause to occur?

Ending Suffering

It's a good question: are there things we may pray for that we should not cause to occur? In the instance cited it's clear that Henry's life is one of pain and suffering, shortly to be relieved by death. Does it not seem merciful to expedite that death? After all, modern man thinks that man is nothing but an animal; and if this were a horse, we would shoot it. We must accept as a hypothesis that there is no cure; and indeed there is no pain relief which is effective for Henry. Henry is an animal. (All humans are animals; Christians know that they are a hybrid animal with the spirit.) For any other animal, we would most certainly cause its death immediately. We would be guilty of cruelty to animals if we did not. So why don't we shoot Henry?

The Christian is on relatively safe grounds in saying that the Scripture does give us no indication of our ability to end someone else's life because they are suffering. Indeed, in the example, we see that Christians in question chose not to do that. But they did choose to pray for his death. Isn't that hypocritical? How can you pray for something and not work to bring it about? Think about it: if you pray for rain, the least you can do is show some confidence and bring an umbrella. If you pray that the church will grow, don't we have a right to expect that you will conduct personal evangelism when and where you can? If you pray for someone's healing, would you refuse to take them to the doctor? The example is clear: if you pray for something, you should be willing to work towards that end. So go ask Henry whether he preferred to be shot or suffocated.

Indeed those who advocate euthanasia can point to some positive advantages here:

·         Obviously, this is going to save Henry pain and suffering. In general, it's a good thing.

·         It certainly is going to save Henry's family a great deal of expense. We are not told how rich or poor Henry is, but exorbitant medical bills do seem to be associated with dying.

·         Finally, not mentioned here, is the attitude of the medical profession. Once you are terminal, the doctors rather lose interest – and many of them will be happy to just slightly overdose with morphine.[2]

Sympathy: Test of the Heart

As of this writing, euthanasia is legal only in the states of Washington and Oregon, and the countries of Belgium and Holland. Considering the arguments in favor of it and the overall humanist flare to our society, one might think that it would be much more commonly legal. The truth is that it is much more widely accepted than it is legal. It is a story broadcast on the news concerning a BBC newscaster and his homosexual lover:

BBC TV presenter Ray Gosling has delivered a shocking on-air confession: he smothered his lover to death.

In a documentary on death and dying on BBC One's Inside Out East Midlands program -- filmed in December -- Gosling is seen walking through a cemetery when he says, "And maybe, this is the time to share a secret that I've kept for quite a long time.

"I killed someone, once," Gosling continues. "He was a young chap, he had been my lover, and he got AIDS."

Gosling said that one "hot afternoon" in a hospital, doctors said there was nothing further they could do and his lover was in "terrible, terrible pain" so he asked the doctors to leave them alone.

"And I picked up the pillow, and smothered him until he was dead," Gosling said. "The doctor came back, I said, 'He's gone.' Nothing more was ever said."

Gosling then put his head down and cried.

The BBC reports that police are now investigating Gosling and the network will cooperate with the investigation fully.

(It was later reported that Gosling invented the story, and was charged with "wasting police time".) This is a very good indication of how widespread euthanasia really is. I had a doctor explain it to me, when my mother was dying. He said he would be happy to inject a little extra morphine even to a patient whose blood pressure was sixty over zero. He was quite cheerful about it. The most important impression I got from that episode was, however, everybody in the medical profession was happy to help end her suffering and the agony of the family watching her die. So let me ask you: who is your sympathy with, in this instance? Why isn't it good to add just a little morphine to the next pain injection?

When Is an Action Good

We may approach this from the point of view of what general principles apply. In so doing we will look at the world's way of doing this, and then the Christian view.

World's View

The standards this world uses to determine if an action is good or bad may seem somewhat curious to you. But as they have stayed the same for many thousands of years we may presume that they are constant of human behavior.

·         The first criterion is whether or not the action brings applause. If the world approves of it, it must be right.

·         Sometimes, however, the action is declared to be wrong by law. When this happens those who would be considered as righteous look instead for the act to be applauded as bold or daring. "Standing up to authority" produces admiration. If you do it often enough it winds up being right in the eyes of the world.

·         The most common criterion is this: it produces a good end result.

That last criterion is rather interesting; let me give you an example. Did you know that only one country in the world has ever completely driven out its drug problem? The country is China. At one time they had several million opium addicts. Mao Tse-Tung eliminated this problem by the simple expedient of shooting the opium addicts. The method apparently has persisted; China has mandatory abortion for a second child the family.

The Christian View

You will not be surprised to find that the Christian view is rather different. There are three classic tests given to determine whether or not an act is good:

·         First, the act must spring from true faith. Hypocrites need not apply.

·         Second, it must be done in obedience to God's law. The modern view that studying the Bible is unnecessary and counterproductive would make this somewhat difficult.

·         Finally, it must be done for the glory of God — not for the sake of our pocketbooks.

Now, let us go back and apply these tests to Henry. If you wish to shoot him, it is possible this may spring from true faith. You may believe that you are performing an act of mercy. But there is no way you can contend that it is done in obedience to God's law. I leave the question of whether or not it can be done for the glory of God to the reader. Euthanasia flunks the Christian test.

Issue: Lordship

The issue is one of Lordship. If you are in charge, then shooting Henry makes some sense. But remember: if you are your own Lord and master, you are responsible for the results. The Christian is not responsible for the results, for results rest in God's hand. The Christian is responsible for obedience in true faith for the glory of God.

The classic instance of this is Adam and Eve. If you recall, she recognized that the fruit was clearly good to eat. And her newfound friend, Satan, told her that it would enlighten her. You like chicken; why not try some steak? They both thought it was a good idea — and instead of being obedient they decided to take responsibility for the results themselves.

Good ends do not justify evil means.

[1] Calvin Van Recken, Calvin College Theological Seminary.  Quoted at http://www.ccel.org/node/7354.

[2] See http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=20-06-020-f

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