It pains us to watch a loved one regress as symptoms of disease or old age — or both — alter mind and body. Is such suffering necessary? Culture suggests possible shortcuts to the natural aging process. Euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide provide “alternative” paths to circumvent the suffering. (Euthanasia involves a physician actively ending the life of a patient. Physician-assisted suicide involves a patient taking his or her own life with the aid of a physician.) Are these viable options for believers?
Actively seeking death through euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide stands in stark contrast to allowing death to run its course. The Bible provides no mandate requiring individuals to seek every possible medical treatment to sustain life. However, the Bible communicates that taking life, even taking one’s own life, contradicts the biblical command: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). In addition, the Bible indicates that God is the one who determines the number of our days (Job 14:5). Any attempt to actively shorten the number of our days infringes on God’s authority. Therefore, Christians should not consider euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide as viable end-of-life alternatives.
Increasingly, Christians may be tempted to abandon biblical views. Like seemingly peaceful ocean waves, prevailing cultural perspectives often reshape Christian worldview. Unaware of the subtle and steady erosion occurring below the surface, believers begin to accept and adapt views that contradict the Bible. Believers might stand firm against the direct assault of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide; however, we might not recognize how some attitudes associated with end-of-life discussions can covertly erode Biblical perspective.
Note the subtle dangers in these commonly accepted attitudes:
“I want to go out on my own terms.” On the surface, this statement seems appropriate and even admirable. Faced with a terminal diagnosis or a prolonged end-of-life experience, individuals assert authority over the uncontrollable events of their lives. To an extent, this posture can help patients come to terms with the inevitability of their death. However, like persistent waves, this perspective can pollute the way a believer views death … and life.
In contrast to Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way,” the Christian life is a life of surrender (Luke 9:23-24). Rather than asserting authority, believers continually yield to God’s control. Demanding our own terms in death contradicts the proper posture of surrender. Taken to an unhealthy extreme, this perspective could seek to justify life-taking alternatives (euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide) as a means to “dictate terms.”
“I don’t want to be a burden on my family.” The instinct behind this statement reveals genuine Christian concern for family. However, this well-meaning attitude can open the door for a potentially destructive perspective. This sentiment implies that an invisible threshold of burden-bearing exists. When a needy family member passes that unknown threshold, then the familial obligations no longer apply. This directly conflicts with Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (ESV). Notice that Paul provides no exemptions for extreme situations. The invisible threshold of burden-bearing presents another logical problem with this perspective: How much is too much?
“I want to avoid suffering.” This statement reveals the most natural reaction to end-of-life issues. As humans, we intuitively avoid scenarios that inflict pain. While we rightly avoid pain when possible, we must recognize that believers have no assurances of pain-free living. While some falsely proclaim that believers will receive an easy path of existence, the Bible says otherwise. Jesus encourages with a clear warning in John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
“I am concerned about quality of life.” The quality-of-life argument has an appropriate use. As noted above, believers are under no biblical obligation to pursue any and all means of medical treatment to preserve their lives. Often, experimental or prolonged treatments greatly reduce an individual’s quality of life. Wise patients should consider the impact of ongoing treatment when they determine if they should pursue them. While the quality-of-life argument has appropriate application, it also poses a risk for abuse. Taken to an extreme, a patient or family could invoke the argument to make a case for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. While quality of life is an appropriate consideration for continuing or discontinuing treatment, it is a misleading gauge for actively ending one’s life.
Unfortunately, believers are not immune to the painful circumstances associated with end-of-life issues. Old age and poor health do not discriminate on the basis of one’s beliefs. As believers, we must continually seek to honor God not only in the way we live but also in the way we die. We must be cautious about culturally acceptable phrases and attitudes that have the potential to covertly undermine our perspective on the sanctity and value of all human life.
— Kris Barnett is associate dean and associate professor of Christian ministry at Clamp Divinity School of Anderson University.