Sunday, January 17, 2016

ET11: There is a time to die, although we should not play God with human life.

This is the eleventh post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
There is a time to die, although we should not play God with human life.

1. The Bible has very little directly to say about the question of suicide or the question of "euthanasia," which is speeding up the process of death. It is doubtful that the sixth commandment, "Do not kill," was explicitly meant to address suicide, since the word ratzach is never used in this way in the Old Testament. It always refers to causing the death of someone else.

There are perhaps five instances of someone taking their own life in the Bible--Saul, his armor bearer, Ahithophel, Zimri, and Judas. Saul realizes that he has lost the battle and falls on his sword rather than be captured and killed by the enemy (1 Sam. 31:4). His armor bearer then does the same (1 Sam. 31:5). Ahithophel falls out of favor both with King David and with David's rebellious son Absalom (2 Sam. 17:23). Zimri loses the throne (1 Kings 16:18). And Judas of course causes Jesus' crucifixion (Matt. 27:5).

In most of these cases, there is an implicit sense of justice and God's judgment in the death. That is to say, with the possible exception of Saul's armor bearer, each of these individuals deserved death as a punishment. In that sense, none of these instances are suicide in the sense that we normally discuss it today. They are more like instances of capital punishment at a person's own hand.

Some would also mention Abimelech (Judges 9:54), who instructs his armor bearer to kill him. He is already dying because a woman dropped a stone on his head. But he does not want people to be able to say that a woman killed him. He also deserved death, although he hastened it to avoid shame. Finally Samson causes his own death when he brings the house down on Israel's enemies (Judges 16:30). He thus does not so much commit suicide as die in an act of war.

We must therefore look for broader principles to discern God's will on suicide and euthanasia, since the Bible does not give us any explicit teaching on the subject.

2. We might first, however, ask why the Bible has almost nothing to say on these subjects. There are a couple options. The first would be that it was an accepted practice. The second is that it was relatively uncommon. The second seems the more likely answer. Could it be that there is something about our contemporary world that makes suicide a more frequent occurrence than in most other times and places in history?

It is deeply ironic that while we arguably have the easiest, most comfortable, and most leisurely lives of any age in history, we are perhaps the least happy, the least satisfied, and have the least sense of meaning to our lives. Throughout history, most people worked so hard that they scarcely had a thought of taking their own lives. Or they recognized that the lives of others in their families depended so much on them that they scarcely would think of causing them further burden by removing themselves from the equation.

Certainly modern technology and medical treatment has taken the question of euthanasia well beyond anything it has ever been in history. Our ability to preserve individuals on life support, even when they are brain dead or unable to breathe on their own, has raised this question in a way it never had been raised before. Most people simply would have died in the past, long before the question of hastening death might arise.

3. So we come back to first principles. Love God with your whole heart. Love your neighbor as yourself.

The command to love our neighbors as ourselves seems to assume a norm of having a healthy regard for yourself. You are someone God loves. You are the image of God. Self-loathing does not seem to be appropriate when God loves you.

God wants to redeem you, so you should want yourself to be redeemed. It goes against God's will for you to condemn yourself when God wants to redeem you. Submission to God thus would imply allowing yourself to be saved, allowing yourself to be redeemed.

God is all-knowing. He understands depression better than any doctor. [1] God is the judge of those who take their own life, and he will do what is right. But it is not his will for you to take your own life because you are discouraged or feel defeated. God still loves you. His people still love you. It is not your place to take your own life.

So it is wrong to take your own life because you hate yourself. God loves you and his sense of you is what is accurate, no matter how you feel. God is the judge, not you or me.

4. God has service for you and me to do. God has a mission in the world. It is not my place to remove one of God's workers from the field. In fact, focusing on what I can do for others can help me get my mind off of my own troubles and worries. An external focus can shift my thoughts away from myself and toward a greater good.

5. What of those who are dying? Is it ever appropriate to hasten a person's death when they are already dying?

First a caution is in order--what if you are wrong? As Christians we believe in miracles. As good thinkers we believe in misdiagnosis. We are able to know about tumors and terminal illnesses much earlier than at other times in history. We thus can face the temptation to avoid future suffering when we are not even really yet suffering.

We should not view all pain and suffering as evil. Christ endured suffering he knew was coming. Although he dreaded the cross, he did not avoid it. It is one thing to take extra morphine when you are in the throes of death. It is another to try to by-pass suffering when you have not even started to face it.

We are a witness to others in our suffering. There can be something quite cowardly and selfish about ending one's life at the prospect of suffering, long before we have really even started to suffer. Others perhaps want to remain in control and see bringing about their own death as a way of defying the power of nature.

But we are not in control. Our lives will end. We deceive ourselves if we think we have shown God who's boss by ending our lives before he does. He is still God.

6. The question becomes muddier, though, the closer we get to death. If a person is truly brain dead, are they really alive at all? If a person is unlikely ever to emerge from a coma, is it murder to remove life support? These are instances where a person would have died a natural death even a hundred years ago.

What of the person who is in the last stages of cancer and is in horrible pain, perhaps even barely conscious? Is it acceptable to administer extra morpheme to ease the pain, knowing that it is also hastening death?

Since the Bible is largely silent on such issues, since these are largely issues that have arisen because of modern scientific developments, it is probably best to leave them to individual conscience and the community decisions of denominations and churches. The guiding questions would seem to be 1) "How likely and immanent is death?" and 2) "What is the truly loving thing to do?"

7. There is a time to die. If one person might refuse to suffer by ending their life before they have even started to suffer, there is also a person that refuses death when it seems God's will. Could it ever happen that someone could almost torture a dying loved one by taking them through an endless string of painful treatments and procedures because they selfishly cannot stand the thought of losing their loved one?

Death is not evil. When we can preserve life, it is surely God's will for us to do so. When death is inevitable, do we fight God to refuse it?

So our lives are God's. He loves us, so we should not despair. He has a mission for us to do, so we should not take away his servant. But there is a time to die. If we can preserve life, we should. If we can use modern science to preserve life, we should. We can also witness to Christ in our sufferings. And when our loved ones are suffering in the throes of death, we should not fight God.

Next Sunday: ET12: God values life in the womb, and we should preserve it.

[1] Some individuals struggle with depression for chemical reasons. As a colleague of mine, Judy Crossman once said, if a mental difficulty is helped with medication, then it is likely to be a medical rather than a spiritual issue or an issue of will. Some of those who take their own lives do not do so under normal powers of will but as a slave to their own body's chemistry.


Martin LaBar said...

Your usual careful job, and I appreciate it.

But . . . "death is not evil"? What about 1 Corinthians 15:26 which says that death is the last enemy, 15:54-5, which say that Christ was victorious over death, and Revelation 20:15, which says that death will be thrown into the lake of fire? (Whatever Revelation means about that.)


Ken Schenck said...

Perhaps I should have said, "Dying" rather than Death as an enemy and opponent.

Martin LaBar said...

That works. Thanks.