By Peter Amsterdam
May 7, 2019
(Points for this article are taken from Christian Ethics, by Wayne Grudem1)
None of us know when our death will come, and as Christians we believe that the timing of our death is in God’s hands.2 I imagine that most of us hope to live long and happy lives, and that when we reach a ripe old age we will have a painless death with our loved ones present so that we can express our love and say our goodbyes. Of course, many deaths don’t happen that way, and people often experience varying degrees of pain and difficulty as they age and the time of their death approaches.
In some (mostly Western) countries, it has become legal for people suffering from intolerable pain due to incurable illness to choose to terminate their lives through medical means as an end to long-term suffering. This practice is referred to as euthanasia. The word euthanasia comes from Greek: eu meaning good or well and thanatos meaning death; thus it means “a good death.” The issue of euthanasia is generally raised in regard to cases of people who are terminally ill, are suffering chronic pain, and no longer want to live. It also comes into discussion in cases of people who have lost much of their mental abilities due to dementia or are in a permanent comatose state. In such cases, is it morally right to take action to end a person’s life if they request it? Or, if they are unable to request it, is it right for the relatives or the doctor to decide to take actions which will cause death?
One of the core issues when discussing the morality of euthanasia is: What is the value of human life? The Christian view is that life is God-given. Human life possesses an intrinsic dignity and value because it was created by God in His own image.3 As such, human life is a thing of value in itself. The elderly, the infirm, those suffering from mental or physical disabilities, those in a persistent vegetative state, or who are close to death, all have the same value as any other human being. As all human beings have intrinsic worth, Christianity doesn’t accept the concept that it would be moral to euthanize someone. Scripture states Thou shalt not kill,4 and this includes choosing to end life in order to end suffering.
There are those who assert that an individual’s rights are paramount, and therefore a person has the right to choose to end their life (or if the person is in a permanent comatose state, and has not left clear end of life directives,5 then someone else who is authorized can make the choice for them) if they are infirm, suffering due to extreme pain, or unable to have a certain quality of life.
Some of the arguments put forth by those who believe that euthanasia is legitimate are:
Individuals have free will. Each individual therefore has the right to choose when it comes to matters of their own body, which includes ending their life.
A person has a moral right to die with dignity. People should have the option to choose to have a dignified death. A slow and painful death is not dignified, and therefore individuals should have the right to euthanasia.
Non-life is better than a life with suffering. Because suffering can severely impair one’s quality of life, it is better to end one’s life than live with the suffering.
It is an act of mercy to the sufferer. If the person is in a permanent vegetative state, the compassionate thing to do is to put the suffering person out of their misery.
It is an act of mercy to the suffering family. The person who is ill isn’t the only one who suffers. Often family members suffer socially and physiologically.
It relieves the family of heavy financial strain. Severe illness can be a huge financial burden, which can seriously affect the finances of the family.
It relieves society of a great burden. Medical expenses to care for the elderly can be burdensome on society.
In some countries, and some states in the United States, euthanasia is legal. Because it is legal, the thinking is that it is therefore morally permissible.
The Christian point of view approaches this very differently:
A person does not have a moral right to kill themselves or someone else on account of a medical condition. The sixth commandment states: Thou shalt not kill.6 Scripture teaches that the time of one’s death is in God’s hands.
I put to death and I bring to life … and no one can deliver out of my hand.7
When Job heard that his children died, he said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”8
It is not an act of mercy. Killing those who are suffering doesn’t avoid human misery; it inflicts the misery of death. Taking the life of the infirm is not a good or righteous act; Scripture teaches that it is evil.
Much can be learned through suffering. The apostle Paul wrote,
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.9
In the book of James, we read:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.10
Human life has immense value. There is no material value that can be placed on the spiritual value of a life made in God’s image. Jesus said,
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?11
He also expressed the value of human life when He said,
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?12
The idea that one should end their life because of the financial burden their care will be on others, or the government, doesn’t align with God’s view of the true value of each human being.
Though euthanasia is legal in some countries, this doesn’t mean that it is morally right. A nation’s laws don’t always align with the laws of God. As Christians we are called to align our choices and decisions with the teaching of Scripture. Thus euthanasia isn’t a morally legitimate course of action for a Christian.
A distinction needs to be made between actively doing something which hastens or causes the infirm person’s death (euthanasia), and allowing someone to naturally die from their illness without interfering in that process. While it would be immoral to withhold ordinary life-sustaining means such as food or water (even if delivered by tubes) from someone who is gravely ill, it wouldn’t necessarily be immoral to withdraw unnatural lifesaving mechanisms such as a respirator or mechanical life support systems which keep the heart pumping but which cannot help the person to recover from their illness and are only prolonging their death. When artificial life supports are interfering with the natural process of death, then it is not morally obligatory to continue to use them. If a comatose person is irreversibly dying, then there is no moral impediment to allowing the natural process of death to take its course. If someone has signed a DNR (do not resuscitate) order, it should be respected.
When someone is intensely suffering and is unable to convey their wishes regarding medication, it is morally right to give them strong medication to relieve the pain. This is reflected in the book of Proverbs: Give strong drink to the one who is perishing.13 A terminally ill patient should be administered medicines in order to alleviate pain. Medicines such as morphine or drugs classified as opioids keep people from ongoing, extreme suffering as they near death. However, sometimes these drugs will also hasten death. Is it morally permissible to administer these in such cases? In some cases it would be morally acceptable, because the purpose of administering the drug is to relieve severe pain, not to kill the patient.
One author explains:
In such cases the principle of double effect may be invoked. Where two effects, one good and one evil, follow from the same action, it is our moral responsibility to will the good one. The evil effect is simply a necessary concomitant [something that naturally accompanies] of the good action that is taken; there is no moral culpability for it. For example, when it is necessary to amputate a gangrenous leg, there are two effects. First, the life of the individual can be saved. Second, the body will be mutilated and handicapped. But this evil consequence of amputation is offset by the saving of a life. Likewise, sometimes the pain is so great that the medicine necessary to counter it will also hasten death. Patients sometimes die from surgery, but the potential benefits outweigh the risks.14
The coauthors of another book on ethics wrote:
We suggest the following in the case of someone suffering terribly with a terminal illness: do whatever is morally acceptable to relieve pain, and don’t force the patient to undergo procedures or take medicines already proven ineffective or of no foreseeable benefits. However, because of the command not to take innocent life, do not kill the patient or aid her in committing suicide. If painkillers hasten death, but the intent is to relieve pain, giving the pain medicine is morally acceptable. The principle of double effect applies.15
While death is an inevitable part of life, the time of our death is in God’s hands. His commandment, thou shall not kill, includes not only murdering others but also taking one’s own life by suicide or euthanasia. There are times when life can be extremely difficult, when ending one’s life seems to be the best way to deal with life’s troubles or suffering, but God’s love, grace, and strength are always there for us.
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.16
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).
2 Psalm 31:15.
3 See “Made in the Image and Likeness of God,” Parts 1 and 2:
4 Exodus 20:13 KJV.
5 For information about end of life directives, visit https://www.lawhelp.org/dc/resource/frequently-asked-questions-about-durable-powe
6 Exodus 20:13 KJV.
7 Deuteronomy 32:39 NIV.
8 Job 1:21.
9 Romans 5:3–4.
10 James 1:2–4 NIV.
11 Mark 8:36.
12 Matthew 6:26.
13 Proverbs 31:6.
14 Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics, Contemporary Issues & Options (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 177–78.
15 John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 224.
16 1 Corinthians 10:13.