Dying with Dignity: What Should We Think About Euthanasia?

deathOn November 1, surrounded by her family and friends, Brittany Maynard will take her final breath. Or so she intends.

Earlier this year, Brittany was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the age of 29. Living in California at that time, she and her husband moved to Oregon so that she could legally commit suicide. Oregon is one of five U.S. states that permit physician-assisted suicide, and so she relocated their to end her life before her cancer would take it.

Her decision has received great support from many, including her husband (Dan), as her viral YouTube video explains. Her story has also reignited the debate about whether terminal patients have the right to take their own life. And it has prompted many strong and compassionate responses.

For instance, Joni Eareckson Tada speaks about the societal impact of Brittany’s private decision. Mrs. Eareckson Tada also refers to many alternative options for people with life-threatening conditions.

Dr. R. Albert Mohler also responded to Brittany Maynard’s decision in his daily news program, The Briefing (audio, transcript). Considering a number facets of this sad situation, Mohler observes how our secular culture befriends death as a way of escaping the pain of life. In fact, he asserts that the support for Brittany is in large part an indication of how far removed our culture is from the Christian belief that God is sovereign over the days of our lives (Psalm 139).

Let me encourage you to read and listen to Mrs. Eareckson Tada and Dr. Mohler, but even more let me encourage you to pray for Brittany and her family.

Talking About Life in a Culture of Death

Even as we pray for Brittany and her family, we must also consider what God says about these matters. When it comes to matters of life and death, Christians are obligated to speak a word of hope for resurrection life after death. But we must also think clearly about euthanasia and wrongful ways our culture is permitting and pursuing death.

For that reason, I want to take note of three issues related to Brittany’s decision and then suggest five ways Christians must think about euthanasia.

First, Brittany’s cancer should move us to grieve for Brittany and her family.

Romans 12 says that we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (v. 15). In context, this verse speaks of members of Christ’s body, a reminder that believers who suffer in this world have a family of faith to rely on in their greatest hours of need. Still, the principle developed in the church should also move Christians to grieve with the dying in this world—and let us not forget, that is all of us!

In Brittany’s case, as with anyone suffering the effects of a fallen world, we must pray, grieve, cry, and comfort with sincerity and sympathy. That said, genuine sympathy cannot come at the expense of truth. Compassion that condones suicideis neither right nor loving, for love does not rejoice in wrongdoing; it always rejoices with the truth (1 Cor 13:6).

Second, Brittany’s decision should not surprise us.

That Brittany, a vivacious world-traveler, would choose to end her own life is increasingly common. Today, five states and three countries permit residents to kill themselves. In a culture where secularism rises and life cheapens, it should not surprise us that the self-termination of life is celebrated by many. In fact, it is consistent with a worldview that has evicted God from his place of sovereign rule.

Third, the wide endorsement of Brittany’s decision should not deceive us.

While her YouTube video has more than eight million hits and thousands of people have commended her bravery, it should not escape our notice that Brittany is committing suicide. Though hidden under the euphemism of “death-with-dignity,” there is the unchanging reality that Brittany intends to end her life before it comes to an end. Despite popular opinion and the legality of her action, we must let God’s Word evaluate her decision and our response.

Why Death-with-Dignity is Wrong

While the law that permits assisted suicide is referred to as “death-with-dignity,” it must be remembered that euthanasia means “good death” (an oxymoron if ever there was one). Likewise, the etymology of suicide means “to kill oneself” or “to cut one self in two.” This is a crude translation but no more so than “death with dignity.” Still, the greatest problem here is not semantics. Rather, it is the fact Scripture resolutely opposes euthanasia. (For a full biblical survey about suicide, see David W. Jones ERLC article: “Suicide from a Christian Perspective“).

First, euthanasia rejects God’s authority over life and death.

On numerous occasions the Bible states that God alone has authority over life and death. For instance, Moses writes in Deuteronomy 32:39, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” Similarly, 1 Samuel 2:6 reads, “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” Likewise, in response to the loss of his children, Job rightly says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).

To take one’s own life elevates human autonomy such that it denies God’s lordship. Satan offered such godlikeness to Adam and Eve (Gen 3:1–6), and assisted suicide promises the same—life and death on your own terms. While suicide is not the unpardonable sin; it is an act of rebellion against God’s sovereign rule over life.

Second, euthanasia refuses to seek God for a miracle.

In Isaiah 38 Hezekiah, the King of Judah, is pronounced with a terminal illness: “In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death” (v. 1a). Worse than a doctor’s report, Isaiah the prophet delivered God’s diagnosis: “Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover” (v. 1b). Yet, in response to this hopeless report, Hezekiah prayed for mercy.

Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, and said, “Please, O LORD, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city. (vv. 2–6)

It would be a misapplication to cite this passage as proof that God always answers the prayers of the sick. But it would be equally errant to believe that a doctor’s report is the final word. God, as the Great Physician, is the one who heals (Exod 15:26). Even to those who resist the will of God, there may be times when God will heal (see Exod 9:30; Luke 17:11–19), and certainly God invites the sick to come and pray for healing (James 5:14). In these desperate cries for healing, God often performs miracles. Yet, euthanasia refuses to seek God’s help and circumvents any chance for a miraculous healing.

Third, euthanasia treats death as a friend.

First Corinthians 15:26 says that death is the final enemy. Christ died to defeat this enemy, and he arose from the grave to conquer this foe. But suicide treats death as a friend who will liberate you from the misery of this life. With promises of alleviating suffering, it inverts right and wrong, good and evil, life and death.

Indeed, for the believer it is possible and right to conceive of death as “gain.” Paul did. In his letter to the Philippians, he says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (1:21–23). For those who are in Christ, death brings faith into sight. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:6–9). But still, such a desire to be with the Lord, doesn’t permit Christians to take up means to be with him. Death is always an enemy to be resisted.

Fourth, euthanasia steals God’s glory.

At the same time that death is an enemy to be resisted, the call to suffer for the sake of Christ is also a gift (Phil 1:29). While at first these two ideas may appear contradictory, Scripture reconciles them in this way: Because Christ has secured an eternal life for those who trust in him (cf. John 6:37; 10:28–29), he gives his followers the grace to suffer so that our suffering might glorify him (see Paul’s personal suffering in 2 Corinthians 12).

In the Gospels, Jesus regularly calls his disciples to pick up their cross and die daily as they follow him. In short, for those who are promised life after death, the call to suffer is not an unreasonable (or unloving) expectation for Christ’s followers. It is, in fact, part of the way God prepares his people to reign with him: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11). Hebrews 11:35 goes so far as to say that the saints of old refused to be released from captivity so that they might inherit a better resurrection.

In contrast to this biblical way of thinking, euthanasia steals the believer’s ability to glorify God in their suffering. While most living in the West will not (yet) suffer persecution like the early church or like our brethren in the persecuted church; we all will suffer (cf. Acts 14:22). And often that suffering comes in the form of a terminal disease. When such a diagnosis comes, Christians are given a unique opportunity to glorify God in their suffering (see, e.g., John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Cancer).

Of course, if someone is not a believer, they cannot glorify God with their suffering—nor may they want to. But God’s glorification is not just something human beings choose for themselves. The unfathomably gracious God is passionate about his glory, and often through intense suffering, God saves someone from eternal death by means of facing a terminal disease. In this way, terminal illness can be used by God to glorify himself by granting eternal life to those who are perishing on this earth.

By contrast, euthanasia stands against God’s way and offers another savior. It promises something more than compassionate palliative care; it comes with the promise of a false gospel—escape from pain by means of a good death.

Fifth and finally, euthanasia presents a false gospel.

The gospel of Jesus Christ says that those who die in the Lord will be raised to glory with the Lord (cf. Rev 14:13). In this way the gospel is Christ-centered. Death-with-dignity says those who cannot stand to die in agony can die with respectability.’  Tragically, and this is not easy to say, this is the great lie: There is nothing dignified about death.

Death comes as God’s judgment upon sinners. It is meant to humiliate because it comes as a judicial verdict: This man or woman is a sinner who deserves death. The proper response is not to pursue a more dignified death, but to embrace the life promised by Christ’s humiliation and resurrection. Christians who commend euthanasia annihilate Christ’s ability to comfort, because death, not the resurrected Lord of Life, now becomes the Savior.

A Final Word

In the end, Christians who submit themselves to God’s Word must also submit themselves to this fact: Life is a precious gift from God, one that we do not have the right to terminate ourselves.

As an extension of our discipleship, we must commit every aspect of life to Christ, including how and when we die. Such a posture towards death will look odd to a world that dies with dignity, but it will please our Father in heaven.

Even more, it may in our own dying lead others to see the only one who raises the dead. As Thomas Manton said long ago, “A Christian is not troubled by what shall become of him; he leaves himself to Christ’s disposal, which allays his cares and fears.”

May Brittany Maynard and all of us trust in that death-defeating gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


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