“For the creation was subjected to futility, writes the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:20), and this frustration resonates with the current politico-moral climate that is increasingly hesitant to attribute significance to human life. Ethical thought previously concerned itself with the question of the ‘good life,’ of life lived virtuously, fruitfully, and freely. By contrast, the prevailing zeitgeist applies itself to justifying the most moral life as one that leaves the smallest ‘burden’ on the created world.[1] In fact, contemporary ethics has become so uncomfortable with the exercise of human life that it tends to discuss human existence in relation to its impact on the environment, the economy, or upon relationships rather than as something potentially fruitful and a basic good in and of itself. Such a view, certainly, is not consistent with the holistic view of human life found in the concern shown by Jesus for the restoration of physical, mental, and spiritual maladies (Luke 7:18-23; 11:14-20; cf. Isaiah 65:13-23). The Bible points us to a holistic, dynamic concept of life adamantly grounded in relationship (in covenant) with God,[2] and perhaps maximally defined in שָׁלוֹם (Jeremiah 8:15; Isaiah 53:5; cf. Luke 10:5-9; Hebrews 12:13-14; Luke 4:18). Jesus is, in no insignificant sense, the ultimate bringer and redeemer of שָׁלוֹם (or semantically, the concept is better conveyed through the Greek, σωτηρία) through His ministry.[3]

For Christians, inasmuch as death might abruptly and tragically neutralise vivacity, it itself is neutralised by the Christian hope of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:50-58; cf. Isaiah 25:8; Hosea 13:14). In one respect, death is wholly natural (cf. Joshua 23:14; 1 Kings 2:2; Ecclesiastes 3:2); equally attached to death however, is an evil and unnatural element. God’s sobering warning to Adam, ‘When you eat of it, you will surely die’ predicates death as divine judgment on human sinfulness,[4] and so Karl Barth writes, “it is very much to be feared.” [5] Death is a reality because sin is a reality; sin begets death. Thus, although humankind at the outset of the biblical narrative is “blessed” (Genesis 5:2), endowing fruitfulness, vitality, and productivity[6], each generation is stonewalled by the statement, “and then he died” (vv. 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31). Thus it is a “deterioration of [mankind’s] original, wonderful vitality, a deterioration corresponding to his increasing distance from his starting point at creation.”[7]

But inasmuch as death indiscriminately claims those under its thrall, the Christian faith views death as somewhat morally ambiguous. Thus, for Paul, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23) but those in Christ are ‘free from the law of sin and death’ (8:23), and ultimately the Apostle “exults in the triumph Christ has won over death itself.”[8] In Christian belief, death may frustrate, certainly, but it will never thwart. Death, and its corollary, life, should never be trivialised since in Christ “there is a fundamental continuity of identity”[9] both in the present and into eternal life. Thus, as Morris notes[10], Pauline theology strongly emphasises to “ἐνδύω, put on” Christ (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27), the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:52a), immortality (15:52b), our heavenly dwelling (2 Corinthians 5:2), our new selves (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10), the whole armour of God (6:1), and a myriad of other Christian virtues (cf. Colossians 3:12-14).

The (Renewed) Crisis of Euthanasia in Australian Ethical Debate

But contemporary ethical debate is presented with an enormous crisis on life and death, best reflected in Australia’s renewed interest in the euthanasia – or as it is now called, ‘assisted suicide.’

Consequentialist thought supposes that all actions undertaken must serve to produce the best possible future state.[11] Moral utilitarianism in the eyes of Christian ethic however, is deficient (cf. John 11:50; 18:1; “better that one man should die for the people”). The Socratic view (with which there are striking Christian parallels; cf. Matthew 5:39) that one would be better to suffer wrong than to commit it, cannot be conceived in consequentialist terms.[12] In fact, civil authorities that make it their position to legislate or licence the killing of innocent people loses the character and legitimacy of its authority.[13] The Christian Prophets reference in numerous instances the gravity of the crime to shed innocent blood (Isaiah 59:7; Jeremiah 22:3; Ezekiel 22:4 et paribus), and this is coupled with Judas’ conviction that he “betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4; cf. Romans 3:15). And yet, even in Christian circles, the only circumstance where the killing of innocent people seems to escape these arguments is assisted dying. It largely appears the drive is in the direction of killing people whose lives are judged as “dangerous, destructive, or just plain pointless.”[14] This judgment is readily made of people whose mental capacity is gone or much diminished,[15] and is reflected tragically in the case of Tony Bland[16] and others in similar circumstances.

Moral autonomy is the preeminent value championed by supporters of assisted dying. “The story of modernity fashions a will to die,” writes Carole Stoneking, “a means of escaping the anguish of death …we are given to imagine that we can control our destiny.”[17] It is an intellectual logic which compels people to die, and is disingenuous insofar as it possesses the inexorable effect of polluting the exercise of moral autonomy by the very ill and/or very infirm. Some take the view that, “where concern for welfare and concern for respect for wishes are incompatible with one another, concern for welfare must give way to respect for autonomy”[18]. To this, we must respond however that the argument for unfettered patient autonomy quickly leads unto reductio ad absurdum. Moreover, once a human life has begun, there is an innate and natural disposition that that life should go well, and that the investments and aspirations attached to that life represent ideals to be realised rather than frustrated.[19] This is not to advocate blindly for the preservation of a person’s last vestiges of life, but I commend highly the policy of only caring for the dying proffered by American ethicist, Paul Ramsey in “The Patient as Person.”[20] A sharp distinction ought to be made between terminal illnesses and ‘dying.’ The latter unambiguously means that nothing can be done to arrest the progress of imminent death; the former does not. A balanced Christian ethic does not call for a stubborn narrow kind of vitalism, and it is right that medical objectives[21] change from saving life to providing the best quality of care in the face of irreversible, aggressive terminal illnesses. Certainly, death itself is not the tragedy; rather, it is dying for the wrong reasons[22], or the blight of sin-marred creation. For many, death is a merciful release, the natural close to a narrative well written, and as Christians believe, the path unto glory.[23]

Christians however, also believe that, irrespective of what may be deemed a ‘worthwhile quality of life’, all persons remain in God’s image[24], and this theology informs the grounds for the sanctity of human life. Indeed, the primacy of human life has owed much to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (cf. Genesis 1:27; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9).[25] Nevertheless, with or without theological underpinnings, a prohibition on killing is central to both pre-Christian[26] and post-Christian[27] Western medical ethics. Such sentiments are predicated on the assertion that human life is a basic good, the foundations for human flourishing (Genesis 1:22, 28; 8:17; 9:1). Moreover, the reason for life begins with an appreciation that the life endowed us is a gift, [28] and that Jesus came that His followers might have life abundantly (John 10:10). Christ’s assertion that it is impossible for man to “live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4) suggests a character of life lived in relationship with God and His will.[29] For as long as God makes provision for life then, there is a prerogative upon Christians to choose life. This position is reflected foundationally in Jesus’ desires directed towards God’s will, and His committal into His Father’s hands, both in life and in death[30]: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Closing Thoughts on Life & Death in Biblical Perspective

Limited by brevity, I have outlined only some matters pertaining to the concerns of life and death in Christian ethical thought. There are, no doubt, many other problems attached to the question of assisted dying which I have no space to explore here. Nevertheless, I will posit one question that I believe will agitate fruitful discussion for Christian ethics: how ought Christians interpret the plea of patients or bystanders for assisted dying? I am not convinced that the plea for escape from this world is a plea for death inasmuch as it might be a plea for better palliative care, support, comfort, and love in a world so vacuous of such things. It is with this thought that I close:

“I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that He gives us the gift of suffering. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.”[31]

 

 

[1] Kevin Yuill, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) at xii.

[2] David J. Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, eds David J. Atkinson et al. (IVP Academic, 1995) at 89.

[3] I particularly recommend David Atkinson’s excellent little tome on the concept of shalom, and of how Jesus is the Messianic incarnate shalom of God, the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Cf. David J. Atkinson, The Church’s Healing Ministry: Pastoral and Practical Reflections (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2011).

[4] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. H. Knight et al. (3; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001) at 598.

[6] Dan Lioy, The Search for Ultimate Reality: Intertextuality between the Genesis and Johannine Prologues (Peter Lang, 2005) at 48.

[7] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John Marks (Revised Edition edn., Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1973) at 69.

[8] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: IVP Academic, 2008) at 227.

[9] Victor Paul Furnish, The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians (New Testament Theology: Cambridge University Press, 1999) at 116.

[10] Morris, 1 Corinthians at 229.

[11] G. E. M. Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe (St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs: Imprint Academic, 2006) at 274.

[12] Cf. A. Müller, ‘Radical Subjectivity: Morality Versus Utilitarianism’, Ratio, 19/2 (1977), 115-32.

[13] Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe at 269.

[14] Yuill, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization at xii.

[15] Anscombe, Human Life, Action, and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe at 272.

[16] Airedale National Health Service Trust v Bland [1993] All English Law Reporter 1 HL 821.

Airedale NHS Trust v Bland, Anonymous, ‘Airedale National Health Service Trust V Bland’, All English Law Reporter (1: House of Lords, 1993), 821.

[17] Carole Bailey Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (1st edn.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006) at 379.

[18]John Harris, ‘Euthanasia and the Value of Life’, in John Keown (ed.), Euthanasia Examined: Ethical, Clinical and Legal Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1997). In Harris’ defence, I am only quoting a particular section of his outline on the topic of euthanasia, and this is not indicative of his complete structure. In fact, he goes on to defeat this logic later on in his chapter.

[19] Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (Vintage, 1994) at 215.

[20] Cf. Paul Ramsey, Margaret Farley, and Albert R. Jonsen, The Patient as Person: Exploration in Medical Ethics (The Institution for Social and Policy Studies: Yale University Press, 2002).

[21] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 95.

[22] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 380.

[23] Anthony Colin Fisher, ‘Theological Aspects of Euthanasia’, in John Keown (ed.), Euthanasia Examined: Ethical, Clinical and Legal Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1997) at 323.

[24] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 88.

[25] John Keown, Euthanasia, Ethics and Public Policy: An Argument against Legislation (1st edn.: Cambridge University Press, 2002) at 40.

[26] cf. The Hippocratic Oath: “To please no-one will I prescribe a deadly drug, nor give advice which many cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion.” Quoted in J. K. Mason & R. A. McCall Smith, Law and Medical Ethics (5th edn.: Butterworths, 1999), at p. 551.

[27] “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from its beginning even under threat, and I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.” Quoted ibid. at p. 552.

[28] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 379.

[29] Atkinson et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics at 88.

[30] Stoneking, ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, at 379.

[31] Attributed to C.S. Lewis; Shadowlands (Paramount Pictures, 1993), Richard Attenborough (dir.).