Euthanasia – A Theological Reflection

By Dr. Sean du Toit

 
Euthanasia is a very relevant subject ahead of October’s referendum on the End of Life Choice Act. There is so much emotion and experience surrounding this issue that it is difficult to take an objective view of the proposed bill and its implications for society. Christians have historically opposed the notion of euthanasia for theological and secular reasons. Rather than rehearse the secular arguments for and against euthanasia, my aim here is to offer a theological reflection on some reasons many Christians continue to oppose the practice of euthanasia. I say theological reflection because no verse directly addresses the topic of euthanasia and so we must construct a view from the theology presented in scripture, the Christian tradition and contemporary wisdom.
 

The Value of Life


One of the questions at the heart of the euthanasia debate is whether the quality of a person’s life should determine their value? Before we can begin to answer that question, we must ask a more fundamental question—“how do we measure the value of life?

I once found a second-hand copy of a book at a charity shop. The shop wanted 50c for the book. But because of my research, and how rare the book was, I would gladly have paid $50 for that same book. To the shop, the book was just another old book, that was their framework. But because I operated within a different framework, I considered the book was of much greater value. As Christians, our ultimate frame of reference is shaped distinctively by God and that provides a fundamentally different framework for thinking and acting from other worldviews.
Humans are the result of a loving God specifically and intentionally creating us. In Genesis 1, God declares that everything He has made is “very good”. This declaration of goodness is not based on anything humans have done, but on who they are in relationship to God. No act makes human beings valuable and good. They are simply valuable because God values them and declares them valuable. That is why we, as Christians, reflect God’s attitude and give value to all people.

 


Life is Always Worth Living


If we tease out the logic from what we discussed above, there can never be a life not worth living, since life itself is the gift of the creator. Nothing that humans do gives us inherent dignity and value, it is simply that we were born into this world as the creation of a God who cares deeply. No illness or disease can ultimately rob us of our value.

“To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.” - Thomas Merton
 
The thought that can lurk behind discussions of ending life is that some lives are not worth living. Sometimes they are deemed not worth living because they are no longer productive. However, we should never equate value with productivity and usefulness. It is important to resist the temptation to view people in terms of what they produce or in terms of what they contribute. Human life is a sacred gift to be honoured, regardless of whether someone is able to contribute or produce something for the rest of society. The mere existence of a person entails that they are viewed as a valuable gift from God.
 

Suffering


It can be difficult to reflect on suffering, especially when it’s not our own. It’s often tempting to think suffering is bad and something which we should eliminate at all costs. This leads us to think that those suffering a terminal diagnosis should be allowed to end their suffering.

The end of suffering is indeed the hope of the biblical story—ultimately God will triumph over all suffering by healing and restoring all things. But that is a hope for the future. Throughout scripture, we see that suffering is to be endured because mysteriously it produces something deeply significant in the relationships and lives of people. Suffering itself is not good, but what it produces can be.

While I don’t wish suffering on anyone, we need to think carefully about suffering and the different types of suffering that we experience, particularly if we are to think clearly about euthanasia. Firstly, we have physical pain. Secondly, we also have mental and emotional suffering. In many patients facing a terminal disease, physical pain is not the issue. The problem of physical pain is something that modern medicine can often effectively remedy. Rather, in many cases, the suffering is the mental and emotional toll that disease can take on a patient and their loved ones. This can lead to people facing a terminal diagnosis perceiving themselves or being perceived by others as a burden.

Again, how we frame this issue can shape and inform our response. I suggest that such people offer us and society a unique and precious gift. People who are facing death due to illness or disease can, in their vulnerable state, be a gift. Countless testimonies from caregivers speak of the privilege of tending to those facing the rapid onset of death. They speak of precious moments shared with loved ones amidst deep suffering. They speak of the deep joy of being able to care for someone in such a difficult stage of their life. These shared experiences, amidst suffering, are a precious gift to both the patient and the caregiver.

This is why Scriptures exhorts us to “be patient in suffering” (Rom 12:12) and to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). It is also why the Spirit “helps us in our weakness” (Rom 8:26).

“Through the vulnerability and dependence of the dying person we are reminded that life is openness towards each other and we can discover in this openness a call to reach beyond ourselves to those around us and ultimately to God Himself.” – Ruth Ashfield
 
So, let me recap.  As Christians, we believe that every human life is of significant value because it is a gift from God and is thus worth living. We believe that suffering can change us in ways that are a gift to the wider society and it can build solidarity and communion with others.  We believe that those facing imminent death are to be seen as a gift even in their suffering. They offer the gift shared between the sufferer and those suffering with, something Christians are called to. All of these beliefs form the backdrop to why many Christians do not support euthanasia.

I’ll leave you with the challenging words of Gushee and Stassen who call to the church to respond...

 
Until Jesus returns and brings an end to illness and death at last, God’s will is that each very sick human being be treated with dignity and compassion, receive needed curative treatments, enjoy family community, benefit from pain relief – and die only when their time has really come. Failures in family life, in the health-care system and in the broader society may tempt us and others to end life prematurely. But that is precisely what it is – a temptation. Christians must hold the line against the encroachment of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and, most obviously an involuntary euthanasia that is simply murder by another name. We can best do so by offering compassionate care that meets the needs of the ill and dying, and their families.[1]
 

[1] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Illinois: IVP, 2003), 251.
 

Sean is a husband to Sue, a father to Ava and Mia, a New Testament lecturer, and a theologian at Tearfund. Once he was a high-school drop-out, an amateur snow-boarder, a pastor and a wannabe drummer. His PhD explores early Christianity and its relationship to the Graeco-Roman world. Sean is committed to helping people flourish in all dimensions of life.