A theological view of death and suffering

Most objectors to the right to die stand on religious grounds, claiming that God gave life and only God can take life away. Also, any deliberate ending of life is breaking the sixth commandment and therefore a mortal sin. Life is sacred and must be preserved at all costs, only God can decide when and how our lives will end, and Christians are supposed to suffer because it allows them to empathize with Jesus’ suffering.

This interpretation of the sixth commandment is, in fact, wrong. Rather than “thou shall not kill,” the original Hebrew translates to “thou shall not murder.” Murder is “the deliberate taking of another’s life, with malice.” If I ask you to support me in ending my life, you are not “taking” my life and “malice” would certainly not be involved. You are merely honoring my request to end my suffering.

I happen to believe in a loving God. And I think that one can either believe in a loving God or a God who controls everything that happens to us, but you can’t have it both ways. The New Testament is all about love. The loving God I believe in does not inflict or endorse suffering!

Now look at “atonement theory,” the notion that Jesus died and suffered for your sins. I believe that allowing or, God forbid, encouraging someone to suffer is not pious. It is sadistic.

Just as people in a bad car accident need to be freed from their metal prison using the Jaws of Life, so a person may need help being freed from a body that has become a prison.

You have the right to physically die because you have the right to be free. While death is inevitable, suffering at life’s end need not be. When opponents of the right to die say that hastening one’s death is “playing God,” I rebut such claims by maintaining that “playing God” is to abrogate the freedom God gave us to make our own carefully informed decisions: decisions about how we live our lives, including how we might end our lives. Are the use of a breathing machine or artificial lungs, artificial hydration and nutrition, artificial hearts and other organs, or artificial blood not “playing God”?

Here is an example of that argument, which I firmly reject:

God has reserved to Himself the right to determine the end of life, because He alone knows the goal to which it is His will to lead it. It is for Him alone to justify a life or to cast it away.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The primary institutional opposition to our having the right to die comes from the Catholic Church, which has spent millions of dollars in efforts to block the passage of Physician Aid in Dying legislation. The opposition is joined by others on the religious right.

I rather like, and wholeheartedly agree with, the following excerpts from an interview with Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, the eighth Bishop of Newark:

Q: A prominent, mainline Christian who endorses aid in dying is rare. Have you always held that view? If not, when and why did you adopt it?

A: As a priest and bishop for more than forty years I have been privileged to live with people on their journeys through life and into death. I learned much in that process. I value, indeed treasure life. I see it as a gift of God. I have no desire to hasten its end prematurely.

At the same time I see no value in extending life beyond the limits of meaningful relationships. To me life is honored when it can be laid down in an appropriate manner at the appropriate time. I defend the right of every individual to determine what that manner and time are for him or her. I see no conflict between this and my religious convictions.

Q: Many Christians find it difficult to reconcile their beliefs with the idea of hastening death. What do you tell them?

A: Hastening death is not the way I would describe my point of view. Seeing death as natural, not something evil, sinful, or even to be avoided is what I support. I seek to embrace death as a friend and not to be so committed to avoiding it that I cling to existence when it has ceased to be life. A breathing cadaver is not a witness to the goodness of life.

I also concur with these excerpts from Bishop Spong’s address to the Hemlock Society national convention in 2003:

It is one thing to expand life and it is quite another to postpone death. When medical science shifts from expanding the life and quality of life and begins simply to postpone the reality of death, why are we not capable of saying that the sacredness of life is no longer being served. … Do we human beings, including those of us who claim to be Christian, not have the right to say “that is not the way I choose to die?” I believe we do. I prefer to think of death not as an enemy, but as a friend, even a brother, as St. Francis of Assisi once suggested. The time has come, I believe, for Christians to embrace death not as an enemy to be defeated but as an aspect of life’s holiness to be embraced. Death is life’s shadow. It walks with us through the entire course of our days. We embrace death as a friend because we honor life. I honor the God of Life by living fully. I do not honor this God by clinging to a life that has become an empty shell. …

The God whom I experience as a Source of Life can surely not be served by those in whom death is simply postponed after real life has departed. I also think the choice to do so should be acclaimed as both moral and ethical, a human right if you will.

I do not honor life when I fail to see that death and finitude are what gives life its precious quality. Death is not a punishment for sin, as Paul also once suggested and as classical Christianity has long maintained. Death is an aspect of life, a vital aspect that gives life its deepest flavor, its defining sensitivity.

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John Abraham is the author of “How To Get The Death You Want — A Practical and Moral Guide” (2017, Upper Access Press) and on Amazon
Contact: JohnWithFEN@earthlink.net
Web site: www.DeathAndDyingHelp.com

John Abraham, D.Div., Thanatologist

Author John Abraham, D.Div., Thanatologist

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