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No. 33: Thoughts on Euthanasia and Suicide

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 33
January, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

In the first week of November, the voters of the state of Washington were asked to approve or disapprove physician-assisted suicide. This has led to a good deal of comment on the issue of euthanasia in the press, and provokes the following reflections.

1. From a social policy standpoint, the whole matter seems a little bizarre. If I were suffering intensely from an incurable illness, and decided to commit suicide, there are a variety of rather painless ways to go about it. There does not seem to be any need for assistance from a physician or anyone else. Thus, why should this issue be raised at all? Anyone who wants to commit suicide is free to do so anytime.

Some of the people in this predicament are old and/or very weak, and thus would need some assistance in ending their lives. Here again, however, I don’t see why a physician is needed. Family members can help.

It seems that the desire for a physician is in part a desire for approval. Most people believe that suicide is wrong. If the courts and a physician tell a person that in his case it is all right, he can feel better about it. The guilt has been shared. And, the person who does not feel up to killing himself has been able to hire a professional to do it for him.

Thus, what society is being asked to decide is not whether people in dire straits can commit suicide, but whether it is acceptable behavior or not. Should a person be allowed the comfort of social approval when he decides to end his life?

2. There are seemingly good reasons for people to commit suicide. Some diseases and conditions are extremely painful and are incurable. Why not go ahead and die? Especially from a Christian viewpoint, since we view this life as temporary anyway, why not go ahead and end this life?

An even better reason to commit suicide is to avoid being a burden to others. People suffering from horrible conditions may be able to take the physical pain, but they may suffer much more from the belief that they are a burden to their families. It hurts a great deal to see your loved ones suffer because you are dying, especially if your medical expenses are going to bankrupt your family. Why not go ahead and get it over with so they can get on with their lives?

As a first answer, we see that the Bible says "Thou shalt not kill," referring to human beings. The Bible makes no exception because of human suffering, and so we must be very careful if we begin to think that there may be such exceptions. Putting people out of their misery is not an option for us (but transforming people’s misery is, as we shall see).

Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, and two trees were pointed out to him by God. One was the Tree of Life and the other the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God told Adam that the Tree of Knowledge was temporarily prohibited. God encouraged Adam to eat of all the other trees. Thus, God was encouraging Adam to eat of the Tree of Life.

As I have shown at length elsewhere ("The Dominion Trap," Biblical Horizons 15), the Tree of Knowledge has to do with investiture with judicial authority. Adam was not ready for this investiture because he was immature. Later on, as men matured, God gave them the right to exercise capital punishment in state (the death penalty) and church (excommunication). But God always forbad men to kill unless they had express warrant from Him. The Bible spells out that we may kill in self-defense, in war, and through the magistrate for certain crimes. We are not authorized to kill ourselves or to put others to death because they are suffering. To take upon ourselves this right is to seize from the Tree of Knowledge. The fact that Adam was given unrestricted access to the Tree of Life and encouraged to partake of it indicates that we are to choose life over death. We may only employ death sparingly, only to the extent that God has given us restricted access to the Tree of Judgment.

In his sin Adam was kept from the Tree of Life lest he eat and live forever in a condition of sin. Redeemed man, however, is enjoined to eat from the Tree of Life, Jesus Christ.

The fruit of the Tree of Life may be eaten any time; we have been given blanket permission to eat of it. The Tree of Knowledge (of Judicial Authority over Life and Death) has been restricted. God tells us precisely when we may eat of it. To move beyond God’s parameters is to seize forbidden fruit.

Adam was tempted to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Because Adam knew that he would eventually be allowed to eat of it, what God required of him was patience. What Satan set before Adam was the temptation to impatience, the temptation to seize the prerogatives of eldership and rule before he was ready.

This is directly analogous to the situation people who are suffering find themselves in. Suffering forces the issue of patience and impatience. We want the suffering to end, and we are thus tempted to seize at anything we can to end it.

Through God’s good gift of suffering, we realize that death is a good thing. Death will end the struggle with sin and the miseries of this life. When we experience suffering, we see how attractive death really is. Death is God’s good judgment on sin. Death will usher us into bliss. We agree with Bach’s great chorale, "Come, Sweet Death."

So, in the midst of suffering and pain we are tempted to seize death. But God has told us to be patient. We are not authorized to eat of the Tree of Judgment and commit suicide. God reserves to Himself the right to bring death to us. We have to remain patient and await His timing.

We can see the Adamic temptation expanded in the temptation Job’s Eve set before him: "Curse God and die." Job in his agony was tempted to end it all, but he chose to remain patient and wait for God to kill him. Job chose the Tree of Life, and kept his hands off the Tree of Judgment. He refused to execute himself.

Thus, we see that from a Biblical standpoint, suicide and mercy killing are excluded. I don’t think that they unpardonable sins, for many people commit suicide in a state of confusion. The Bible nowhere says that God will keep believers from committing murder. David did, after all. If believers can commit murder, they can also commit suicide. But whether the act is a high-handed sin or a sin of inadvertency, it is still wrong.

3. A Biblical perspective on suffering must take into account the prescriptions of James 5:14-15, "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him."

Anointing with oil by the elders guarantees salvation from sickness and resurrection from death. That is the clear and unmistakable statement of James 5:14-15. In every case, the person who is sick and suffering passes to true health and life when the elders anoint him.

But, Biblically speaking, true health and life are not necessarily the same thing as ordinarily health and life. "Raising up" has a double meaning in the Bible. In Genesis 40:13 & 19 Joseph told both the Cupbearer and the Baker that Pharaoh would raise up their heads, but in the one case it meant the head was raised up to its former position, while in the other it meant that the head would swing high from the gallows. Similarly, Jesus said that when He was raised up He would draw all men to Himself, referring to his crucifixion (John 12:32-33), though we cannot exclude an additional reference to His resurrection and ascension.

The Christian is privileged to participate in the sufferings of Christ. This is part of the work of resurrected believers (Phil. 3:10). Thus, when a man is anointed with oil but is not physically healed, he is still raised up. His suffering is no longer in the sphere of death but in the sphere of resurrection. He is no longer merely a sufferer but a martyr. His suffering is no longer meaningless, but is now a special calling. God calls us to bear one another’s burdens. Those who have been anointed to the ministry of suffering may well be bearing burdens of believers they have never met, as they "fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions" (Col. 1:24).

Part of the reason the Christian world has no real credible answer for those who promote euthanasia is that the Churches today do not practice anointing. Neither do they understand that suffering is a special call in the Church. The man who suffers is a catalyst to help others learn to sacrifice, and he also suffers as a way of advancing the kingdom of God. Just as Jesus’ anointed suffering and death established the kingdom once and for all, so the last good work of the believer is his own anointed suffering and death to fill out and advance that kingdom.

From the standpoint of the everlasting life, the amount of time we may spend suffering from a terminal illness is very brief. If we have been anointed, and refuse the temptation to seize death prematurely, we are carrying out an important if invisible ministry in the Kingdom of God.

4. What I have just written raises the question of the use of painkillers. If I have been anointed and called to suffering, should I use painkillers? Certainly. God recommends drunkenness as a way to ease pain (Prov. 31:6-7). The use of modern painkillers, thus, is affirmed as a good thing. We use physicians and painkillers to minimize suffering, but having done so, to the extent we still suffer we recognize it as a special calling.

5. Finally, what about the financial burden of modern medicine? There is no reason why an anointed believer must take advantage of highly expensive modern medicine. It is true that God works through means, so that the person anointed with oil may be healed through the work of a physician. At the same time, the Bible does not indicate that we must pursue every means available to extend this brief life.

It is not suicide to let yourself die. If you don’t want to bankrupt your family, just leave the hospital and go home. If you have been anointed, you have committed the whole matter to God anyway. If He wants you to live, He will make it clear. If the only way you can keep living is to make use of a medical procedure you cannot afford, then His will for you is clear.