A Review of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Study Guide on Euthanasia and Assisted Death*
By B. Holly Vautier
Reprinted with permission from Theology Matters, Volume 3, #3 - May/June 1997
Scripture tells us that there is a time for everything. In 1995 our denomination decided that it was time to take a new look at life and death. The result was a study document on euthanasia and assisted death which is currently available for our review. (To order, see below)
While well-intentioned and informative, the study materials tend to obscure essential distinctives of the Christian faith. At certain points unorthodox theological notions are coupled with cultural assumptions to suggest conclusions that seem to be strangely at odds with the plain and historic meaning of Scripture. These conclusions are subsequently applied to the practical issues of life and death.
On p. 13 of the study guide we find an unusual rendition of a familiar biblical passage. We are asked to "reflect upon what it means to be given dominion over God’s creation, including our lives and the lives of others." The idea that God gave people dominion over one another in matters of life and death is unorthodox. Human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). The unique nature of humanity –– resemblance to God and relationship with God –– is the determining factor in dominion. This truth is eloquently presented in Psalm 8:5-8, where people are described as being made "a little lower than the heavenly beings," "crowned with glory and honor," and "made ruler" over the rest of creation. Our commission to rule is a consequence of our status as God’s image-bearer. Since only God is inherently sovereign, humanity acts as God’s representative and steward over nature, but human beings always remain accountable to God. The sovereignty that God delegated to people in Genesis 1 involves rulership over the non-human world. It is certainly not a license for one human being to take the life of another.
Very early in the study materials the biblical "sanctity of life" ethic is challenged by a replacement ethic in which choosing death can be an acceptable or even desirable option. Candidates for death are persons whose "quality of life" is judged to be so low that their lives are not worth living. On p. 6 of the study guide, for example, disabled newborns are referred to as children whose "very existence seems more a biological mischance than a genuine life." These infants, as well as persons in extended unconscious states, are called "these living-dead or dead-living." They are referred to as existing "in the crevice." According to Scripture such persons bear the image of God despite their circumstances and are worthy of the gift of life. The study guide, however, appears to abandon the biblical perspective and appeals instead to cultural criteria as the basis for evaluating the lives of these human beings. The statement that "our laws and our ethics have not yet managed to bridge this crevice" (p. 6) implies that (1) moral decisions concerning the life and death of persons in the crevice should be made on the basis of newly emerging secular ethics and law instead of on Scripture and (2) the lives of the most vulnerable members of society have not been protected in the past.
The "crevice" language used in the study guide is similar to the "edge of life" terminology employed by Princeton theologian Paul Ramsey almost twenty years ago. Ramsey warned that if we fail to protect the lives of persons at the edges of life we open the formidable door to the killing of human beings and increase the likelihood that parameters for death eligibility will continue to widen. For centuries Western culture has applied a sanctity of life ethic in combination with the legal principle that the state has an interest in the life of its citizens to safeguard the lives of all people. The "crevice" statement implies that this traditional life-based ethic is outmoded and that a new ethic is needed. It is significant to note that the quality of life standard is not new. The writings of Binding and Hoche (scientists in Nazi Germany) are shocking reminders that such social criteria as quality of life, economics, and burden to families have already been relentlessly used in other societies as a rationalization to kill.
At one point in the study material there is a bizarre attempt to associate the death of Jesus with suicide. We are asked, "Did Jesus choose to end his life? If you believe that he did, do you see parallels to people considering euthanasia or assisted suicide?" (p. 33)
Scripture teaches that Jesus, the sinless Son of God, came to die for the sins of the world. As God Incarnate, his mission in life and death was unique. People demand euthanasia and assisted death in order (1) to avoid or escape some form of suffering and (2) to control the time and manner of one’s death. The intent of Jesus’ death was neither autonomous self-destruction nor the avoidance of pain. Jesus anticipated and agonized over the prospect of intense suffering, yet he placed God’s will above his own (Mark 14:33-36). The real parallel between the death of Jesus and the circumstance of suffering Christians is that they, like Jesus, choose in their pain to trust themselves to the larger purposes of God and allow God to remain sovereign over life and death.
Christians are called to alleviate suffering, but not at the expense of human life. The cultural assumption that suffering is an unqualified evil that must be removed at any cost is based on a utilitarian ethic in which (1) the end justifies the means and (2) human happiness is the highest good. Some utilitarians would even consider euthanasia to be morally obligatory if one’s self-sacrifice would benefit someone else. This is apparently the thinking behind the question, (p. 11) "Can we ever become such a burden to the community that it has the obligation to let go of us for the common good?" The biblical perspective of suffering is very different from the emerging cultural view. Isaiah 55:8 tells us that what seems good to human beings may not seem good to God, and what appears to us as evil may not be evil.
On p. 47 of the study guide we are asked, "Do you think that euthanasia or assisted suicide can be a faithful decision?" The questions guide the reader to the conclusion that euthanasia and assisted suicide can be a faithful act in certain situations. But, the truth is, Scripture teaches that euthanasia and assisted suicide should never be the Christian response to suffering. There are many reasons why these practices are unacceptable for Christians.
- Euthanasia and assisted death are contrary to the Word of God, which prohibits the intentional taking of innocent human life (Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21; 19:18; Romans 13:9). God, who created us, owns our lives (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20). "In life and in death we belong to God" (Brief Statement of Faith). As Christians, we realize that our freedom is limited by God’s sovereignty, and that we cannot rightfully destroy that which is not ours. To act willfully to end one’s life is to align oneself with disobedience by embracing an unnatural enemy (death - 1 Corinthians 15:20-26) and undermining the significance of one’s life from God’s perspective.
- Euthanasia and assisted death deny God the opportunity to work creatively in the lives of sufferers and rob people of the spiritual fruit that suffering can produce in their lives. It is in our pain that we learn, like Job, that we can trust God even when our circumstances look hopeless. Even Jesus learned obedience from the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Indeed, suffering could be the most effective means by which God seeks to conform us to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29).
- Euthanasia and assisted death are inconsistent with what people in the Bible perceived to be a good and righteous death. Balaam (Numbers 23:10) and Simeon (Luke 2:26, 29), for example, did nothing to shorten their lives. The deliverance which suffering or dying people sought was not escape through self-destruction, but rather restoration to active life.1 This yearning to be restored by God is particularly evident in such Psalms as 22 and 88.
- Euthanasia and assisted death short-circuit human obligation both to God and to one’s community. Since our times are in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15), deserting one’s position in the world by assuming ultimate responsibility for one’s life is rebellion against God and an affront to the human community.
- Euthanasia and assisted death result in a finality in which all options are lost and all future freedom forfeited.2 The possibility of a cure no longer exists; neither does the opportunity to be reconciled to God or with people.
- Euthanasia and assisted death are not the only solutions available to persons who are suffering and dying. A faithful biblical response to those who suffer is never to kill, but always to care. This is possible in a setting such as hospice, where people are made comfortable and their pain is effectively managed. From a biblical perspective, killing a human being in order to alleviate suffering is not an option. The real question is, "How does one live while dying?"
A positive characteristic of the Reformed tradition has been its attempt to transform culture with the Gospel. Although the study material states that this is still the case (p. 43), in reality the Word of God seems to have become subservient to the culture. On p. 45 it is suggested that we "still need time for consensus to emerge both in the church and in society." Presumably the "complexity" of the issue negates Scripture, leaving Christians directionless as they seek to address questions of life and death.
As in the "crevice" statement considered earlier, the "consensus" quote implies either that previous generations have failed to address the issue of killing suffering or helpless people, or that the wisdom of the past is now outmoded. Such reasoning is false. For two thousand years of Western medicine there has been a clear consensus which prohibited the destruction of human life. Although non-Christian in origin, the Hippocratic tradition is in striking agreement with the biblical view of the sacredness of life.3 With regard to the specific question of euthanasia the Hippocratic Oath states, "I will not give poison to anyone though asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a plan."
For Christians who hold orthodox views of Scripture, the plea for new social consensus can have dangerous ramifications. The moral climate in the United States is becoming increasingly pluralistic, cost conscious, and utilitarian. Christians need to be aware that new consensus on the issue of euthanasia and assisted death is likely to blatantly contradict biblical teaching in such vital areas as the sovereignty of God, the nature of humanity and the meaning of the Sixth Commandment.
On p. 5 of the study guide participants are asked to "list the concerns that make our era a new day (or night) in relation to euthanasia, assisted suicide, and end of life issues." This exercise again suggests that technology has placed us in a new situation which renders traditional wisdom (including Scripture) obsolete. One might ask what exactly it is about current culture that justifies replacing the ethic of life with an ethic of death. The experience of suffering is certainly not new, and the character of God and the nature of humanity have not changed. Throughout many generations people have suffered, yet neither the Church nor ethical medical practice have resorted to euthanasia and assisted death. The Bible has been foundational in upholding the prohibition against the killing of human beings. When pertinent Scripture is presented in the study materials, however, it is sometimes distorted, questioned, or assigned to a position subordinate to culture.
The Word of God is normative and relevant for all people, times, and circumstances. Departure from the biblical standard is certainly not a "new day" in any positive or enlightening sense. Accommodation to the culture at the expense of Scripture is more appropriately defined as a journey into night.
B. Holly Vautier, an ordained Presbyterian minister, is co-pastor of the First Congregational Church of Clinton, MA. She has suffered from a chronic, disabling illness for 26 years.
1. Douglas K. Stuart, "‘Mercy Killing’–– Is it Biblical?" Christianity Today 20 (1976), p.546.
2. Edmund Pellegrino, The Journal of Clinical Ethics, (Summer, 1992).
3. Nigel M. de S. Cameron, The New Medicine (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1991), pp.59-60.
* Editor’s note: "In Life and Death We Belong to God: Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and End of Life Issues" A Study Guide by the Christian Faith and Life Area, Congregational Ministries Division PC(USA), available through Presbyterian Distribution Services (800-524-2612), PDS #70-420-95-100.
Theology Matters is a publication of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry.