In 1988, as young man of thirty, I was sick with a strain of meningitis that robbed me, for awhile, of my ability to communicate. I was able neither to talk or write, and yet my mind was fully alert. I was conscious every minute of intense pain. In my weakness I prayed to die, not because I could not communicate, but because my head hurt far worse than I had believed possible. For a great many days I was assured that I had two possibilities ahead of me: Death, or blindness. Finally, after I could speak again, physicians at Johns Hopkins offered me the chance to be a Guinea Pig for a new use of medicine, which brought me to an eventual recovery. As a result of that experience my perspective on suffering and on being completely helpless is not merely theoretical.
At what point, and on what grounds, is it in keeping with Christian faith to decide that we have the right to die in order to avoid suffering or a feeling of humiliation? Having been in enough pain to think of death as relief, I can understand the difficulty of the question, and appreciate the problem. Speaking as a pastor, and in light of what I have already experienced of pain and suffering, I would advise that submission to the will of God requires us to accept suffering, seeking to avoid it only by legitimate means. Medicine and treatments have long been regarded as perfectly legitimate. Suicide, assisted or otherwise, does not have the approval of any sound Christian teaching.
Of course, when the preservation of physical life is maintained completely by “heroic” or extra-ordinary technological means to the point where nothing is preserved except the functions of the body, is it really a Christian view that death should be put off beyond a reasonable time? This question is valid, because medical technology could advance to a point where bodies are maintained as a resource to be harvested in a dystopian scenario as gruesome as any science fiction writer has ever imagined. At what point could this kind of preservation be just as much a matter of playing God as the practice of euthanasia?
But, when the question is about the alleged right to die, what rights can a Christian claim to have? I am speaking here about moral, not legal, rights. The spokesmen for the Libertarian Party always begin by telling us that their basic philosophical view is rooted in the notion that everyone owns himself. “I own myself, you own yourself” is the way Walter Williams customarily begins his explanation of Libertarianism. Perhaps so, in terms of legal and constitutional reasoning. However, in terms of moral theology, and ethical philosophy, Saint Paul tells us that we are not our own, and that we were bought with a price. The Christian belongs to God, first by God’s right of creation, and then by His right of redemption, having bought us back from sin and death with the blood of His Son.
Having been faced with a prognosis of death or blindness, and living with unendurable pain, I was faced with this problem at a relatively young age. By what right do we choose either life or death for ourselves? What is there for us other than the will of the Living God? How do we know His will except by His Word, in light of how the Church understands it? Whether we live or die, does not Saint Paul tell us that we are the Lord’s? Unless death is handed to us as the will of God by a call to heroic sacrifice in the dutiful service of charity or martyrdom, what right do we have to choose other than to live? We are forbidden to dance with Ernest Hemingway’s “mistress” and blow our brains out.
And, since the issue has been brought before the whole nation by very tragic events, we should consider that to have a Living Will which would not permit a feeding tube to be inserted is suicide. For the use of nutrition is a natural and proper thing for the body, and to choose thirst and starvation is a choice to be killed, no less so than to choose a lethal injection. Otherwise, we would have to define nutrition and hydration as extra-ordinary, a legal and moral nightmare of the first order.
This is not the same as the “heroic” and extra-ordinary measures I have mentioned. Certainly the Christian view of life is incompatible with a mad attempt to avoid death altogether. The idea of a cryogenic freezer has been dreamed up simply for those who have a fear of death- and a lot of money to waste. Medicine is rightly used to give us a long life in this world. But, is it consistent with faith to try to find a scientific way to avoid death altogether? Natural immortality most likely would never be achieved; and it has never been revealed to be the will of God for fallen man. Our hope is in the pattern of Christ’s resurrection, the only final perfection and eternal life.
Faith means that we trust God. Suffering may be in our future, but if so, it fails in comparison with the glory which shall be revealed in the children of God. Even in light of the intense pain I suffered all those years ago, I know what is required of me, should it again come to such a pass. The perfection of character, the completed work of the Holy Spirit to bring forth the fruit of faith, hope and charity that please God and edify others, are to be embraced. To cut short the work of God by a legal instrument is a right we do not have.