Alleviating Suffering by Death: A Christian’s Perspective on Enduring Suffering and Mercy Killing


The topic of euthanasia is a difficult and challenging one. And so I proceed with great caution.

Many Christians have equated euthanasia with suicide. Suicide is self-murder. And since murder is wrong, then euthanasia is wrong. So my question in this pursuit of the ethics of euthanasia is, is this different than suicide? And ultimately, what does the Bible have to say about it?

I’ve heard people say that we shouldn’t intervene the timing of God. But, is God not sovereign to know when and how one will cease to exist? If God has numbered our days, and God determines the day we die, are we not taking away his timing when we use medicine and other devices to prolong life? And others have said that a person should die naturally. But, when we get sick with a virus or bacteria that can kill us, do we not take medicine? Why is it we believe God desires that people with terminal illness must suffer greatly before they die?

Think of a person you love a lot, and imagine you’re watching them go through great physical pain, loss of feeling, vomiting, waking up screaming, having seizers, sobbing.  Just dying in front of your eyes. And all they want is something to alleviate the pain, and all the medications prescribed are no longer working. Death is imminent. But there’s this last-resort option – to die with dignity by euthanasia. Could you tell that loved one who is near death, “No. This is what God would want. God wants you to suffer”?

Euthanasia

Euthanasia in the Greek means “Good Death”. It refers to the practice of intentionally ending life in order to relieve pain and suffering. Euthanasia may be classified into three types: voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary.

Euthanasia conducted with the consent of the patient is termed voluntary euthanasia. Euthanasia conducted where the consent of the patient is unavailable is termed non-voluntary euthanasia. Euthanasia conducted against the will of the patient is termed involuntary euthanasia. Voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia can all be further divided into passive or active variants. Passive euthanasia entails the withholding of common treatments, such as antibiotics, necessary for the continuance of life. Active euthanasia entails the use of lethal substances or forces, such as administering a lethal injection, to terminate life.

Abimelech and Saul

Before we can make any conclusions about whether an act is morally acceptable or unacceptable, we need to query any specific examples in the Scriptures. I can identify two examples where a person was suffering and requested that their life be cut short. The first is example is Abimelech.

And a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. Then he called quickly to the young man his armor-bearer and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest they say of me, ‘A woman killed him.’” And his young man thrust him through, and he died. (Judges 9:53-54)

In this example, Abimelech is about to die and he asks his armor-bearer – his assistant in war, to kill him. After this act, we don’t find that what he did was morally wrong. But, to be fair, there is a certain reason he asked to be killed. It wasn’t to relieve pain, but so that it may be seen he was killed by a man instead of a woman. Yet, when it comes to the way he died, it is silent.

The second example is found in the book of first Samuel.

Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. (1 Sam 31:4-5)

This scene seems to be a very similar event to Abimelech’s. Upon receiving a near-fatal, life-threatening injury, Saul asks his armor-bearer to end his life. This time though, the armor-bear was too scared to kill the king so Saul took it upon himself to do it. Now, the reason seems to be similar as the scene from Judges. That no one can say it was a woman, or in this case, an uncircumcised man, who killed him. However, that doesn’t seem to be the sole reason. The primary reason is so that he doesn’t experience the pain and agony of what may come if the uncircumcised men were to capture him.

Unlike the first story, Saul wants to be rescued from the impending suffering to come. And he gets it. And like the first story, there is no condemnation or critique against the way he died.

These two examples, which are both voluntarily active acts of euthanasia, may provide a basis for determining whether it is morally unacceptable or possibly acceptable. In these instances, they were both sinners, rebels against God. Death was coming, and in the fatal injury during war, they requested that they die. Their death was the result of their rebellion. However, in both instances, we don’t see any condemnation for them choosing to end their life early.

It’s speculated that the view of the cultures in the ancient near east prohibited euthanasia. However, it cannot be denied it ever occurred. Prohibitions occur because acts have occurred, or at least it was attempted. If the surrounding cultures had prohibitions for such actions, and the scriptures do not set explicit prohibitions, it might be possible that the biblical writers believed that there could be valid reasons for terminating life when one was enduring extreme pain and death was imminent. Or (what if?) they believed that the self-termination of life was due by God’s providence.

Joy in Suffering

Aside from the two specific examples, when I think about the themes of the Bible, especially the New Testament, it is difficult to believe that a Christian should take the easy way out when hardships come. Actually, it is something we all should expect. But, by the grace and power of God, we are encouraged to press on through adversity.

We know that Paul knew suffering. He experienced more than we can imagine. So Paul’s words on suffering will carry much weight. In a letter to the church in Rome, he wrote, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:3-5).” And later, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).”

A couple more statements from a couple other authors. James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).” And Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name (1 Pet 4:12-19).”

It is because of these passages that makes me believe we should endure suffering and count it a joy. These people were writing from both experience and observation. Through the ministering of the gospel, they encountered lots of rejection from Jews and Gentiles. It was challenging, hard work. They put their life on the line for the proclamation of the good news.

And they wrote from the observation of their leader, Jesus. Jesus was rejected, he was spit upon, stripped and flogged, whipped, made to carry his cross, was hung upon it, and was pierced on the side with a spear causing blood to gush out. Jesus suffered. And Jesus died. That is the path Jesus took. And that’s the road his disciples believed they were to take as well. It is widely believed, this is a pattern set for all those who desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Every Story is Different

The Christian with the terminal illness should do whatever possible to prolong their life. They should take the medication and therapy prescribed by the doctor. The doctor usually is in the best position to offer the most appropriate recommendations for the situation. For some, the question is to what extent should one try to prolong their life? Are medications natural? Is life support natural? Should the loved-ones bear the burden of the cost to keep a person alive for as long as possible, even beyond what doctors suggest?

I believe it would be morally acceptable for one to decide the time of their death if their death is imminent and the pain is unbearable. It is of necessity that the pain be unbearable. Without this, I cannot find it acceptable to decide one’s fate just out of fear of the possibility of pain and the suffering one might endure.

Every story is different. Not all diseases, cancers, and other illnesses will result in the same kind of pain and suffering. And not every person has the same pain tolerance. Suffering is ugly and death is uglier. For most people, euthanasia is not an option. For some, it may be. And for a few, it is something they can only hope and wish it would be available if or when that time comes. If one were to consider this option, they should not be condemned as one who is without faith and hope. That is the last thing we should do when someone is one is on their deathbed.

For Hope

Jesus was a compassionate man and he extended mercy. Compassion is “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”. Mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”  How these two words play is that being compassionate is sympathizing with the one who is experiencing suffering. While mercy is using whatever power they have to liberate that person from suffering. So, there’s a standing with and a pulling out of. More than showing pity, he relieved people from their pain. So we too must sympathize with the hurting and, more than that, do what we must to bring relief.

He always sought to heal, restore, and resuscitate. Disease, decay, and death was an enemy of his. But he understood this was a present reality for all of us. His miracles were not permanent. But for a purpose we tend to overlook. These miracles served as glimpses of hope into the world to come.

Following in the way of Jesus as a care-taker, we find that we are to do what is necessary to ease the pain and suffering. We are to comfort the afflicted. To bear the burden, identify with the sufferer, and mourn when they mourn, and be quit when they want silence. The mission of the care-taker is to alleviate any suffering the patient is experiencing.

If, the patient so desires, out of the deepest pain, consultation, and much contemplation, to end life in the midst of their great suffering, the best thing a care-taker can do, I believe, is to submit to their wishes.

The Christian who’s caring for the person with terminal illness should stand with their decision. If they’ve decided to end their life early, make the proper plans according to their wishes. They know they only have so much time to do what they’ve always dreamed of doing, and to spend their last moments with those they love. Continue to bring encouragement, comfort, and hope.

Be with Christ

We will not be free from disease, decay and death in this world. We cannot escape it. It is filled pain, suffering, and agony. But we must do what we can to endure it. It takes lots of courage. But I cannot believe that courage is restricted to the amount of suffering one is willing to take, but I believe it is accepting that death will occur sooner than expected, planning out the time you have left here on earth with others, and living joyously in the times leading to it. Planning to meet with death, no matter how much suffering one must go through, is an act of courage.

For the many of those who decide press on through the suffering, no matter how unbearable it may be, may you, and all of us, hear these words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And may you, with whatever strength you could muster, declare the words of Paul, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor 12:9).” Let every breath, which possibly could be your last, testify that, even in your suffering, God is good.

For the few who are unsure, and considering the last-resort option, don’t feel defeated. Though many encouraging words have met you, the pain is far worse than you can imagine and all you want is relief. I doubt your decision will have arrived without considering all advice and options. I hope these words by Paul will find you comfort:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Phil 1:21-23)

I hope that your decision is one that will ultimately honor God. That if you choose to endure the suffering and die a natural death, do so in a way that will glorify God. And if you choose to end it sooner, do it so that you can be with Jesus. Which will bring more glory to God? I think a better question is, are you able and willing to preach Christ while on your death bed? If so, continue the mission to speak the glory of the kingdom of God. If you’re incapable of doing so, and are deciding that early termination, make the most of it and speak about how you can’t wait meet Jesus.

But, if you’re unwilling, it is time to repent and reconsider. Your time is extremely short. Let’s not hasten your death to find yourself eternally apart from God. Please, make the right decision.

 

In summary, Christians must, with all their might, will, and power, endure the suffering that may take place when facing death. And to do it with joy and the glory of God. This syncs with a theme we see throughout scripture – endurance. The question isn’t whether we will face such adversities but, if we’re able to find solace and strength in God when that time comes. However, if one chooses to end their life earlier due to unbearable pain when death is imminent, we ask that they reconsider and rethink it. And if that last-resort option is still requested after much prayer, contemplation, and consultation, stand with the person without condemnation, and help them prepare for death and to meet with Christ.

 

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. – Rev 21:4

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