An odd connection? Why connect the desire to live forever with actively ending life? Consider the follow passage from a book titled, The View From A Hearse: A Christian View of Death, by Joseph Bayly.
One of my early memories is of being led into my grandmother’s room in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to give her a final kiss. She was dying, I had been told, “so be quiet and behave.” That scene impresses me today with its Old Testament quality. Grandma, an imposing person, was conscious, slightly raised on a bolster, her white hair braided and carefully arranged on the quilt she had made as a young woman. The bed, a fourposter, was the one in which she had slept for fifty years, in which her four children had been conceived and born. The wide-boarded floor creaked its familiar creak, the kerosene lamp flickered on the massive bureau, a bouquet of sweet peas from Grandma’s garden made the room faintly fragrant. The old lady was surrounded by her children and grandchildren. In a few hours she died.
Forty years later my children were with their grandfather when he had his last heart attack. We gave him oxygen, called the doctor, and then the ambulance came. The men put Grandpa on a stretcher, carried him out of the house, and that was the last his grandchildren saw of him. Children are excluded from most hospitals. In the intensive care unit of the hospital, my wife and I were with him until the visiting hours were over. The mechanics of survival—tubes, needles, oxygen system, electronic pacemaker—were in him and on him and around him. Grandpa died alone, at night, after visiting hours. His grandsons had no chance to give him a final kiss, to feel the pressure of his hand on their heads.
In this generation death has moved out of the home to the hospital, doctors and nurses have replaced the family, a dying father has become a terminal patient. If the end seems imminent and the family members are present, they are usually hustled out of the room. Why? To shield them from death’s shock, to give medical personnel a free hand if any extreme measures are necessary, perhaps to avoid a traumatic experience for other patients if a surviving relative should go to pieces.
This quote is a little dated. At least we now allow children to visit in hospitals. Visiting hours are more relaxed. We do attempt to allow families to gather around the hospital bed of their dying loved one. But today death is still handled differently than when Bayly’s grandmother died. In her last days, she was helped to live well and dying was accepted without overtly trying to control the process. It included a kind of comfort and a passing on of something significant. When Bayly’s father had a heart attack, things had significantly changed. The medical system sprang to life to keep his father from dying. We now tend to be quick to use the hospital, to use the right drugs, provide life support, etc. hoping death can be avoided and an active “meaningful” life can be returned to. Many medical treatments focus on trying to live longer, like heart surgery, pacemakers, cancer prevention and treatment to list a few. With today’s life sustaining medical advancements we have lost some of blessings of the past, described in Bayly’s grandmother’s death. From a Christian perspective, it is not wrong to promote life, but the promise of medical science to lengthen our days, along with our desire to live as long as possible, can lead to a flurry of medical activity preceding death which can bring added distress rather than comfort to our final days.
Along with an increase in medical options to fix things we have also seen an increase in the control we can take over our health. As we approach the end of life suffering often increases and medical means, which have any hope of turning things around, often become more heroic. As our health deteriorates and the option to exert control over improving health disappears, the controlling of one’s suffering often takes greater focus. Part of the distress of dying in a society where we offer a medical answer for everything, is the process of dying is not very predictable and is hard to control. For those willing to let life happen, palliative care, with its management of distressing symptoms, helps, but it does not bring the kind of predictability some of us expect from medicine.
In the slower paced society of Bayly’s grandmother, the unknown around the timing of death was acceptable. Whereas today, along with loss of control, we tend to let waiting upon death become part of the distress. I wonder if “assisted death,” at least in part, is an attempt to regained the control we feel we have lost? By “assisted death” I am referring to the having medical personal actively bring about death, in an attempt to avoid the difficult things that may happen to us in the latter days of our life. Consider it. With “assisted death’ you can have a death similar to that of Bayly’s grandmother. When you are still relatively well, you can invite your grandchildren to visit in the comfort of your own space, with all of your favorite things around you, to give you your final kiss, before you drifting off to a “peaceful planned death,” Is this not somewhat appealing and understandable? In this way, the use of medical means to live longer can be a catalyst for “assisted death” or euthanasia.
If death is the end of the story, the comfortable assisted death makes sense, but death is not the end of our story. The Bible teaches that one person actively taking the life of another person is wrong. If this is true, then “assisted death” is wrong. Interestingly, according to the Bible not all killing is wrong. What makes some wrong and some right? Killing always involves control. A person or a group taking ultimate control over the life of another. More important than the actual death, is controlling or manipulating something we are not given control of. To understand this, we need to consider the beginning of the story. God created the heavens and the earth and all in them. As creator, God make us comparable with one another, as seen in his making women to be comparable to man not for one to have dominion over, or to lord over, the other. We are only to exert control where God has directed us to. Nowhere, in the Bible, does God give us control over the length of our own life or the life of another. Yes, we are to promote life, including using medical means to promote healthy and long lives, but the length of a person’s days belongs to the Lord. He is in control of life and has not given it to us. Sometimes He gives instructions to people, using them to bring an end to lives on Earth, as seen in Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan, but, clearly, He remains in control. The problem with “assisted death” is in our taking control over the length of our lives, something God has not given us control over.
This problem of taking control is not limited to the ending of life. Attempting to use medical means to live longer or better, apart from living the way God directs us to live, is a similar problem. For example, using the medical abortion to improve a women’s life is rarely, if ever, consistent with God’s direction to us, nor does lengthening a person’s life using using the vital organs that can only be obtained from people not yet fully dead. Thus, it is not inherently the use of medical means to sustain life that has been the catalyst for the development of euthanasia. The underlying problem behind the push for euthanasia is the desire to be totally in control of our lives.
The problem goes further than just the killing. To be in total control of our lives, necessarily means not leaving the control to God our Creator. The consequences of this far outweigh any suffering we may avoid through assisted death. Not recognizing God, our Creator, for who He is will have eternal consequences.
Many Christians can see that “assisted death” is not the answer, but have we considered to what extent we have promoted it by our approach to the use of life sustaining medical treatments? If our focus is on living longer, enjoyable lives, here on this earth, by placing our faith in medical advances, even to the point of controlling our death, rather than depending on the Lord God to direct our lives, we may even find ourselves attracted to a comfortable “assisted death”. We may say never, not me. It is interesting, as a doctor, my first request for assisted death came from a person who shared many of my beliefs.
How should we respond? An important step for Christians hoping to counteracting the the “assisted death” wave sweeping our nation is to turn again to “trusting the Lord with all of our heart and to lean not on our own understanding and in all our ways acknowledge the Lord and look to Him to direct the path of our life.” And ask ourselves, “Should we, as medical practitioners and patents, step back from quickly pursuing all the medical means available to lengthen and improve our lives and, instead, as we use medical means, ask the Lord what He would have us to do? We should set an example of living contently, using medical means to enhance, rather than take control of, life, until the Lord takes us from this life to the next. Then others may learn from us a better way, as we live out the truth that there is more than just life on this earth, that our approach to life does matter, that our life is not our own to do whatever we want with and end when we want to. And that others may learn we belong to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who has promise the new heaven and the new earth, for all those who wait on Him?
Oh, that people around us can learn that euthanasia is not the answer to their fears of dying and death. The answer is found in God, our creator, who promises eternal life to all who trust in Him.
 Joseph Bayly, The View From A Hearse: A Christian View of Death, David C. Cook Publishing Co., Elgin, Illinois, 1969, 3rd printing 1971. p29-30.
 I hesitate to say “meaningful” life. Another issue tied into euthanasia is the idea of quality of life. The idea of quality of life, with respect to attitudes toward end of life decisions deserves another blog posting.
 My paraphrase of Proverbs 3:5-6