Why the vulnerability of dying need not be feared

Professor Dorothy Lee looks at the theology that surrounds dying

By Dorothy Lee

October 27 2017The catchphrase ‘dying with dignity’ may be largely about avoiding vulnerability, but there is no shame in being vulnerable at death, argues Dorothy Lee, who accompanied her parents when they died and learned something profound about the mystery of death.

With the recent passing of a bill in the lower house of the Victorian Parliament, the issue of voluntary euthanasia is a live one in our current context. It challenges Christians, in particular, to reconsider their response to legislation that will, within limits — if it passes through the upper house — permit those who are terminally ill to call on medical assistance to end their lives.

The Christian response needs to take into account the social and ethical issues that have to do with the well-being of all citizens, as well as the theological issues. We cannot impose our religious values on the wider society, true — but we can ask whether our moral values lead to the enhancement of our life together or to the weakening of our social fabric. That means that any discussion of this issue in Christian discourse needs to consider the social, as well as the biblical and theological aspects.

Biblical and theological perspectives begin with the premise that God is the source of all life, the creator and sustainer of all living things (Gen 1:1-2:4a; Job 38-39). The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, filling and enlivening each part of creation, including human beings (Ps 104:30; Jn 6:63). God’s desire for the world, for creation, is its thriving and well-being (Jn 10:10). God’s desire is not for death but for life (Ezekiel 33:11).

Indeed, in the incarnation and atonement, God in Christ has overcome death, as well as evil, and has done so, paradoxically, by entering the darkness and transforming it from within (Jn 1:14; Rom 5:6-10; 1 Jn 2:2).

Yet, while we believe that God’s ultimate plan is the end of suffering and death, these remain realities in our lives and in the life of creation. In this context, the Bible assures us that God is present to the world in its suffering, pain and death, leading it ultimately to joy and hope (Rom 8:18-27). Through the resurrection of Christ, life, not death, now has the final word on created existence (1 Cor 15:20-28).

On account of creation and resurrection, therefore, Christians stand essentially for life over against death but not at any cost. We do not support the desperate and frenetic holding onto life that arises from the fear of death and impels us to prolong life artificially. People are entitled, for good reasons, to refuse treatment or to be relieved of pain even if it shortens their lives (Eccl 3:3). Death is not the end, and does not have the last word (2 Tim 1:10).

At the same time, it is not our place to kill. On the contrary, our role is to be life-givers, nourishing hope in the face of pain and despair, valuing every human life regardless of the circumstances, and doing so precisely because we believe we are made in the image of God and re-made in the image of Christ (Col 1:15-20). 

In the Sermon on the Mount, far from softening the Sixth Commandment against killing (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17), Jesus intensifies it. Not only is killing wrong, says Jesus, but so also is the harbouring of hatred or the verbal abuse of another (Matt 5:21). It is not our place to take life as human beings and we ought not to do so, except in the most extreme of circumstances. 

It is precisely because God is the author of life, and Christ the one who holds the ‘keys of death’ (Rev 1:18), that we cannot kill. We may have the literal power to do so but whether we have the authority to do so is another question entirely. In the Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus speaks of having authority over his own life, an authority that is only his, a uniquely divine authority. Only he has the freedom to lay down his life because only he can raise it up again in the resurrection (Jn 10:17-18; 19:30). We need to be very careful that we are not trying to ‘play God’ and assume an authority that is not ours but lies only with the Son of God (Jn 5:25-29). 

Apart from theological reasons, there are also cogent social and psychological reasons for opposing voluntary euthanasia. Our concern for the dying is paramount here. Compassion itself demands that we stand with them in their dying, providing the palliative care they need — and to a far great extent than is currently happening. As a society we need to gather them in, not cast them off. We need to confirm in self-sacrificing action the intrinsic value of each of their lives.

Suicide prevention is equally paramount in this debate. Any successful act of suicide is a mark of failure —not against the victim, but against our society for not loving enough, not caring sufficiently, not giving hope, not sustaining that person in their pain and distress. How can we work against suicide — the young who are gay, the mentally ill of any age, the despairing young and old — while at the same time working for it? This seems implicitly self-contradictory: sending out a dangerous double message to those in need. No one should be left in such pain or despair that they feel they need to take their own life. The blame lies squarely with us.

The last factor is equally momentous. Many of those with terminal illness will almost certainly feel the pressure to end their lives sooner so as not to be a burden on family members and friends. They may assure their family that it is a freely chosen decision to end their lives, but deep down there will the desire not to cause trouble, not to add to heavy loads, not to put more pressure on the hard-pressed lives of loved ones.

I accompanied both my parents when they died — long, rather lingering deaths; my mother several years ago, my father one year ago. My mother was given sedation for pain as we drew closer to the end, and my father had oxygen to help him breathe, as well as injections for his pain. They died in faith, while we sang and read the Bible and shared the Office. It was not an easy time for any of us, and sometimes felt an unbearable burden. But I don’t regret five minutes of it now. It was a privilege to be with them to the end, to share faith with them, to witness the constant care of those who nursed them, to know the divine, consoling presence. Through those experiences, I learned something about the mystery of death: the faith that sustains us, our need of each other and the closeness of Christ in our deepest vulnerabilities.

The catchphrase ‘dying with dignity’ may well be more concerned with the avoidance of suffering and vulnerability than its alleviation. Yet suffering is a reminder of how much we depend on each other for our being, our identity, our health, our well-being. There is no shame in being vulnerable and needy, no lack of dignity in suffering. We are born vulnerable and needy, we give birth vulnerable and needy, and that is also how many of us will die. There is nothing shameful about this aspect of our humanity, which God in the incarnation has fully and radically shared (Heb 2:14-15).

None of this is to say that we should simply ‘grin and bear it’. The alleviation of pain and suffering is intrinsic to our vocation: as Christians, as human beings. It is one of the motivating factors behind Jesus’ ministry in his proclamation of the kingdom or reign of God in word and deed (Mk 1:14-15). But the move from alleviating suffering to active killing is a very large step indeed. Still less should voluntary euthanasia be included in the list of what we identify as basic human rights: the right to food and shelter, the right to work and safety.

Our focus as citizens and as Christians should not be on assisted dying but assisted living: supporting the weak and vulnerable, and caring for the poor and needy. Our vocation, in the words of Jesus himself, is ‘to do good’ and ‘to save life’, not ‘to do harm’ and ‘to kill’ (Mk 3:4).

The Revd Canon Prof Dorothy A. Lee is Dean and Frank Woods Professor of New Testament, Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity.

See also "Assisted dying versus palliative care: do we all have a real choice?", an opinion piece by Professor Stephen Duckett, Health Program Director at the Grattan Institute.