By Kenny Cooper
When asked about my feelings regarding life-ending measures for those with terminal illnesses, my off-hand and truthful answer was that I struggle with both how I feel and what should be done. Over a career of 20 years as a pastor and now 20 years in residential and health services for senior adults, I have witnessed many terminally ill persons — and their families — struggle with pain, loss of control, and the cloud of death that was imminent but not immediate. In addition to these experiences, I watched my father die a painful death from lung cancer and my mother-in-law die after a four-year bout with Alzheimer’s disease, at the end of which she was in immense emotional pain as well as physical pain. One cannot observe and be present in these circumstances without being affected by them.
My Christian faith, theological training, and prayerful thought have not brought me to a definitive position on assisted death as of yet. What I offer here is my personal struggle and the questions that I feel need to be part of the conversation as believers deal with this very current issue, which includes “Death with Dignity,” “Right to Die,” other end-of-life slogans, and the organizations that support them. First of all, in no uncertain terms I believe that life is both sacred and a gift from our Creator God. Consequently, any conversation about assisted death must start there. I have advocated as pastor and as a leader of Tennessee Baptist Adult Homes that every human being is a creation of God and thus deserves the dignity that affords to each one. Furthermore, I believe that life and death are part of God’s created order. Our earthly bodies were not created to live forever. We have within us the aging process — we move toward death from the time we are born. Our bodies are also subject to disease and accident that may take life suddenly, long before the natural physical changes would eventuate in death. It is amazing both how fragile and how resilient our bodies are.
In centuries past, disease and old age took their natural courses in bringing one to the point of death. No doubt in most cultures there were “Hemlock Societies” and other means used to bring death more quickly for some. What we are currently facing has to do with the many ramifications of advanced medical technology. On the one hand, we can celebrate how modern medicine has extended the length and quality of life for many people in developed countries. On the other hand, however, these same medical advances can keep one alive long after one would have otherwise succumbed to injury, disease, or the aging process. One may have already died a natural death save for the intervention of some drug or device that prolonged existence. Therefore, one question I have is what to do when medical practices are unnaturally prolonging one’s physical existence but can neither cure nor bring relief to the terminally ill patient. Those who have faced the decision of if, and when, to “pull the plug” on artificial means of life-support know this question intimately.
While I lean toward the view that removing life-support and ceasing heroic medical measures is loving and merciful for those who are terminal, being to one degree or another active in assisting a person with a terminal prognosis in ending his or her life is much more problematic. This is sometimes referred to as assisted suicide. There are seven references to suicide events in the Bible, the best known, of course, being that of Judas Iscariot after handing Jesus over to the authorities (Matthew 27:3-8). Two of the references more pertinent to this discussion have to do with King Saul and his armor bearer. After being mortally wounded in battle, Saul asked his armor bearer to take his life rather than suffer additional torture if found by the enemy. The armor bearer refused to take Saul’s life. Thereupon, Saul fell on his own sword killing himself. Seeing this, the armor bearer then took his own life. In this biblical narrative we find both a request for assisted death and two who took their own lives. It is interesting that there is no denouncement of Saul and his armor bearer for taking their own lives. The one who was chastised was the news bearer who embellished the story by saying that he had done as Saul requested and ended his life. For this the news bearer was executed (I Samuel 31:1-6; II Samuel 1:1-16).
The sixth commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) would appear to prohibit the taking of life under any circumstances. “Kill” most likely refers to murder since provisions for taking the life of those who commit certain acts are contained in the Old Testament law as well. The question for this believer to struggle with, then, is whether assisting someone with an unquestionable terminal illness in hastening his or her death amounts to murder. It seems to me that there is a huge difference between a man pulling out a revolver and shooting to death a store clerk as part of a robbery and a husband of 57 years with tears in his eyes trying to alleviate the agony of his terminally ill wife through some non-violent means. The first is certainly a criminal offense, but can the second be considered so? I struggle with understanding what the Christian perspective should be in the latter case.
One other thing that adds to my struggle is what I believe to be an unbiblical view of death held by many. It has already been stated that death is part of God’s creation of our human existence. I think we should also realize that death is not our enemy — sin and evil are. In Jesus Christ the sting and victory of death are removed according to the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). For the believer, death can even be longed for — again, Paul suggests that he prefers to die and be with the Lord but for the benefit of his hearers he accepts remaining in the flesh, burdensome as it may be (Philippians 1:21-24). Death can be our friend. Death can be the sweet release of pain, suffering, and tears into the joyful and eternal presence of our Lord Christ. When this corruptible (mortal) nature shall put on the incorruptible (immortal) then “Death is swallowed up in victory” (I Corinthians 15:54).
When I think back to my father, I recall how physical his suffering was prior to his death. He did not groan, but his struggle for breath and the way the pain racked his body was difficult to watch. More importantly was the realization that his suffering was intense. He had known the pain of severe construction accidents and that of a heart attack and open-heart surgery. But this was like nothing he had ever gone through. Hospice was called and later a nurse came to administer morphine. I don’t know either the dosage prescribed by the physician or what the nurse thought about how long my father had to live. What I do know is that after receiving the medication my father’s breathing and shaking eased. He slipped into a sleep like he had not had in many days. That night in the wee hours my mother and I watched him breathe his last earthly breath without struggle. That was a gift to him and to us. If I had had it in my power to bring that relief to him hours if not days before, would I have done so? Perhaps, but I just don’t know.
I wish that all pain could be alleviated, but I know that it can’t. Pain and struggle are part of life as well as death. I pray for guidance not only for myself but also for the larger Christian community as we find ourselves trying to stay true to Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves in the midst of the ever-increasing complexity of legal and medical changes. What I am certain of is: That God loves us in our vigor and in our frailty, and that He welcomes His children into His presence when life here ends. For that assurance, thanks be to God!
— Cooper is president of Tennessee Baptist Adults Homes, based in Brentwood