With the End of Life Choice Act coming up for a public vote in the September election, euthanasia and the experience of a prolonged, painful end of life has become a point of public conversation. Supporters of the Act argue that euthanasia ought to be allowed as a human right and an act of compassion, while opponents warn against the lack of safeguards and its potential to evolve beyond what is actually voted on in 2020.
This article takes the discussion in a markedly different direction. Rather than proposing reasons for or against euthanasia and the End of Life Choice Act, this will instead demonstrate the difference that a Christian ‘worldview’ makes when considering the possibility of opting out of life once it becomes unbearable.
Worldview: An Interpretive Grid for Making Sense of Everything
The way people view the world makes a big difference in how they understand life. But unless they have seen how differently other people view the world, they may not even be aware of their own perspective. Yet everyone operates out of a worldview. A well-known Christian philosopher once said that all people have a worldview and nobody, whether ditch-digger or professional thinker, can live without one.
What we would like to share in this essay is how a Christian worldview offers true hope when facing a prolonged death that is absent in the worldview of the everyday irreligious Kiwi, not to mention the worldviews of other faiths.
There is no intent here to shame or scorn anyone who chooses to opt out of life by euthanasia or assisted suicide, but simply to share the hope professed within Christianity which make this option less appealing.
We also desire that through this essay we might show you the hope that is on offer through the Christian faith.
The best hope an irreligious worldview can offer to a long-suffering dying person is a dignified exit from life before stepping into oblivion.
The hope we describe here is based on a markedly different view of the world.
Elements of a Christian Worldview
Christians hold that there is a God who exists and who matters. This is a God who has created the world and remains involved with it. He exists as a unity of three persons within one being – who we refer to as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Christians believe the world this God created was made flawless – without defect, disorder, suffering, mutation, disease or death. They also believe humans are not merely animals – humans were made to relate to their Creator, inherently valuable, and with responsibilities to perform.
Furthermore, they believe everything that is wrong with the world – including the decline into death – finds its origin in the disobedience of humans to their Creator. The things that are wrong with the world may seem to be normal, but they are not natural.
These are some of the basic elements of a Christian worldview.
But at the centre of this worldview also stands a person.
That person is Jesus, who was the aforementioned ‘God the Son’ who became a human being and stepped out of eternity and into history in the world. This Jesus was put to death as a condemned man but was resurrected to life again before returning to where he had come from. This death and resurrection contains the promise of repairing our world, restoring humankind to friendship with God, as well as the pledge that death need not be the end of anyone.
This Jesus stands decisively at the center of a genuinely Christian worldview.
Christian Spirituality and Suffering
It is needless to say that this worldview is different to how most New Zealanders see the world. And it is because of this unique viewpoint that Christian have a particular kind of spirituality that we live by, and also die by. In the experience of suffering and dying, Jesus becomes especially important for who he is to them in this.
In the experience of a prolonged death Christians have Jesus to sustain them in three roles that he plays.
In relation to their suffering he is the Redeemer of it, their Role Model of enduring it suitably, and their Reward beyond it. It is because of these things that Christians can face the idea of unbearable suffering and choose to decline the option of assisted suicide. These things are the foundation of the confident hope they have in Jesus the Christ.
Christians see Jesus as the Redeemer of their suffering. He makes it purposeful. Suffering is certainly painful, but not pointless. They hold that God uses their suffering to prepare them for himself – shaping their character and focusing their desires so as to prepare them for meeting him. Because of this, they can accept and even be glad in suffering, not because they enjoy it but because of what it is producing in them.
They also view Jesus as their Role Model in suffering. He hasn’t just told them how we endure, but shown how to endure. Jesus’ followers are invited to take their cues from and follow behind him in the way suffering is faced. He chose to accept the suffering he underwent, and declined to use the outs he could have taken to avoid it.
Jesus is also their Reward after suffering. They are rewarded in their suffering by growing more like him through it, but more fully they are rewarded by him after their suffering. Ultimately their suffering will expire and then they will receive the reward Jesus has and is for all his people. This is the experience of living in glory with God forever – both in an afterlife as well as in a renewed future world in which they will live in their own resurrected bodies. Seeing this helps Christians look through and past their suffering so that they can endure it as long as it persists.
Christians have a distinctive view of the world and a particular, Christ-centered spirituality. It is in light of this that we would like to reconsider the appeal of euthanasia. We have identified five reasons – five fears – why people, Christians included, might wish for assisted suicide, and show how the Hope we have in Christ confronts these fears. All of them are understandable, and forgivable, yet none of them are so dark that this hope cannot sustain his people through them.
1. Fear of Losing our Comfort and Suffering Pain
Unbearable discomfort is a dreadful prospect, and a worse experience. For some people, escaping their suffering seems like their only hope. This is why euthanasia advocates present it as an act of compassion.
There is a way to see the light of hope in a dark time, and it is not only by looking forward to a life after death. Christ’s people look to Jesus their Lord and King, and the very Son of God. He suffered his death in terrible pain. He endured vicious floggings and then was crucified; a form of execution designed to be very slow and very painful. Because suffering is not unfamiliar to their God, Christians are encouraged to follow Jesus’ example of suffering with patience. He has promised not to leave them when they face this time of suffering either, and to be with them and give grace to sustain them to the end.
The experience of suffering before death is a time of spiritual formation as we are weaned from loving life too much and as we learn more complete dependence on him. While we should aim to alleviate suffering, like Jesus did, where it cannot be minimized it can be remembered that there is value in it; we need not run from discomfort.
2. Fear of Losing our Dignity
Another fear many of us have when facing death is the fear of losing our dignity. ‘Dying with dignity’ is a nice little phrase that euthanasia advocates have coined. Many people likely fear this more than pain or discomfort. Although we have pain killers to dull our pain, there are no drugs we can take that help us retain our dignity.
How can this be redeemed? Again, Christians look at how Jesus faced it. The death Jesus faced was not only a death accompanied by suffering, but it was one filled with shame. He was stripped, nailed and immobilized on a wooden cross, treated like a criminal, and mocked as a lunatic. His was no death with dignity.
So in the same manner as facing suffering and discomfort, Christians can look to him as role model and find resource to face the experience of losing our dignity. There is a text from the Bible that speaks about Jesus being able to disregard the shame he faced in his impending death, being able to do so because of the joy set before him. The nature of this joy is not specified (although we can guess). But whatever it was, it was worth so much more than the cost of the shame of a death by crucifixion.
Likewise his people, knowing Jesus as the Redeemer, Role model and Reward ‘of’, ‘in’, and ‘after’ their suffering, can set their eyes on the joy implicit in these things and acknowledge that the loss in dignity is not greater than the joys that are ours in him.
3. Fear of Losing our Mind
Another unwelcome prospect is that of losing our mental faculties or suffering dementia. This is a very real reality that many of us may face in ourselves or in our family.
How can people look to Jesus when contemplating this possibility? In Jesus’ death we can safely assume he suffered severe mental distress, but we do not see any indication that he suffered anything like dementia. However, we can in fact look to Jesus in his birth. Christians hold that Jesus existed before he was born as God the Son, and became a human through an event that is called the ‘Incarnation’. This event did not happen by him becoming a grown man with an adult mind – he came as a baby. This Son of God who was himself eternal and uncreated, entered time and space as a human baby. In doing this he willingly submitting himself to the meagre capabilities and comprehension of an infant.
So, since he was willing to forfeit his mind in the initial years of his incarnation, Christians need not be too fearful of the loss their own mental faculties for a time. It will not be permanent. For in this kind of suffering, we can truly learn to come to God in a childlike manner, and know that our value is not in our intellectual, creative or physical abilities.
We have been made in the image of God and that does not change no matter what state we are in.
Even if we cannot remember our name, Jesus knows our name!
Even if we face this kind of decline, Christ has redeemed it. Even if we come to a stage where we forget him, he will not forget us.
4. Fear of Losing our Autonomy
The fear of losing the ability to make daily decisions is a large reason many people opt for euthanasia. Notice the name of the euthanasia Act: ‘The End of Life Choice’ Act – perhaps a final grasping at personal choice before it is handed over to nurses and family members.
Most people are loathe to lose the power to make their own daily decisions – all their adult life they have chosen where to live, what to do each day, what to eat, when to eat, who to see. Losing these choices at the fading end of life will be hard to face after a life of making all one’s own decisions.
How is this redeemed within Christian spirituality? Jesus acknowledged himself to be one who willingly submitted his will and his choices to God the Father. He is the Christian’s role model in that.
Furthermore, there is the example of an early follower of Jesus called Peter who was told: “‘when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’(This is said to show it by what kind of death he was to glorify God).” When we look at the fear of losing autonomy this passage is key. Jesus here is telling Peter he will lose his autonomy – he will have another dress him and carry him where he does not want to go. This is speaking of Peter’s own future death which was also crucifixion; no worse than the death Jesus had at this point already died.
Christians likewise can look to this and accept from God whatever kind of way he calls them to die. Dying and death, like Peter’s, can be a means to honor God by the manner it is faced.
Those who follow Jesus do not need to fear losing their autonomy in dying because they have already surrendered their personal autonomy in order to be committed and obedient to their loving and Fatherly God. Those who seek to follow Jesus trust that their lives are in his hands.
5. Fear of Losing our Value and Becoming a Burden to Family and Society
A final reason people consider euthanasia is the fear of being a burden to their family and an economic drain on society. This may be deferentially self-sacrificing, but it is not a sacrifice that should need to be made. It is a burden of guilt provided by our culture’s individualist pursuit of our own ambitions and enjoyments.
Humanity was not designed to live as individuals with no care for others. It is inescapable that parts of our lives will be given up to the care and support of close family, friends, and sometimes even strangers.
We can see Jesus reprimanding religious leaders who eroded peoples’ care for their parents, and so we can see that Jesus wanted people to care for their family even when they were under pressure not to.
As a young university student I (Rachael) lived with a close family member for two years helping care for her as she battled terminal cancer. It was hard but I consider it an honor and a privilege to have walked that journey with her. Some of the richest, most blessed and memorable times I have had with my family was in their time of suffering.
This particular point is not distinctively Christian, but it is an important push-back against an element of our culture that makes this particular ‘fear’ more weighty than it should be. Life is not about ease, fun and the next exciting thing. Sometimes life is extremely tough – our loved ones need to experience this together. The redemption of Jesus in this for his people is that in allowing others to serve the suffering, the servers are given the difficult, bittersweet means of developing important Christian character they might not otherwise. Your spouse, your children, your other family and friends will grow in character – by serving you.
Within Christian community – and hopefully beyond it – those who die slowly should not fear to be a burden. It is a time for them and their community to fix their eyes on Jesus, grow in grace, and experience that painful blessing which comes in extraordinarily difficult times.
Jesus is the Redeemer of Christian suffering, the Role Model for Christian suffering, and the Reward after Christian suffering. These are central elements of Christian spirituality as it relates to suffering and prolonged dying. There are a number of very real fears that prompt people to find assisted suicide an appealing escape, but Christian faith has the resources within it to face them differently.
We want to acknowledge that this is a very sensitive issue, and we do not underestimate the suffering of dying in any way. It is tough and bleak. But it need not be hopeless.
Nor do we want to scorn people who choose euthanasia for themselves – and without pressure. Nor does it disqualify Christian salvation. We do have concerns about the upcoming End of Life Choice Act, but these rest on secular grounds and are outside the aim of this essay (you can read about these here).
Here, our goal has been to share how a Christian worldview and Christ-centered spirituality can equip people to face the fears of prolonged dying with resolute and cheerful hope.
We hope we have presented this distinct worldview and its spirituality clearly.
If you can see that this is something you would like to explore or accept, please do pursue this. Suffering is not a pointless experience that is best escaped at all costs. Death for the Christian is a departure, not an end, and the hope we hold confidently is a better one than a quick exit before stepping into oblivion.
It is a hope that Jesus has gifted to his followers, and it is a hope we extend to share with you.
This was originally a message shared by Rachael at LRBC on July 19, 2020, and later rewritten as an online article by Chris.
 See John 5:19; Matthew 26:39.
 John 21:18-19.
 Mark 7:9-13; also see also 1 Timothy 5:8, John 19:26-27.
 See for example these sections of the Bible: Romans 5:1-5; 8:18-30; 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.
 See Matthew 26:47-56; 1 Peter 2:21; Hebrews 12:1-2.
 See John 5:25-29; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.