The Church and Bioethics: Suicide and Euthanasia

Below is a summary of a sermon I preached on May 22, 2016 concerning the bioethical issue of suicide and euthanasia.

Technology has provided many cures to a variety of illnesses and has increased life expectancy considerably over the years. But of course, technology has not and never will cure death itself. We all will die some day. Ironically, the same technology that has extended our life expectancy has not necessarily decreased our anxiety and fear of death. On the contrary, in some ways our fears have increased. We are now all very familiar with how modern medical advancement can preserve and maintain life, but often does so in a painful, miserable, unwanted existence. These concerns has led to an increased public desire to “die with dignity”, which is sometimes used as a synonym for “assisted suicide.” In light of this, a wide variety of bioethical public policy questions are in front of us to determine the obligation we have as a society to sustain life and the limits we have on how to end it. But as we mentioned in our first sermon in this series, we are not discussing public policy concerns so much as we are helping each other think personally through these issues. Our call then is to consider how our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ impacts our understanding of PAS and our decisions to either accept or refuse medical treatment.

This sermons will attempt to answer four questions:
Is Suicide Morally Wrong?
Does Suicide Automatically Send A Person To Hell?
What about Physician Assisted Suicide?
How should the church respond?

Is suicide morally wrong?
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have almost universally held that suicide in general is a sin against God who is the giver of life. Even without backing up such a claim with specific biblical texts, there seems to be an intuition we have as Christians that says suicide is morally wrong. But what specifically can we point to in order to show that suicide is not pleasing to God?
Some will dismiss the legitimacy of suicide by suggesting it “usurps God’s authority and sovereignty.” Since God is the one who decides when we die, we should not take that into our own hands. But this is shortsighted, since we have already discussed during our sermon on Assisted Reproduction, where a similar argument is made, that absolutely nothing can usurp the sovereignty of God. His desires are incapable of being thwarted by human beings.

And yet there is an important aspect of being reminded that our power is incredibly limited against the sovereign power of God who alone is able to give life and take it away. To put it simply, God is God and we are not.

Let’s consider two biblical truths that will help us.
First, there is great power in the simple instruction by God in the 10 Commandments that says, “You shall not kill.” The force of that command, as is demonstrated throughout Scripture, is that God highly values life and has put an absolute prohibition on taking human life, which necessarily means a person taking his own life, since there is no qualification on the command to allow such an exemption. You may think, “but aren’t there instances in Scripture where taking a human life is permitted or even commanded by God?” Yes, so let’s think about those for a moment.

Author David VanDrunen lists three scenarios where God permits the taking of a human life in the Bible. 1. Capital punishment. 2. Waging a just war. 3. Self-defense.
In an ironic way, the one thing that unites all three of these scenarios is the 6th Commandment itself to not kill! Capital Punishment, Waging a just war, and self-defense are all permitted specifically to protect human life! In other words, God permits killing in these instances precisely because of the horrors of killing. Which means that a violation to God’s clear command to not kill is allowed when the 6th commandment itself is at stake.

Now, does suicide fall into that category? Is suicide a permissible violation of the 6th commandment to not kill because it defends and preserves human life? No it does not. Suicide only destroys lives.

Second, we can consider the people of the bible who committed suicide and see how their actions were perceived by God. At least 5 people committed suicide in the Bible – Abimilech, Saul, Ahithophel, Zimri, and Judas Iscariot. In every instance, Scripture records their act as that of wickedness against God. But perhaps even more compelling are the stories of those men in the Bible who contemplated or were drawn to the idea of taking their own life. Job. Elijah. Even Paul. Here we have men whose suffering we can only begin to understand, and who would have much preferred to be in the presence of the Lord away from their grief. And yet Scripture lifts them up as an example of the goodness of Christ because they remained faithful to him and his service. In Paul’s case, he says that “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:9)

Does suicide automatically send someone a person to hell?
No, it does not. All sin brings about death. Every sin we have ever committed – from the telling of a lie to our various acts of idolatry to our selfishness to our jealousy – all involve our active participation in that which is the very cause of death. Let’s be reminded that death exists because of idolatry in the garden of Eden, and from that one sin, death has followed every generation of humans who have ever lived. Suicide is a sin that brings about immediate death, but make no mistake, all sin is a killer.

But the gospel of Jesus Christ gives life. And no single act of sin, including the taking of one’s own life, can overcome the power of the cross. For that person who had saving faith in the Lord Jesus and who subsequently experienced a moment of deep despair, of terrible suffering, of incredibly heartbreak, of devastating depression, of mental illness, or of selfish cowardice that led them to an act of suicide, they awoke in the loving embrace of Jesus Christ where they will be forevermore, because nothing can separate his children from the power of the gospel, nothing can pluck them out of his hand, nothing can overcome the blood of Jesus. Grace is indeed greater than all of our sin, every single one. So dear brother or sister, shame and guilt you might feel for past sins must lead you to only one place this morning – lead you to the foot of the cross where Jesus is ready to forgive and save forevermore.

What about physician assisted suicide?
Physician assisted suicide is, of course, the assisting of a patient in the termination of their life. This is sometimes used synonymously with euthanasia, but the two are not exactly the same. Euthanasia, for starters, might be done by someone other than a medical professional, such a a close friend or family member, and second, there is something called involuntary euthanasia where the patient does not give consent for their life to be taken. This kind of assisted suicide is almost universally condemned since the one giving assistance is taking the patients life in their own hands without their agreement.

The core biblical issues relating to PAS do not change simply because a doctor is now the one administering the death. If a biblical case is made against suicide from the hands of the individual, that same case certainly holds true from the hands of a doctor. But this is where reality makes it very difficult, when a person is suffering and in pain and living with every breath in agony. We as Christians must respond with mercy to these situations, as we may very well find ourselves in their shoes.

One thing to remember is that if the person is not a believer, than assisting them in suicide does not relief their suffering. It increases it. Here is where we will test just how deep our trust and belief in biblical truth really goes, specifically in our believe of the doctrine of hell.

If the person is a Christian, then an act of assisted suicide says to them that there is no comfort and no answer to their suffering and to their despair – precisely opposite of the entire gospel message.

I said I wasn’t going to get into public policy issues, and I’m not, but two recently articles caught my attention. Just over the last few months, Canada has enacted legislation to legalize PAS in certain conditions, seeing this as an appropriate move toward human dignity. Canada would join a few US states, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg as those who legally allow assisted suicide. Published at the exact same time as this news concerning Canada is an article by Dr. Theo de Boer, a professor of health care ethics in the Netherlands, who argued for the benefits of PAS there. Now, several years later, he has written another article. Listen to what he says, “I told delegations from abroad that the Dutch solution was robust and humane. As recently as in 2011 I assured a European ecumenical audience that the Dutch system was a model worth considering. But that conclusion has become harder and harder for me to support. For no apparent reason, beginning in 2007, the numbers of assisted dying cases started going up by 15 percent each year. In 2014 the number of cases stood at 5,306, nearly three times the 2002 figure. Neither the Netherlands nor Belgium has made a serious attempt to address the rising incidents of assisted dying and the shift from seeing assisted dying as a last resort to seeing it as a normal death. It appears that once legalization of assisted dying has occurred, critical reflection is difficult…If there’s even one case of assisted dying for which there was a less drastic alternative, then that is one case too many.” I leave that with you.

How should the church respond?
1. We should respond with compassion to those who are struggling with this issue and for those who have had loved ones take their own lives.
2. We should remember that we are not autonomous people who make decisions based on what is best solely for us. That is the advice we hear a lot, isn’t it? “You will have to do what’s best for you.” We hear this when it comes to marriage advice all the time. You know, you just have to do what’s best for you. Hey, great advice, unless you believe a word of the Bible! Unless you understand the sacrifices of the gospel! Not once did Jesus say, “do what’s best for you.” Then we begin to remember that we follow the example of Christ, who always and only put others before himself, who came to serve and not be served, who said, “love God and love your neighbor.” The decisions we make, especially the decision to take a life, will have a lifetime of consequences on so many others who are left with the memories. Our lives are not our own. We belong wholly to God, who has purchased us. We do not have the freedom to do with them as we please.
3. We should respond with the gospel and the good news of a Savior who understands what it means to suffer. A righteous man who suffered in the most horrific of ways. Jesus understands. He understands. And he is available to save today. Are you suffering because of a loved one who is no longer with us? Jesus understands. Are you suffering with depression and pain and a desire to leave it all behind? Jesus understands.

The great Isaac Watts moves us with these words:

Touched with a sympathy within,
he knows our feeble frame;
he knows what sore temptations mean
for he has felt the same.
He in the days of feeble flesh
poured out his cries and tears;
and, in his measure, feels afresh
what every member bears.
Then let our humble faith address
his mercy and his power:
we shall obtain delivering grace
in every needful hour.