As assisted suicide becomes more common, Christians face new questions about the end of human life. How do we acknowledge God’s sovereignty over life and death when human control over these things seems to be growing, and more and more governments are making it legal for people to choose when they die?
One book that has helped me think through many bioethical questions was written by one of my seminary professors, Dr. David VanDrunen. It’s called Bioethics and the Christian Life, and I highly recommend it if you’re thinking about these kinds of questions. The book includes a whole section on the end of life, suicide, and euthanasia, and it helped me think biblically about the distinction between killing and letting die. That’s a crucial distinction to make when we’re thinking about biblical wisdom regarding the end of human life.
Murder, of course, is forbidden. That’s the sixth commandment. At the same time, the Bible teaches that at certain times the taking of life is permitted. For example, the Old Covenant prescribed capital punishment, and Paul references that in Romans 13. Some wars in Scripture were morally justified and therefore approved by God. So, in certain circumstances, killing isn’t forbidden because it’s done in defense of life. Capital punishment protects others from murder. A just war protects innocent people.
But the sixth commandment isn’t just calling us not to murder. It’s also implicitly teaching us to preserve life. For that reason, we need to have a high view of human life and its dignity. Today, society often downplays the value of life. For example, the abortion industry ignores the fact that each child who is conceived is made in the image of God. The church’s teaching on these issues, then, seem more and more distinct from the beliefs of the broader culture.
When we distinguish, however, between killing someone and letting them die, we can start to think through end of life questions in a way that honors human life. We aren’t under the obligation at all times to do everything possible to prevent illness or aging from taking their natural course. At times, it may be wise to allow a very sick or old person to die. That’s not murder or suicide and, depending on the circumstances, it’s not necessarily against God’s will.
Not long ago, I was talking to a dear sister in the Lord who has since died. She was diagnosed with cancer and she didn’t want to go through treatment. She asked the doctors what would happen if she didn’t get treated, and they told her that she probably had about three months left to live. She said, “Three months until I see Jesus sounds like a good thing to me.” That was her decision. She did nothing to cause or speed up her death. She just chose not to undergo expensive and potentially painful treatment.
A Christian, out of her commitment to Christ, can say, “No, I’m not going to get this treatment.” These kinds of decisions require wisdom, and we need to think clearly about the distinction between killing and letting die.
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