Culture,  Ethics

The Bible and Death with Dignity

picture of a graveyard signifying death with dignity

Over the last couple decades there has been a substantial push to accept what has been called “death with dignity.” Many in the culture view death with dignity as the final right of an individual—the right to decide when and how to die. After all, who wants to suffer at the end of life?

This is not just an idea that exists in the secular culture. Death with dignity is an idea that is embraced by some who call themselves Christians. In a 2016 Time article, Corrine Johns-Treats wrote an emotional argument advocating death with dignity. In the article, the self-proclaimed Christian concludes by noting, “I think what God was showing me, This is the alternative. This is the peaceful way that I’m granting you to go.” Earlier in the article, rather than attempting to support her ideas with Scripture, she admits, “I think when you look at a personal experience, governing doctrines from a church don’t seem to matter nearly as much.”

This idea, that personal experience is the driving factor in decision-making, is not backed up by Scripture. Rather, it is the belief of a culture that rejects their Creator and believes in their own autonomous right to determine everything that concerns them. According to the culture, you have the right to decide everything about your life—even when there should not be life. The irony of course is that by ending life in one final push of autonomy, an individual is catapulted into eternity and realizes how little control over the future one actually has when standing before the Judge and Creator.

Because of the prevalence of this thinking in the culture, the church needs to be equipped to think about this issue. This repackaging of suicide and murder, now labeled as death with dignity, is answerable in the same way it always has been—through biblical theology. The following points need to be internalized by Christians.

Because God has created human beings in His image, we must value life and not seek to end it.

Man is differentiated from everything else in creation because of the inherent link with the Creator. God created human beings in His image! No other part of creation has that privilege. God makes the value of human beings very clear in Genesis 9 by declaring that a price must be paid for those who end human life:

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image (Gen 9:5-6).

This is also why the Ten Commandments forbid murder (Exod 20:13). Israel was to value life and seek to preserve it and nurture it. This is because mankind is made in God’s image, and as such, human beings are the crown of creation and worthy of being treated as such. Human life is to be valued. Life itself is a sacred gift.

Because God is sovereign over suffering and death, we must not seek to end life before God determines.

Usually, the arguments in favor of euthanasia or death with dignity are as follows:

  1. he is going to die soon
  2. he is in a lot of pain
  3. he is requesting to die
  4. therefore, he should be allowed to end his life on his terms

However, this logical train of thought bypasses any consideration of God’s sovereignty over life and death. The Bible claims that God is in complete control over the conditions of life, and they ultimately come from His hand (Eph 1:11; Ps 115:3; Job 42:2; Dan 4:35). The following biblical principles are key.

God is sovereign over sickness/infirmity/difficulties.

Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11)

Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. (Ps 139:16)

God is sovereign over giving life or taking it away.

See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.

(Deut 32:39)

The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

(1 Sam 2:6)

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.

Heb 9:27

God is sovereign over preserving life.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Acts 17:24-25

Although there is no verbatim command in Scripture that says suicide is wrong, the preceding biblical principles show that life and death are not meant to be discharged by human beings by their own authority. One OT example that brings these principles to bear is 2 Samuel 1:1-16.

In this narrative, an Amalekite comes to David and claims that he killed Saul after Saul had been mortally wounded and requested the Amalekite man to end his life. Although the Amalekite man may have been lying (Saul was likely already dead when the Amalekite found him), David apparently takes him at his word, and thus executes him for murder (2 Sam 1:14-15). For David, even if Saul was mortally wounded, it was not acceptable to “speed up the process” through artificial means. By his own word, the Amalekite man claimed the role of God and determined the death of Saul and sinned by artificially placing himself in the role of God to end one’s life.

Is death with dignity different than capital punishment?

Someone might argue that by this reasoning, there should be no capital punishment. However, in the case of capital punishment, we need to be clear that the government is given the authority by God to be the means of ending life (Gen 9:5-6; Rom 13:3-4). In that case, it is lawful and just to end life. It is the commanded consequence of certain horrendous sins. That situation differs drastically from the premature ending of life based purely on the desire of an individual.

photo credit: Monument to the Srebrenica Massacre 1 via photopin (license)

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

One Comment

  • Debra M Burroughs

    I like your way of thinking regarding euthanasia. I find it Biblically correct. I do wonder about my living will, where I request that I not be kept alive by artificial means. I figure if it is my time to go, why prolong it by keeping me on a ventilator or other machines? How does the Bible view this?

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