The Pew Research Center released the results of a recent study on views of end of life medical treatment. Among the more interesting findings is how different faith groups view the morality of ending life. In an analysis of the findings, Christianity Today reports, “About a quarter of evangelicals believe that a person has a moral right to suicide if he or she is ready to die because living is now a burden, or if that person is an extremely heavy burden on his or her family.”
When the situation is escalated to an incurable disease, 36% of white evangelicals believe a person has a moral right to suicide. If the patient “is in a great deal of pain” with “no hope of improvement,” the percentage increases to 42%.
When I was a seminary student, I took a class on the ethics of life and death. One of my classmates made a presentation asserting that he would rather take his life than live through a difficult disease. He based his conclusion on the words of Philippians 1:21,
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
My classmate rebuffed any attempts to be talked out of his view that his moral right—even his biblical right—was to take the supposed perspective of Paul and seek death in order to be united with Christ.
While the Pew Research Center did not equate the changing views of faith groups with the Pauline declaration of Philippians 1:21, I cannot help but think that is at least in the background. Is this what Paul meant? Did he really intend to encourage Christians to seek death over life in difficult circumstances?
Let’s take a moment and consider what was happening in Paul’s life.
In Phil 1:7, we see that Paul has been imprisoned. He is fighting for his own freedom (and possibly his life) in front of the Roman authorities. Even though Paul was a Roman citizen and may have spent some of his imprisonment in house arrest, the Roman authorities were still not known for making the lives of their prisoners as comfortable as possible. In fact, it is likely that Paul considered his own life to be at risk from the Roman government. His spirits are buoyed by the love and affection of the believers in Philippi (Phil 1:3–11), but life is still hard.
Taken out of context, Phil 1:21 seems to be Paul’s final desire for death in the face of his circumstances. But we need to take a closer look. He goes on to say, “But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose” (Phil 1:22). Verse 22 puts Paul’s struggle in context. He knows that if he continues living he will be fruitful spreading the gospel, but if his life ends he will be united with Christ. We then read the following:
But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again. (Phil 1:23–26)
Paul sets aside his own personal desire to be united with Christ and sets his sights on living for the benefit of those he loves. He considers it to be more necessary that his sufferings continue for the sake of the Philippians so that they will progress in their faith.
Now let’s revisit the topic at hand. Do we have a moral right to suicide? The text most often employed to justify this right (Phil 1:21) actually compels us to continue living for the sake of others. No matter how bad the circumstances are, our suffering can be beneficial for the faith of others.
Suicide is often considered an escape from the pain of this world. No one desires to endure an extended bout with a terminal illness. No one wants to be a burden on family. However, claiming a moral right to suicide does not take into account the biblical understanding of the value of life and how persevering in terrible circumstances can build the faith of others and advance the gospel.
Pew Research Center, “Views on End-of-Life Medical Treatments,” November 21, 2013.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “More Evangelicals Believe Suicide Is a Moral Right,” Christianity Today, November 21, 2013.