Euthanasia

On Choosing Books: Reading from the Other Side

stack_of_booksIt’s that time of year again when I have to submit book requests to our campus bookstore for the upcoming semester (technically, it is past time, but the bookstore is always gracious to those of us who miss the initial deadline). For many of my classes, I have developed a standard list of books that I revisit every couple of years to see if there are any better ones. However, each of the last few semesters, I have taught at least one class that is new to my teaching repertoire. This fall it will be Selected Issues in Life and Death—basically a class dealing with various cultural issues of life and death, such as abortion, euthanasia, and human genetic engineering.

When selecting books for this class, I have decided to do something a little different. I have chosen a significant text edited by someone with whom I ardently disagree on these issues. My goal is to have students interact with and engage the best thinkers on the other side of the debate.

I generally survey fellow ethics colleagues at other seminaries before choosing books for new classes just to see if I am missing a key text. While interacting with my PhD mentor on my selection of texts for this class, I mentioned the book I planned to use from the other side of the debate and told him the names of some of the contributors. His response was priceless. He said, “I really like the names you’ve listed for your purposes. [Author X] is scary. Thus a good read.”

For most of my academic career, I have heard Dr. Paige Patterson (president of my seminary) say that students need to know the arguments of the best thinkers who disagree with our positions. My approach to this in the past has been to bring in their works and read/present selections to the students in class. This is the first time I have made a concerted effort to ask my students to buy and read something so diametrically opposed to a Christian perspective on an ethical issue.

By the end of this class, my students will understand the arguments of those who want to promote abortion at any cost, euthanize the weak and poor, and produce designer babies. With appropriate guidance from their professor, I hope they will also be able to critique and combat those arguments.

Far too often Christians find themselves wrapped in their bubble of Christian books and Christian arguments hearing tales of what people on the outside believe. I want my students to read firsthand what people outside our Christian bubble think. That is the only way we can truly know how to engage the culture.

The task will not be easy, but it should be a fun ride. As one of my former professors used to say, “Strap on your helmets, boys, we’re going to war.”

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For those of you wanting to know, the book I chose is Bioethics: An Anthology edited by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer. Singer is famous for believing that humans have no right to life until at least 6–12 months in age (but possibly as late as 3 years). At the same time, he believes we could control the population by euthanizing all the elderly and infirm. And his is not the most extreme view in the book.

To Live Is Christ and To Die is Gain: The Morality of Suicide

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%.

Should we be surprised by these increasing numbers? Is it concerning that growing percentages of evangelicals (and every other religious category) view suicide as a moral right?

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.

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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.