The Biblical Perspective on Assisted Suicide—Part II

October 21, 2014

As the date for Brittany Maynard’s physician-assisted suicide looms, we are invited to reflect upon the appropriateness, legality, and morality of such an act. This is not merely a personal act, because it involves others in its execution, doctors who have taken an oath to “do no harm.” [I am not saying that a private act escapes moral scrutiny, but the picture is more complicated when an aide is required.] This particular act is a public one because Ms. Maynard is advocating for legalized physician-assisted and -approved suicide as an advancement for society. This is a false and dangerous hope in my opinion.

But as important to me as the societal implication is the morality question. In order to evaluate the morality of PAS, we must go back to the source of our understanding of what is right and wrong, what God desires for us, and how we are to live as a result. To this end, yesterday I collected data points from the Bible, including examples and teachings related to the question. Today, let’s begin to assess their meaning and applicability to the question at hand.

The one (and maybe two) incidents of assisted-suicide in the Bible, the case of Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54) and possibly Saul (if you believe the Amalekite’s story in 2 Samuel 1), were conducted to shield a wannabe king from the shame of defeat, to save his honor. From a cultural standpoint, it might have been seen as the honorable thing to do, to help the king and the nation to save face. Abimelech was identified as wicked, and Saul had deep character flaws that displeased God. Their suicides, from God’s perspective, are not lifted up as good or noble.

In the New Testament, we see Paul’s reaction to a potential “honor suicide” in Philippi (Acts 16). The prison doors miraculously fly open and Paul and Silas’ chains fall loosely from their arms and legs. When the jailer sees the jail’s destruction and that the prisoners are no longer restrained and have possibly escaped, he immediately gestures his intent to take his own life, presumably for failing to do his duty. But Paul stops him, saying, “No, no, we’re here! Do not harm yourself!” (Acts 16:28). Dare we say, from this, that God cares even for the shamed government employee, and there is no need to “save face” in such an extreme manner as suicide?

Samson’s situation is a bit different; in fact, it is arguable that his final act is not suicide. The scene is dramatic and shocking. Samson, who has been blinded and sent to forced labor by the Philistines, nevertheless seeks the Lord’s power one last time to avenge the foe. His destruction of Dagon’s temple accommodating at the time at least a thousand Philistines is seen as a heroic, selfless act, not primarily as a suicide. Yes, Samson knew that he too would fall, but the destruction of a pagan outpost was the greater good.

In today’s world, we see the “ultimate sacrifice” to save the life of another as heroism.

Moving on, to evaluate assisted suicide, we must look at the reasons for the suicide itself. Ms. Maynard’s reason for planning the end of her life is that she fears the undignified and painful course her brain tumor will take. She wants to die on her own terms and avoid the suffering her illness seems to promise. She finds it less fearful to choose her time and manner of death than to let it takes its natural course. She literally wants to take her life into her own hands.

The Scriptures tell us, however, that our hands are not big enough to carry us. We are in God’s hands; our days are in God’s hands. In fact, we are not our own:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19f)

If Ms. Maynard believes that her life is in her own hands, it is no wonder to me that she can see only one resolution to her problem. The destruction of her life on her own terms is the inevitable result of being too heavy and significant to carry in her own strength. Her own terms include her own reasons, which involve considerations of comfort and ease of dying. This is far from heroic motivation, which by definition is selfless; this is self-serving, if not actually cowardly.

She, however, sees it as her personal and unique obligation to take care of herself and how she dies: in control. The sadness of this, to me, is that in order to believe it is up to her she must ignore the availability and compassion of a great God and Savior.

We are not our own, and God proved it with his ransom of us from the clutch of despair, sin, and evil. For those of us who know we are known and loved by God, carried and cared for by our Creator, the idea of taking what is not ours is unfathomable. Suicide is theft of a body, if not a soul. The identity of the thief might vary, depending on the situation. But a premeditated, chosen, planned act by a sane and rational human being is a sad denial of God’s compassionate ownership.

 

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2 Responses to “The Biblical Perspective on Assisted Suicide—Part II”

  1. Pat Williams Says:

    Very well explained. I also really appreciated and enjoyed reading Jane St. Clair’s comments.

  2. Jodie Says:

    Mary,

    It still seems to me that in the examples that you pulled from scriptures, the right to choose the manner of one’s own death, specially when death is imminent anyway, is never questioned.

    The Samson story could easily be invoked as a role model by a suicide bomber.

    When Moses gives his farewell speech, his argument ‘why would you choose death when you can choose life’ assumes the right to choose.

    Paul’s guard is going to kill himself to spare himself – and perhaps his family – a more painful death. His next question – how can I be saved – is about how can he hope to live (not withstanding the camp revival meeting tradition that he is talking about salvation with a capital “S”). His intent was to choose the manner of his own death because death was imminent, and Paul convinces him not kill himself by asserting, not that killing himself was wrong, but that death was not in fact imminent. A kind of “it ain’t over till it’s over” argument. He gave him Hope.

    We are in the business of Hope. The taking of one’s own life, assisted or not, can seem to us the ultimate denial of Hope. That there is nothing left to live for. It’s extremely distasteful to those of us who believe in Hope, and the ultimate Hope in the Resurrection. But if you take away a person’s right to choose the time and manner of their own death, you strip them of what makes them most fundamentally human. You strip away their freedom to choose Hope. A person who is asking to die is really asking us “why should I live”? It’s not a morality question. It is way past that. It is the Meaning-of-Life question. The meaning of “my” life question. A meaning the supersedes the my personal pain and finality of it.

    I think >that< is the question we owe them an answer.

    Jodie Gallo
    Los Angeles, CA

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