1997 Life and Death in Relation to God and Others—Assisted Suicide

Presented by the Commission on Christian Action, adopted by the delegates to the 112th Covenant Annual Meeting.

Biblical Basis

Human beings are created in the image of God and have been given life by the Spirit (breath) of God (Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 2:7). Human life, therefore, is a gift from God and is to be held as precious and sacred. We are called to be responsible stewards of this gift.

Scripture stands clearly opposed to the growing trend of regarding end-of-life decisions as questions relegated to individual choice. Neither living nor dying is done autonomously. We live and die in the midst of a relationship with God and at both the beginning and the end of life we belong to God (Deuteronomy 32:39; Psalm 139:16; Romans 14:7-8).1

Moreover, Scripture shows that our moral choices affect our relationship to the body of Christ, that is, to others in the Church (1 Corinthians 10:23, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25-31). And Paul himself in discussing a choice about his own life or death refers to the good of other Christians as the crucial basis for making that decision (Philippians 1:19-23). We must understand that each Christian lives and dies within the context of holy relationship with others in Christ.

Though avoidance of suffering often figures prominently in contemporary end-of-life decision making, the Bible portrays suffering as part of the human condition (Job). Biblical cries for deliverance from suffering show that, in itself, suffering is not to be desired. However, Scripture does not view suffering as something to be avoided at all costs. The love of God clearly takes on suffering as part of its activity in the world. Suffering is made, by God’s grace, into part of the plan of redemption.

The compassion of Jesus shows that God is deeply moved to alleviate our suffering. Yet at the same time the Lord did not turn from suffering in his own life and in the life he envisioned for his followers. So the closing hours of Jesus’ life reveal a hope to be saved from suffering combined with a willingness to undergo it if so ordained by God. That same submission to the possibility of suffering is also expected of those who follow Christ (1 Peter 4:1ff). Suffering is part of God’s plan for the formation of Christian character (Romans 5:3-5).

We affirm the ancient understanding of the Church which takes the sixth commandment to include a prohibition of suicide.2 Therefore Scripture forbids suicide, even though the Bible does not explicitly forbid the taking of one’s own life. In addition, we find in the biblical narrative that self-inflictedand death has negative associations (1 Samuel 31:4; Matthew 27:5) and also that a case of assistance with self-destruction meets with punishment (2 Samuel 1:5-16). Suicide may result from choices made in the midst of great anguish, depression, or reduced mental ability. Therefore suicide is not always an intentional and culpable act, nor is it an unforgivable sin. Nonetheless, reduced culpability does not change the nature of suicide as an act of killing which must always be rejected.3

Finally, our biblical faith directs all thought of living and dying to our hope of resurrection. By Jesus Christ risen from the dead, we are assured that relief from the pains of this present life is not our ultimate concern (Romans 8:18). We look for the day in which the resurrection life of Jesus is made complete in us. It is the hope that allows us to remain faithful within the pain and struggle of earthly life, not seeking to escape, but confident that God has already provided for our complete release and redemption.

Declaration

“Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). As the Heidelberg Catechism expresses it, “I belong in body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful Savior.”4 Living in this confidence, we affirm and treasure God’s gift of life, even as we prepare to give our lives into God’s hands when we face the time of death. Believing we are called into life by the grace of God, we seek to be people who neither hasten to be released from earthly life when we encounter suffering nor shrink from the end of earthly life when it draws near.

Response

Out of the faith declared here, we call upon the body of Christ to:

  • Teach that hope and meaningful life exist in the midst of pain and that assisted suicide is morally wrong.
  • Be aware of the distinction between assisted suicide and removing life support systems (“pulling the plug”) or not resuscitating, when Do Not Resuscitate requests have been made or sound clinical judgment in terminal cases indicates continued life without life support is impossible. This is the difference between killing a patient and allowing death to occur.5
  • Encourage physicians to become informed and competent in the provision of pain management and palliative (as opposed to curative) care, recognizing the distinction between assisted suicide and medical care that is directed toward relief of pain and suffering, but which may have the hastening of death as an unintended secondary effect.
  • Call for health insurance providers to continue benefits which include hospice care, pain management, and other alternatives to suicide.
  • Promote the provision and acceptance of hospice care.
  • Provide support and encouragement for care givers of those with chronic pain and terminal illnesses.
  • Continue to provide a caring community for those who are dying, fulfilling Jesus’ command to visit the sick.
  • Show compassion for loved ones of those who have committed suicide.
  • Protect and care for those inclined to suicidal behavior.
  • Encourage Christians to make prayerful use of advanced directives6 concerning the end-of-life.
  • Oppose legislation which legalizes assisted suicide.
  • Work for increased access to hospice care, pain management, etc. for the needy, as part of our larger mission of seeking such access to health care in general.
  • Remember that Christians have a unique opportunity for witness through the manner in which we approach and live out the end of our lives on earth.

Conclusion

In these difficult issues we need to keep our attention focused on Jesus. Through him, God has entered into our human condition. By his birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection, God has shown the extent of his love for us. He is the guarantee that God’s grace is sufficient for all circumstances of life or death.

1. Cf. Martin Luther’s explanation of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed and the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.

2. For example, Augustine, The City of God, I, 20.

3. Cf. “Declaration on Euthanasia,” Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, article II, 1980.

4. Creeds of Christendom

5. Cf. Everett Wilson, “Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Decides?” in Health Care and Caring: Aids for Sunday Groups, edited by Barbara Peterson (The Evangelical Covenant Church, Chicago: 1989), p. 34f.

6. Directions prepared in advance for one’s end-of-life care, often called “living wills,” or “durable powers of attorney.”