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A good death

March 2021 | by Alan Thomas

A good death. It sounds innocent enough in English. But put this as euthanasia, a transliteration from the Greek, ‘eu’ (good) and ‘thanatos’ (death), and you have a very different feeling, don’t you?

Euthanasia is a word now avoided by those campaigning to kill off the unwanted. So the Voluntary Euthanasia Society became Dignity in Dying, and euthanasia became ‘physician assisted suicide’ or ‘assisted dying’, among other euphemisms. (Yes, I know there are subtle real differences in meaning, but ultimately we lump them together because they all involve the intentional killing of human beings which is not a punishment for any crime.)

In 2020, missed perhaps by the distraction of the Covid pandemic, New Zealand voted to legalise euthanasia, with 65.2% voting to require their government to implement the killing legislation in November this year.

We should be clear that death is never good. Death is an evil. Thus when we speak of a fine Christian saying, ‘Didn’t she die well?’ we need to be careful and remind ourselves that death is horrible. The fact that a mature Christian can walk into the jaws of death with his eyes fixed on Christ should not distract us from the grim reality of death.

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It is an alien intrusion which should never have been and, praise God, one day will cease to be. Death is an enemy to be confronted, and we give thanks that even this powerful foe has been beaten by our Lord and will be cast into fire and destroyed for ever when he returns in power and glory.

Death is a great evil. Remember how Jesus was angry at death during his time on earth? At the grave of Lazarus he was filled with fury as he observed and experienced the misery which death brings. The words used for Jesus’s emotion are strong ones, not the anaemic translations in John 11:33 of ‘deeply moved’ and ‘greatly troubled’. They mean angry (as when the disciples scold the woman at Bethany for ‘wasting’ the expensive ointment on Jesus; Mark 14:5) and ‘shaken’ (as when the disciples are terrified or shaken when they see Jesus walking on water and cry out in fear; Matthew 14:26).

Our Lord is angered as he experiences the impact of death, of how it tears people apart, severing relationships which should never have been broken. His emotions were mixed, as they so often are in such situations, since he also wept as he felt the grief of others around him.

Because death is horrible, people wish to escape it. They want to control it, they try to tame it; some even wish to make funerals into celebrations. This is what provides the motivation for the euthanasia campaigns. It is this creaturely rebellion against the death sentence given by our Creator, a refusal to accept his decision and a desire to assert ourselves against him.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Death with all its indignities is a wrong, in the above sense that it was not meant to be and has brought such suffering and misery. But it is also wrong for man to cause death, to kill. The reason for this was made explicit a long time ago when God prohibited human beings from killing each other because we are made in his image (Genesis 9:5-6).

People were not to be free-ranging avenging killers like proud Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24); rather legitimate authority was to carry out this solemn duty of retribution, as Paul stated in Romans 13:3-4. God has instituted governmental authorities to execute on his behalf; they act under his ultimate authority to avenge crime and thus administer justice.

When the Lord established his covenant with Israel, the ten commandments lay at its heart. The sixth commandment prohibits murder – that is, intentional killing for selfish reasons. As we’ve seen, and as multiple examples in the books of Moses attest, legitimate authorities are permitted to kill human beings when administering justice.

There are other important nuances too. Humans may accidentally kill each other, rather than that being the intention. This is dealt with at length, for example, in Numbers 35:16-24, where careful distinctions are drawn between murder and manslaughter. Here planning (premeditation), intention, and the use of potentially lethal actions make the killing murder.

Unintended killing as manslaughter did not include killing resulting from negligence: if a goring ox which was known to be dangerous killed someone, that was transgression of the sixth commandment by the owner and a capital offence (Exodus 21:29).

These careful biblical distinctions between intended and unintended consequences and so on are pertinent to the important ‘doctrine of double effect’ in medical ethics. Those pushing for euthanasia, by whatever its current name, try to blur this.

They claim intention doesn’t matter. They want us to believe that if I prescribe someone drugs as a doctor and my patient dies, then whether I intended to kill them or not is neither here nor there. They died. I prescribed. It was my fault (or not). My intention has nothing to do with it.

Yet whenever I’ve prescribed drugs, it has been to treat illness. I prescribe to help someone get better, not to harm them. Of course I am aware that the powerful drugs I commonly prescribe have side-effects and a very small chance of resulting in the death of my patient, through a ‘heart attack’ or heavy bleeding or whatever. But I don’t prescribe them intending to cause heavy bleeding or a ‘heart attack’! If my patient dies of such side-effects, that is not my fault. I did not intend to harm them, but to heal them.

It is just the same when prescribing pain-killers to relieve pain in the terminally ill (though pain-killing doses of such drugs are not fatal anyway).

The intention is to relieve pain and distress, not to kill. This distinction may be an old argument, but it remains a good argument. Most important, it is a biblical argument. And it is one we are repeatedly having to make in these dark days as pressures continue to legalise euthanasia in our country too.

Alan Thomas is Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.

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