A talk by Simon Woodman, given at the debate 'Assisted Dying and Living: A Better Conversation'
By Ekklesia and Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
2 February 2017
Listen to the audio of the debate here
It may seem obvious to say it, but living is the natural precursor to dying. This biological machine which I call ‘me’ is winding slowly down, and will, one day, stop. I hope that day is far off, and that the days between now and then will be healthy and happy. But, as a minister of a church, I am all too aware that for many of us, life ends too soon, and in ways that we would not choose.
This was brought home to me at a funeral I took in my late twenties, when I stood at the front looking at the girlfriend and young children of the deceased man, who was the same age as me, and heard the daughter ask her mother, ‘Is that Daddy in there?’ How I got through my lines I will never know.
Through my thirties I saw over many years my wife’s mother deteriorate with early onset Alzheimer’s, to the point where the person we had known and loved was replaced by a body that was deeply distressed and yet inarticulate and inactive. And I saw the medical industry keeping her alive long after her life had ended.
Just two examples from my own story, and I am well aware of the danger of extrapolating policy from personal experience. But I’m not here to argue policy, I’m here to talk theology; and it seems to me that if our theology doesn’t resonate meaningfully with our experience, then its not really doing its job.
So what, I wonder, might a Christian perspective on end-of-life choice look like? There is clearly no one ‘right’ answer to this, and I will let others argue their positions differently to me. But it seems to me that, sometimes, death might not be the worst thing that can happen to a person. Actually, I’ll put it a bit more positively than that: Sometimes, death is the best thing that can happen to a person. And I say this born out of a deep theological conviction that, from the perspective of eternity, death is not the enemy, because ultimately, I do not believe that death gets the final word on life.
I think that the author of the book of Revelation grasped something of this when he offered his readers a vision of the death of death. He said, ‘Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and … then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. … Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ (Rev. 20.13,14; 21.4). The author of Revelation knew all about suffering and torture and pain and death, but he didn’t accept that death gets the last word on life. If he is right this means, practically speaking, that life can be lived free from the dominating and debilitating fear of death.
This, I think, is a profoundly Christian perspective, challenging the ideology of ‘life at all costs’ that determines so much of our medicalized approach to death and dying. If death is not the ultimate enemy, then death can be embraced as a good part of life, to be welcomed rather than resisted when its time has come near.
Staying with the Bible for a minute, but moving swiftly from the end to the beginning, the opening vision of a garden offers a picture not of a world without death, but of a world where death is a friend, and not an enemy. The vision of Eden in the book of Genesis is not of a world rapidly facing over-population and resource-scarcity due to the immortality of the animals and humans that life there. Rather, it is a vision of a world where death is so much a part of life that it is as much a friend to those who live there as the rising of the sun on another day.
The Bible thus both begins and ends with a vision of life where death is transformed, and humans are released from its tyranny. Even St Paul, in his letter to the Philippains, maintains a remarkably ambiguous perspective on life and death, commenting that:, ‘For me, living is Christ and dying is gain.’ (1.21) And this biblical-theological perspective, I believe, is profoundly relevant to the pastoral realities that we encounter in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.
If death does not get the final word on life, then our lives are so much more than the moment of our passing. I firmly believe that every good moment of life is held safe by God and passes into his eternal embrace; and that nothing true, honorable, or just, pure, pleasing, or commendable, is ever lost to the love of God. So at the moment of our death we are neither constrained nor judged in the manner of our passing. We are rather freed to embrace death, knowing that in death we are held eternally in God’s love.
And so, to assisted dying. It does not seem to me unthinkable that modern medicine here has a great gift to offer those who are nearing the end of their life. It could even be a gift from God to be received with the same gratitude that we receive the other medical miracles that make our lives so much more bearable than those of any generation of humanity before us.
I hear and echo all the arguments around safeguards and ethical constraints, but these should no more prevent us using assisted dying appropriately than the safeguards and constraints that govern surgical or pharmaceutical medicine prevent us using those services.
My point here has been to establish the principle that there is a Christian perspective on assisted dying which sees it as a gift and not a curse, and which states very firmly that, in Christ, death need neither be feared nor fought, because death does not get the final word on life.