A Good Death?

Euthanasia is a euphemism. They share a Greek root for the word “good,” “eu-.”  “Eu-phemism” means, literally, to “say good.” It is, in some ways opposite of its literal meaning, because to make something sound “good” or better than the reality is not to speak well, but to speak evil. But maybe the “good” speech is more closely related to the Greek word phāmizo, which means to “spread a rumor.” A euphemism does that: the way of speaking spreads a rumor that something is good when it is actually evil. And our world is full of euphemisms, especially euphemisms related to death. By our actions, we do little except testify to the reality of death, while at the same time denying it. Death is coming, and the older we get, the more it reaches back into life as our physical bodies lose their tone, elasticity, and the cells die. But we dye hair, use products, undergo procedures and surgeries—anything to deny those effects their connection to our deaths. But as Thom Yorke sings in the Radiohead song “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Gravity always wins.”

So the euphemisms abound, and where they abound we can be sure that there is a move to conceal and cover up. “Eu-thanasia” is one of the most significant current euphemisms, not only for how it describes the end of life, but also for what it says about the assumptions that we have about both life and death. It means, literally, “good death,” from which the 2018 documentary The Good Death (streaming on Kanopy or for rent on Amazon Prime) takes its title. It is essentially the story of Jeanette Butlin and her last few months, as she plans to fly to Switzerland in order to gain the help of Dr. Erika Preisig, and her organization lifecircle (sic), which advocates for the legalization of assisted suicide around the world.

Christians, rightly, dismiss assisted suicide as a solution for the afflictions that assail us in this world. But it would be dangerous to dismiss the compelling power of the stories of assisted suicide (or “assisted death” as the Swiss doctor calls it in the film). The Good Death does not take an obvious position one way or another on the propriety of Jeanette’s decision, although the film is clearly sympathetic to her as a person. One of the reasons Christians should not immediately dismiss Jeanette’s story or the outcome of her story is that, very often, Christians share many of the assumptions that make euthanasia an accepted or acceptable way out of life and suffering.

How many Christians easily speak in terms of “quality of life”? How many Christians say things like, “Well, I don’t want to burden my loved ones”? (On this, see Gilbert Meilaender’s short essay, “I Want to Burden My Loved Ones,” which appeared originally in the journal First Things.) How many Christians assume that the goal of life and death is not to suffer? If we share these assumptions with Jeanette (and others), why would we draw the line at choosing for ourselves when we “leave this life” (also a euphemism)?

At one point, Jeanette defines what is, for her, a “good death”: “I’m going to die at a time and in a way that I choose. It’s not going to be horrendous. It’s not going to be painful. It’s not going to be stressful. That’s a good death.” In response to that, her visitor says that his mother was a devout church-goer who believed that people should accept their suffering as God’s will, and not choose to take their own lives. To which his (I assume) wife says, “It’s not the sort of God I believe in.”

How many Christians would say the same thing, or at least not see anything unbiblical about those sentiments? Consider just a few passages from the Scriptures. Indeed, all suffering in one way or another comes from God (whether we say He “causes” it or that He “allows” it does not make much difference in the midst of it). It matters very little whether I believe in a God of this sort if He is the only God there is. And if we understand everything the Scriptures say as, in some sense, pointing to and fulfilled in Jesus (as Jesus Himself declares in John 5 and Luke 24, in particular), then we will be in a better position to understand and endure suffering.

First, primarily, it is the Son of Man, Jesus, for whom it is “necessary that He suffer many things” (Matthew 16:21; 17:12; Mark 8:31; 9:12; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 22:15; 24:26, 46; Acts 3:18; 17:3, etc.). For a Christian to renounce suffering is tantamount to renouncing Christ Himself, who bade us take up our own cross and follow Him.

Second, the apostles take it for granted that the Christian will suffer in this world, mainly because Jesus said to expect it (e.g., John 15:18-25; 16:33). Paul says that because we have peace with God through Jesus, and have obtained access into this grace by faith, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5). And it is via suffering with Jesus that we will be glorified with Him—because “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to/in us” (Romans 8:17-18).

Peter says that “this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” and “if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed… For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 2:19; 3:14, 17). And later in 1 Peter 5: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. … Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (5:12-13, 19).

The passages could be multiplied, but the point is to highlight the difference between how Jesus and His apostles view suffering and how most modern people, including Jeanette Butlin, think about suffering. Jeanette admits at one point that she knows this kind of death is the “easy way out,” how she knows she is not being courageous. The courageous thing would be to go on living. I admire her clear thinking; she is not euphemistically denying the reality of what she is doing or what is happening to her.

But unlike abortion, where death is being forced upon another human being who does not have a say in what is happening, and who has done nothing to deserve death (acknowledging that neither consideration would determine a fully formed ethic of life and humanity), I wonder if there is a non-religious—and specifically non-Christian—argument to be made against euthanasia. It seems to me that without a robust belief in a crucified and resurrected Jesus and holding to the scriptural understanding of suffering (which includes the confession of the resurrection of the body), it would be nearly impossible to make the case that one ought not end one’s life if the suffering becomes too great, or the “quality of life” too low. Perhaps such an argument has been attempted, but I do not see how it would be convincing to someone who does not share those presuppositions.

For Christians, however, suffering is not a reason to hasten death. I think we can pray to God for an end to suffering; we can pray that such an end be death; but we cannot directly bring it about ourselves. The psalmist cries to God; Elijah cries to God; Job cries to God. But all of them know that God is the only one to whom they can appeal, because He alone holds life and death in His hand. Just as we ought not bring an end to our own lives, which come to us as a gift from God, neither ought we to end or help end another’s life. As a free gift, it is God’s alone to begin, sustain, and bring to an end.

For Christians, the only eu-thanatos, the only “good death,” is the one that comes to the believer in Christ who clings to Jesus in hope of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting—that is, in the hope that all suffering, all grief, all pain have their end in Christ, who already suffered and died and is risen from the dead. This is true because in baptism you have already died with Christ. Of course the body in this world is going to suffer, because that’s the nature of sin and death. But as our outer nature is daily wasting away, often in suffering, the inner nature—the resurrection life of Christ—is daily being renewed, until we see that glory with our own eyes. In Jesus there are no more euphemisms, only the bracing air of the truth of this world seen in the light of the world to come.  

On suffering, I would recommend Gregory P. Schulz’s heart-rending, yet hopeful, book on his and his children’s suffering in the light of Christ, The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope. In general, besides the above-cited article, Gilbert Meilaender has done perhaps the most significant work on the ethics of living and dying. All his books and essays are worth your time.