A Christian Approach to Death and Dying

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While it is not necessary to appeal to Scripture or the authority of the Church to demonstrate that assisted suicide is bad for people and for society (you’ll notice I made no such appeals in the first four parts of this series), that does not mean that Christian faith is of no help for our present situation. 

It should be possible to demonstrate from rational principles accessible to people of all faiths (or none) that assisted suicide is an evil.  And Catholics are generally happy to approach the public square with arguments that do not require faith in order to be accepted.  On the other hand, the fear of death and suffering that underlies the contemporary push for and wide social acceptance of assisted suicide cannot be answered by a simple appeal to rational principles.  It is here, I suggest, that we most need to Gospel of Jesus Christ.

All the rational argumentation in the world won’t make much difference when people are afraid of death, of suffering, of losing control.  In a culture that offers no hope in the face of these realities, suicide becomes the logical answer. 

As we have noted, advocates of assisted suicide see it as a matter of choice and therefore as part of the freedom a democratic society strives to provide for its citizens.  We have already seen in part 3 that choice and freedom are not so simply related as this construct imagines and that some choices actually destroy freedom.  At this point, we can begin to look at the radical difference between the freedom promised by democratic societies and that promised by God in Christ. 

For the Gospel promises a freedom that is much deeper than a freedom from suffering or a freedom from external constraint.  It promises a freedom that transcends any suffering and external constraint.

When the New Testament teaches that Jesus went to his death freely, that doesn’t mean that he was actually pulling the strings, controlling the actions of Judas and Caiaphas and Peter and Pilate and Herod, somehow theatrically arranging his own death.   (That would be a form of Docetism, a heresy that taught that God did not really become a man, but was rather disguised as one.)  What the New Testament means is that Jesus was free despite all of the external constraints that led him to his death.

For the Christian, salvation is not found in the control of reality, but the acceptance of it.  And so death, like the rest of life, is a matter of accommodating oneself to reality, not the other way around.  To commit suicide, from the Christian point of view, is to die kicking against the goad.  It is to make the final summary act of one’s life one of assertion rather than of offering.

To glorify such assertion in death will certainly lead to glorifying it in life.  Or, perhaps, our glorification of self-assertion in life makes suicide the more and more obvious way to end life.  Everything is to be had on our own terms.

But this is not the way to true freedom.  The false conception of freedom that underlies this worldview does not lead to fulfillment, because there will always be things that we cannot conquer.  We will strive and strive and never reach fulfillment by our own efforts.  True freedom does not come from having finally imposed my will on the cosmos, but from attuning my will to reality, or, as a Christian would style it, the will of God.

In this there is freedom and fulfillment.  There is peace that passes understanding, peace the world cannot give.  This does not mean Christians won’t suffer.  They will – at least as much as everyone else, if they’re following their Lord.   They will not experience freedom from suffering, but freedom in suffering.  Their suffering will not finally determine them.  No suffering will thwart their life’s project.  Nor can it. 

As Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, “In this world you will have trouble.  But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”

And how did he overcome the world?  By avoiding suffering?

No.

Jesus overcame the world by transforming suffering into self-offering.

This is the good news:  not that suffering is abolished or avoidable, not that we can finally control everything about life, death and the cosmos, but that suffering, which is unavoidable, is not meaningless and does not render our lives meaningless.

Suffering can make us more compassionate.  Suffering can be accepted in the name of a good cause.  And even in the absence of any tangible immediate good that suffering can offer to the sufferer or their cause, suffering can be joined to that of Christ.

In this way, the sufferer, who may seem disconnected from the real world, suffering silently in a hospital or palliative care bed, is actually at the center of the drama of salvation history.  For in joining our suffering to Christ’s passion, we make it available for God to use as God sees fit and in ways that we may not ever fully know in this life.

So, while suffering should never be sought for its own sake, indeed should be avoided as far as possible, it must also be accepted when it is unavoidable, as it will be for us all at some point.  And in our gracious acceptance of suffering, we can transform it, offer it to God, and thereby participate in the salvation of the world.

That is good news for a culture as imprisoned by fear and hopelessness, and therefore as suicidal, as our own.