And Death Shall Be No More: Confronting the False Gospel of Death with Dignity

by
June 21, 2016

On more than one occasion, I have found myself leading a family in prayer while holding the hand of a dying man in hospice care. At this point, the family simply wanted the relief of knowing that the suffering had ended and that the man was finally at rest with Christ. On other occasions, I have found myself making frequent visits to an assisted living facility in order to ministers to church members who were plagued with dementia. With each month that passed, I grew less and less recognizable to my members, spending the majority of my time simply reintroducing myself to them. At this point, the pastoral care was palliative. Apart from miraculous intervention, the people that I was visiting were not going to recover. Death was certain. In fact, funeral plans occasionally occurred at the behest of the family in the very presence of their dying family member. There was no denying the impending “covering of death that is cast over all people” (Isa. 25:7). It is in situations like these that a pastor’s theological mettle really gets tested. Pastoral care beside the death bed is holy ground. For, it is here, in the face of certain death, that all of our white ivory tower theorizing about eschatology looks us in the eyes and asks, “Are the dead really raised?”

As pastors attempt to shepherd their terminally-ill sheep to “the river’s edge,” a growing number of people in the world are suggesting a solution to death that they claim is “peaceful, humane, and dignified.”[1] Instead of suffering for months on end with an incurable disease, Death with Dignity (DWD, hereafter) advocates appeal to humanity’s rather natural desire to avoid pain and suffering. The proposed solution is straightforward enough. As an “end-of-life” option, advocates seek to allow “certain terminally ill people to voluntarily and legally request and receive a prescription medication from their physician to hasten their death.” Such advocacy efforts have already resulted in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont passing legislation that allows “physician-assisted dying,” while California’s law takes effect on June 9, 2016. These states alongside DWD advocates promise those with a terminal illness a “dignified” death. A “dignified death,” according to advocates, is one that affords those with a terminal illness the opportunity to die with a sense of self-respect, self-determination, self-control, and self-awareness. In other words, instead of passively and slowly being subdued by death, “certain” patients actively and willingly enter into it. The solution is often proposed as a merciful and compassionate solution that alleviates a loved one’s suffering. So how should Christians respond to such DWD solutions? How can pastors shepherd their sick sheep well through the valley of the shadow of death?

Admittedly, it is hard to know where to start with answers to such questions. One could begin by pleading for Christians to stop trivializing death. Death first appears in the Bible as a consequence of mankind’s rebellion against God and according to Paul, “spread to all mankind.” It is a universal reality. Funeral jokes and awkward colloquial phrases about how “God just needed another angel” are not real solutions for combatting the ubiquity of death. They are mere distractions from the finality and impending judgment that follows death (Heb. 9:27). Of course, such a move away from the trivialization of death would require the embrace of a robust theology of death. With the vast majority of DWD advocates addressing death from an anthropocentric perspective, Christians must recognize that death is ultimately theocentric. The apostle Paul wrote, “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8). As Christians, we do not have the authority to make death about ourselves. Yes, we will die; but our death is unto the Lord. Medical expediency, scientific ability, and twisted distortion of mercy and compassion must not be allowed to shape the conscience on these matters. Our perspective about death must be shaped by the eschatological trajectory of death itself.

Ultimately, though, while taking death seriously and developing a theology of death are vital aspects of one’s response to DWD arguments, there is an even more urgent problem that Christians must face directly. DWD proposals attempt to undermine the continuing significance of the work of Christ. Most people are rightly and understandably fearful of death. Even I will admit that I have left my share of assisted living facilities and thought to myself, “Lord, please don’t let me suffer when I die.” It is in such a moment that the false gospel of DWD promises a “peaceful, humane, and dignified death.” No need to worry about someone feeding you, bathing you, or cleaning up after you. No concerns about being a “burden” to others in your family. No fear of forgetting the names of your spouse, your children, or your grandchildren. No financial burden on your surviving family. No unbearable pain or sleepless nights. No loss of control. Just a prescription, a seat in your favorite spot at home, and then you’re gone. What a compelling offer for the one that is fearful of death and all of its accompanying uncertainty! What a gospel for the terminally-ill, right? While DWD advocates certainly propose this scenario as good news for the dying, the sad reality is that in all these promises of peace, compassion, and dignity, the perpetual comfort of Christ in death is lost.

When Christians speak about the death of Christ, they tend to focus on the forgiveness and freedom from guilt that it provides for those who have trusted in Him. And rightly so! Yet, to relegate the significance of Christ’s death to the believer’s past is to neglect its continuing power in their present life. Christ died to set believer’s free not only from the condemning power of sin, but also from the enslaving power of the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-18). If a barbiturate cocktail could bring peace in death, then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21). He himself is the believer’s peace (Eph. 2:14), promising all who believe in Him that “though they die, yet shall they live” (John 11:25). DWD advocates promise peace, compassion, and dignity in death, yet dignity speaks of a state or quality of being that is worthy of honor and respect. For the Christian, such dignity is found in dying in the hope of Jesus’ fear-destroying death and resurrection. The hope for all people who face a debilitating terminal illness is found in Christ alone, who has disarmed the sting of death and conquered the grave (1 Cor. 15:50-58). We do not lose heart in our suffering. Though our outer self is wasting away with terminal illnesses, our inner self is being renewed day by day. The light momentary affliction of things like dementia and cancer, while intended by our enemy to break us, are sovereignly allowed by God to prepare for us an eternal weight of glory that is beyond comparison. Therefore, we do not look to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Christians must discern the deadly poison in DWD’s promise-wrapped pill. Humanity’s search for peace and compassion in death is a deeply theological quest, which ultimately ends with finding the One who will wipe away our tears, end our pain, and destroy death forever (Rev. 21:4).

[1] FAQS – Death with Dignity, last modified May 20, 2016, https://www.deathwithdignity.org/faqs/.


Casey B. Hough
Casey B. Hough is pastor of First Baptist Church of Camden, Arkansas, and a PhD student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.