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Christian thinkers weigh in on whether family or friends should intervene if a terminally ill Christian decides against life-extending treatment.

Several years ago, I visited Chestnut Street Baptist Church in Camden, Maine. The small congregation gathered on a Sunday evening, heard the sermon of a dual vocation pastor, and then prayed.

The church is located in a former fishing village turned vacation spot for Bostonians, and these members were local Mainers who kept it alive. The congregation’s prayer requests—in addition to travel mercies and health concerns—witnessed to Christ in a largely secular community. One of those prayer requests continues to ring in my ears. It was for a man who was suffering from cancer. His decision not to pursue curative treatment had shocked his family and his friends. He, however, sought to show them where his hope lay: not in his health or his longevity but in Jesus Christ, who has defeated death.

This man had reached the point of asking himself, as did the apostle Paul in Philippians 1, whether it was better to live or die. We Christians live with the same dilemma. We know the power of the Resurrection and yearn to know it more fully. We believe, as Paul wrote in Romans 8:11, that “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead … will also give life to your mortal bodies.”

Death has no power over us. While Paul preferred to remain in the body, Jesus submitted to death and so defeated it. As Christians, we should neither seek death nor flee from it.

In our death-confused culture, Christian fearlessness in the face of death is desperately needed. Dionysius was a third century bishop of Alexandria who shepherded the church through horrific persecution. He also oversaw the church’s medical care during an epidemic. He later wrote in praise of the Christians’ service in the face of death. He compared it to martyrdom: “Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead …. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner.”

Such concern stood in sharp contrast to the pagans in the city: “At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt.” In The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, author Rodney Stark links the growth of the church to its health care service.

Today our culture seeks to avoid death through increasingly expensive medical technology. Christians like those in Camden can point to an alternate story. Death is no longer our enemy; it has already been defeated. Meeting it gracefully without needlessly prolonging life can be the best witness, for those suffering terminal illness and their family members. We believe, as the poet John Donne wrote, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

One thought on “Dying Decisions: Should Relatives Intervene?

  1. Agreed. As a Christian Doctor involved in palliative care I recognize this scenario.
    Medicine can do so many things, the question is always “should we be doing those things” and at the end of the day “is it going to make life better for the person involved if we do?” We are taught as Doctors to do so many things well, except stop trying to prolong life and care for the person enough to help them embrace the end of their physical life. It is sometimes much harder to “not do, than it is to do.”

    Hope in Jesus and seeing His light in the valley shadowed with death I believe is the key.
    Also needed is a right perspective on life, which like every journey has an end. It was designed that way but so often we as believers don’t live that way. Truthfully I don’t believe this brief physical life we have been given really makes sense outside of the concept of our physical death and birth into life beyond death. I recently heard work in end of life care described as like being a midwife for patients into the life beyond death. The reality of that grabbed me and I know from what I have seen how closely Jesus walks with those approaching end of life, and the mysteries that surround this time.

    I respect this patients decisions to not pursue treatment, interestingly enough-I have seen scenarios where this decision would trigger a referral to Psychiatry. Strange isn’t it that an informed decision to not have treatment that is not curative is often further medicalized;
    something even a Psychiatrist I spoke to didn’t understand. Has happened more since in Canada Hospital chaplains are not being funded. Here we enter the whole concept of “Existential Suffering” a very broad and poorly defined area, which at least in part involves mans search for human answers to somewhat more transcendent questions.

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