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.”