A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar conversation on medical assistance in dying (MAiD) that was sponsored by MB Seminary, where I teach theology. MAiD is a thorny theological and existential issue that requires a great deal of reflection from Christians. A major reason for this is that deciding one’s moral opinion regarding MAiD is only a relatively small part of the matter. The fact is that over thirteen thousand Canadians have chosen to die via MAiD since its legalization in 2016. Not only have many made this choice already, many more are likely to do so, especially in view of the fact that the Canadian population is aging. Even if you have not yet encountered MAiD up close, there is a good chance you will.
But I want to back up and consider a question that may tend to be glossed over in the conversation. That question focuses on how we view death. For many people, death is a great evil that plagues the human condition. It is something to be resisted as much as possible for as long as possible. From dietary discipline to exercise to cosmetics to medical technology, the goal is to remain as young and vigorous as one can. Only when it is evident that death is unavoidable will one shift one’s focus to addressing its imminence. In that case, the prospect of MAiD becomes an attractive option, for a variety of reasons — and I will acknowledge that I am sympathetic to the concerns that motivate people to consider MAiD. No one relishes the thought of pain, incapacity, or worse — least of all me. More on that in a moment.
Back to the topic of death. For Christians, the big theological question from which to begin is what death — and I am talking about physical death — implies in the context of the human condition. There are basically two options. The first and probably more common theological conviction is that physical death is an evil that humans ought to try to overcome, a product not of God’s plan for his creation but of human sin. God didn’t intend for us to die. We will all die, but God has nevertheless provided a hope for us beyond death. Nevertheless, our physical mortality remains a reminder of our sinful limitations, and we consider it an obstacle to be resisted, overcome as long as possible, and addressed as we see fit when it cannot be avoided.
The other option for thinking about physical death is that it is a normal part of life, simply a product of being not a sinful creature, but simply of being a creature. Death is a part of life — no more, no less. The fact that we are each going to die is in itself only incidental. The goal of our lives is not to attempt to overcome death, but rather to die well, even as we have lived well, according to the lordship of Jesus the Christ. Death is simply another opportunity to live faithful discipleship. I find this second explanation far more compelling than the first.
Why do I believe this? There are two main reasons. The first comes from my observation that fear of death is a fairly recent development in human history, and especially in Christian theology. I am reminded that the great Puritan divine Jeremy Taylor, a contemporary of John Bunyan, is known for two famous devotional treatises known colloquially as Holy Living and Holy Dying. The fact that the latter was written to help Christians die well at a time in history when they had no recourse to medical technologies to attempt to forestall death does not take away from the point Taylor makes so eloquently. The point is to be holy in every circumstance. I cannot imagine why this priority ought not to persist now.
The other reason I believe physical death is incidental is that it addresses the scientific, anthropological, and sociological data around human existence more holistically than the traditional view of sin and death. Simply put, the prevailing scientific evidence is that cosmological and human origins are earlier than is envisioned in young earth creationist theories. Evolutionary scientists, many of whom are Christians, have shown compellingly that humans evolved from pre-human creatures. The only coherent way to integrate the biblical creation account in Genesis with the scientific data is to posit that hominids, the taxonomic family that includes humans, apes, and their genetic ancestors, evolved not only in terms of physical characteristics but also in a way that is indicated by the development of human moral awareness that is inextricably connected to the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis.
As a result, what we have is death before sin, chronologically speaking. This is a theological problem only if one ties physical death to spiritual death. However, for a variety of reasons that are too lengthy to enumerate here, I do not make that association. The problem of sin is that it caused spiritual death — estrangement from God, and everything that goes with that — not physical death.
When we look at death in this way, a lot changes, and it is easier to see why theologians like Jeremy Taylor thought the way they did. But I recognize that it does not eliminate the problems associated with the end of one’s life. I am very aware that this can be frightening, and it is personal for me as well. Both my parents are in decline with forms of dementia that have largely robbed our family of their presence even while they are physically alive. And looking at them makes me wonder what future I have as their progeny. I would be lying if I said I had never thought of escaping a fate I consider worse than death.
Here is what keeps me grounded. First and foremost, I believe that, notwithstanding embrace of healthy personal disciplines (e.g., diet and exercise, among others) to attempt to fight ultimately against aging, with whatever pains and mercies that accompany it, would be to forego an opportunity to embrace faithfulness at the end of my life, knowing that the one who is my Lord in life remains my Lord despite my imminent death. (And note that I am talking only about the end of my life, when death is imminent. If I get sick, I go to the doctor. I see my chiropractor regularly. I am not talking about resigning myself to death.) Second, I am fortunate enough to live at a time in history when medical advances may be able to make the end of my life somewhat more comfortable than it would be otherwise. I see no reason not to avail myself of those benefits. Third, an enduring indicator of the work of the Spirit is the peace that passes all understanding. Pain may bring sorrow and lament, but it ought not precipitate despair, anger, or panic.
Those are my convictions now, when I am in my 50s and healthy. I trust they will remain so should I be allowed to see truly old age. The bottom line is that I do not believe death is to be feared, and believing that Christ is Lord, I will allow it to arrive in my life on his terms, not mine. So the question of why, even if I think I understand it, is largely moot. “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Romans 14:8 NIV