The Good Death

Several years ago while visiting friends who lived at the time in Hot Springs, Arkansas, nurses both, we found ourselves taking a stroll down the quaint Bath House Row. In the course of our meanderings we found ourselves involved in a conversation regarding the matter of assisted suicide, personified by the then recent case of Ms. Brittany Maynard, who elected to end her own life prematurely so as to avoid the suffering and perceived indignity that would come to her terminally ill body. In her final statement to the world, she stated that her reasons were motivated in equal parts from a desire to avoid the pain of further deterioration, and to spare her family and friends from remembering her in such a state of disrepair. In this line of reasoning we may also deduce a third reason, namely that Ms. Maynard wanted to, as they say, “die with dignity” – to choose her method of dying, thereby fulfilling the generational line that we must always have a choice. As Wesley Smith points out, her decision to end her life was based entirely on the potentiality of living through the worst-case scenario.

At the time I would not have guessed the prescience of the given topic. That physician-assisted suicide would not only come to the US – at the time it’s popularity was confined to the cold north of Europe – but would actually begin to take root was beyond belief. Surely not here, we tell ourselves when confronted with unpleasant eventualities, and yet, here it is. As I find myself so often doing on matters of public discourse and belief, so I again echo Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from his Templeton Lecture: men have forgotten God. That is why this is happening.

The euthanasia movement should disturb all men and women of good faith to their very soul, as it presupposes that life is only for those who can live it to the fullest, rendering the value of one’s life subjective. The purpose of life is no longer to reflect God’s glory onto a fallen world, but to attain, possess and enjoy as much as possible until the first sign of decline appears – to earn the money, take the vacations, and so forth. These are all good things – though not inherently so – but if one is rendered incapable of doing these things, but they do no comprise one’s purpose. What they do, instead is reflect the philosophy of the day, that life has no higher purpose than pleasure and experience, that we must enjoy what we have while we have it for there will come a day when pleasure and joy are no more. This epicurean nightmare, this colorful nihilism, is spoken of in whispered tones in the dark corners of society. Rather it is shouted from the rooftops. Were one to assign a motto to this generation it must be, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!”

Now, there is certainly room in life for pleasure, at least let us hope! Yet, these things that we are slaved to, these markings that are seen as the signposts pointing us towards the “good life,” or “happiness” are sought out with abandon, thereby marginalizing any belief that our value as creations of the Creator is found by virtue of being, in fact, creations of the Creator. When we come to believe that life is meant solely for pleasure, then two things inevitably follow. The first is that we cease believing that there is any higher purpose than mere pleasure, that perhaps we exist for something larger than ourselves. And second, if pleasure is the highest aim in our life, then those times where pleasure does not exist – those inevitable walks through the vale of shadow which we all must take – will destroy us. It was the foolish builder who built his house on the shifting sands instead of the unmoving Rock, yet we blindly continue to build.

Can a terminally ill man, or a man who has been left physically unable to work no longer serve an edifying purpose for the Kingdom? Does one’s purpose have an objective end, completely detached from the ending of his physical life? A life spent in immense pain and suffering can serve a far greater purpose than the life spent on one’s feet. The euthanasia movement, holding proudly in the stale breeze the banner of choice, denies the great dignity, perhaps the greatest dignity one can know, that can only be experienced through suffering, and this blasphemously in the name of individual dignity.

I cannot help but to wonder if anyone has ever seriously suggested that Jesus should have taken His own life rather than suffer the indignity of the death towards which He marched. In truth, I am certain that some wayward fool, perhaps knowing their folly and perhaps not, has uttered such idiocy. After all, our fool would say, there is nothing dignified about dying naked and splayed on a tree, a crown of thorns digging into your brow, with the pain of your lungs slowly collapsing and the heat of the sun baking what remains of your torn and tattered flesh. More dignified would it be to die by one’s own choosing, surely, in a comfortable place surrounded by loved ones. Would Jesus have been happier if He had gone this way?

And yet, Jesus chose His death. He chose it through not seeking another way, through allowing the will of the Father to be manifest. God the Father ordained this death, and Jesus knew full well that which awaited His brief odyssey in the flesh. While He certainly asked the Father for any other way to fulfill his holy task, he left that up to God to decide. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done,” he uttered in Gethsemane, and His prayer was answered. He was crucified because God was not willing to remove this cup, for to do so would remove also Christ’s purpose and therefore God’s salvation. God’s will was done, and Jesus accepted it because He understood that it was the will of the Father for Him to die, and therefore it was good. It is no insignificant point that Jesus references Psalm 22 when He cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” So, too, does David lament in the 22nd Psalm, just before declaring the goodness and the glory of the Lord.

Our Lord Jesus went to His death because He knew what we seem to be forgetting, namely that death, like life, has a purpose. It is not an isolated event that one must get through. It is not without meaning. In truth, it is a challenge to find a more meaningful event in one’s life than one’s death. As with one’s birth, in one’s final moments he is at his most vulnerable. In these moments, all pretension vanishes and what is left is the person in his truest form. In our dying breath we are our most genuine and honest self. Without His death, the sinner is still crimson stained – afraid and cosmically, hopelessly alone.

What’s more, Christ’s death illustrates what it means to follow the Lord – it is not something that will always end well. If the lives of the Apostles are any indicator (and I believe that they are), then the life of a Christian is not meant to resemble a metaphorical walk through the garden. Jesus died when He could have lived. He died when He, as a third of the Trinity, could have just as easily found another way for salvation to be offered to man. As the humanly embodiment of the Creator of the Universe, surely Christ does not lack creativity. And yet He chose to die because His death, and indeed all death, was and is the natural end to life. He died because God called Him to death.

If Christ endures a death under duress, why not we as well? Are we not called to take up our Cross and follow the Christ, even unto death? To “die with dignity,” which is the manner in which Ms. Maynard has been portrayed, seems to now exclude a natural death under less-than-beautiful conditions. It is, evidently, not considered dignified to allow God to determine when the man shall breath his last. It is not dignified to place one’s trust in the Lord that one’s suffering in life will be naught but a distant and unfamiliar memory when we reach the Ever-after. No, to die with dignity now seems to mean only that death which is chosen by the individual, a “designer death” if you will. The precedent this sets is dangerous, as the normalization of choosing how one’s life shall end opens the door for all manner of normalized, rationalized suicide. How many depressives, for example, who have considered in their darkest moments taking their own life, would have done so had the option been legally and readily available to them? ‘Tis true that in the midst of depression it often feels like the darkness will never lift. Why continue to live under such personal torment? Under the emerging paradigm, they have a right to choose whether their pain is too immense, and whether there is any hope beyond their present suffering.

The argument that death was for Ms. Maynard inevitable is null and void, for all humans will sooner or later die. To suggest that she was right to end her life due to the suffering she was and would continue to experience mocks all the saints who could have ended their life rather than suffer at the hands of men, and throws mud in the face of all who have died a prolonged death from the natural perversions of cancer. To end one’s own life is to suggest that God is not in control, that He is not with you, and that you are left to take care of yourself in a cold, empty, dead universe.

I think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent his final days in a series of Nazi prisons and concentration camps. He must have known that his fate had been sealed given the crimes for which he was accused, and yet he lived joyfully. The morning of his death, he is said to have led a sermon for his fellow condemned – a sermon that was evidently attended by some of the very men who would very soon thereafter end his life. Even in his final moments, naked on the gallows as our Lord was naked on the tree, he is said to have been in prayer and unafraid. This was a dignified death.

I think of St. Stephen, who as he was being publically stoned to death in Jerusalem, “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” And then he fell asleep. To have one’s body crushed by the weight and velocity of the stones seems most undignified, and yet in these horrible final moments, all Stephen could see or feel was the comfort of the Lord. This was a dignified death.

The scriptures tell us many times through that Jesus, had He so chosen, could have turned stones to bread, could have thrown himself from the top of the temple without worry, and that he could have summoned legions of angels at his arrest to upend the evil done by Judas and the Pharisees, and yet He did no such thing. Christ walked, stumbled, and was dragged to His death. He did not do so joyfully, but the fact remains that Jesus turned His eyes towards the Cross and allowed it to happen.

The quality of one’s death has nothing to do with the circumstances in which he finds himself, and has everything to do with the heart, and the manner in which he finds his rest. That this debate is occurring at all shows that men have forgotten God, that they have instead taken the things of God upon themselves. They have lost their hope for true peace, and have surrendered their higher purpose in life for the lower purposes found in our empty materialism. We may fight against this legislative effort all we want, but that is a fight ultimately doomed to fail. It is a superficial fight. We must attack the truth that underlies the issue. All men and women of good faith must reclaim what it means to live the “good life,” and in so doing must highlight that one very important part of the good life is a good death. There is no more dignified death than the one that is endured under God’s grace and glory.


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