dyingRecently while walking down Bath House Row in Hot Springs, Arkansas with two friends of mine, both nurses, I found myself involved in a conversation regarding the matter of assisted suicide, personified by the 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. As Wesley Smith points out in his article at First Things, her decision to end her life was based entirely on the potentiality of living through the worst-case scenario.

The Brittany Maynard case, and indeed the entire euthanasia movement, disturbs me to my very soul, and I quite believe the reason it shakes me so is because it presupposes that life is only for those who can live it to the fullest, thereby rendering the quality of one’s life subjective; no longer is the purpose of life to reflect God’s glory onto a fallen world. It now becomes to earn money, take vacations, marry, have children, and so forth. These are all great things, and indeed comprise an overwhelming portion of what we are called to do in this life, but if one is rendered incapable of doing these things, can he no longer serve an edifying purpose for the Kingdom? It neglects the fact that 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 denies the great dignity, and I would here say the greatest dignity one can know, that can only be experienced through suffering.

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. After all, 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 collapsing, slowly, 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.

And yet, Jesus chose His death. He chose it through not seeking another way but 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 another, easier way out, 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,”[1] 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. God’s will was done, and Jesus accepted it because He understood that it was the will of the Father, 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?”[2] So, too, does David lament in the 22nd Psalm, before declaring the goodness and the glory of the Lord.

He 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 most basic and true form. In our dying breath we are found to be our most genuine and honest self. Without His death, the sinner is still crimson stained.

What is more, His 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. He died 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 endured a death under duress, why not we as well? Are we not called to take up our Cross and follow 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 man shall breathe 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 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?

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 not only mocks all the saints who could have ended their life rather than suffer at the hands of men, but also 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.

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. Even in his final moments, naked on the gallows as our Lord was naked on the Cross, he is said to have been in prayer and unafraid.

I think of St. Stephen, who as he was being publicly 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 heaven’s opened, and the son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”[3] And then he fell asleep. To have one’s body crushed by the weight and velocity of stones seems most undignified, and yet in these horrible final moments, all Stephen could see or feel was the comfort of the Lord.

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 Christ walked 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.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


1. Luke 22.42, ESV

2. Mark 15.34, ESV

3. Acts 7.55-6, ESV

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10 replies to this post
  1. Excellent article, but I think the Bonhoffer example is a weak one, unless he endured anything like the torture of a crucifixion.

  2. I take your point, and appreciate it. I would offer as a counter-point that this article was not so much intended to pit death against death in order to determine who suffered more. Rather its intent was to point out that suffering a cruel, unimaginable death may be the conclusion of God’s story for us, and it is not our call to re-write the ending just because we may have to endure momentary pain – “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3.12), but, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rm. 8.18) I would further like to say that it is a dangerous game to compare death and suffering, particularly when the ideal is the Crucifixion. Pain is pain, and suffering is suffering. When Bonhoeffer reached the pearly gates, I doubt that anyone said, “Buck up, old boy. At least you weren’t crucified.” As such, I do not believe that we should engage in such trivialities either.

  3. Some time ago, I posed a question for my secularist acquaintances. “For what would you be willing to die? For your beliefs? For another person? For your country? For what?” Without exception, they either did not have the ability to comprehend the question, or did not wish to understand it. Blank stares were the most common reaction. And these were rather smart people, as the world accounts “smarts”.

    So I made it easier. “If you saw some one drowning, would you try to save them, even though there is a good possibility you might die in the attempt?” After blithering about this condition and that qualification, the universal answer was, “No,” sometimes accompanied by hostility for having asked the uncomfortable question.

    The secularist mindset has a big problem. It is essentially so Self-centered, that it becomes anti-Life. It is not a manner of thought which promotes its own survival, let alone that of anything else. It survives only so long as it will by depending on the charity of theists. It neither understands nor regards the principle of sacrifice, either for the good of the community or of individuals. It knows it is in the wrong, yet will be fierce in attacking anyone who thinks otherwise (so long as the attacker need fear no loss of blood.) In its essence, it is cowardice combined with belligerence, or as the more common word would have it, it is the character of a bully.

    • Oh come now. A lot of rot has been perpetrated against humanity in the name of “sacrifice” –whether by religions or thug ideologies.

      And –how did you answer the drowning question?

      And–would you go off and volunteer to defend another Neocon war in the Middle East on behalf of your “country”–which, by the way, no longer exists?

      • Given the pugnacity of your remarks, I am not sure we can communicate, however you ask a fair question.

        My answer to the drowning question is this: “I am a fallible, and sinful human being. I pray I would have the courage to do the right thing, and attempt to save the person.”

        As far as your second question, I had opportunity to answer that 45 years back. Vietnam was a war neither declared nor left to the generals, but was blatantly being mismanaged by the politicians. I protested these things, until I discovered the other “protestors” were Bolsheviks and nihilists seeking the destruction of the USA. I was not drafted, but if I had been, I would have served in whatever capacity I was able.

        Finally, your country may not exist, but mine still does, regardless of NeoCon belligerence. The USA is not invalidated by their actions.

        God Bless You.

  4. I will become an atheist secularist hedonistic Communist Stalinist trans-whatever before I accept any “Catholic” doctrine that the meaning of life is suffering.

    There is absolutely no nobility in suffering. There is nobility and dignity only in overcoming suffering. Life is meant to be successful and joyous–not pain and agony.

    As for this lady, no conservative is “for” euthanesia. But I for one wish it were not a political issue. These matters are too private, too individual and undeserving of ill-informed moral preaching.

    • I am sorry if you misunderstood the intent of the essay. It was never my intention to suggest that the meaning of life is suffering, as you seem to suggest. To the contrary, I call success and joy important parts of life, and certainly should be hoped for. The point, rather, is that we should not judge the value of a life based upon how much or how little suffering is involved, whether that life is your own or your brothers. As I state in the closing statement, “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.” There is such a thing as suffering well, as in the case of St. Stephen, given above. His last words were not filled with wo-is-me-isms, but instead were expressing his excitement to soon be welcomed into paradise.

      Regarding your claim that “there is absolutely no nobility in suffering,” I wholly reject such a claim on grounds far too lengthy to give here beyond the point that suffering for something that is good, beautiful, and/or true – say, for the salvation of mankind – is noble beyond human realization. If you fail to see the nobility that comes in suffering for the sake and well-being of others, or for God, or for any other person or idea or belief worthy of some blood, toil, tears, and sweat, then I am quite sure we have much to discuss.

      • Working for something or someone one loves–whether a creative project or out of protection or desire for a person–is not “suffering”; it may be self-sacrifice or impassioned dedication, but it is not a physical or mental torture with the expected result/aim of death as ALL your examples above represent.

        You do not talk about the “suffering” (sacrifice) of a Louis Pasteur, a Thomas Edison or a Louis Ferdinand Celine.

        You discuss religious figures–(already too abstract in argument)–who were tortured to death. At the outset, you discuss a woman tortured by unbearable physical pain that she thought it better to die. These are all hideous examples–St. Stephen had a chest full or arrows shot into him, but he looked benevolently at the heavens you say. Is this the way you would want to go? No, it is not. Let us be quite careful about bringing the sufferings of two thousand year old saints into these arguments–for the world has STILL not been redeemed.

        As for your point that I missed the point of your writing, I certainly did not. You claim:

        “(…)a life spent in immense pain and suffering can serve a far greater purpose than the life spent on one’s feet. ”

        That is just utterly awful, I am sorry.

  5. There is no dignity or nobility or purpose in laying in a hospital bed in immense pain waiting to die. There is absolutely nothing good that can come out of that. I’ve watched relatives die of horrible diseases, and their last weeks were not life in any sense of the word. Their suffering did not serve any greater purpose, and had no effect on those around them other than to wish they weren’t in pain. Your article is one of the most horrific things I’ve ever read.

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