Image: Thomas Cole - Expulsion From the Garden of Eden (Thomas Cole Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons)
How does the Christian understanding of the world face the painful realities of death, suffering and dependence?
In the creation narrative in Genesis, the disobedience of Adam and Eve led directly to the entrance of death into the world. Within the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had access, not only to almost all the other fruit within the garden, but also to the tree of life. It seems they could have chosen to eat the fruit of that tree and live forever. Instead, they chose to disobey God and eat the fruit of the one tree that was forbidden. In biblical thought, the death of human beings, in all its horror and mystery, is not ‘natural’, it is not the way it was meant to be. The deep intuition which most of us share—that physical death (especially the death of a child or young person) is an outrage, an alien interruption in the nature of being—reflects the original creation order. Similarly the inexpressible longing we have for eternity, for stability, for freedom from decay, reflects our created nature. We were not intended to die: we were made to live forever. That is why death is the ‘last enemy’ (1 Cor 15:26).
Yet for all its terror and mystery, in the biblical worldview, death is not an entirely negative concept. It may be, in C. S. Lewis's wonderful phrase, ‘a severe mercy’. At the end of the account of the Fall, human beings are banished from the Garden of Eden, precisely to prevent their eating the fruit of the tree of life and living forever. In God's providential care of his creation, then, human beings are not meant to live forever in their degraded fallen state. The human lifespan is limited, not just as a curse, but out of God's grace.
So Christian attitudes to death should reflect a curious ambivalence. We need to retain, first, a sense of outrage at its alien, destructive character; secondly, an acceptance that the end of physical life may be evidence of God's grace, a ‘severe mercy'; and finally, a sense of future hope in the knowledge that ultimately death will be destroyed. Christian healthcare professionals are called to struggle against death whilst recognizing the ultimate futility of their struggle and seeking to discern when active life-sustaining treatment may become inappropriate—when the dying process becomes a severe mercy, even a strange form of healing, a gateway to a new reality.
Just like death, suffering too is not an entirely negative phenomenon. To the secular mind, suffering is a futile, bewildering and purposeless reality. It is the negation of all that is good in life. It is the destroyer of autonomy—an evil to be feared and avoided at all cost. In utilitarian philosophy, the aim of all moral decision making is to avoid or minimize suffering. But Christians believe that suffering can come from the hand of a loving God, even despite appearances. In the experience of Job, physical suffering was revealed both as the destructive activity of Satan the accuser, and as a divinely authorized plan, to test the reality of Job's commitment to God. This lesson is particularly relevant in an age which has lost belief in any positive aspect of suffering. Christians too have been affected by this secular disease. One of the greatest needs of the church today is to rediscover a biblical theology of suffering, a theology of the cross.
Orthodox Christian thought has always been opposed, not only to homicide, the taking of another human life, but also to suicide. In many ancient cultures, suicide has been glorified as a noble way to die. The Norwegian warriors saw suicide as a path to heaven; in Buddhism, self-immolation is a prime example of the renunciation of desire; traditional Hinduism practised the suicide of bereaved widows; in Japan, until recently, hara-kiri was a noble form of death; in ancient Greece, the Stoics encouraged the heroic suicide. But in all cultures influenced by the Judaeo-Christian revelation, suicide has been opposed. It is never glorified in the Bible.
In biblical thought, God gives human beings a wonderful and terrifying freedom of action. We are free to act and choose as responsible moral agents who are accountable to one another, and ultimately accountable to God. But there are God-given limits to our freedom as moral agents. The limits are part of the hidden moral order of the creation, the moral warp and woof of reality. And one of those limits which I must not transgress, is to choose to destroy my own life or the life of another.
Yet there is a paradoxical character to Christian thinking about laying down one's life. After all, Jesus is the supreme example of a life deliberately laid down for others. To sacrifice one's own life for the good of others, or in the face of persecution, is seen as the height of Christian love. So what is the difference? It is this: sacrificing your life because there is something worth dying for is Christian martyrdom; sacrificing your life because there is nothing worth living for is suicide. In the words of Gilbert Meilaender, 'Forbidding suicide and honouring martyrs, the early Christians recognised life as a real but not ultimate good—a great good but not the highest good'.
It is in the Christ event, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, that we find the lens, the perspective through which we must view these painful contemporary dilemmas.
When God breaks into human history to bring redemption to his fallen people, does he overturn the created order he has previously established to introduce a completely new kind of reality, a radically new way of being? No. God reveals himself as a human being, a Mark I, original human model. Christians treat the human body with special respect. Why? Because this strange and idiosyncratic collection of 25,000 genes, 10 billion nerve cells, several miles of wiring, eight metres of intestinal plumbing, five litres of blood, and assorted biochemical engineering—this is the form in which God became flesh!
Even more amazing and outrageous, the Christian faith teaches us that God breaks into human history as a tiny, pathetic and vulnerable baby. We are so familiar with the doctrine of the incarnation that it loses its force. Jesus starts his life totally dependent on the love and care of others. And how does his earthly life come to a close? With arms and legs stretched out and from his parched lips come the words, ‘I am thirsty…’.
So if we take this scandalous teaching seriously, then it has radical implications. We can no longer view the state of dependence as being dehumanizing. Jesus shares the created stuff of our humanity, and the narrative of a human life.
In the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, the created order is both re-established and fulfilled. As Oliver O'Donovan has emphasised, before the resurrection it might have been possible for someone to wonder whether creation itself was a lost cause: perhaps the only possible ending for the tragic story is God's final judgement and destruction of the created order. But when Christ is born and raised as a physical human being, God proclaims his vote of confidence in the created order.
But there is a deeper mystery in the Christ event. It is the story of the cross. God does not explain the mystery of evil and of suffering—instead he takes it into his own being. He experiences the worst that evil can do, in order to transform it by his power into healing, blessing and restoration.
And in a strange way we see glimpses of the same miraculous transformation of inexplicable evil into blessing in the human experience today. It seems that God’s plan is to write small cameos, reflections of the big story into our lives. It is as though our own little story can become penetrated by, interwoven with, caught up into the big story. Let me give you three examples.
Alan and Verity are close friends from my local church, All Souls, in London. In the spring of 1996, Verity told us that she was expecting her first baby. But only two weeks later, the outlook had changed. A routine ultrasound scan at twenty weeks showed major abnormalities. The diagnosis was Edwards syndrome, a tragic and rare chromosomal disorder which causes multiple malformations, severe mental impairment and a uniformly fatal outcome. In this condition nearly all obstetricians will recommend abortion. What possible point can there be to continuing a pregnancy where there is no hope of long-term survival? Yet, after agonizing and heartfelt discussion, Alan and Verity decided not to have an abortion but to continue the pregnancy and little Christopher was born.
To everyone's surprise he did not die straight away, in fact he lived for almost 7 months. He became a minor celebrity in our church community. His life exercised a most extraordinary ministry. There he was, the smallest little shrimp within the congregation. Here was the weakest member among us, and yet he did exercise a strong, strange hold upon us. He became, in the end, almost public property. His parents would be on one side of the room, and he would be shared amongst people on the other side of the room. People would take it in turns to cuddle him, and then to learn from his own life and from the attitude of his parents. When baby Christopher died he was still the same size as when he was born. But at his funeral service, there with a tiny coffin, several hundred people came to pay tribute to his life, people who had been touched. One of Alan and Verity's friends put it like this: although Christopher couldn't grow, he helped other people to grow.
Christopher died in the summer of 1997. Yet his influence still carries on. I don't want to imply that there was no sadness. There was, and still is, a deep sense of grief, pain and loss at Christopher's disability and untimely death. Alan and Verity and their family have known tears and heartache, and those feelings carry on. But behind it all is the Christian conviction that even the weakest and most malformed human being has a life of unique value. Christopher in his way was a God-like being, a flawed masterpiece. His life was an example of Christian theology in practice, and it was a privilege for me to know him.
Here is a strange paradox. Sometimes we see the image of God most clearly, not in the perfect specimens of humanity, not in the Olympic athlete or the Nobel prize winner. We see Christ in the broken, the malformed, the imperfect. It is an example of the Easter mystery. God is revealed, not in glorious majesty but in a broken body on a cross.
Heather Gemmen was a mother of two who was violently raped in her own home by an anonymous intruder. She became pregnant and agonized over the decision whether or not to have an abortion. In the end she refused an abortion and loved and accepted into her family her beautiful mixed-race daughter Rachael. The book she wrote, Startling Beauty,
 is honest, shocking and profoundly Christian:
Rape is ugliness at its basest form. Rape destroys innocence and cultivates bitterness, it steals security and extends fear, it kills hope and fosters shame . . . Rape takes too much. But I for one have gained more than I have lost. I have been startled by beauty in places it doesn’t belong. I see it on a bloodied cross, and bitterness loses its power. I see it on the face of the man who keeps his vows to me, and fear loses its grip. I see it in the graceful dance of a child who was so unwanted, and hope revives its song. (p121)
My wife and I have been involved, at first hand, with a similar story of extraordinary grace. Ruth was a single student who became pregnant following unconsensual sex. An abortion was arranged, but at the last moment she found she was unable to go through with it. Alone and desperate, by chance she found the leaflet of a local Christian crisis pregnancy centre. With the emotional support and practical help of volunteers, she found the strength to continue the pregnancy, and baby Jonathan was born. Now he has become the joy and light of her life. Through this experience, Ruth’s childhood faith was reignited. She has found a loving and caring community at a local church, and has resumed her studies, as a single parent. Through this painful and humiliating experience of rape and enforced pregnancy, Ruth has not lost her sense of self-respect. By God’s grace, she has found a new confidence; a sense of purpose, meaning and joy in parenthood.
My own personal belief, strengthened by my clinical experience, is that nearly always there is a better alternative than abortion for the unwanted or abnormal pregnancy. It is the way of practical support for the mother and for the unwanted child. This way is costly, emotionally, practically and financially. It is not an easy way because the truth is that there is no quick and pain-free technological fix for the ultimate dilemmas of the human condition. Practical, supportive caring is not an easy alternative. But I am convinced that it is a better way. It is also an essential response if we Christians are not to be guilty of hypocrisy. Unless Christians are in the forefront of providing practical care and support for those with unplanned pregnancies, and for parents struggling with the implications of bringing up a disabled or impaired child, then our supposed commitment to the sanctity of human life is deeply suspect.
One of the most remarkable developments in this field is the rapid expansion of Christian crisis pregnancy centres. There are now more than 80 independent Christian centres throughout the UK. Each centre aims to provide free pregnancy testing, skilled, compassionate and non-coercive counselling from trained volunteers, clear information on all the options available, practical support and help, and time to explore all the conflicting emotions and long-term implications which an unplanned pregnancy brings. Instead of condemnation and judgement, they offer compassion and empathy, ‘grace and truth’. Practical support is available for those who continue their pregnancy, including provision of baby clothes and equipment. Help, support and counselling is not restricted to those with unplanned pregnancies, but is also made available to those who have experienced abortions or suffered other forms of pregnancy loss, such as miscarriage or stillbirth. The centres are almost entirely staffed by female volunteers, many of whom have been personally affected by abortion and its consequences. Telephone helplines have been established, and confidential advice and counselling is also available via the internet. The centres represent a genuinely Christian response to the problem of the unplanned pregnancy. At their best, they demonstrate all the qualities of authentic Christian caring: practical, down-to-earth, realistic, unglamorous, empathic, respectful, costly, sacrificial.
Stuart was a friend of mine who died well. I had known him for years as a fellow member of All Souls Church. We were both pianists (he was a professional musician), and we shared common interests in music and harmonization. Stuart was quiet and rather shy. He was absorbed in academic musicology, researching a rather obscure and technical aspect of church music in the Reformation. Then, out of the blue, he developed an unpleasant form of disseminated cancer, a lymphoma. He spent weeks in hospital, receiving the full gamut of intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. His hair fell out. He became emaciated. The cancer retreated, then came back in a more aggressive form. The oncologists were talking about 'one more push' with a new experimental treatment. He was in pain, weak and distressed.
Stuart and I had several intense and painful conversations about his predicament, and about what the future held. It seemed to me that Stuart was much closer to death than he realized. I remember asking him, ‘If I told you that you could have three months of pain-free, useful life followed by death, how would you want to spend those months?’ His reply surprised me. He had been talking about completing his thesis, writing up his research. Now he changed. When death was staring him in the face, his priorities were different. ‘I want to tell people about my faith. I want to talk to the students at All Souls. I want to write letters to my friends, to my family, to my old contacts in the musical world. I want to tell them what is happening to me and share my faith.’
Stuart was transferred to a local community-based palliative care team, in central London. He started receiving effective pain relief and appropriate symptom control. He knew he was going to die, but he was determined to make the most of the time he had left.
At his memorial service there were many people there who had received a special letter from Stuart: a letter in which he poured out his heart to them, in an unusually open and forthright way. And, sitting in that memorial service, I suddenly realized that, in a strange sense, I was envious of Stuart. He had had an opportunity to write those letters that most of us never write, to say those things to his friends that most of us never say. The truth is that most people do not die like Stuart. They die unexpectedly over a few days or weeks, without warning: a sudden shock. They have little or no opportunity to experience the intensity of dying that Stuart did. Stuart died well. Those last three months were a wonderfully rich, profound experience for him, as well as for his many friends and contacts.
So dying is not entirely negative. Dying well can be an opportunity for personal growth, reconciliation of painful and damaged relationships, fulfilling dreams, letting go.
It's not an accident that Christian doctors have been at the forefront of the development of palliative care. It's a practical Christian responses to the problem of terminal illness.
So a recurring theme of human experience is the strange but wonderful way that the evil, pain, distress and agony of human suffering is capable of being gradually transformed, by God’s grace, into something of profound beauty and lasting significance. ‘What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature!’ wrote Charles Darwin. Think what a devil's chaplain could make of those stories of rape, lethal abnormalities, and young painful death from cancer. And yet Alan and Verity, Heather, Ruth, Stuart, and many others would all say that their lives were immeasurably enriched by their encounters with inexplicable evil. It is not that the suffering was eradicated. Far from it. But in the encounter with suffering, something of startling significance gradually emerged. As I have reflected on this recurring mystery I have concluded that these human stories, our human stories, are meant to be small cameos, reflections of the big story. Of course, this is not to say that our suffering is redemptive in the sense that Christ’s suffering on the cross was redemptive. But in some sense, our experience reflects, and becomes interwoven with, the suffering and redeeming power of the Lamb of God. This is our story, the uniquely Christian understanding of redemption.
This wonderful mystery doesn’t happen automatically. Suffering can be destructive, instead of redemptive. It seems that it requires our consent, our willingness to submit and, in some sense, to accept and then to let go of our suffering before it can be redeemed. But we do not accept suffering in a fatalistic sense, as merely capricious or malevolent, the ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature’. We accept it from the hand of a loving God. And the hallmark of Christian suffering, redemptive suffering, is that instead of leading to despair, it is penetrated through with hope. For suffering is not the end of the story.
 Other examples include the painful discipline of Heb 12:4-11, and Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10).
 Samson, that flawed and ambiguous character, is the only example of a heroic and desperate suicide whose act is, in some sense, approved. Samson’s action is perhaps analogous to that of the suicide bomber, from which Christians instinctively recoil. In the rest of the Bible, suicide is associated with godlessness, for example in the tragic ends of Saul and Judas Iscariot. Despite this, it is interesting that suicidal thoughts are not uncommon in God's people. Elijah wanted to die, but was sent on a sabbatical instead. Job wishes he had never been born, but learns that God is in control of his life.
 Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, 2nd edn. (Eerdmans, 2005), p67.
 Kingsway Publications, 2004.
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