Life's End

November 26, 2010

Issue #25 of Case Magazine has the theme 'Life's End' and had its genesis in the 2010 CASE conference, 'Christian perspectives on the end of life'. In this issue you can read the papers of all speakers from the conference. The contributions include papers by Dr Megan Best, Dr Russell Clarke, Rev Rod Benson, Kate Bradford and Dr Frank Brennan.

There are many common threads running throughout the articles, but for me, three stand out:

  • Society does not value all human lives equally
  • The Bible teaches that death is not simply the end
  • Death is both a curse and an opportunity for blessing

Each of the above themes has a relationship to one over-arching theme, they intersect in the idea and hope that it is possible to end life well. It is possible, even in one's death, to have an influence on others for good.

Dr Best reminds us that the word ‘euthanasia’ comes from two Greek words: 'eu' meaning ‘good’, and ‘thanos’ meaning ‘death’. Most people today link the word with the idea of taking someone's life in order to end their suffering. Ending the life of someone who is suffering is seen by some as the only logical or humane path. But all our writers stress that while death is a curse, it is also an opportunity for ultimate blessing for those who trust in Christ.

A number of the articles also speak about the way in which we too quickly make judgements about the relative value of life, and the dangers of thinking this way. The unborn of course have very few rights and seemingly, for many, no value. A life that cannot be lived exactly the way one wishes can also be seen as not worth living. This point was highlighted by Professor John Wyatt when he presented the 2009 New College Lectures.

Prof John Wyatt told the story of a couple at his church who, after a routine ultrasound, discovered that their unborn child had 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. But the parents decided to continue the pregnancy and little Christopher was born.

Christopher lived for almost 7 months and in Wyatt’s words exercised ‘an extraordinary ministry’. The weakest member of the church exercised a strong, strange influence. ‘He became, in the end, almost public property.’ Wyatt concluded:
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.
Dr Megan Best, a bioethicist and palliative care doctor, considers the arguments for and against euthanasia, and presents a Christian ethical response to these arguments. Dr Best also presented a second conference paper evaluating the use of Advanced Directives – documents that state a patient’s preferences regarding medical care in the event they can no longer speak for themselves. This article is available on the CASE website together with an extended version of the euthanasia article published HERE.

Geriatrician Dr Russell Clarke provides biological and biblical perspectives on what it means to age. He explains why ageing and death are biologically inevitable, then considers how this sits with a biblical understanding of the topic, and the hope of renewal it offers (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)?

Rev Rod Benson reflects on how death is portrayed in Scripture. He begins by quoting Arwen’s words from Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' as Aragorn dies. For Arwen, the loss of Aragorn seems to leave her with little but memories, pain and loss, but in the Bible he explains, death is both a curse and a blessing (1 Corinthians 15).

Kate Bradford, Anglican Chaplain at the Westmead Children's Hospital presents a practitioner's perspective on the privilege of visiting and caring for seriously ill people. With compassion she gives practical advice on how to conduct such visits, taking into account the awkwardness we can feel as visitors, and providing insight into the fears and needs of patients.

Finally, Dr Frank Brennan discusses a number of ethical challenges arising within the area of palliative care, including transparency and withholding treatment. Drawing on his many years of personal experience, he uses case studies to show how ethical considerations can influence decision making in this difficult area.

The issue ends with two reviews. John Diacos looks at 'This Mortal Flesh' by Brent Waters, who assesses the potential impact of life-extending technologies, envisions what a society made up of long-lived people would look like, and asks how Christians should respond to these technologies. Rosemary Albert’s reviews a very different book, 'The Art of Dying'. In it, Rob Moll combines pastoral, theological and cultural considerations as he seeks to revive the Christian art of dying well. Christ should make a difference not only to how we live, but how we die.

For more information on how to obtain single issues of Case Magazine or to subscribe to receive the magazine quarterly, simply visit the CASE website.

Other resources and posts

Audio downloads of all lectures at the 2010 Medical Ethics Conference are available HERE.

Previous blog posts on Prof John Wyatt's 2009 New College Lectures HERE.

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