The subject of Euthanasia (the act of putting one to death painlessly; also called mercy killing) is one I have struggled with, having faced this dilemma twice. It is indeed a personal, if not a moral, dilemma. Personally, I have come to think a distinction should be made between a family member deliberately killing a loved one ahead of time in anticipation of avoiding pain and suffering, versus deciding to withdraw continued life-support methods when the individual is absolutely beyond any natural hope of recovery. By removing the machines, the person’s life can then, at least, be left in God’s hands whether they survive or not. But, this is just my opinion. What do the churches say?
Today, the majority do make an allowance by saying it is appropriate to follow a patient’s wishes who has a Living Will stating not to perform any extraordinary measures (with emphasis on that word) to resuscitate or maintain their body on life support machines if they are beyond any expectation of recovery. (Of special interest is the Catholic Church’s comprehensive declaration at http://tinyurl.com/jxfelqs)
Keep in mind that the excellent article below, by David T. Blattston, covers the attitudes held among First Century Christians on the “deliberate hastening of death.” There were, of course, no life-support machines or Living Wills during those time; but, perhaps it would have made no difference. Nevertheless, with that said, scripture should be considered our guide.
Original Christians Against Euthanasia©
Christian principles of love and genuine concern for the welfare of a patient or other disadvantaged person are put forward as the motives for euthanasia. However, there is abundant evidence in Scripture and other early Christian writings that “mercy killing” is grossly immoral, beyond the pale of behavior acceptable from Christians.
Euthanasia is the deliberate hastening of death to spare the patient a period of suffering or incapacity. The usual cases for which euthanasia is advocated are persons with an incurable disease or permanent coma, but secondary uses include sparing the deformed, the mentally impaired, or the handicapped from languishing the rest of their lives under irreversible barriers that prevent them from living a self-sufficient or “full” life. Far from ill-will, the motives of the killers are thus laudable or at least understandable, for they are rooted in compassion toward the patient; hence the alterative terms “mercy killing” and “put them out of their misery”.
Thou Shalt Not Kill
Despite this, the Fifth Commandment clearly provides “Thou shalt not kill”, which is repeated in summaries of God’s law in Matthew 19:18f, Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20, and Romans 13:9. But does “kill” refer only to violent murder, such as in the course of armed robbery? In considering the word in the New Testament, the church father Tertullian believed “kill” there had a wider meaning. Referring to the Creator, Tertullian wrote: “He puts His interdict on every sort of man-killing by that one summary precept ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”(1)
Why Consult the Early Sources?
Tertullian was a clergyman and the founder of Latin Christian literature. His works cited in the present article date from AD 197 to 220. The value of consulting him and other post-biblical Christian writers before AD 249-251 is that the Bible interpretations and oral teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and other New Testament writers were still fresh in their memories and they preserved the exact sense and parameters of “kill” in which it was understood by Christians—or Christians not many generations earlier—who knew New Testament authors personally, and hence the way in which Jesus had meant it to be understood.
All Killing Forbidden, especially of the Innocent
The earliest Christians considered any type of bloodshed to be forbidden. Paul the Apostle does so in Romans 3:15. Tertullian concurred,(2) as did the Epistle of the Apostles 35, which dates from between AD 140 and 160, and twice by Origen, the most outstanding Bible scholar, teacher and preacher of the first half of the third century.(3)
The early sources particularly discountenance killing the innocent. Remember that the people for whom euthanasia is advocated have not committed any crime nor is it because of their sins that they are to be put to death. They would be killed merely because they have a disease or infirmity they did not bring upon themselves. The First Epistle of Clement, written while some apostles were still alive, points out that in the Old Testament the righteous “were slain, but only by the accursed”.(4) Sometime between AD 175 and 200, Bishop Theophilus of Antioch, in summarizing God’s law mandated “The innocent and the righteous thou shalt not slay”.(5) The Acts of Paul, a compilation around AD 160 to 170 of deeds of the apostle not found in the Bible, similarly condemns shedding the blood of the innocent unjustly.(6)
Among the innocent, aged parents are the people for whom mercy killing is commonly sought. Killing adult family members—especially parents—was the worst crime imaginable among the pagan Greeks and Romans of early Christian times, and is condemned in 1 Timothy 1.9 and by such post-biblical authors as Tertullian,(7) the mid-second-century Acts of John 48, the Christian philosopher Aristides of Athens around AD 125,(8) and by Bardesanes, a Christian in Syria who wrote a description of Christian practices and customs in the early AD 200s.(9)
Mercy killing is also sought for infants, particularly newborns—the most innocent of all—to save them from a lifetime of deformity, mental deficiency, dependence, handicap, or other impediment to a “full” life due to congenital or genetic causes. In a description and defense of Christianity to pagan readers, around AD 177 another Christian philosopher in Athens stated as well-known Christian principles the fact that the church forbid abortion and killing children at any stage of life.(10)
Motive for Killing Irrelevant
Even the best intentions do not justify killing anyone. Shortly after his conversion Tertullian wrote: “in regard to child murder, as it does not matter whether it is committed for a sacred object, or merely at one’s own self-impulse”.(11) The Acts of Thomas 51-52 in eastern Syria in the early third century relate an incident not recorded in the Bible, about a man who killed a woman to spare her entering a life of fornication but God intervened to punish him, and the Apostle Thomas is alleged to have considered the young man’s intention as a serious sin.
Even with the consent of the victim, euthanasia is still a sin, for then it is suicide—which is also a sin according to Christian authors before AD 200.(12)
An Ancient Equivalent
The nearest approximation to euthanasia in Christian literature before the mid-third century is the ancient practice of “exposing” infants. If weak, sickly, deformed, or handicapped, a baby would be abandoned in a remote unpopulated place to be devoured by wild animals or die from neglect. The “lucky” victims were rescued by strangers who raised them as slaves. This was perfectly acceptable practice under secular law and provided the social advantages of improving the gene pool and reducing the proportion of the population that takes but does not contribute to the economy, as well as sparing the children themselves a lifetime of handicaps.
But early Christians believed we are not wiser or more compassionate than God. Justin, who was martyred for the faith around AD 165, wrote in describing Christian teachings and practices: “we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men” because some are rescued and brought up to become prostitutes,(13) and “[we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers.”(14)
Origen’s predecessor as dean of the world’s foremost Christian educational institution pointed out in the AD 190s: “But what cause is there for the closure of a child? For the man who did not desire to beget children had no right to marry at first; certainly not to have become, through licentious indulgence, the murderer of his children.”(15) In writing against people treating their pets better than human beings:
they do not receive the orphan child; but they expose children that are born at home, and they take up the young of birds, and prefer irrational to rational creatures; although they ought to undertake the maintenance of old people with a character for sobriety, who are fairer in mind than apes, and capable of uttering something better than nightingales; and to set before them that saying, … “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.”(16)
The infirmities of old age or bodily defects do not render a potential euthanasia victim totally useless to church or society. After writing of wrongdoing, particularly stealing, lying, hatred, and deception, Bardesanes pointed out:
For even if a man be poor, and sick, and old, and disabled in his limbs, he is able to avoid doing all these things. And, as he is able to avoid doing these things, so is he able to love, and to bless, and to speak the truth, and to pray for what is good for everyone with whom he is acquainted.(17)
Advances in Medical Technology
But might these traditional Christians be outdated in the twenty-first century, now that we possess more painless means of causing death? Actually, mercy killing is less justifiable now than in ancient times because we also possess better and a wider variety of painkillers. The only analgesic in early times was alcohol,(18) at most mixed with myrrh.(19) Of course, this contributed to the sin of drunkenness—which is a crime under United States secular law in certain circumstances.
Moreover, modern medical science makes great strides almost every day, with cures for painful or disabling conditions suddenly becoming available. This should extend hope for intended victims of euthanasia, and 1 Corinthians 13:13 enjoins Christians to have hope. Nothing is more contrary to the virtue of hope than suicide or putting people to death because they are thought incurable.
Lastly, we have the teaching and example of Christ Himself. First, whoever inflicts euthanasia on the least of His brothers inflicts it on Jesus (Matthew 25:35-45). Secondly, when Jesus encountered people who were diseased, handicapped, or suffering, He cured them or otherwise relieved them of their afflictions for the rest of their natural lives; He never “put them out of their misery” by killing them.
About the author
David W. T. Brattston is a retired lawyer residing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada. He holds degrees from three Canadian universities. His mission is to make early Christian literature known and used by all Christians, especially as Christian moral teaching from before A.D. 250 relates to today. In the last quarter-century, over three hundred of his articles on early and contemporary Christianity have been published by a wide variety of denominations in every major English-speaking country.
All direct quotations from the church fathers are as translated in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Reprint of the
Edinburgh ed. by A.
Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885-96;
continuously reprinted Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B.
Eerdmans; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson), cited as “ANF”.
1 Tertullian De Spectaculis 2 ANF 3.80.
2 Tertullian On Idolatry 2 ANF 3.62.
3 Origen Homilies on Genesis 3.6; Origen Commentary on Romans 6.4.2.
4 1 Clement 45.4 ANF 1.17.
5 Theophilus To Autolycus 3.9 ANF 2.114.
6 Martyrdom of Paul 6.
7 Tertullian On Modesty 14.
8 Aristides Apology 9.
9 Bardesanes On Fate.
10 Athenagoras Presbeia 35.
11 Tertullian Apologeticum 9 ANF 3.25.
12 Justin Martyr 2 Apology 4; Acts of John 49; Sentences of Sextus 321; Three Books to Abercius Marcellus in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.l6.13.
13 Justin Martyr 1 Apology 27 ANF 1.172.
14 Justin Martyr 1 Apology 29 ANF 1.172.
15 Clement of Alexandria Stromata 2.18 ANF 2.368.
16 Clement of Alexandria Paedagogus 3.4 ANF 2.279.
17 Bardesanes On Fate ANF 8.725.
18 Proverbs 31:6.
19 Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23.
Copyright © Canada 2009 by David W. T. Brattston