The ethical issue of euthanasia, which confronts our society today, is evidence of our culture’s pervasive concern with finding an easy way out of a moral dilemma. The question of freedom and autonomy of the human being is radical in the discussion of euthanasia. In the name of social justice and freedom of mankind, euthanasia becomes the solution to avoid pain, and escape suffering, in order to reach the so-called desirable “quality of life”. The quality of life argument, at times, has been used scripture narrative, by way of engaging the text politically but which has resulted in its misinterpretation. Moreover, the politicizing of scriptures lacks clarity of the author’s intention. On the other hand, the Catholic church continues to interpret scripture in order to defend the autonomy of human beings as the unique image of God according to revelation and creation. The role of social justice in the writing of the prophet Isaiah will be discussed in this essay and it will be argued that euthanasia is opposed to social justice, as described in the scriptures and the teaching of the Catholic Church.
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The prophet Isaiah and social Justice
The social ethics of the prophets were thoroughly grounded theologically in Israel’s historical experience of God and the ongoing struggle of the people to deal with the faith experience in their everyday life. For Israel, social ethics was related to their understanding of what it meant to be God’s people and how they should live in the world. Both for the prophets and for the Torah traditions, that understanding was theologically anchored in the Exodus  .
Justice, for example, describes how the people were to live in the world. They were to practise justice toward others. In this sense, Justice does not carry the legal meaning sometimes attached to it. It is not ensuring that everyone gets exactly what he or she deserves based on the law. There is some acceptance of other traditions, where justice is what God brings to those who violate his Torah. However, in the prophets, justice means to practise grace and mercy towards those who have no power to secure them for themselves. It means to protect and defend those who are helpless and powerless  . One of the most powerful passages about justice comes from Isaiah of Jerusalem, as a condemnation of the city of Jerusalem (1:21-27):
How the faithful city has become a prostitute! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her– but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them. . . . I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. . . . Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
This text considers two important things: first, the terms “righteousness” and “justice” are closely linked. Second, justice is absent when corruption, bribery, failure to defend the orphans and plead the widows’ cause is the social norm. In the patriarchal social structure of Israel, those without family to care for them, widows and orphans, were the most vulnerable people in society. Corruption in leadership most often preyed on those who deepened the most on that very leadership for equity and fairness, usually those without the resources to seek them. Here, justice is the failure to function socially in a way that respects others and defends the weak and powerless of society  . Isaiah clearly expresses what God really desires from his people to act upon, as a demonstration of their righteousness (58:6-7):
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Again, Isaiah communicates Israel’s mission to the world metaphorically as light to the nations. Here, as in other places, Israel’s own well-being finally depends on how she treats other people (58:8-11):
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
The prophets did not just condemn leaders for lack of justice or see it as a future dream for the people. From the earliest days of the writings of the prophets, they linked social justice with righteousness as God’s people. They called for both righteousness and justice to be a present reality among God’s people.
Biblical analysis of euthanasia
Biblical understanding of human life was built on the fundamental belief that man is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27: 5:1-2), therefore all human life is sacred. Furthermore, the Bible specifically condemns murder (Exod. 20:13) and this would surely include active forms of euthanasia  . Another foundational principle is a biblical view of death; modern medicine defines death primarily as biological, whereas scripture defines death as spiritual. Death, according to the Bible, occurs when the spirit leaves the body (Eccles.12:7; James 2:26)  . This revealed fact has a definite bearing on the prohibition of direct killing: “He who sheds Man’s blood shall have his blood shed by man for, in the image of God, man was made” (Gen. 9:6). The Old Testament reveals that all human beings are made in the image of God, but The New Testament adds that a Christian enjoys a special new likeness to God, the indwelling of the three Divine Persons, through inter-personal communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The internal transformation of body and soul that makes this new life possible is based on our sharing in the Divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4)  .
Clarifying the terminology of euthanasia
Euthanasia is a term that has no consistency in our contemporary society. In classical Greek, the term means “good death.” In modern usage, it has taken a different, more specific meaning and has come ‘to mean that one person intentionally causes the death of another who is terminally or seriously ill, often to end the latter’s pain and suffering’. Euthanasia takes the following forms: Active Euthanasia: usually when euthanasia is mentioned it means active euthanasia. It is taking action with the intention to cause death. Passive Euthanasia: is used to describe the action of withdrawing and withholding treatment, with the result that death occurs as a natural consequence of the disease process. Involuntary Euthanasia: is a compassionate act to end the life of a patient, who is perceived to be suffering and could make a voluntary request, but has not done so. Non-Voluntary Euthanasia: euthanasia in this form occurs when another person, out of compassion, act with the intention of ending the life of a suffering patient where the patient is unable to make a voluntary request  .
Church analysis of Euthanasia
The Declaration on Euthanasia of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that “The pleas of gravely ill people who sometimes ask for death are not to be understood as implying a true desire for euthanasia; in fact, it is almost always a case of an anguished plea for help and love. What a sick person needs, besides medical care, is love”  . Love for God sends us out to serve others, and it moves us to feel responsibility for those who suffer. It moves us from living as individual to being connected as one body of Christ. We should encourage the sick to discover the redemptive value of their suffering (Rom 12:1, Gal 2:19-20), which will ensure entry into the kingdom of God (Phil 3:10-11; Acts 14:22), by making us worthy of it (2 Thess. 1:4-5). The moral greatness of human life is bound up with our intimate relation to God, the Creator, who stamped an inherent dignity on our nature as persons, making us like him in operations, and he enhanced that dignity even further by the incarnation of the Word  .
One of the important features in euthanasia is the need to elucidate the distinction between killing a person and letting them die. To defend the justifiability of distinguishing between the two, we must define euthanasia clearly. Pope John Paul II terms it “an action or omission, which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering”  . Since both the moral object and the subject’s intention are evil, the action itself is evil. This moral distinction may be criticised seeing it as reflecting a natural law view of morality. The Catholic doctrine on euthanasia is predicated on the idea that life is “good”, but that our highest good and ultimate end is God, the author of life. While death and suffering are most certainly evils, they are not the ultimate evil. Eternal separation from God is the ultimate evil. Therefore, suffering should be seen as a means of self-conquest and authentic self- surrender to God  .
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Life-and-death issues have usually been addressed on the basis of personal rights. The assertion of freedom presents a challenging obstacle to those who oppose the pro-choice position. Freedom in Christianity is the ability to direct oneself to God and his service (Gal 5:13, 1 peter 2:16-17) and that we use our freedom well, by loving and trusting God’s will, imitating Jesus’ example of trusting abandonment to the Father. Therefore, suicide is an isolated act of troubled human beings who feel the “good life” has eluded them. The question whether or not one ought to commit suicide is already to answer in the negative, because to take one’s life is not a liberating act. Persons requesting euthanasia have, in some way or other, refused to allow God to be the master of their life  .
More attention needs to be devoted to the matter of choice, with respect to the issue of personal freedom. Who can or will develop the rules for making the choices regarding the beginning and end of life? The criteria will depend on who is asking the question and why the question is being asked. The lawyer and the physician may both be interested in determining the beginning and end of life, but for different reasons. For example, the physician is interested in the moment of death for the purpose of harvesting organs. The lawyer is interested in defining the moment of death in the interest of a client’s access to an inheritance. The chronically-ill individual may be interested in the moment and choice of death as a possible solution to unbearable suffering. The physician may have techniques of prolonging or shortening the process of dying, but his use of them may be determined by the threat of lawsuits  .
An answer to the justification of euthanasia in the Bible
Killing is explicitly condemned in the Bible
The sixth commandment in the Decalogue is an emphatic negative prohibition, “You shall no kill” (Exod 20:13). The word “kill” occurs 38 times in the OT. The NT quotes the sixth commandment extensively (Matt 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke: 18:20; Rom 13:9). Thus, the NT believer is under obligation to obey the commandment, “You shall not kill”. The question arises concerning the application of this biblical teaching from the sixth commandment to the euthanasia debate. To be able to answer the question, we shall classify the Biblical concept of murder, which seems to be: intentional, premeditated, malicious, contrary to the desire or intention of the victim, and is against someone who has committed not crime deserving of capital punishment. They reason that euthanasia would not be characterised by maliciousness; they believe they are doing an act of mercy. However, as was shown above, the prohibition in the sixth commandment encompasses accidental death, a killing that does not have malicious intent. Therefore, euthanasia is prohibited by the sixth commandment  .
Suicide is implicitly condemned in the Bible
Suicide, the act of self-killing, is never directly addressed in the scriptures. Though examples of suicide are recorded in the Bible, it is important to note that a single word for suicide does not exist in Hebrew of Greek, making it impossible for the Bible to refer to it directly. However, the condemnation of “self-killing” is usually inferred from the sixth commandment. If to shorten the life of another through killing is wrong, then to kill oneself is also wrong. But today, this understanding of suicide as biblically prohibited killing has come under intense attack. The argument is built on the three biblical cases in support of the assertion that Scripture permits some suicides  .
Five cases of suicide appear in the OT: Abimelech (Judge 9:54); Saul’s armour bearer (1 Sam 31: 4-5. 1 Chron 10:4-5); Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23) Zimri (1 Kgs 16:18). The Biblical narrator reports each of these self-killings with neither commendation nor condemnation, which opens the possibility for arguing that, in ancient Israel, the act of suicide was regarded as something natural. However, if the biblical author gives no comment of the suicide, how can a positive evaluation be the assured conclusion? Furthermore, it is true that OT narrative usually records events with no evaluation, but the biblical reader must consider the whole presentation made, in order to draw a proper conclusion, because in biblical narrative, a proper examination of the suicide shows that it is an act of a rebel against God, not the heroic final act of a faithful person  .
The NT records one clear case of suicide, the death of Judas (Matt 27:5; Acts 1:18). In this narrative, the biblical text contains no statement concerning any repentance of Judas. Judas suicide was the culmination of spiritual rebellion that led him to betray Jesus into the hands of His enemies (Math 26:12-16). The suicide of Judas was not the result of repentance, but because of his lack of repentance. Thus, the six biblical reports of suicide do not convey a sense of acceptance and moral approval; rather, the overall context demonstrates an atmosphere of spiritual disobedience. Therefore, the Bible does not condone suicide, and any act of voluntary euthanasia, whether passive or active, is an act of disobedience against God, because suicide is implicitly condemned in the Bible. Thus, for those who base their ethical standards and behavior on the Scriptures, any act of euthanasia is to be rejected as direct disobedience to the Word of God  .
How to read the bible in the light of contemporary issues
Most biblical writings are contextual, in a far narrower sense than simply being historically and culturally conditioned, for they addressed very specific situations or they were occasioned by very particular circumstances. Therefore, it is unusual to establish connections, parallels or analogies between the situations addressed by particular biblical writers and situations, which typically confront us now.
As readers of the Bible, we are first of all eavesdroppers. This means that a proper interpretation of the biblical writers’ ethical statements presupposes the prior task of reconstruction of the situation that a given biblical writer was addressing at that time. We may need to reconstruct the unrecorded side of the interchange, to stand any chance of understanding what is being said in the biblical text, and with what nuances or emphases, in order to be reasonably sure that we are not getting the wrong end of the stich altogether. In the case of a few biblical writings, the quest for a reconstructed dialogue partner may be misguided; in the case of others, it may be desirable but impossible, for lack of clues; but in most cases, the clues are there and it would be disingenuous to ignore them  .
Essentially, from the Biblical perspective on euthanasia, is the understanding of the sanctity of human life, which was practiced in Western culture particularly Christian, unfortunately this view is moved to the “quality of life” argument. The disabled, retarded and infirm were seen as having a special place in God’s eyes, whereas today, the medical view depends on a person’s ability to perceive such a quality of life or lack of it. Life is no longer seen as sacred and worthy of being saved. Patients are evaluated and lifesaving treatment is frequently denied, based on subjective and arbitrary standards for the supposed quality of life. If life is not judged worthy of being prolonged, people feel obliged to end that life  .
Christians are called upon to return to fundamental beliefs that, because man is created in the image of God, all human life is sacred. Society must not place an arbitrary standard of quality of life above God’s absolute standard of human value. This means that decisions ought to be guided by an objective, absolute standard of human worth.