Death with Dignity has been on people’s minds a lot this year. From the death of Robin Williams to the recent death of Brittany Maynard, the idea of assisted suicide has been heavily debated, with Christians at the forefront defending the dignity of life. While we as Christians mean well when we defend the dignity of life, we fail to realize that, in the overall view of things, our arguments do more harm than good. Busy with discussions on redemptive suffering or the preciousness of life, we are blind to the elephant in the room: that, in certain respect, the Death with Dignity crowd is right.
To understand the Death with Dignity position, Christianity has to be completely removed from the equation. When we appeal to things like the preciousness of life, we assume that they are principles that everyone accepts without question. Outside of Christianity, the preciousness of life makes little to no sense at all. If we are not made in the image and likeness of God, then we are nothing more than complex animals. Our difference from the animals is quantitative, not qualitative. The difference between me and a dog is some as yet unknown chemical or atom that somehow gives me rationality.
Naturally, this is all assuming atheism, or at least an uncaring, non-religious view; that the universe is one big accident; that, somewhere along the line, the happy accident of human life just sort of happened. In that case, what is human life? Not much more than using rationality to enjoy the world around you. One accident appreciating another. As little as it may seem, there is a certain dignity to it. Man may be just a cosmic hiccup, but he is the only thing in the world that can appreciate and enjoy the universe the way he can. Man can watch the stars, study the trees, and listen to the birds; and when the fact that it is all accidental and cosmically meaningless begins to bug him, he can create meaning from nothingness. With weddings and birthdays, holidays and religions, man can create for himself a complex fabric of life. An ideal little world that he is the lonely god over.
In such a world, pain and suffering is a horrible, sick joke. Pain and meaningless suffering destroy man’s meaningful world, and with it his dignity. As long as the pain can be overcome and man can continue with his life, things are fine. Eventually, however, there comes a time when things are not fine, when man is so broken by illness and old age that it is impossible for him to enjoy anything at all. You would be hard-pressed to even call him a man anymore; his life is the same or worse than the plants and animals. When he finally dies, he goes back to being the cosmic accident he always was. There is no dignity suffering or death. On the contrary, they are the great destroyers of dignity.
Going back to the Christian arguments against assisted suicide, one might begin to see the problem. If a Christian tells someone non-religious that life is precious, the non-religious person would just wonder where he got that weird idea. On the level of natural reason, it simply doesn’t follow. Humans are born and die every day, just like everything else; man is remarkable only in his rationality, and that isn’t with him all his life. The non-religious person would agree that rational human life is precious, and they would point out that assisted suicide logically follows. The best way to respect rational human life is to perform one last act of rationality: to leave the world while you are still human. Redemptive suffering would make even less sense. The idea that bearing suffering to the bitter end could be redemptive would seem at best morbid, and at its worst a little sadistic. Taken by itself, suffering is horrible and demeaning, and to say it has some purpose seems like the strangest, sickest delusion in the world.
As Christians, it is important that we look at the Death with Dignity position and realize that they are telling the truth. No matter how you look at it, suffering and death are, and always will be will, ugly, horrible, and utterly without dignity. It is simple fact of life. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, He didn’t tell us that suffering and death isn’t that bad, that we just need to learn how to deal with it. Quite the opposite; He reminded us how horrific the whole thing is, and then turned the whole world upside down. It would have made more sense if He had given us a way to redemption in spite of suffering and death. Instead, He gave us a way through it. Christianity doesn’t put a good face on suffering and death because they are, in any way, good things. Christianity asks us to bear with it for the sake of the redemptive end.
Looked at from the outside, Christianity is madness. From the outside, Christians seem to take death and suffering lightly, as if they are things that you could deal with if you have a good enough attitude. Apart from Christianity, these things don’t make any sense, and we need to stop pretending that they do. To have any chance of overcoming the evils of assisted suicide and euthanasia, we are going to have to acknowledge that the Death with Dignity position is a far more powerful enemy than we previously assumed. It is powerful because, on some level, it is right, and that alone makes far, far harder to argue against.