What Jesus REALLY thinks about Death with Dignity

In my Life Changers from last week, I highlighted Brittany Maynard’s viral story of her decision to end her life with terminal illness in a dignified manner. Since then, there have been an overwhelming response from my fellow Christians decrying this decision, an Open Letter from Kara Tippetts hosted by wildly popular author Ann Voskamp, as well a letter from renowned evangelical influencer, Joni Eareckson Tada.



I don’t face a terminal illness diagnosis, but I am drawn to this conversation because I believe the brutality of such an impossible decision owns potential for profound beauty. To consider how to die is a tandem reflection on how then, we must live. The intricacies and nuances of this delicate matter require our most tender deliberation in order for us to uphold the sanctity of human life.

The decision to prematurely die with dignity or to let a painful, terminal illness take its course, is an impossible one. Meaning, either path is fraught with unbearable heartbreak and gut wrenching realities.

Anyone who has to make this decision is a hero. 

They are brave and beautiful and they provide us a glimpse into the unrelenting courage and resilience of humanity. God resides most fully in places of pain. I peer into the lives of those who suffer deeply for a chance to grasp holiness.

This is why I am taken aback by Christian responses which paint those who make Brittany’s brave decision as decidedly unholy and godless. Joni Eareckson Tada says, “I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God.” I echo Jessica Kelley’s concern in her thoughtful piece, Can Christians Support Brittany Maynard’s Decision, that “there is the seemingly direct link between a relationship with Jesus and embracing unassisted death.” In other words, if you know and love Jesus, there is only one choice to be made.

Surely there is a better way for Christian discourse than to resort to serious accusations of godlessness towards those who may have an alternative opinion, even if that opinion is in the minority. The issue at stake is extremely complicated, involving medical ethics, personal disposition, individual life circumstances, types of diseases, varying degrees of pain tolerance; whether there is family support, where to draw the line of DNR and assisted suicide, socioeconomic status and the privilege of having a choice, and the list goes on. We should not fear complexity, it is the way we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but we ought to approach our complexity with sensitivity and careful discussion, never sidelining any perspectives or brushing a broad stroke over a painstakingly particular decision.

Currently, within evangelical voices, the overwhelming majority of people disagree with Brittany Maynard’s decision. This is evidenced by more than 1 million shares of Kara Tippett’s letter bolstered by the authoritative perspective from Joni Eareckson Tada. There are good arguments, made from both historical, orthodox positions on the end of life, and anecdotal stories of redemptive suffering which lead to this majority conclusion. Again, anyone who has to make this difficult choice is a hero.

However, there are those of us spiritual outliers, who may have differing opinions or at least want to raise concerns regarding the majority opinion without losing credibility as genuine Christ-followers.

Lest we forget, Jesus was a bit of a misfit himself. So were his original band of followers. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly taught, “You have heard it was said…” In other words, this is what has always been taught to be true, but consider this alternative idea. Jesus conveyed the Kingdom of God to be like going after the one lost sheep. When I was young, I always thought it was rather reckless of the shepherd to abandon all ninety-nine sheep in the wild, but now I suspect Jesus knew the ninety-nine would be better off with the one lost sheep back in the fold.

Likewise, the majority opinion of Christian Culture is better off if we include the alternative voices, engaging one another with civility and equal dignity extended to all parties. It is respectable to put forth convictions with certainty and confidence. But Jesus was not just respectable, he was a revolutionary; the type who goes after the outliers and sets up camp with them.

This is integral to our Christian DNA, a posture of hearing the minority stories.

This is ingrained into our character, to make room for every last one of the sheep.

Jesus doesn’t help us draw a line in the sand on difficult, complicated ethical dilemmas. He empowers us to imagine alternatives.

Our world continues to evolve and change at a rapid rate, with technology boosting progress in every sector. Inevitably, this will bring us again and again to the brink of having to make impossible decisions we have never encountered before. Let’s keep talking about how to do life most faithfully as people of God, but let’s put on the Christ-like humility we so desperately need to include all of the voices, particularly the softer ones.

They are the ones who compel us to hush and hear more clearly what the Gentle Spirit has to say.

  • Thank you! For the record, I think it is completely her own decision to make and none of us can judge her choice if we haven’t faced it ourselves. It is between her, her husband, and her physician. Her relationship with God? Also her business.

  • “…we ought to approach our complexity with sensitivity and careful discussion, never sidelining any perspectives or brushing a broad stroke over a painstakingly particular decision.”

    I totally agree! Thanks for continuing this intense topic with delicate words and a gentle spirit.

    • Thank you for starting the conversation from a different angle. I’m so glad we connected through these ideas. 🙂

  • Wally Doerksen

    Totally agree. We cannot possibly know all of God’s mindset on this issue and therefore we should not pretend to do so by saying, if you love God you would never contemplate suicide. Who knows what one would do it the pain is to great or the grief unbearable or life is just totally dark. God has no room for these people? Or maybe we are just arguing this from a first world perspective.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    You write well and it’s a compelling thesis. I’ve not read any other Christian voices. This is the beauty of being Orthodox 🙂 I feel like I am now an outsider so no longer get as upset as I used to! I have no idea if Brittany Maynard holds to a Christian faith so that to me is also a factor. While I may disagree with my non-Christian friends it would be hypocritical for me to hold them to a world view that is Biblically and theologically based. Personally I come at this issue as both a nurse and an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Two years ago in November Massachusetts had a Death with Dignity bill that did not pass. In Massachusetts – first in the nation to have gay marriage – this is a shocker. But many self–identified liberal, non-Christian voices voted no on this act. I detail the reasons why in this post that was picked up by a group in the area. I link it here – I re-read it and still believe what I articulate here. http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/2012/10/04/the-myth-of-death-with-dignity-a-no-on-question-2/

    This one thing I know – there is no such thing as death with dignity. Whether assisted by another or dying of ‘natural causes’ or dying in a tragic accident. Death is not, never will be dignified. I’ve watched hundreds of people die. It’s not dignified. Some deaths are easier than others but The only dignity given in death is given by others to the one dying, it cannot be given to oneself. I have the deepest compassion for Brittany Maynard. And you articulate well the agony that goes into this. But I fear that anyone who thinks there is dignity in this has not seen death up close. I appreciate your voice – it is beautiful, articulate, and full of compassion for the outliers. I love that. I do though believe that one little, tiny verse is key to some of this – it sits in Philippians and says this “That I may know him, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death…” The only thing we are really guaranteed whether we are outlier believers or part of what seems to be an inner circle is suffering. We are guaranteed it, yet with the guarantee comes a promise of hope. I would love to talk more and sorry this is sooooo long!!

    • Hey Marilyn, I’m glad I finally figured out how to get your comment to show up here, I apologize for the mishap.

      Thank you so much for your perspective as a nurse, I’m sure that has really shaped your views. I guess my question for you is: perhaps there is no such thing as death with dignity, and we can all agree death is the ultimate enemy here, but there are ways to die that is MORE dignifying than others, and the question posed by pro-death-wtih-dignity folks is whether we should at least allow a legal way for those who should choose it.

      Perhaps you take issue with the term “death with dignity”, in which case, I agree there might be better ways to say it.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    I left a long comment and it got deleted 🙁 so here goes again. First off you write articulately, passionately, and with compassion. And you drive a compelling argument. I’ve not read any ”Christian” voices on this. One of the nice things about being Eastern Orthodox is that I don’t get as upset as I used to with some of those voices! I think you get what I mean – and I too am an outlier. I would hesitate to judge Brittany Maynard at any rate as I have no idea where she stands faith-wise. A couple of years ago Massachusetts had the question on death with dignity on the ballot – it didn’t pass which was a shocker – as the first state in the nation to approve gay marriage most were surprised but non-Christian left leaning liberal voices were strong against it. There were many reasons and I articulate some of them in this piece. http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/2012/10/04/the-myth-of-death-with-dignity-a-no-on-question-2/ As someone who is a nurse and has been present at the deaths of many, many people (oncology) I voted no to this. Death with dignity is a myth. The only dignity given in death is given by others to the one dying, it cannot be given to oneself. There is nothing dignified about dying whether it be at our own hands, naturally, or by a tragic accident. So as a nurse and as an Eastern Orthodox Christian I hold to a view of life as sacred. All of life, particularly the suffering life. The small verse in Philippians is compelling “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering – being conformed to his death…’ the one thing I know we are guaranteed in this world is the fellowship of suffering. I hate that. But I believe that where suffering is, there is the face of God. Thank you for your voice in our world. A voice of thoughtful compassion that desperately wants to dialogue. Thank you!

  • lepton

    I would love the ability to go to the vet and get a shot to be put to sleep as I don’t see any hope for the future. However I think aid in dying advocates overestimate the goodness of humans. I’ve found that with death people are either forcing it on you (capital punishment) or forcing you from it (suicide attempt hospitalizations). If we had power over our our own death that would be a scary thing for those in power because it would change the dynamic of a lot of situations (like someone being denied badly needed pain treatment could threaten aid in dying). If those in power were convinced aid in dying was the person’s choice I don’t think they would support it as it would take one of their tools of control away.

    • You point out a dark and sobering reality. Thanks for weighing in.

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  • Nelson in Texas

    Jesus is not a rebel, he is God in the flesh. A rebel is one that is a law breaker, the reason they are called a rebel. So the perfect sinless God cannot be a rebel. In your title you imply you have how God feels about this subject, but you did not give any scriptural support. You gave your opinion only.

    To imply that those that point out suicide as somehow wrong, these views are based on scripture that you have not attempted to do.

    As one that has fought cancer, heart disease and a slew of other issues, as one that has been in pain I hope no one has to go through, I do not see in scripture that God would condone the taking of ones life. I feel horrible that someone feels the need to take ones life. God works wonders in the lives of those in pain, God uses pain to draw people to him. We cannot assume to think God would ever want one to take their lives. God says in his word to not take a life and he does not say this does not apply to ones self.

    I realize you mean well, I hope she found peace, but she will not and no one will ever know what God might have done had she chose to allow God himself take her home.

    • Dear Nelson in Texas, I am so sorry for the pain in your life, and I find your earnest faith in God authentic and inspiring.

      Scripture doesn’t give us instructions on many things in life that require our own decision making. It doesn’t, for instance, tell us the best treatment option to follow for cancer. I maintain we should allow for a diversity of Christian opinions, even as all of us are striving to be as faithful as we can, in our reading of Scripture, sensitivity to the Spirit, and exercising our God-given minds.

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