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Death: Who should decide?

By Lew Shelton

It is a complicated theme. An issue once settled has become controversial. The theme? Life and death.

From the beginning, people generally viewed life as precious — guarded, enhanced and celebrated. Death was considered the enemy. However, eventually, some decided that death could be a friend. From King Saul’s request around 1000 B.C. that his armor bearer “pierce me through” (1 Samuel 31:4, NASB) to the adoption of the Death with Dignity Act by Oregon voters in November 1994, some have chosen to see death as a better choice than life. A number of factors have contributed to that conclusion; I would like to suggest three primary influences.

A loss of the sense that life is sacred
For most Bible-believing Christians, life is a sacred trust. Though initiated in a physical sense through man and woman, it is God who ordains life, giving each individual intrinsic value and purpose. No one is an accident; each person serves as a reflection of the One who is sacred above all others.

For many who choose not to embrace the truth of God’s Word, it would seem that life is accidental, a remarkable good fortune. A sperm encounters an egg, a zygote becomes an embryo, a child exits the birthing canal as another member of the human race. That is, of course, if the mother chooses not to abort the process and the person.

This sense of existence as accident tends to follow the thinking that life itself began as an accident — an unexplainable cosmic explosion, the result of static electricity from an unknown source. The idea of a divine originator and planner would be outside the realm of consideration. Any sense of design or destiny would probably be labeled as irresponsible rationalization.

If life is without ordination and orchestration, life is only definable by the person living it. Therefore, the individual has a right to determine when life should come to a close. Perhaps the individual is incapable of choosing. In that case, some believe, those who are primarily impacted by and most responsible for that person — be that family members or the state — should have the right to determine when life should end.

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A belief that eternity is either nonexistent or irrelevant
If there is no divine plan and if we as human beings are the designers of our own destiny, then why would we not have the right to choose when we have reached the end? What is there to fear? What is there to consider? How about eternity?

The Bible tells us that following death, the soul — breathed into man at creation — leaves the body to live eternally. Eternity offers two dwelling places: heaven or hell. The determination of that eternal residence is made by each individual in response to God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ and His death on the cross. The judgment that follows death is simply an enactment of that decision.

Some modern ideologies suggest that belief in eternity is archaic and lacks rational thinking and intellectual consideration. Death is the end. Life begins at birth and culminates at the grave. There is no heaven; there is no hell.

Others would propose that eternity is some nebulous experience, indefinable and unexplainable, often described as simply “a better place.” Even some who claim to be Christians suggest that a loving God could not send anyone to hell, therefore anyone and everyone ends up in “heaven.” But this is not what the Bible tells us. The writer of Hebrews states: “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That judgment, as already stated, is simply the enactment of the decision to accept or reject God’s gift of eternal life. Beyond the grave, eternity waits — a heaven to anticipate and a hell to avoid.

A failure to understand the big picture
Since the legalization of Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS), which actually became law in 1997 after a lengthy court battle, the state of Oregon has kept records of those involved. Over the first five years, 129 individuals chose PAS out of the 42,274 individuals who died during that same period. Three primary factors were listed as major considerations in their decision:

• Loss of autonomy
• Loss of ability to enjoy life
• Loss of control of bodily functions and the ability to cope with pain.

Each of these factors is a significant consideration. However, these concerns are primarily about “me” — my control, my enjoyment, my comfort level. Is it wrong to be concerned about these things? No! It is natural and we will probably all contemplate the same, if given the opportunity. Some have chosen to sign a Directive to Physicians giving family and attending medical professionals permission to release them — at the defined moment — to what God has ostensibly ordained. This is a very different proposition from a person choosing to die, and determining the time and means of his or her own departure. That decision is best left to Him who, in His infinite wisdom and impeccable timing, brought us into this world.

Our lives are not measured by the things we have or by our ability to find pleasure. Believers have been transformed into expressions of God’s treasury and, thus, desire to bring Him pleasure. Who knows what God may desire to do, either in us or through us, in the closing hours of our lives? Who knows when God might choose to heal us and raise us up as a testimony of His power and grace? We surely wouldn’t want to close the door on that possibility.

If God chooses not to raise us up in health, He will raise us up in glory. And in those closing hours, though I am grateful for the ability of medical personnel to control pain and ensure that the terminal person is relatively comfortable, I also know that God’s “grace is sufficient,” and in our weakest moments we can realize His greatest strength (2 Corinthians 12:9). We must not be guilty of judging what He is doing when we only hold a snapshot; it would be better to trust Him who sees and has designed the big picture.

As Eve in Eden faced the temptation to “be like God,” so the enemy has entered the gardens of our lives and seduced us with the same delusion. The bottom line: Some things are not ours to choose. Maybe if we would focus more on living we would worry less about dying.

Lew Shelton is pastor of First Assembly of God in Albany, Ore.

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