Connections: Scott B. Rae
The End of Life
Scott B. Rae, chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., spoke during the inaugural Assemblies of God Faith & Science Conference last June at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo. Rae, 57, has written 10 books, including Bioethics: A Christian Approach in a Pluralistic Age and Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics. Rae, who has dealt with the terminal illnesses of his father and his wife’s parents, recently chatted about end-of-life ethics with Evangel News Editor John W. Kennedy.
evangel: Your research shows most Christians avoid the topic of the end of life.
RAE: That’s overwhelmingly true. Even for those of us who have an eternal hope, facing mortality is difficult.
evangel: You say spiritual rather than medical questions need to be asked at the end of life.
RAE: Beyond the obvious question of where am I headed, the most pressing questions are the ones that don’t often get asked: What am I going to be remembered for? What legacy am I leaving for the people closest to me? What kind of impact have I had for God’s kingdom?
evangel: What if the legacy isn’t so great?
RAE: Even if someone has made a mess of his life, having loved ones around while dying offers hopeful encouragement about the relationship. There is always something redemptive that you can talk about in looking back on a life.
evangel: Theologically, Christians shouldn’t fear death.
RAE: We don’t need to fear where we’re headed. Death has been conquered. But it’s legitimate to have anxiety about the dying process and the transition because it’s unknown. I don’t see anything particularly dignifying about dying. It’s one loss after another.
evangel: Why is extending life at all costs contrary to God’s plan?
RAE: It’s a misreading of the sanctity of life. It puts us in a position of making a theological assumption that earthly life is the highest good. That assertion can be idolatrous. Sometimes we tenaciously hang on to earthly life too much. There ought to be something distinctly different about the way believers view the end of life compared to nonbelievers.
evangel: Why aren’t advanced medical directives only for the elderly?
RAE: The main reason is you don’t want to burden your loved ones with trying to figure out what you want. Most families feel put upon with having to guess at what the dying person’s wishes are. Families really don’t want to make a mistake.
The other reason is so that you won’t be attached to tubes and technology that you don’t want. Other than the pain, the worst part of the dying process is the prospect of being caught in a modern version of exile, most likely unconscious and most likely all alone. A person who is starting to decline should talk about this with the family regularly.
evangel: And the wishes must be respected.
RAE: The family’s role is to enforce the dying person’s wishes. It’s against the law to override a validly written, appropriately invoked advanced directive. Family members aren’t there to come up with a plan B.
evangel: Deciding when to stop with medicine isn’t always easy.
RAE: Once you say “enough,” it’s a no-turning-back moment. Hospice care has an irreversibility to it. People need to have the pastoral community walk with them. Doctors aren’t trained to have these discussions.
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