From Euthanasia to the Gospel

You’ve invited the neighbours over for dinner. Dessert has been successfully concluded, and the kids have retired to their bedroom where they are conducting experiments in paint durability under various impact scenarios. The coffee orders are being taken. As it so often does, the conversation is meandering down loosely connected paths and byways, and your dreams of perhaps talking about the gospel (or even something vaguely Christian) seem to be fading faster than the paint in the kids’ bedroom.

Then all of a sudden your neighbour passes from a heated discussion of Paul Keating’s pig farm to the euthanasia debate. You are struck with inspiration. Euthanasia! Here’s your chance to talk about life and death issues. Surely you could score a few points for the gospel here.

But how? With the advice of I’d like an argument, please ringing in your ears, you want to tread carefully.

You don’t want to wade straight in with the utilitarian argument, for example, partly because you can’t quite remember what ‘utilitarian’ means. (Reminder: a utilitarian argument focuses on the consequences of a particular action; it is about whether it will produce, in the end, good effects or bad effects.) The utilitarian argument on euthanasia is a telling one, but even if you succeeded in establishing the point you wouldn’t be very much closer to the gospel. The best you could expect is a grudging admission that your proposal might cause less overall harm to society than his proposal. No, perhaps you ought to avoid the utilitarian argument on utilitarian grounds.

Nor do you want to appeal to intuition (“Surely it is wrong to take someone else’s life”). Your neighbours, who support euthanasia, may well reply with an equally strong intuitive argument (“Surely it is indefensible to allow a fellow human being to suffer like that; how can you simply stand there in the face of that senseless human agony, staring into those eyes pleading with you to do something to end the pain, and not act?”). No, maybe the intuitive approach might not be a good move.

That leaves the theological arguments (“God is the giver and taker of life, not us” etc.), but since your neighbours are born-again agnostics, that’s not going to cut much ice either. You can already hear them responding: “There you go, bringing God into it again. What gives you the right to impose your God on someone else’s choice to die with dignity?” That sounds tricky.

To make matters worse, while you have been silently weighing up these conversational options, your neighbours have finished their second cups of coffee, coughed several times, looked at their watches, and gone home.

“It’s all right, dear”, says your wife. “I told them you were contemplating euthanasia.”

One thing was certain: your evangelistic efforts had died a death, and without dignity.

How might this lamentable situation have been retrieved?

As we suggested in the ‘From the Archives’ article, the key is to question your opponent’s moral assumptions. What underlying moral claims does the pro-euthanasia lobby make? What basis do they have for making these?

There are many moral avenues down which your argument might travel. An obvious one is the issue of ‘rights’, since the pro-euthanasia argument is largely based on an ethic of rights. It is argued that human beings have the ‘right’ to determine the time and manner of their own death, as a matter of natural justice. This is a positive moral claim—that it is right and just for a person to be allowed to control their own death, and that it is wrong and unjust for that autonomy to be denied them. That is what a ‘right’ is—something that is mine by just claim; something that ought to be inalienably mine, as established by some principle of justice or law.

The obvious question to ask is: Says who? Who says that it is right and just for a human to determine the time and manner of his death? Where is the principle of justice established that gives humans this right of self-determination?

Ask the question and see what your neighbours say. They will try to put their foot down on something firm and find that the ground they never stopped to think about isn’t there. They have a limited number of alternatives:

  • They can argue on the basis of intuition (“surely this is self-evident”), but if I disagree, then it comes down to a matter of personal preference. Their moral claim in the end has all the vigour and substance of KFC (“I like it like that”).
  • If total moral anarchy doesn’t appeal to them, they can take refuge in the decision of the majority (“most right-thinking people would agree”), but on this basis the world was once flat, and it was once right in one country to exterminate 6 million Jews.
  • They can try to argue from some sort of utilitarian position (what will produce the most good), but will not get very far. For one thing, it is hard to argue that, individual self-determination, as a moral principle, would produce goodness and happiness in society. You could make a stronger case for self-determination being the ruin of society. Moreover, in order to say that something will produce the most good, your neighbours need to be able to define what is ‘good’, and the problem of the unsupported moral claim recurs.

In the end, your friends are left with an appeal to some sort of higher moral standard or principle—something which transcends personal preference or intuition. But where is this standard to be found? Why can we not agree about it?

You must gently point out that once God is left out, there is no higher objective standard to which we can appeal, unless you count the United Nations, and not even your neighbours are that naive. Their moral claim is completely without rational foundation, as is their argument in favour of euthanasia. Without God, there are no ‘rights’, for in a purely materialist world what happens is simply what happens. Pain and suffering are just words we give to certain kinds of activity in our nerve endings.

On this depressing note, you might leave your neighbours to stew for a while. Or you might take the opportunity which hopefully arises (then or later) to explain how God is the basis of all moral claims, for he made the world, and us in it, to live under his authority. He establishes what is ‘right’ and ‘just’, and only under his rule and with his values does the world make sense.

From there, you can proceed to how you know this to be the case—because of Jesus, who came to reveal the Father and to reconcile us to him.

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