On Saturday, November 1st, Brittany Maynard ended her life by taking a fatal dose of barbiturates, prescribed to her by her doctor. Maynard had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor earlier this year. Facing the prospect of a long and gruesome but inevitable demise, Maynard chose to end her life by choice under the “death with dignity” provision of Oregon law.
Throughout her ordeal, Maynard has become a public icon in the ongoing debate over “death with dignity” legislation. While Maynard publicly expressed gratitude to many people who supported her decision, she also bore the brunt of harsh criticism and judgement. Some who spoke out against Maynard’s decision were compassionate and graceful, others were vitriolic and hateful.
Maynard did not profess to be a Christian, and I’m fairly certain that the whiplash of condemnation she faces from “Christian” social-media outlets hardly swayed her or her family to consider converting to the faith. Inasmuch, I stand by Maynard and support her as a fellow human being who faced a tragic circumstance and tried to do what she felt was best. I cannot judge her for not abiding by my Christian values any more than a bird could judge a cat for not flying properly. Mrs. Maynard’s ultimate fate is not a debate for ethicists and theologians and certainly not one for social media, but ultimately and solely God.
That said, this story raises many questions of great importance, particularly the question of how God views a human ending their own life. This is an increasingly pertinent question both as suicide rates increase and legislation for allowing physician assisted suicide gains momentum across the country. As someone who advocates suicide prevention, I also want to advocate for correct perceptions of the tragedies that take place in our neighborhoods, schools, churches and-in the case of Brittany Maynard and certainly more to come- our hospitals.
Among the verbose condemnations of Mrs. Maynard’s decision were numerous people of a Christian background who proclaimed that by ending her own life she had damned herself to hell. This is not a new belief, but (sadly) finds it’s roots in canonical law; in medieval times one who committed suicide was denied a Christian burial, and through the 1960’s suicide was still considered a crime in much of the US and England. I would hope that such notions had been discarded along with religious inquisitions, Biblical justifications of slavery and subjugation of women. But we humans are depraved and Christians most of all; I need no further proof of this beyond the numerous Twitter and Facebook posts I read following Maynard’s case which (generally speaking) followed the lines of: “You’re a coward-enjoy hell.”
Beyond the judgmental, horrific insensitivity of these comments, they also betray bad theology: theology that is not only scarring to those who are left mourning in the wake of suicide but also has the potential to eradicate hope from the hearts of many who contemplate it. For if God’s grace is not extended to the lowest of our moments, if His love can’t cover despair and pain that would lead someone to end their own life, then it can’t cover any of our sins. In other words: if God damns people solely for their decision to end their own life, it follows that we will all be damned.
Allow me to explain:
Christian theology, at it’s core, is based on the idea that we are all sinners and inasmuch we stand separated from God and are thus condemned:
” For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23
Furthermore, the Christian belief proposes that the wages of sin is a death (Romans 6:23) and the end result of all sin is damnation:
“…but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:17
The conversation about a human’s choice in the matter, our power over our eternal destiny, is divided. Some camps believe in predestination, the notion God has selected and preordained those who will be saved and has complete control over who accepts His grace and who does not. Other camps place greater emphasis on the free-will of each individual and propose that God has not preordained us but rather has foreknowledge of what we will ultimately choose.
These debates are centuries old and I could hardly do them justice in a book, let alone a blog post. The point that needs to be made, upon which Christians across the board can agree, is that:
a) We all have sinned.
b) Sin results in death.
c) It is only Gods grace (in whatever fashion it is bequeathed to us) that can save us from sin.
So death, Christians inherently believe, is in some way a choice. Everyone at some point in their life will choose to sin, at least once. And, if nothing else, that one sin is enough to lead to death.
So if suicide is a sin (which Christians generally say that it is) that results in physical death what possibly makes it worse than any other sin which will also results in death? What reasoning do we have for suicide to be a sin who’s damnation extends beyond death in this life but also moves a person beyond God’s grace?
If one is going to believe that suicide, because it is a choice that results in one’s own death therefore also results in damnation, then they must logically believe the same for many other sins too:
If I go driving and go over the speed limit, resulting in a collision with a telephone pole which leads to my death, am I then eternally separated from God as well? What if I eat fast food all day, every day and die at a young age of heart disease? Damnation?
Both these scenarios involve me making a decision that leads to and/or directly result in my death. Granted, we could easily get hung up on technicalities; I didn’t kill myself, the doctors couldn’t save me following my car accident; I didn’t end my own life willingly, I just didn’t have self-control over what I ate and the fatty foods eventually clogged my arteries. But if we’re going to take that route then it’s worth pointing out that no one has the power to truly kill themselves; even Maynard technically didn’t end her life, the pills prescribed by a doctor did.
This may sound like an absurd technicality. But the point to all this is that while I cannot necessarily support Mrs. Maynard’s decision I also cannot condemn it. I also cannot and should not condemn the thousands of people (most of which have mental illnesses) who make decisions to end their life each year. It’s not my place to condemn anyone, only to love; love the families left behind and the departed themselves by remembering that we all make choices that lead to death, there’s was a little more drastic but no more depraved than mine.
And that’s really where this whole discussion should leave us; it should leave us in a posture of “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” not just on Brittany Maynard but on all of us. If we speak, we must speak with immense humility and grace especially if we hope to propose our Christian viewpoint on this subject. Because we have all chosen death, in some way or another, at some time or another. And all of us, if we proclaim to be Christians, must also proclaim that our sin- though it maybe isn’t the sin of suicide- is just as deserving of damnation. And it is only by God’s grace that we have hope for this not to be the case.
Furthermore, if we believe in God’s grace then we must believe that this grace can extend to the depths of our pain and brokenness, even to the depth of choosing to end our own life. If we don’t, if we don’t believe that God’s grace is enough for our lowest points, then we are proposing that it is not His grace but our ability that propels us to a point where He is actually able to work. If God damns suicide then we are all beyond help. And that’s not hope, nor is it the gospel.
My prayers are with the Maynard family as they mourn their loss. And I truly pray that through this difficult time they might see a hope that goes beyond death, beyond sin and into eternity. This is a hope made possible only by overwhelming grace and mercy, and it’s in that grace all of us must rest.