Death and Dying, Euthansia

St. Alban the Protomartyr of Britain

St. Alban the Protomartyr of Britain

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Very Reverend Father George Alberts (Source: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America)

Morality IV--Death and Dying, Euthanasia

From the earliest times, humans have had some sort of belief in life after death. This belief has varied from culture to culture and from religion to religion. It is what has made man's life worth living by giving him something to look forward to when this life was over. It also plays a role in our earthly life as well. Expressions like "before I die I want to..."; "my biological clock is ticking"; and terms like "midlife crisis" all show the role death plays in our life.

The belief in life after death is at the very heart of the Church's teachings. As Saint Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:13-14). Christ's Himself said, "For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (St. John 6:40) (cf. St. John 6:38-39; 2 Timothy 3:1; 1 John 2:18; 1 Peter 1:5).

The results of the fall of man are sin and death. Man was no longer sinless and immortal, but he took on sin and physical death. Life on earth became a kind of testing ground in which we are given a free will to make a choice of either following or rejecting God and His teachings. Life on earthly and earthly things become secondary; the primary goal is to gain and endless life with God in His Kingdom. As Christ puts it, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?" (St. Matthew 24:26). Immortality of sour soul and everlasting life with Jesus Christ is the result of our living a life with God, struggling each day to live as the Gospel tells us.

All of us experience an inner feeling that life does not stop with death. From the first records of man, we can find proof of this. Many were buried with their household goods and even their servants to aid them in their journey and to serve them in the next life. The exact form of this next life was not really known. Even though we as Christians believe in an everlasting life, it is hard for our minds to comprehend what it will be like to live forever in a place we have never seen. Saint Paul tries to describe this feeling to the people of Corinth saying, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully..." (1 Corinthians 13:12). "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:9). All of us have this feeling that death is not the end. We have this carry-over from our ancestors, Adam and Eve, this taste of immortality.

The beliefs of the Orthodox Church on the survival of the soul after death are twofold. First of all, the soul is given a Partial Judgment or primary judgment after death and receives a foretaste of its reward or punishment. This is based in Holy Scripture when Christ told the repentant thief, "Truly, I say to you today you will be with Me in Paradise" (St. Luke 23:43). The soul is judged right after death on the two great commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor (cf. St. Matthew 27:37-39). As Christ said, "On these two commandments depends all the law and prophets" (St. Matthew 22:40). Another example of judgment after death is that of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. (St. Luke 16:19-31)

The Second or Final Judgment is at the Second Coming of Christ. In this judgment, all are included, both the living and the dead. The souls of the departed will be reunited with the body. The body of the living and the dead will not be the type of physical body we have now, but what is referred to as a resurrected body; the type of body that Christ Himself had after He rose from the dead. At this time, Christ will come to judge all of us in the glory of His Power. Those in the graves will rise from the tombs and join the living in standing before Him for judgment. Reference to this is made in the Old and in the New Testament books of Daniel 12:2 (cf. Job 19:25; Exe. 37:1; Isa. 26:19; 2 Mac. 7:9, 14f; and in the New Testament books of St. John 5:25-29; Acts 4:2; 17:18,32; 1 Cor. 15:3-15; Romans 8:11; 1 Thes. 4:14).

As you can see from Holy Scripture and the teachings of the Church, there are two judgments, a Partial Judgment after death and a Final Judgment at the Second Coming of Christ. Because we believe in this Partial Judgment, we can ask the Saints in prayer to intercede for us with God since they are close to God in His Kingdom already. We can also remember the departed and pray for God's mercy on their souls; that He will forgive their sins and accept them into His Heavenly Kingdom. We remember the departed at each Divine Liturgy and at special Memorial or Soul Saturday Liturgies. We also remember the departed at Trisagion Memorial Services. These are held at special times set by the Church very early on in its history. In the Constitution of the Holy Apostles (Book 8, Section 4, Paragraph 42) we read one set of practices used in the Early Church and followed today. "Let the third day of the departed by celebrated with Psalms and lessons, and prayers, on account of Him Who Arose within the span of three days; and let the ninth day be celebrated in remembrance of the living and of the departed; and the fortieth day according to the ancient patter for so did the people lament Moses; and the anniversary day in memory of him. And let alms (charity) be given to the poor out of his goods (his earthly possessions) for a memorial of him." We also use wheat (kollyva-Kόλλυβα) or boiled wheat which is the symbol of life after death. Christ tells us this in St. John 12:24: "Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears fruit."

Death for us is only a transition from this earthly life to a heavenly immortal life with Christ in His Kingdom. Death is difficult to face because it takes us away from the life we have known. It is a mystery because we have not experienced anything like it and because of that, we can sometimes be afraid of death. As Orthodox Christians we have to put our trust in God and have faith that when our life ends, we will join the Saints, our departed loved ones and Him in His Kingdom for Eternity. In the meantime, we can prepare ourselves by living a life pleasing to God. This includes regularly receiving the Mysteries (Sacraments) of Confession and Communion and constantly being prepared to stand before God having a "Christian ending to our life…and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ" (Petition of the Divine Liturgy).

Now that we know what the Orthodox Christian Church teaches about death and dying, we need to address some related issues.

1. Euthanasia, Mercy Killings or Elective Death

Whatever name we use for this practice we know that it has been around for centuries. Old people, the infirm and even infants were often left to die. The Church had to address these practices since the Gospel was being preached to all peoples of many varied cultures. This issue still needs to be addressed in our culture today. Many people rally around the idea of what some call "death with dignity". One of the factors that is cited for the support of euthanasia (efthanasia - Gk. ευθανασία="good or painless death") is the fact that today people who would normally have died years ago can technologically be kept "alive" almost indefinitely. The Pro-Euthanasia group says that this is carrying on a life that is meaningless and undignified. Therefore, they say that we should be allowed to practice euthanasia in order to provide them with a dignified death. The argument for euthanasia goes beyond this sort of agreeable idea. It involves things like the starvation of infants afflicted with treatable medical problems. It can also involve the "putting out of his misery" of someone who is physically or mentally handicapped or deformed. "Let's kill them in order to spare them from suffering." The suicide aspect is involved with the push towards allowing and encouraging others to take their own life. One example of this is the Hemlock Society and the literature it and other groups like it put out to instruct people on the ways to commit suicide. Another more recent development is the suicide machine that delivers lethal drugs much like those used to execute criminals.

Those who argue for "active" euthanasia use an argument similar to the pro-abortion movement. They say that people have autonomy or the human right to end their life if they wish. But since euthanasia also involves others who can't or are unable to decide for themselves, who makes the decisions for them? Do parents have a right to kill or allow a newborn baby that may not be physically or mentally "normal" to die? Should a spouse or a child determine whether their elderly or ill parent or spouse should die because their life is no longer meaningful? These are the hard questions put to us today.

In response the Orthodox Christian Church has to rely on its teaching and past experience. As we learned before, God created all things. He is the Giver of Life. We have to protect the life He gives us and guard it from all evil. Taking a life in any fashion is condemned as a sin by the Holy Bible and the Church (Exodus 20:13). Only God knows the time of our birth and death. To take a life for any reason is "playing God" and is condemned by the Orthodox Church. Man not only has the ability to take a life, but also preserve it medically and technologically. The Church would not oppose using new methods and technology to aid to body in getting well. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church tells us that there is a time to die and when this time comes, we should let them die in peace and not keep "a dead" body artificially alive. When the body and its systems are totally broken down and dying, then we are not obliged to use extraordinary means to keep it alive. But in keeping with Holy Scripture and the Church, we must not actively take the life of someone else or our own.



"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George