Terminal Illness – Living Wills

By Wayne Jackson

The recent case in Florida involving Terri Schiavo has again thrown our nation into an ethical fire-storm of controversy regarding certain life-and-death issues. For some fifteen years Terri had been in what some called a “persistent vegetative state.” She was able to breathe on her own, and evidenced some awareness, but she was unable to feed herself or communicate with her family in a meaningful way.

Her husband (who has been living with another woman for several years) claims she once expressed the conviction that should some tragedy befall her, leaving her in a state like that which she survived for so long, she would not want her life to be prolonged artificially. Hence (after many legal battles) her feeding tube was removed and she died.

Beyond this case, let us ask: Is a terminally-ill Christian morally obligated to prolong his life artificially (by means of drugs or machinery)? Life-and-death decisions are some of the most difficult choices one will ever encounter. Sometimes there is no easy “yes” or “no” answer.

Since the Bible does not provide specific solutions to many questions of this nature, scriptural principles must be sought in making crucial decisions. And “one size” doesn’t fit “all.”

First, we are bound to acknowledge that biological life is a gift from God (Acts 17:25; 1 Timothy 6:13). No person, therefore, ever has the arbitrary right to destroy that life — either by suicide or homicide (and that includes what is politely called “euthanasia”). This must be kept in view.

Second, it is an inevitable reality, taught both by experience and the scriptures, that death is the ultimate destiny of all men (except for those alive when Christ returns – 1 Thessalonians 4:15). As a result of sin, death has passed to all (Romans 5:12); it is a divine appointment (Hebrews 9:27). We may, with good health habits and sound medical procedures, delay the “Grim Reaper” for a while, but the sobering reality is, all of us are terminal!

What does one do if he learns he has terminal cancer? Suppose you were told: “With chemotherapy and/or radiation, you may have a year; without it, you will have no more than two to three months.” Is the Christian morally obligated to subject himself to sickening treatments for the sake of a few months more? Certainly one has the option of treatment (and many promising remedies are being developed), but there is nothing in the Scriptures that would require it.

And what shall we say of the accident-victim who is “brain-dead,” and whose bodily functions are maintained solely by sophisticated machinery (e.g., the heart/lung apparatus)? Must a Christian family sustain a loved one in a state of “suspended-animation” for years? There is nothing in the Bible that would demand this.

It would appear to be a different situation, however, if the body is able to maintain most functions (except communication), and all that is required are food and water. Ethical people don’t withhold nourishment from the ill simply because he/she is unable to communicate.

In difficult cases involving the Christian, the issue takes on another dimension. We may reflect: Where is our hope really focused? There is something to be said for quality of life; sometimes the best thing we can do for a loved one is to let him/her go home to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). In my judgment, blessed release (Revelation 14:13) would be far better than electronically maintaining a brain-dead body for which there is no hope of recovery (if such is determined positively).

These types of dilemmas are why many people are choosing to make a “Living Will.” This is a document that expresses your wishes in terms of what medical procedures you would want exercised in the event of a tragic accident/illness from which there is no realistic hope of recovery, and you are beyond making the choice for yourself. Do not leave these agonizing decisions to burden your family. Write them down and have the document witnessed — perhaps even notarized.

And while you are at it, make your preferences known for after-death arrangements, and urge your loved ones to respect your wishes. For a sample “Living Will” via the Internet, see here and here.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.