And Death Shall Be No More: Confronting the False Gospel of Death with Dignity

June 21, 2016

On more than one occasion, I have found myself leading a family in prayer while holding the hand of a dying man in hospice care. At this point, the family simply wanted the relief of knowing that the suffering had ended and that the man was finally at rest with Christ. On other occasions, I have found myself making frequent visits to an assisted living facility in order to ministers to church members who were plagued with dementia. With each month that passed, I grew less and less recognizable to my members, spending the majority of my time simply reintroducing myself to them. At this point, the pastoral care was palliative. Apart from miraculous intervention, the people that I was visiting were not going to recover. Death was certain. In fact, funeral plans occasionally occurred at the behest of the family in the very presence of their dying family member. There was no denying the impending “covering of death that is cast over all people” (Isa. 25:7). It is in situations like these that a pastor’s theological mettle really gets tested. Pastoral care beside the death bed is holy ground. For, it is here, in the face of certain death, that all of our white ivory tower theorizing about eschatology looks us in the eyes and asks, “Are the dead really raised?”

As pastors attempt to shepherd their terminally-ill sheep to “the river’s edge,” a growing number of people in the world are suggesting a solution to death that they claim is “peaceful, humane, and dignified.”[1] Instead of suffering for months on end with an incurable disease, Death with Dignity (DWD, hereafter) advocates appeal to humanity’s rather natural desire to avoid pain and suffering. The proposed solution is straightforward enough. As an “end-of-life” option, advocates seek to allow “certain terminally ill people to voluntarily and legally request and receive a prescription medication from their physician to hasten their death.” Such advocacy efforts have already resulted in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont passing legislation that allows “physician-assisted dying,” while California’s law takes effect on June 9, 2016. These states alongside DWD advocates promise those with a terminal illness a “dignified” death. A “dignified death,” according to advocates, is one that affords those with a terminal illness the opportunity to die with a sense of self-respect, self-determination, self-control, and self-awareness. In other words, instead of passively and slowly being subdued by death, “certain” patients actively and willingly enter into it. The solution is often proposed as a merciful and compassionate solution that alleviates a loved one’s suffering. So how should Christians respond to such DWD solutions? How can pastors shepherd their sick sheep well through the valley of the shadow of death?

Admittedly, it is hard to know where to start with answers to such questions. One could begin by pleading for Christians to stop trivializing death. Death first appears in the Bible as a consequence of mankind’s rebellion against God and according to Paul, “spread to all mankind.” It is a universal reality. Funeral jokes and awkward colloquial phrases about how “God just needed another angel” are not real solutions for combatting the ubiquity of death. They are mere distractions from the finality and impending judgment that follows death (Heb. 9:27). Of course, such a move away from the trivialization of death would require the embrace of a robust theology of death. With the vast majority of DWD advocates addressing death from an anthropocentric perspective, Christians must recognize that death is ultimately theocentric. The apostle Paul wrote, “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8). As Christians, we do not have the authority to make death about ourselves. Yes, we will die; but our death is unto the Lord. Medical expediency, scientific ability, and twisted distortion of mercy and compassion must not be allowed to shape the conscience on these matters. Our perspective about death must be shaped by the eschatological trajectory of death itself.

Ultimately, though, while taking death seriously and developing a theology of death are vital aspects of one’s response to DWD arguments, there is an even more urgent problem that Christians must face directly. DWD proposals attempt to undermine the continuing significance of the work of Christ. Most people are rightly and understandably fearful of death. Even I will admit that I have left my share of assisted living facilities and thought to myself, “Lord, please don’t let me suffer when I die.” It is in such a moment that the false gospel of DWD promises a “peaceful, humane, and dignified death.” No need to worry about someone feeding you, bathing you, or cleaning up after you. No concerns about being a “burden” to others in your family. No fear of forgetting the names of your spouse, your children, or your grandchildren. No financial burden on your surviving family. No unbearable pain or sleepless nights. No loss of control. Just a prescription, a seat in your favorite spot at home, and then you’re gone. What a compelling offer for the one that is fearful of death and all of its accompanying uncertainty! What a gospel for the terminally-ill, right? While DWD advocates certainly propose this scenario as good news for the dying, the sad reality is that in all these promises of peace, compassion, and dignity, the perpetual comfort of Christ in death is lost.

When Christians speak about the death of Christ, they tend to focus on the forgiveness and freedom from guilt that it provides for those who have trusted in Him. And rightly so! Yet, to relegate the significance of Christ’s death to the believer’s past is to neglect its continuing power in their present life. Christ died to set believer’s free not only from the condemning power of sin, but also from the enslaving power of the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-18). If a barbiturate cocktail could bring peace in death, then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21). He himself is the believer’s peace (Eph. 2:14), promising all who believe in Him that “though they die, yet shall they live” (John 11:25). DWD advocates promise peace, compassion, and dignity in death, yet dignity speaks of a state or quality of being that is worthy of honor and respect. For the Christian, such dignity is found in dying in the hope of Jesus’ fear-destroying death and resurrection. The hope for all people who face a debilitating terminal illness is found in Christ alone, who has disarmed the sting of death and conquered the grave (1 Cor. 15:50-58). We do not lose heart in our suffering. Though our outer self is wasting away with terminal illnesses, our inner self is being renewed day by day. The light momentary affliction of things like dementia and cancer, while intended by our enemy to break us, are sovereignly allowed by God to prepare for us an eternal weight of glory that is beyond comparison. Therefore, we do not look to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Christians must discern the deadly poison in DWD’s promise-wrapped pill. Humanity’s search for peace and compassion in death is a deeply theological quest, which ultimately ends with finding the One who will wipe away our tears, end our pain, and destroy death forever (Rev. 21:4).

[1] FAQS – Death with Dignity, last modified May 20, 2016, https://www.deathwithdignity.org/faqs/.

Casey B. Hough

Casey B. Hough (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and assistant professor of biblical interpretation at a Luther Rice College and Seminary. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. For more ministry resources from Casey, visit his … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24