God’s Life and Death Principle
Rev. Wayne D. Mueller
May a Christian couple consider in vitro fertilization a God-pleasing way to relieve their childlessness? Is it ever ethical to pull the plug on respiratory equipment attached to a lifetime faithful spouse? To what lengths must we go to preserve the last days of a life which is being lived out in agony? The challenge presented to our faith by life and death issues may be even more heart-wrenching and complicated than the situations described. And when it happens to you, it will be real. It will be a real test of your faith in God.
Before we check the rule book for easy answers to these tough questions, our Christian ethic directs us to look to the God who is posing the questions. Whether it is our own life or the life of a loved one we are considering, God is forcing us by the challenge to faith to think about our own mortality. He wants us to ponder the meaning of the life he has given us. Before we decide what action to take, God is saying, think about me and your relationship to me.
The response of faith
With these tough challenges to our faith God is inviting our humility and a stronger trust and dependence upon him. The psalmist formulated the response God wants from us: “My times are in your hands” (31:15). Through faith we see our life as an underserved gift from God — a time of grace in which we are to seek God (Acts 17:26,27), share our knowledge of Jesus the Savior with others (1 Peter 3:15) and live lives which give glory to God (Romans 13:11-14). With such faith we come to medical problems with a spiritual view of life. We see every life as a body and a soul — not just a body to be medicated, treated and released. So for our answers we look to the God who is the creator of body and soul and the Savior of both.
God’s life and death principle
The Bible provides guidance for those who want to know how to say thanks to God for the gift of life. In life and death issues we usually think of the Fifth Commandment first. From catechism instruction we remember, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Luther’s explanation immediately comes to mind: “…Do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and be a friend to him in every bodily need.”
Yet behind the Fifth Commandment stands an even greater principle of life. By faith we accept God’s control, not just over the end of life, but also over its beginning. God began human life in a special creation (Genesis 1:27). Only God can preserve this life (1 Samuel 2:6). And along with his claim to begin and preserve life, he alone retains the right to decide when it ends. So the great principle behind life and death issues is that God begins it, God alone can be trusted to preserve it and God himself retains the right to decide when it ends. “See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
Application to beginning-of-life issues
Ethicists and the courts of the land have long argued over “when” a human life begins. The world seeks its own opinions as to whether the moment of conception, the first or second trimester of pregnancy or only birth itself produces a human life. Legalized abortion is the horrible result of asking the wrong question of the wrong people.
We look to God for our answer to the existence of human life. God settles the issue by telling us “how” he begins life. Since he first created man and woman, he has propagated human life by conception. That is the way Adam and Eve brought their first child into the world (Genesis 4:1). That is the way Hannah brought life to Samuel (1 Samuel 1:20; 2:6). That is the way in which the Son of God took on human life (Matthew 1:20-23). The answer to the question of how God creates human life settles for us the question of its existence. Since it begins with conception, human life is present at conception.
This means that abortion in almost every circumstance is sinful. It is murder. It is the act of taking into our hands an authority over human life which God has reserved to himself. Only when one human life is balanced against another, such as when a mother’s life is threatened by her pregnancy, is there a decision to be made by the Christian.
Some so-called birth control methods are really abortions because they destroy an egg that has already been fertilized inside the mother. In vitro fertilization procedures are not in themselves wrong. Yet the majority of these still involve the destruction of some fertilized cells that are not implanted in the mother.
When motivation flows from faith and a knowledge of God’s will, Christian couples may seek medical help for the prevention of conception and for assistance in receiving the blessing of children. But it is always important for husbands and wives fully to understand the medical procedures they are contemplating. Thoughtful discussion of God’s ways will come before taking any action.
Application to end-of-life issues
Although God tells us exactly how he begins a human life, he does not tell us how or when he will end a life. We know that when we die, our soul leaves our body (Ecclesiastes 12:7), but we may not always be able to tell when that instant is. Traditional measurements such as the cessation of breath or pulse have long ago been shown to be inadequate.
For one human to end his own life or the life of another because of suffering is a faithless attempt to tell God he has not brought on death soon enough. Only faith understands the justice of God when he allows suffering (Romans 8:18). As terrible as it sometimes may be, suffering accomplishes the purposes of God both in the sufferer and in those who must minister to him (Romans 5:3-5). No matter how long it lasts, our suffering will always be much shorter than the eternity for which it prepares us.
At the same time, what is often coldly referred to as “pulling the plug” may be an act of faith. It is not necessary to prolong the outward signs of life when it is clear by available human judgment that God has already taken the soul from the body.
The most important factor in a decision
Death, no matter how it comes, is always a reminder to those who stand watch that life is short. The time to forgive a spouse, speak of Christ to a friend, comfort a troubled relative, correct a child is now. The time to life for the glory of God is now. When all of life is lived in confident trust that we are in God’s hands, then death — even a painful and prolonged death filled with medical conundrums — is the way to living forever with the author of life. Faith in Jesus Christ is always the most important factor in a decision. Thank God his power and grace have brought us to the Savior!