‘Euthanasia’ comes from two Greek words (eu - good, thanatos - death) which means ‘good death.’ The Orthodox Christian perspective is that the only good death is one in which a person approaches the end of his or her life:
- in the spirit of moral and spiritual purity,
- in hope and trust in God, and
- as a member of His Kingdom.
Yet today this word has been distorted to mean something entirely different.
A modern distortion
The word euthanasia is today being used to refer to ‘intentional killing’ or ‘providing of the means to commit suicide’ by a medical practitioner in order to relieve a patient’s suffering.
‘Intentional killing’ or ‘assisted suicide’ is a long way from the Orthodox Church’s model of ‘a good death.’
From the Orthodox Christian perspective, the sixth Commandment clearly states "You shall not kill/murder."
In all societies throughout history great significance has been attached to dying and death. As a result of current medical advances the question of death and dying is faced with new challenges. We live much longer than most of our ancestors. However, in the opinion of many, the additional years often turn out to be lacking in quality. For some this experience turns out to be unbearable.
This leads many to question:
- Does a person have the right to end his life ‘with dignity’?
- Is it necessary to prolong a person's life when it is obvious that he/she has no chance to lead a "normal life"?
- Is it ethical to cut short the life of a hopelessly ill person in order to free him/her from unbearable torment and suffering?
What does Orthodox Christianity teach about such questions?
Orthodox teaching on Euthanasia
The Orthodox Church rejects Euthanasia
"Orthodox Christian ethics," writes Orthodox theologian Fr. Stanley Harakas, "rejects euthanasia; it considers it a special case of murder if done without the knowledge and consent of the patient, and suicide if it is requested by the patient" (p. 129 in Living the Faith, Light and Life Publ. Co., 1993).
He also writes, “The Orthodox Church believes that to elevate euthanasia to a right or an obligation would bring it into direct conflict with the fundamental ethical affirmation that as human beings we are custodians of life which comes from a source other than ourselves. Furthermore, the immense possibilities, not only for error but also for decision making based on self-serving ends which may disregard the fundamental principle of the sanctity of human life, argue against euthanasia.”
The Church accompanies its faithful from even before birth, through all the steps of life to death and beyond, with its prayers, rites, sacraments, preaching, teaching, and its love, faith and hope. All of life, and even death itself, are drawn into the realm of the life of the Church. Death is seen as evil in itself, and symbolic of all those forces which oppose God-given life and its fulfilment. Salvation and redemption are normally understood in Eastern Christianity in terms of sharing in Jesus Christ's victory over death, sin and evil through His crucifixion and His resurrection. The Orthodox Church has a very strong pro-life stand which in part expresses itself in opposition to doctrinaire advocacy of euthanasia.
Death is unnatural
The Fathers of the Church teach that death is unnatural for man, because man was created not for death, but for life. Death, along with suffering and illness, occurs not according to God's will. Concerning this it says in the Book of Wisdom: “For God did not make death. Neither does He have pleasure over the destruction of the living. For He created all things that they might exist”. (Wisdom 1:13-14). And in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel we read: “For I do not will the death of the one who dies, says the Lord.” (Ezekiel 18:32).
According to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, the meaning of Adam's sin is that man, who was created in the image and likeness of God and infused with breath by His Spirit, when he had appeared on the face of the earth, chose death instead life, evil instead of righteousness. "Therefore, just as through one man (Adam) sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12), says the Apostle Paul. And having sinned, man brought death also to his children, who shared his nature and life.
The Christian faith opposes death
Spiritual life for the Christian consists of dying with Christ to sin and the world and of passing with Him through the experience of bodily death in order to be resurrected in the Kingdom of God. Christians are called to meet the tragedy of death with faith in our death-conquering Lord.
“I AM the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26).
A Christian is called to have "the remembrance of death," that is, not to forget his mortality, and that the final triumph of light will appear only after the resurrection of the dead. But preparedness for death does not mean that earthly life loses its value. On the contrary, it remains the greatest good, and the Christian is called to the fullness of the present life, in so far as he is able to fill up each moment of this life with the light of Christ's love.
Christians forbidden to cause death
It follows from this patristic presentation about life and death that a Christian is forbidden to participate in the deliberate cessation of the life of others, including also the hopelessly ill.
How are Christians to meet death?
The Church suffers together with people in extreme misfortune and cannot ever change her mission to preserve the sacred gift of life. The Church approves the use of various medicines and even narcotics to decrease the physical pain of the sufferer. In instances where it is evident that death is inescapable, and the person is spiritually prepared for death by means of confession and communion, the Church blesses that person to die naturally, without the interference of various life-prolonging medical devices and drugs. But this is different to actively ending a person’s life.
The Church teaches that by bearing our suffering righteously and patiently, that is, with faith, hope and even joy, we become the greatest witness to God's salvation in this world. Nothing can compare with such patience, for the glorification of God in the midst of suffering and infirmity is the greatest of all offerings which a person can ever make from his/her life on earth.
All the saints suffered from some kind of bodily infirmity. The greatest example is Christ Himself. The Apostle Peter teaches us to arm ourselves with the same way of thinking that Jesus had; “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind ('way of thinking' ESV), for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he should no longer live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men ('human passions' ESV), but for the will of God”. (I Peter 4:1-2). The Christian, according to the grace given him by God, is challenged to accept participation in the sufferings of Christ.
The Church blesses the hopelessly ill person to consciously prepare for death, without necessarily resorting to artificial means of life support. In Her prayers "at the parting of the soul from the body," the Church prays for God to send to the hopelessly ill "a speedy and painless end," believing that the prolonging of the life of the hopelessly ill enters into conflict with God's plan for that person.
Of course we cannot generalise about the Church's approach to this question. The problem of maintaining the life of the gravely ill needs a case by case approach involving the relatives of the ill person, his/her physician and spiritual director all undergirded with prayer for God’s guidance.
The Church makes a clear differentiation between euthanasia and the decision not to use extraordinary means to maintain life in those instances when a person is hopelessly ill. The Church affirms the holiness and sanctity of life, and it is the duty of each Christian in every way possible to protect life as a sacred gift of God. The sole form of "a good death," from the Church's point of view, is the peaceful acceptance of the end of earthly life, enriched by faith and trust in God and in the hope of resurrection in Christ.
The only ‘good death’
The only ‘good death’ recognised by the Orthodox Church is that death in which the human person accepts the end of his or her life in the spirit of moral and spiritual purity, in hope and trust in God, and as a member of His kingdom.
This article adapted from the following sources:
- The Orthodox Christian view on Euthanasia
- Physician Assisted Suicide and the Orthodox Church
- A Christian Response to Euthanasia and Medically Assisted Suicide
- Euthanasia and The Sixth Commandment
- Russian Orthodox church speaks out on euthanasia
- Euthanasia, Physician-Assisted Suicide, and the Pursuit of Death with Dignity
All scripture quotes from the Orthodox Study Bible unless otherwise stated. ESV = English Standard Version