The Scriptures and Euthanasia





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The Scriptures and Euthanasia

By Dr Alex Tang


We shall consider the biblical-theological and ethical perspectives on euthanasia. Like intentionally induced abortion, the Scriptures are surprisingly silent on the issues of suicide and euthanasia. We have largely to attempt an inferential study from the Scriptures.


The Scriptures and the Sanctity of Life

Four key principles about the sanctity of life that can be derived from the Scriptures. They are (1) human dignity comes from God, (2) all human life has equal dignity, (3) “thou shall not kill” and, (4) love your neighbour.


Human Dignity comes from God.

Human life reflects the very life of God. We are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), so our dignity and God’s are closely related. “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed: for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6). Human life is a gift from God. In response, we should approach this life with gratitude, thanksgiving and deep responsibility.


All Human Life has Equal Dignity

In Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Men and women bear the same dignity and this applies to all of mankind of all ages, sex, race and conditions. However incapacitated, mentally retarded, chronically ill, physically dependent or in a persistent vegetative state, they bear that dignity and has equal claims on us.


  “Thou Shalt not Kill”

The sixth commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13; Deu 5:17) has its roots in the Creation’s narrative:- “Let us make man in our own image”(Gen 1:26) and in the Noahic Convenant’s “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”(Gen 9:6). Man, being made in the image of God, is not to be intentionally killed. Ratsach is the Hebrew word translated as ‘kill’ in the commandment. It is similar to the Greek phoneuo, which means ‘murder’. Hence the sixth commandment forbids murder or ‘unauthorised, intentional or hostile killing of one human being by another’.[1] It is because of this that many Christians will allow exceptions to this commandment such as martyrdom, war and capital punishment. Such exceptions can also be inferred from the Scriptures.


  Love your Neighbour.

Jesus summarised the Commandments as ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. (Mark 12:30-31). Christians are called to love their neighbours. And this including taking care of each other and looking out for each other. It does not include helping each other to die, though Biblical Christian ‘situation ethicists’ may argue otherwise in the name of a new metaphysically contentless definition of ‘love’ when that neighbour is in great suffering.[2]


The Scriptures and Suicide

Suicide and Cultures

In some cultures, suicide has been morally acceptable or even honorable. Many early Greek and Roman philosophers felt that suicide was an honorable death. The Hindu practice of suttee (where a widow would throw herself upon her deceased husband’s funeral pyre), the Japanese act of hara-kiri and the Inuit practice of “going out on the ice” (where an older individual would voluntary freeze to death when he felt he was a burden to his family) were also considered to be deaths with honor.[3]

Suicide of Abimelech

There are seven incidents of suicides in the Scriptures. The first chronologically mentioned in Abimelech. After capturing the city of Thebez, he attacked a fortified tower in the centre of the city. The Old Testament noted “ Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull. Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him’.” So his servant ran him through, and he died.” ( Judges 9:52-54 ). Scripture neither approves nor disapproves of this act of assisted suicide. It was noted as a fitting end to an evil man. “Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech has done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers.” ( Judges 9:56).

Suicide of Samson

The next suicide though arguably as there was a good cause and with divine sanction, was that of Samson. “Then Samson reached towards the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived” (Judges 16: 29-30) Scripture passed no judgement on his act of suicide.

Josephus observed, “ Such was his end, after governing Israel for twenty years. And it is but right to admire the man for his valor, his strength, and the grandeur of his end, as also for the wrath which he cherished to the last against his enemies. That he let himself ensnared by a woman must be imputed to human nature which succumbs to sins, but testimony is due him for his surpassing excellence in all the rest.”[4]

Suicide of Saul and his armor bearer

The suicide of Saul and his armor bearer elicit more comments. “ The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically. Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me”. But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his own sword and died with him.”(1Samuel 31: 3-5).

Saul is condemned in 1 Chronicles 10:13-14, “ Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.” Even though Saul killed himself by his own sword, the chronicler noted that God himself killed Saul for his unfaithfulness. His armor-bearer chooses to die with his king, an example of suicide by identification. There was no comment on it in the Scriptures.

Suicide of Ahithopel

Ahithophel was King David’s counsellor. He became Absalom’s when the Absalom rebelled against his father. David prayed that God would turn Ahithphel’s counsel into foolishness (2 Samuel 15:31b). When Ahithophel found that his advice was ignored by Absalom, he hanged himself.(2 Sam 17:23). Again, there was no comment in the Scriptures about his actions.

Suicide of Zimri

Zimri came to the throne of Israel by assassination. The Israelites rebelled and besieged his city of Tirzah. “When Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the royal palace and set the palace on fire around him. So he died, because the sins he had committed, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord and walking in the ways of Jeroboam and in the sin he has committed and had caused Israel to commit.” (1Kings 16:18-20). Here it was noted that his death was judgement for his sins.

 Suicide of Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot was the only suicide mentioned in the New Testament. When Judas saw that Jesus was condemned, he was filled with remorse and tried to return the money. Then he went and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5) There was no further comment on Judas in the Scripture, except that his apostleship was given to Matthias (Acts 1: 23-26).


It is interesting to note that in this brief survey of the seven suicides recorded in the Scriptures; the suicides of Abimelech, Saul and Zimri were recorded as direct judgement of God on their sins, even going as far as to say God killed Saul. The Scriptures were silent on the other four suicides, although the silence of Scripture is not the basis for positive argument, especially when the ignoble context in each case speaks for themselves.


The Scriptures and the Right to Die

         Autonomy is the main issue of the argument for the Right-to-Die. Christians have distinctive and compelling reasons for taking the claims of autonomy with great seriousness. We are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27). An essential part of that image is our ability to make free choices. Hans Kung, observes that “life is…a human task and thus made our responsibility….[God] wants to have human beings, in his image, as free, responsible partners”[5].


            Hence we have the choice to choose our own end. Ethical liberalism too attributes a supreme value to the individual’s freedom and rights. The dominant value upheld by the principle of autonomy is self-determination. It is such a supreme value because it means that you and I can live according to our own conception of the good life. I am ultimately responsible for my life and you are for yours. The human dignity attached to the freedom of self-determination demands respect for the freedom to choose and to control not only life but also how and when we die. The “right to die” and “death with dignity”in this view may be translated as something like the following: “It’s my body; it’s my freedom; it’s my life; it’s my death. Let me have control.” Absolutizing autonomy in this way makes“death with dignity” mean that each of us should be able to determine at what time, in what  way, and by whose hand we will die. While no ones doubts that self-determination is an important value, the question in the euthanasia debate is, “ How far does autonomy extend?”[6] 


            The Scriptural model for human autonomy, self determination and human responsiblity is portrayed in Genesis 2:19:  “Now the Lord God has formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.” As Hebrew scholars have noted, to ‘name’ something is not simply to label it; it is to give it a meaning and order it in the nature of things, Hence, Adam is called upon to continue the creation by bringing order into being, rather than simply replicating preordained orders.[7]


            This is also the principle of stewardship. The fundamental distinction between the Creator and the created (His creation) sets limits to the  freedom and scope of our stewardship. The limitations to human autonomy or self determination is found earlier in Genesis 2:15-17: ‘The Lord God took the man and put him to work in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die”.’ The story asserts a fundamental conviction of biblical faith that from the very beginning human freedom over life was limited or proscribed. God alone have sovereignty over life and death. The end of human life is not subject to a person’s free judgement. Our freedom does not extend to absolute dominion. Absolute dominion is an exclusively divine prerogative. This is called the principle of sovereignty.[8]


            The principles of divine sovereignty and human stewardship and responsibility argues against unlimited autonomy in the discussion about euthanasia. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II rejected claims of personal autonomy and the belief that human beings can do what they want with their bodies.[9]


The Scriptures and Suffering

D.B. Biebel says,

“Pain has two faces, human and divine. The human face is haggard, drawn, contorted and streak with tears. The divine is calm, assuring, kind, and loving – but likewise streaked with tears.”[10]


Compassion and suffering is another key issue in any discussion on euthanasia. Suffering is a broad and mysterious experience that touches all aspects of who we are. It can involve the prolonged physical pain attached to illness and injury as well as the unrelenting anguish that accompanies mental, emotional and spiritual conflict.[11] Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes, “Modern man does not have an answer to the question of why. Our society is the first one that simply do not give any answer to the problem of suffering except a thousand means of avoiding it.”[12]


Hanson shares four lessons on suffering presented by Paul in 2 Corinthians : (1) the importance of receiving comfort from others (2 Cor 1:3-4); (2) those who receive such comforts are especially equipped and therefore called to comfort other suffers ( 2Cor 1:3-11);(3) Christians who suffer share in the suffering of Christ (2Cor 11:23-29); suffering is a medium for the revelation of God’s power   ( 2Cor 12:9).[13] The lessons taught that suffering involves not only the individual, it also involves others, is helped by relationship with others and it forces us to learn to depend on God.


In the examples of Jesus and Paul, we see requests to eliminate suffering denied so that the perfect will of God will be accomplished. Elsewhere in Scripture, there are numerous examples of people who requested the alleviation of suffering or healing and received it. Hannah wanted her womb to be fertile (1Sam. 1:9-11); Naaman wanted relief from his leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14); the Roman centurion wanted his dying servant healed (Matt 8:5-7); and Jairus, the father of a young daughter who was in irreversible dying process, begged Jesus for her life (Mark 5:21)……So, if you request relief from suffering, know that the answer to your prayer is for your good and for the glory of God. When God does not remove your trial (yet), that is as much an answer as would be a miraculous healing.[14]


Scriptures teaches that suffering and compassion is under the sovereignty of God .


The Scriptures and Healing

          The concept of inherent human dignity and value ultimately provided the basis for Christianity’s ethics of respect for human life. In the fourth century, Christians began to found hospitals, together with orphanages and houses for the poor and the aged. There are many Scriptural references to suggest that effective medical therapies are appropriate. Mentioned are cleansing, bandaging, soothing with oil (Isa 1:5-6) or balm (Jer 8:22; 46:11; 51:8), and setting fractures (Ezek 30:21). Physicians are generally not viewed negatively ( Jer 8:22; Luke 5:31; Col 4:14). It was generally accepted that God heals through his human agents.


Supernatural or miraculous healing was an important part of Jesus’s ministry. Supernatural as opposed to natural healing ( see Appendix 2: A Christian Doctors Looks at Healing ). He performed healing to show His authority and power over creation as the divine son of God (Matt 8:28-34; John 9:35-41; 11:45). Jesus commissioned His disciples to participate in His healing ministry (Matt 10:1-5; Luke 10:9), a role which the church continued ( Acts 3:1-11; 5:15-16; 9:33-34; 12:8-10 ).  Any consideration of euthanasia must take into account this sovereign aspect of God, that of His ability to intervene supernaturally or miraculously.


4.6           Summary of the Theological/Ethical Survey

          In this discussion from the biblical-theological and ethical perspective, we see the sovereignty of God and the stewardship of man stands out prominently. Man is given life by God and is a responsible steward. Ultimately and absolutely he does own that life but is a steward of that life. God has absolute dominion over it, which includes suffering and the nature of its end.


                                                                                                                                                                         Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Peter Saunders, The Christian Case Against Euthanasia ( Christian Medical Fellowship )

[2] Joseph Fletcher is the main proponent of  ‘situation ethics’. For a discussion on Situation Ethics, see Joseph Fletcher and John Warwick Montgomery, Situation Ethics : Is It Sometimes Right to do Wrong? (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1972).

[3] Robert D.Orr, Why Doctors Should Not Kill (Christian Medical & Dental Society )

[4] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 7.228-29. Quoted in Edward J.Larson & Darrel W. Admundsen, A Different Death : Euthanasia & the Christian Tradition (Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press, 1998)p.257

[5] Hans Kung,  “A Dignified Dying,” in Hans and Walter Jens, Dying with Dignity ( New York : Continuum, 1995) p. 26

[6] Richard M. Gula, Euthanasia : Moral and Pastoral Perspectives ( New York : Paulist Press, 1994) p. 9-10

[7] Delwin Brown, To Set at Liberty : Christian Faith and Human Freedom (Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, 1981) p 9,15,35,53 quoted in Sally B. Geis & Donald E. Messer, How Shall We Die? : Helping Christians Debated Assisted Suicide (Nashville : Abington Press, 1997) p.157

[8]Richard M. Gula, Euthanasia : Moral and Pastoral Perspectives ( New York : Paulist Press, 1994) p. 11-14

[9] Robin Gill ed, Euthanasia and the Churches :  Christian Ethics in Dialogue (New York : Cassell, 1998)p.33

[10] Biebel DB. If God Is So Good, Why Do I Hurt So Bad? (Colorado Springs, CO : NavPress, 1989 )

[11] Gray P. Stewart, Basic Questions on End of Life Decisions : How Do We Know What’s Right? (Grand Rapids, MI : Kregel Publications,1998)p. 66

[12] Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering ( Ann Arbor, MI  : Servant Books, 1986 )p. 12. See also Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Washington Square, 1984)

[13] Hanson N, School of Suffering in  Moral Medicine:Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics ( Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans, 1987) p. 249-54

[14] Gray P. Stewart, Basic Questions on End of Life Decisions : How Do We Know What’s Right? (Grand Rapids, MI : Kregel Publications,1998)p. 71



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