First of all, let me say how appreciative I am that the Rev’d Scott McKenna responded to my post, Is there a Christian case for assisted dying? In that post I took Scott’s arguments in his address to a conference at the Royal Society of Scotland, in Edinburgh, as a foil for the things that I wanted to say, and he has responded in detail. I have taken the liberty of linking a pdf version of that address here. I copy his response — a comment in the comment stream of the earlier post — here:
Eric, thank you for your comment on assisted dying. I read it with real interest. Let me respond with five brief points. 1) As you know, suicide is not condemned in the Hebrew or Christian Bible. Samson committed ‘suicide’ and is held up as a giant of the faith in the New Testament Book of Hebrews. Samson pushed over the pillars in order to kill the Philistine kings and himself; he wanted to end his own suffering. He is nowhere condemned. 2) I enjoyed reading about St Augustine and his handling of the sixth commandment. Context is everything: Augustine was responding to the situation in which Christians were volunteering for martyrdom (in order to enter the Kingdom sooner). The saint wished to stop this and, through his handling of the sixth commandment, made it an offence to take one’s own life. Augustine’s commentary is not concerned with the ending of human life for a terminally ill patient. 3) For me, sanctity of life does not necessarily equate with inviolability. My argument is that God has given us moral responsibility. We cannot ever say that God desires intolerable suffering of us and, in ending our life in such circumstances, we, as co-creators with God, are exercising compassion and God-given choice. There are no ‘disastrous consequences’: God is bigger than that. It is precisely because God is compassionate that we have nothing to fear. We have real moral choice: we are not ‘sheep’. 4) I do support the choice for ending human life in circumstances other than terminal illness. I think of Tony Nicklinson and another recent UK case of a 23 year old paralysed from the neck down. Again, for me, the issue here is the theological model. God is not to be conceived of as sovereign, distant, detached and unloving. It seems to me an act of the deepest faith to end one’s life, to honourably escape intolerable suffering, and let oneself go into the hands of God. God knows intolerable suffering from the inside: I cannot imagine that God would be anything other than merciful to one whose physical, emotional, mental and spiritual suffering was unbearable. 5) Part of the churches’ problem at the present time is that, in many areas, the theology has not caught up with life. This has been the case throughout history and, in the Bible, there are numerous examples of theology being forced to take a leap forward. As in all disciplines, a theory or accepted practice exists until it breaks under the pressure of new knowledge or insight, so too in theology. Eric, thank you for your hugely interesting blog!!
What follows is an expanded version of my response to this comment. I asked him if I might call him Scott, and then took the liberty of doing so. And then I continued:
Thank you for your response to this post. I am glad to see that you do not restrict assisted dying only to the terminally ill. As I have suggested in a number of earlier posts, this is a serious error, since (a) it defines certain conditions (terminal ones) as, in some sense, marking those so identified as less worthy of life, and while I do not hold to the inviolability of life, anyone who has an interest in continuing to live, has a right to life, no matter how short their future may be. I am very concerned that assisted dying legislation as proposed in most places (other than Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg) restrict assisted dying to the terminally ill, and that immediately calls into question the value of the lives of those who are dying; and (b) it ignores so many other people who may be suffering more, but are not being provided with the option of ending their lives before their lives become (to them) intolerable burdens. This is something that must be decided by individuals for themselves, not by anyone else. By making assisted dying conditional on terminality, the moral basis for justified assisted dying is simply misunderstood. It is a liberty interest, and depends on the choice of those who request such assistance. It is not any specific condition, for, whatever the condition, there may well be those who prefer that suffering life to death, while others would choose death as the only way to relieve sufferings they consider intolerable.
I am aware that the Bible does not condemn suicide. As Arthur Droge and James Tabor point out in their book, A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (1992),
If any of these six accounts of voluntary death contained the slightest editorial comment, say, “and this deed was displeasing in the eyes of Yahweh,” the issue of voluntary death would have been settled among Jews and Christians long before the fourth century [CE]. 
Most reviewers of the book, however, while praising Droge and Tabor for opening the issue, note that they miss early fathers who condemned suicide, Jerome, Ambrose and Lactantius amongst them, thus bringing into question their identification of Augustine as the turning point in the church’s attitude towards suicide. And, moreover, it needs to be (and occasionally is) noticed that the few suicides that there are in the Bible are not all obviously justified, though none of them are condemned outright, and at least one, Judas’s, may not have been a suicide. Did he hang himself, or did he fall down in the garden and his bowels burst asunder (Acts)? Each description of Judas’s death is more horrifying than the last – apocryphal accounts go even further — and are clearly written to accord with the contempt that was felt to be his due. This is more a condemnation of Judas than an affirmation of the moral appropriateness of suicide. As for the rest, it seems clear that context is everything. Saul does die by suicide, but Saul was not depicted as an admirable character either, having already been condemned to be succeeded by an entirely new royal line, starting with David. Abimalech, who was already dying, had his armour-bearer kill him so that it could not be said that he had died at the hands of a woman! And the two others, Zimri and Ahitophel, died by suicide to escape worse fates, since they had rebelled against God’s anointed (i.e., the king, in both cases), and failed. Scarcely a ringing endorsement of suicide. Samson remains, and what “justifies” his “suicide” is his taking hosts of Philistines with him (the first suicide “bomber”?). It is not at all clear that Samson’s death is regarded as suicide at all. It is the act of a warrior, the final act of one who, because of lust, betrayed the divine secret of his power. The act redeemed him, since his last act was, in this sense, selfless. The only man saved from suicide is one who was ready to die for letting prisoners escape, and Paul assured him that they had not fled, and that the guard’s honour was intact. It might reasonably be thought that Jesus, who could easily have escaped his fate — all he needed to do was stay away from Jerusalem — died by suicide, since he willingly went up to Jerusalem, and then acted in such a way as to bring down the fury of the (Roman) state upon him. Of course, this was necessary to get the Christian drama of redemption going, but does this justify the foolhardiness of his behaviour?
And while it is true that the context in Augustine’s case is important, it is also important that Augustine’s condemnation of suicide (if we do take the church’s condemnation to start with him) was adopted by the church and intensified, and, by the sixth century, councils of the church had decided that a suicide should not be accorded the burial offices of the church. This prohibition is still nominally in force wherever the Prayer Book of 1549 or its successors is used. The treatment of the bodies of suicides eventually gathered to them opprobrious practices which showed contempt for the person and his act, and the families of those who died by suicide were also marked out for contempt, and often reduced to poverty. Some of the practices may have been pagan, but comported well with the church’s condemnation of suicide, and anyone so foolish as to die that way. Of course, the martyr complex of the Circumcellions (Donatists), who would even demand passersby to kill them, and failing this, would jump off cliffs, may have prompted Augustine’s interpretation, but it didn’t determine that it should take the absolute form that it took, a form which influences Christians to this day.
And while it may be true, as you say, Scott –
that God has given us moral responsibility. We cannot ever say that God desires intolerable suffering of us and, in ending our life in such circumstances, we, as co-creators with God, are exercising compassion and God-given choice. There are no ‘disastrous consequences’: God is bigger than that,
– the confidence with which you speak of God as “bigger than that,” and of us as “co-creators with God”, while reassuring, does not square either with Christian tradition or with most contemporary discussions of assisted dying. I agree, we can say these things, but they are not in tune with most orthodox Christian theology, including Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Episcopalian (of which there are several varieties, including the Old Catholics, Copts, Anglicans, Swedes, etc.). The position of most Christian judicatories is opposed to assisted dying, one reason that I no longer can call myself a Christian.
The problem, as I see it, is that while saying that God does not desire intolerable suffering seems to make sense — how could God want intolerable suffering and still remain God? — the fact is that there is simply too much intolerable suffering around to make that claim plausible. When my wife Elizabeth began to suffer so egregiously, I decided to do a fairly concentrated study of the Holocaust. There, I thought, if anywhere, we will be able to find either evidence of the grace of God in the midst of suffering, if, indeed, God does not want people to suffer, or, on the other hand, evidence that a reasonable case can be made that suffering plays an essential role in God’s purposes. That is not what I found. Instead, I found a completely irrational world over which it would have been a blasphemy to say that a god presided. And then, looking back at my beloved Elizabeth, I saw the same horrendous evil at work. If that didn’t express the will of a god, then it was a pointless, purposeless suffering over which no god could be thought to preside. I had to conclude that there is no answer to this suffering, and any supposed god must be — or must have been – completely indifferent it. I have read Marilyn McCord Adams’ book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, as well as many other books on the so-called “problem of evil”, and I remain unconvinced. While it is possible to play jiggery-pokery with the idea of god all we like, there is no way, in my view, to square horrendous evil with goodness.
God knows intolerable suffering from the inside: I cannot imagine that God would be anything other than merciful to one whose physical, emotional, mental and spiritual suffering was unbearable.
Start at the end. It makes little sense to say that God is showing mercy to the person who experiences unbearable ”physical, emotional, mental and spiritual suffering,” so it is hard to see why you ”cannot imagine that God would be anything other than merciful” to one who had suffered, and, what is assumed, died by suicide. Indeed, C.S. Lewis saw this clearly, when, in A Grief Observed, he wrote:
They tell me that H. is happy now, they tell me she is at peace. What makes them so sure of this? I don’t mean that I fear the worst of all. Nearly her last words were, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She had not always been. And she never lied. … But why are they so sure that all anguish ends with death? More than half the Christian world, and millions in the East, believe otherwise. How do they know she is ‘at rest’? Why should the separation (if nothing else) which so agonizes the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs?
‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. If it is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it. [43-44]
Later on, as it seems to me, he betrays this thought, by talking about God as a conscientious surgeon, who causes suffering in order to heal.
But is it [Lewis asks] credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, these tortures are necessary. 
Lewis opts for the latter. I think he is unreasonable to do so, but it is good to see the stark choices spelled out so clearly. And then, on the next page, he goes waltzing off with Jesus, because only he was truly put to the test taking on the sufferings of others. Lewis speaks of his wife’s torment and thinks he would willingly have taken her place; but then he goes on to say that he will never know, but that he does know, at least this much, that this was allowed only to one, “we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He [Jesus] has done vicariously whatever can be done.”  And that’s just too simple and frivolous a response. It is, to my mind, a betrayal of his earlier insight that his wife
was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. 
It is a betrayal of his wife too. And while Lewis’s insight is vital, almost all Christians contrive simply to ignore it. If there is a god, we are in God’s hands now, and all our sufferings must be laid to his charge, nor can we know that, if there is a life to come, we will not suffer there, for we do here, and we suffer here with the permission of God, if not by his direct action, so there is no reasonable confidence that something better will follow.
So, does God know intolerable suffering from the inside? No, I don’t think he does. Otherwise, why do people suffer intolerably in his “good” creation? The story of Jesus tells us that he does, but I do not believe it. Moreover, I believe that my wife Elizabeth suffered more torment during the nearly nine years of her MS than Jesus ever experienced in his three hours upon the cross, magnify this how you will by the belief that Jesus was God and that therefore his suffering was somehow absolute. This doesn’t work for me, and as Elizabeth’s disease progressed, and her suffering, already intense, became more and more intolerable, Good Friday liturgies became almost unbearable, because they were saying something that I now believed to be untrue, that any one person could take upon himself the sufferings of the world. Yet, of course, even so, I wanted to believe, but the church’s unwillingness to recognise the right of people to choose to die when suffering became intolerable simply became too big a stumbling block. I see no way for the church itself to find a way over or around it. Scott McKenna tries valiantly, and I can identify with him because I was willing to trip over the traces of orthodoxy too, but it will not become the faith of the church.
I do not mean to overemphasise Elizabeth’s suffering. It was indeed very great, but I am sure that there are people who do suffer and who have suffered even more greatly. And there’s the rub. Saying that God knows human suffering from the inside simply makes no sense, for the horrors of the suffering that some people endure is simply beyond computation, and if God truly knows from inside, then it make no sense to say that he permits it. As Lewis rightly says, “The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one.” Elizabeth said in her journal:
Eric is studying the experience of Jewish people condemned in the concentration camps to see if he can discover where God was during their horrible ordeal. He has to understand for himself the concept of the ‘absence of God’. How can there be a just God if we are experiencing the cruelty that is MS?
She also said that she did not think that I would find, as I hoped, that we could make sense of the idea that God can be found anywhere in the horrors of the death camps (die Vernichtunslagern). And while some, of course, did not betray their faith, and kept the mitzvot as faithfully as possible, they did this in spite of, not because of, the evidence that made a mockery of their practices. Certainly, I did not find God there in all that mass of pointless misery. Elizabeth was right. Nor did I find God in the senseless suffering of her disease, and in the end it was purely human choice that counted, for it is only human meaning that these choices reflect. Not co-creators at all. We are the creators, those with intelligence and creativity, and by subordinating our creativity and intelligence to a supposed other, we make ourselves little colonial outposts of an evil empire, who need to reinterpret what we see as, in the end, and on the whole, good.
It is not. There is no reason for believing that there is goodness at the heart of things, and it is better for us to think that we can contribute to the goodness of what is otherwise completely indifferent to our striving, for in this way morality is freed from the absurd attempt to find some ultimate meaning of the whole. There is not, a D. J. Grothe says*, any ultimate meaning. If there were, we should be able to find it lying behind the so often pointless striving against the evil that we experience. Instead of supposing that there is a good god transcending the world of human experience, so wracked with pain and suffering, despite brief moments of joy and wonder, it would be far better to concentrate on making this world a better place, where fewer people need to suffer so horrendously, and where no one is forced to suffer because of a belief in some higher meaning or purpose, that people will protect though the very heavens themselves fall, which almost always means greater, not less, suffering, for the evil empire must have, in the end, its due, in pain and blood and misery.
*D.J. Grothe’s explanation about non-ultimate meaning is worth listening to for its own sake, so I post it here for those who are interested: