This post was first published 4 December 2010 – once again, for Jerry Coyne’s convenience.
Deep within religious opposition to assistance in dying — which the religious almost always persist in calling, simply, killing — is the fear of chaos. This is, I believe, the chief reason for religious opposition to assisted dying, but it is never, or almost never, used as a public argument against assisted dying. However, it is always lurking in the background, as, in a sense, the ground upon which all the arguments that are used come to rest.
Chaos plays a crucial role in biblical understandings of the world. In Genesis God is said to bring order out of chaos. In the first chapter the spirit of God hovers over the deep chaos at the beginning, and then begins to assign everything a place. But later we are told that God regretted having created the earth, and was determined to make an end of all flesh, because the earth is filled with violence because of them (Gen 6.13)
The description of the great flood that follows shows the chaos returning again as the waters above and below the earth, instead of staying in their assigned places, break through into the ordered creation that God had made. It is often forgotten in retelling the story how horribly vicious it really is. Popular pictures of the flood and the ark show cute giraffes and other animals sticking their heads out, almost as though it were a holiday outing. Very few pictures show the carnage that would have resulted. Of course, Noah and the animals in their ark float above the chaos, a small fragile hope of the order that will return if God relents, and restores order upon the chaos once again.
(Note here that God uses chaos as punishment. This being the case, it should occasion no surprise that, in response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, by eating of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, God punishes them with suffering and death. Both suffering and death, in the Bible, are close analogs of chaos itself. Jesus shows this, for example, by walking on water. Conquering the chaos of the deep is the same as surviving death, which — at any rate in the story — he goes on to do.)
One might well think that, as the cause of this chaos, by withholding his sustaining power from the order of creation, God is not entirely to be trusted. And if God was distressed by the violence into which his creation had degenerated, is it not strange to think that violence should be the answer? Is it not contradictory to show God raging with such fierce anger and destruction? Of course, the outcome is foreordained, just like in the movies, and, indeed, later, after all the brutal carnage and destruction, we know that the storied God will restore creation to order once again. He must, because we’re here, after all, aren’t we? We know the canons of storytelling too well, so we scarcely notice the horrendous cruelty and savagery of God’s condemnation, and the horrors and atrocities that ensued. We already know about God’s promises. There’s no point to the story otherwise. So, we already know that, after the cataclysm of the flood, God must make things right again. God does this by making a covenant with his creation that such disaster will never befall the earth again. In a saccharine moment God even places a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the “… everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Gen 9.16)
Of course, that’s a story we tell ourselves in order to quiet the fear within. For, covenant or not, the threat of chaos always looms. One would have to be blind not to notice that God has broken the covenant time and time again. Indeed, the covenant is broken with every life that comes to be, for each life must disintegrate back into chaos once again. Religion itself may be seen as a desperate attempt to wrest cosmos and order out of the insubstantiality of our lives, and the threat of chaos which threatens them. For chaos always threatens. Our lives are short and full of trouble, and death comes to all of us. It is said that both Judaism and Islam (strongly influenced by Judaism) believe that to save one life is to save a world from destruction. The other side of this is that when one life is destroyed a whole world dissolves into chaos.
There are many passages in the Bible that suggest that death is a power that not even God has been able to subdue. Once death has us in its grip, not even God can save us. It is the promise of Christianity that death itself has been challenged and defeated, but even so, Paul still tells us that death is the last enemy that will be destroyed. But that time is not yet. “For [Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 25-26)
Since people were still dying, the enemy still had to be defeated, though a foretaste of that defeat is to be found in the idea of the resurrection of Jesus. So death is still the enemy, representing everything that is opposed to God, the power of chaos and evil, which will, in the end, religion assures us, be destroyed. It follows that, to give in to death, to suggest that life might become a burden too great to bear, would be to give in to all the powers that oppose God. It would be a great betrayal. No wonder the pope thinks of it as a temptation to sin, perhaps, even, the worst sin, to distrust the goodness of God.
In her book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, the Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford University, Marilyn McCord Adams, says this:
On my account …, for God to be good to a created person, God must guarantee him/her a life that is a great good to him/her on the whole and one in which any participation in the horrors is defeated within the context of his/her own life. (p. 156)
This is an incredibly important admission. It means that, if, at the end of life, what is happening cannot be seen as able to be defeated within the context of that person’s life, then God is not good to that person, and so that person cannot think of God as good. I think this is the defeater for the idea of the goodness of God, but those who oppose assisted dying are not prepared to admit that God’s goodness is ever defeated. Therefore, whatever a person at the end of life is asking for, it cannot really be construed as a wish to die.
Pope John Paul II says this explicitly in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life]. In this encyclical he argues that a person who is asking to die, is really not asking to die at all. Instead, they are asking for someone else to hope for them, when all hope is gone. In his words:
The request which arises from the human heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death, especially when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail. (section 67)
He goes on, a moment later, to say:
Living to the Lord also means recognizing that suffering, while still an evil and a trial in itself, can always become a source of good. It becomes such if it is experienced for love and with love through sharing, by God’s gracious gift and one’s own personal and free choice, in the suffering of Christ Crucified. (section 67, my italics)
John Paul recognises that a person’s desire to die in order to escape the suffering and the indignities of dying is to acknowledge, as Adams admits, that there is no good god, that, at the end, chaos triumphs over life, and this is something that the religious are not prepared to acknowledge. And, conceal it as they will, this is the underlying reason why religions are so opposed to assistance in dying. To acknowledge, in some cases, where suffering is very great, that it cannot be defeated within the context of life, is to acknowledge that either God is not good, or that there is no god.
However, it is important to note the bolded words. Suffering can be turned into a good if one does, by God’s grace, and one’s own personal and free choice, share it with the sufferings of Christ on the cross. The idea of God’s grace and the effective sufferings of Christ on the cross need detain no one who does not share Christian belief in these things, but when speaking of ‘personal and free choice’ why is it that the pope, and other religious people, want to deny people the right to make a personal and free choice to hasten their dying? Why is it used only in connexion with sharing one’s sufferings with Christ? The simple answer? Well, choosing to share your sufferings with Christ is to buy into the idea of God’s purposes and the order that God has ordained. Choosing to die is embracing chaos, and to embrace chaos is to welcome chaos into the order of human society. If you study the religious opposition to assistance in dying, you will see this theme arise again and again. Even though it stays in the shadows, this is the central reason for the religious opposition to assistance in dying.