Fr. Jonathan Tobias discusses Euthanasia in our book “Get Serious.” Get the book and read the rest of this discussion, and much more.
Fr. Jonathan: Suicide is the active hastening of the moment of death, to the point where one commits self-murder. There is usually very little confusion or doubt about whether one is dying. In the course of a terminal disease or advanced age, the Christian prepares for the moment that the Lord will “require of him his soul,” when he will enter his repose. When death is known to be approaching (and frequently, this is known to the person well in advance of the actual event), then it is better to prepare in prayer and repentance, instead of avoiding death by electing one “heroic measure” after another. A Christian is correct to forego a medical treatment that will only delay the inevitable – especially a treatment that will make his preparation for death more difficult. If he knows he is “terminal” or dying already, he is also correct to make an “advance directive” whereby he refuses, in advance, any “heroic measures” like resuscitation.
P&H Evans: When do we know when to die? We know of people in their 90′s who have had resuscitation. Does the Church have an answer?
Fr Jonathan: The Church would never refuse resuscitation or any heroic measure or treatment to anyone who wants to prolong their life. It is likely, in such an instance where a 90 year old wants resuscitation, that such a person needs more time to repent, more time to prepare for death. The Church should assist and defend all possibilities for repentance. The mature Christian, who can say “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” would probably not expect resuscitation in a situation like this, at such an advanced age or at a terminal stage of illness.
This statement is from St. Paul (Philippians 1.21): the Christian’s life is understandable only in the context of preparing for the next life — the intermediate state of the soul in Paradise first, then after the Last Day, eternal Heaven. In such a worldview that differs radically from modernity, death is not the final measure, but this life is to be viewed in the perspective of eternal life ( i.e., I would agree with most of the dismal contemporary ethic — perhaps even that of Peter Singer — if there were no resurrection).
Therefore death for the Christian is an entering into the direct consciousness of Jesus Christ, which is the aim of all his loves and aspirations. Until that moment which Christians call “repose,” then all of life — especially the painful parts — is made meaningful by Christ and is enabled by Him. A Christian is able to understand the meaning of his suffering by first denying that God was the author of the evil he is experiencing. Christians do not get angry at God ( i.e., they are not being Christian when they do so): this is a modern heresy of the contemporary therapeutic culture. Rather, a Christian prays that his suffering and dying might become redemptive for his own soul and for others. This is what St. Paul prayed for in Colossians 1.24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church.”
P&H Evans: If God is all-forgiving, won’t suicide be forgiven if repented of beforehand? We’ve heard people tell others that as long as they repent first, then God will forgive them. Therefore it’s OK to end a life they are not happy with. What is the Church’s view of such thinking? Is it possible to repent in advance of a planned sinful action?
Fr Jonathan: The problem with this question is with the word “repentance.” Here, it seems to mean something like “I feel bad about what I’m going to do.” It doesn’t even mean “I’m sorry,” which is a statement of remorse.
Modern and popular ethics has forgotten that it is impossible to either repent or to have sorrow for a decision before it is made, and for an action before it is done. It is altogether possible to feel badly about what one is about to do, and about the consequences of the contemplated action. This is probably what is meant when a person contemplating suicide says that he is sorry, or that he is “repenting beforehand.” He feels badly about the consequences that he imagines.
Those bad feelings are reasonable, and are probably not felt badly enough. The suicidal person usually underestimates the grief and the pain his attempted or completed suicide inflicts on his loved ones and upon society in general. The bad feelings are usually reported as depression, which has become a nearly meaningless term: but in reality, the content of the feeling is frequently the fear of death and of death’s aftermath in the next world. It is possible that the suicidal person is deeply experiencing the psychic environment of Hades in this world: if this is true, then every suicide is completely irrational and mad, while being completely responsible and culpable.
The Church is grieved by such tragic foolishness. It is true that God responds with compassion and forgiveness to every expression of true repentance. But repentance means a remorseful turning away from sinful attitudes and actions. If there is no turning away, then there is no repentance. If a suicide is contemplated, and the person truly repents, then that must mean that he “changed his mind” and did not go through with his plans. If he carried out his suicide, then he must not have repented.
Is God all-forgiving? Certainly: He offers forgiveness to all, for this is the universal embrace of the Cross. But does everyone truly desire forgiveness? Obviously not. Suicides were suicidal in the first place because they either did not desire, nor could they believe in, the forgiveness that God freely offers.
P&H Evans: Many believe they should end their life if it stinks now, because we automatically go on to a higher level of existence where there is no suffering. So, instead of making more of a mess of their own lives and perhaps others, it’s better to go on to the higher level of existence. Is there anything Christian in that? What is the Church’s idea of the next life?
Fr Jonathan: The “next life” is what the Church calls the “intermediate state of the soul.” It is the mysterious existence of the soul which is separated temporarily from the body (with which it will be reunited at the Last Day). During this intermediate state, the soul will be completely immersed in the fire of God’s grace. That fire will be experienced as healing light by those who repented, and desired God’s love through Jesus Christ. That same fire will be experienced as caustic pain by those who rejected Jesus Christ and His Church. The pain will be felt as the very passions brought into the next life from this life – but these passions will go completely unchecked and unslaked, because the physical body will not longer be there to limit the range of these passions. The frightening, tragic terror of this caustic pain (which is called Hades) is that the very despair which prompted a suicide in this life, will become an unlimited despair with no end in the next. There is no “higher existence” for those who refuse the grace of Christ, only a “lower” one. There is only a terrifying amplification of passions there that are rehearsed now, if one rejects the love of God today.
The best way to stop “making more of a mess” of their own lives and that of others is to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ, and to enter His Church. For the Church to say anything other than this is to distort the Gospel, and to “make the children stumble.
P&H Evans: You’ve explained it very clearly, but we’d like to bring it down to everyday circumstances. When we attend the funeral of a suicide and hear people say, “They were so tormented in this life, but now we know they are at peace,” are you saying that we shouldn’t count on them being at peace just because they died?
Fr. Jonathan: Yes, I am certain of this. No one achieves peace simply because they die, and this in a nutshell is the whole deception of suicide. Suicide is appealing because it promises a cessation of pain. The suicidal will discover, in grievous disappointment, that there is no cessation, but only amplification.
If the Gospel is to be believed at all, then we must accept the apostolic message that there is a “life beyond death” to be desired and another to be avoided — that latter “life” is the existence in Hades, which is an amplification of passion and existential pain. I’m trying, at this point, to avoid the word “torment,” mainly because it is so laden with maudlin and western notions of demons as tormentors. This is not the case, as Satan and all his associates are the ones who suffer the most from their own rejection of God’s peace.
The only way that a person can achieve the condition of being “at peace” is through Christ, and through Christ alone.