Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Church on Euthanasia

Peter and Helen Evans

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Father Jonathan Tobias is the priest of St. John the Baptist church in East Pittsburg and blogs at Second Terrace. We were unable to arrange to sit down together face-to-face for this interview, but Fr Jonathan obliged us by responding to our questions by email.

Fr Jonathan: I should note from the outset that when I say "Church," I mean the Orthodox Church which continues the witness of the Holy Tradition of the Apostles. When I say "Christian," I mean a person who is living obediently to the teachings of the Orthodox Church, whether or not he acknowledges that relationship.

P&H Evans: Over and over again we hear that euthanasia is 'compassionate' and that it's 'for the best' that we 'help people along' who are no longer happy with the quality of their lives, especially people who are in great pain. What is the Church's stand on that manifestation of compassion?

Fr Jonathan: I will not question the claim that some people might be motivated by compassion in their support of euthanasia. Dr. Kevorkian certainly makes this claim, and I have no reason to doubt his word. But we are duty-bound to question just how that compassion is to be exercised. Euthanasia is supposed to be the compassionate termination of a life that has become too painful or difficult. That in itself might be acceptable if human beings were only animals and nothing more. But the Church (and everyone else who has an open mind) knows that man is more than beast. He is an eternal unity of body and soul, and the real "quality of life" cannot be measured by a person's willingness to live, the ease or difficulty of his experience, or the quality of his feelings. "Quality of life" for man, who is made in the image of God, is not set by medical or social standards: every human life, from the moment of conception and forever is of infinite worth.

The Church teaches that pain, even "great pain," is something that should neither be sought nor avoided. When pain is thrust upon a human life, then that person accepts it in humility and faith. Such pain is symbolized by the Cross that we spiritually bear in solidarity with Christ. And as we bear that Cross with faithfulness and prayer, then we are met by strong demonstrations of the Presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit. In the compassion of comfort and care for people in pain, Christians often become the vehicles for those very demonstrations of Christ's presence.

Compassion is understood in the Church as consideration, kindness, comfort and care. Christian compassion will seek to ease the pain by the provision of pain medication. A Christian will encourage the sufferer with optimism, prayer, Scripture and doctrine. He and the sufferer will not deny death, or avoid it at all costs, but will seek to face the moment of death (and pain) with courage and repentance. This is the "good death" that is the goal of faithful Christians. What currently passes for "euthanasia" is a denial of everything we believe about life and death, and about man and God.

P&H Evans: Some say that the Church might lose control over its congregants if they begin to feel in control of their own lives. Is that so? What is the main concern the Church has about euthanasia or suicide?

Fr Jonathan: This question assumes that the Church actually can "control" its congregants. That is a term that completely misrepresents the authority of the Church and its moral influence in the lives of Christians. Do people really believe that the Church's moral influence must be erased in order to win control over their lives? Surely I would argue the opposite: those who live contrary to the teachings of the Church are more likely to live according to their impulses and passions. If one rejects the authority and teachings of the Church about how one should live and die, then he or she will live and die, not in freedom, but under the control of emotions and temporary impulses. The Church teaches how to live through pain and above pain. It teaches how to live life free from the fear of death.

The current popular doctrine of euthanasia (and acceptance of suicide as an option) is based on an irrational fear of pain and death. This secular doctrine's refusal to experience suffering is produced by a denial of immortality as taught in the Gospel, and by an acceptance of a radically short-sighted materialism. The main concern of the Church about euthanasia and suicide is that these modern doctrines deny human dignity and curtail human freedom.

P&H Evans: We are given a conscience to know what's right or wrong. Shouldn't these life-or-death decisions be left up to each of us based on our individual situation?

Fr Jonathan: Every moral decision is given by God to each person to freely choose on his own. Everyone will make life-or-death decisions in complete freedom. At the same time, whether these decisions are "right" or "wrong" depends not on the person (or his subjective experience), but upon God. God has used His Church and all Creation, from the beginning, to be His witness about His objective truth, which does not change from situation to situation, or individual to individual. The conscience in a person may or may not be sensitive to the rightness or wrongness of a decision. Individual conscience is often a good guide, but it can never replace the moral authority of the Church.

P&H Evans: Are you saying that, even though a person may believe their decision is the "right" one, its ultimate rightness or wrongness may never be known?

Fr Jonathan: Not all decisions are "moral" ones which are ultimately right or wrong. Mundane choices of what to wear, or what to eat and the things that the "Gentiles are anxious about" are not yes/no questions that we present to the Lord, like the pagans did with their gods. Our faith, and our prayerful discernment of God's will, is not the same as pagan augury, although many Christians seem to think it is.

God's "will" is above human comprehension, but there are some things to know. It is God's will that we obey the natural law summarized by the Ten Commandments, and that we enter the perfection of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount - the Royal Law of Love. It is God's will that we become divinized, to enter union with the Trinity in His energy (certainly not His essence).

So yes, we may know, if we are prayerful, the ultimate rightness or wrongness of a decision. If we are not prayerful though, we will never know the rightness: we might know the wrongness, but only from our isolated subjective frame.

P&H Evans: Is it ever right to help someone die? Let's look at some examples: someone who is diagnosed terminal anyway: someone who is diagnosed terminal and it will take all their life savings and more from other family members to care for them: someone who has had a long life and is ready to die and doesn't wish to burden their family: a very young child who will not ever be well but who will make huge demands on the whole family and perhaps even cause more heartbreak because of their limited time and resources.

Fr Jonathan: The frightening phrase "help someone die" has the meaning of "hastening death," and that is something that a Christian clearly cannot do.

I will state at the outset that the goal of a Christian (and his family) who is approaching death is not to avoid death at all costs, but to approach it with a spiritual preparation that involves penitence and prayer.

The concept of "hastening death," however, is something shocking to the Church. The moment of one's death usually arrives in a known manner, and far too much technological study has been made of the "moment" of death -- a study that has ended up confusing the "fact" or "reality" of death. Whether it meant to or not, technology has ended up confusing the issue of death, and has made the preparation for the separation of the soul from the body even more difficult.

Death is to be patiently and faithfully awaited - not avoided - but never, never hastened. The hastening of death is murder - either homicide or suicide. A young child with severe congenital defects will undoubtedly make "huge demands" -- but the enormity of the cost will only be figured that way if the truth of the humanity of the child is disfigured by spreadsheet analyses.

P&H Evans: Does the church distinguish between a person and a human being? For instance, we can all pretty much assume who humans are; but there is a new definition out there saying that someone who is not living a "full" life or someone who is not "totally conscious" is not a person and that's the criterion we should use in this progressive world to determine if we should help that person along to death.

Fr Jonathan: In ethical discussions, the Church does not permit this differentiation of humans who are persons from humans who are not. It is hard to anticipate just what is meant in the shifting terminologies of bioethics by the term "person." It appears that the term currently means someone who has full civil and legal rights as a citizen - that is, someone who is powerful enough to protect his own interests. The terminology also implies that there are some humans who are not "persons," and that these "non-person humans" do not have all the rights of a citizen (if they have any rights at all). In this category, some in the bioethical discourse would quickly place human embryos that are not meant for implantation, or that must be disposed of for expediency in the category of "non-person." Also frequently placed in this category are severely disabled children, especially before the third year; severely neurologically impaired children or adults - especially those who are labeled as being in a "persistent vegetative state."

The Church is appalled at the use of this differentiation of "personhood" from the larger set of "human life." It rightly suspects any appearance of this language as an almost certain sign that a eugenics argument is about to follow. The Church recognizes this "new definition" of "non-personhood" as just another new face worn by the old eugenics school of Joseph Fletcher, Margaret Sanger, even Adolf Hitler.

P&H Evans: Let's take a case that everyone is aware of - Terri Shiavo. What was the Church's stand on disconnecting her feeding tube?

Fr Jonathan: I would like to start with my own questions:

Was the feeding tube causing Terri pain? Was there a complete absence of response and interaction with other persons? Was the legal guardian who forced the removal of the feeding tube truly more worthy to make this decision than Terri's own parents, who wanted to continue to take care of her? Would Solomon have given the life-or-death decision to a man who was already living with another woman, rather than Terri's own parents?

I recognize that these are merely rhetorical questions that demand a negative response, but they illustrate dimensions of this controversy that the legal authorities refused to consider. They are able to evade hard moral responsibilities by limiting their thinking to simplistic legal categories. Ethics cannot be defined by civil law, and that is one of America's chief spiritual problems.

It is one thing to remove a feeding tube when a person is completely unresponsive and inactive, and when such removal inflicts no distress. But Terry was responsive and active. She had the bad luck to fall under the dubious diagnosis of "persistent vegetative state," foisted on her by authorities who had the power to determine diagnosis - which can turn into a hypermodern form of capital punishment for the crime of not being convenient enough.

Terri was responsive, and Terri was cared for by her own mother and father. The parents said that their daughter responded to them. And the Church has always preferred the testimony of parents about the humanity of their children over the more skeptical definitions of lab technicians.

P&H Evans: With all the new technology, it's becoming easier and easier to keep bodies alive. What sort of framework can people rely on when considering their own living wills or when faced with life-and-death decisions about a loved one? For instance, what if someone has cancer and doesn't expect to live longer than six months, should they call for resuscitation if their heart stops? Does it make a difference if the person has only a short time to live?

Fr Jonathan: The question here is really asking about an "ethic" that one might be able to put together in advance of a situation such as this. One of the many problems in modern technological society, where "bodies are kept alive" much longer than before, is that ethics has changed in character. When ethics was of more practical value, it consisted of simple questions that referred immediate problems to metaphysical realities. Nowadays, most ethical, especially "bioethical," discussions sound like a bunch of bloodless "policy statements" that are indistinguishable in tone from corporation policy manuals.

It is better, when faced by emergencies like heart failure, to appeal to a more old-fashioned style of ethics. In an emergency, one should ask simple questions of the situation, and look for counsel from the Church - by remembering the content of the faith, or by asking the advice of the priest.

In this situation of a heart that stops, a family (or the person himself, if he is putting together a "living will" or "advance directive"), should ask questions like this:

- Is the person prepared for the separation of the soul from the body (i.e., for death)? Has he pursued repentance, confession and the reception of the Holy Mysteries? - Is there a reasonable medical possibility that resuscitation will help restore the person to recovery? Or is resuscitation only a delay of the inevitable? - What is more loving for the sufferer?

That last question about what is more loving requires some reflection. In today's confused mix of values, "what is loving" simply means "what is painless," or "what is easier." It is altogether possible that a Christian may look at a family member and conclude that no, he is not ready for death, and yes, resuscitation should be applied even though it means that he will endure six more painful months.

Here arises the main difference between the eminently Christian position of acceptance of death in God's time, and the radically antichrist position of "euthanasia." The latter is aiming for ease, comfort and relief from pain for the individual For the family (and society), the benefit is convenience and relief from ambiguity. Euthanasia provides a quick escape for everyone involved: the family and society that elects for euthanasia is permitted relief from the discomfiture that death must always bring along with it. On the other hand, the Christian concept of a "good death" is not distorted by the fear of pain and the avoidance of eternity, and the metaphysical world.

P&H Evans: There are drugs and treatments nowadays that can prolong a person's life almost indefinitely. Where do we draw the line as to how long to prolong life? For instance, in the case of kidney dialysis there is a tremendous cost to society through increased medical insurance premiums, as there are with chemotherapy, which is often the last ditch effort and may actually make the dying person feel worse, yet it's the last hope. Is it considered suicide if someone decides not to undergo treatment for their life-threatening condition? How should a Christian face these issues; suicide or not?

Fr Jonathan: Is it really true that drugs, treatments, and medical technology can prolong a person's life almost indefinitely? Many people believe this, and they accept without question the idea that medical science will prolong life. Some well-respected practitioners and medical authorities are even now promising that human life expectancy will soon extend to two hundred years. Statements like these must be taken on faith to be believed. The Church is far more skeptical about the promises of technology for human life. The Church asks, rather, just what is being prolonged indefinitely? If technology can only prolong the functionality of body organs, then it is not life that is being extended, but organ activity. Sometimes however, technology can prolong and protect a life of thinking, responsiveness, prayer and repentance. In these instances, we thank God for what we receive from Him through human science and technology: for the protection and preservation of human life is the real goal of technology, and nothing else.

The cost of medical treatment is tremendous, and it is also impossible to calculate. It seems that people who bring up the issue of cost in bioethical discussions are usually very willing to exaggerate the expense of treatment, while at the same time they minimize the expense of more appealing political or sociological programs. The difficulty in calculating the cost also lies in the prevalence of the insane and immoral inflation of medical charges. Medical insurance premiums have increased not only because of too many people receiving life-saving dialysis, but also because individuals and corporations have to be remunerated unreasonably. The issue of cost should never be admitted to the discussion of treatment. If recovery is possible, and if the means of treatment are available, then it should be done, even if someone might lose some money. However, if no real recovery is possible, then treatment should not be elected.

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, as Paul did (Philippians 1:21), "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.

The Christian's life is understandable only in the context of preparing for the next life - first, the intermediate state of the soul in Paradise, 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. However 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.

P&H Evans: These days it seems Churches are emphasizing God's love more than His wrath. Perhaps, as a consequence, many people feel they are good people, not necessarily religious people or Church people but, since they haven't killed anyone, therefore, they will be going to heaven. We've also heard someone say that such people may not be bad people, but that doesn't automatically mean they are good people. Is it true that all it takes to get to heaven is to be a good person?

Fr Jonathan: Do people really think they are good? If they say so, then they no longer believe in goodness: they are only using the word to denote normalcy or acceptability. Do people really think they are going to heaven? If so, then they no longer believe in heaven. They might harbor vague notions of going through a tunnel and seeing a bright light. But this is not heaven or truth at all. The Church does not think of Paradise at all apart from fellowship with Jesus Christ in the Trinitarian light of glory.

The Church doesn't understand how one can "go to heaven" if he isn't already practicing the art of heaven here on earth. The whole discussion of "being good enough to go to heaven" is based on false assumptions. No one is good enough. Jesus Himself said that "only One is good," and that is God Himself. Heaven is for those who want to be with Jesus Christ forever. If you don't want to be with Him Who said that He is the only Way, the Truth and the Life, then you wouldn't want to go to Heaven at all ... even if the doors were swung open wide. If you don't believe in Jesus Christ and His Apostolic Church, then you will not want to go in.

While you might think this is unbelievable, it is proven by the simple fact that the reality exists even now. The doors are today swung open wide. But there are many people who do not want to go in. God will not force them. That is why there is another "place" for those who refuse God's grace - a place that was never meant for humans. In eternity, everyone will be where they really wanted to be: either turned toward Christ "face to face" ... or turned away from Him in perpetual disgrace.

P&H Evans: What do you say to someone who claims the heaven you describe is not what they believe in? They imagine heaven as a place of no suffering, a place where they'll meet loved ones who died or even new friends who are really great - maybe Einstein, or Thomas Jefferson - even a place where one can eat all the spaghetti he'd like without getting fat. But a place where we're looking forward to being with Jesus... well, that's not what they imagined. What about those who say, "How can I love and want to be near someone whom I've never met?"

Fr Jonathan: There are many things in the universe that exist, contrary to the distorted beliefs of some human beings. The earth is round, despite the fact that for a long time, many believed otherwise. There is Heaven of which the present Orthodox Church is the image. This archetypal relationship is not what makes Heaven, but it is what makes the Orthodox Church "orthodox." Heaven is Heaven only because it is the eternal fellowship of Jesus Christ, fulfilled by the Holy Spirit, and destined by the Father. Certainly, the peace of Christ dries every tear, resolves all lamentation (and the moral ambiguities of this age), ends all suffering and heals every mortality. And in Christ, too, all things and all persons are recognized and known. The meaning of every creature is known to every human intelligence that is informed by Christ. The name of every person, from across the ages of time and space, is known to every human perception that is perfected by Christ.

But the immortal life that is chosen in rejection of Christ is not heaven at all, and cannot be. Wishing for a non-Christian heaven will not make it so. One will get his essential wish -- an alienation from the Christian Church forever -- but he will not get his spaghetti, and he will not get to meet Einstein or Jefferson. There are many popular notions about Heaven, and they diverge much more from the truth than do popular notions about science diverge from real science. Heaven is not about the fulfilling of the desires from this life: at best, these desires are only incomplete anticipations of the glory of Heaven -- anticipations that can only appear paradoxical to human intelligence: this is clear in the case of the modernistic "what if?" problem posed to Christ by His Sadducean detractors. They asked who will get the bride in Heaven, if she married seven brothers in succession without issue. The Lord told them that they were trying to extrapolate onto the immortal life from what was familiar in this present life: even mathematicians know that such extrapolation is impossible, as a linear measurements on a line cannot begin to anticipate the extra dimensions of measurement in a space.

The Lord also diagnosed the real pathology of the Sadducees, and of all those who cannot bring themselves to believe in the "Christian Heaven" (the only one there is): the real obstacle to those who do not want to believe in the true Heaven (and true eschatology in general) is simply that they do not believe in the immortality of the body joined with the soul; and, moreover, they do not believe in the Trinity, Who is God of the living, and not of the dead.

At worst, desires for Heaven are extrapolations of base passions, as though the glorified life of eternity were simply a party that never ends, and that never devolves into hangovers, and that never presents the hedonists with a bill. Some "Christian" depictions of heaven are indistinguishable, philosophically, from the inane Muslim concept of Paradise. There is no steak or beer at the Messianic banquet, and there will be no group hugs with Moses, Paul or Jesus. For once, maybe, some Christians will experience the good and healing side of terror.

If someone really would ask such a question, "How can I love and want to be near someone whom I've never met?", then they either do not know what the word "someone" means, if they apply that term to Christ; or they do not know what love is, since Jesus Christ is God's Word, or articulation, of Love. I want to believe that a pious, humble pagan, who never heard the Gospel in some dark rain forest at the far side of the world, who loved his neighbor as himself and loved the Creator Who is good, immortal and all-powerful -- I want to believe that such a one will recognize Christ at the Judgment, and that Christ will recognize him.

I also believe, though I do not want to, that there will be many who call themselves "Christian" on self-reported questionnaires and phone surveys, and that there will even be those who were baptized in the Church but never attended again until their own wedding, their children's baptisms, and their own funeral. And these many so-called Christians will not recognize Jesus, and He will not commend them, simply because they had forgotten His face, and had rejected His grace. They, too, will have ended up not believing in the true Heaven, and simply because of this, they will not want to enter the Royal Doors.

By the way, I don't think that seeing Thomas Jefferson would be so salubrious.

P&H Evans: There is a popular idea that a person can achieve harmony within their entire being, so that there is no suffering or strife, that their body knows how to heal itself, if only the person lives a good life/right lifestyle. This overall concept is sometimes called karma, and most who believe in it will say something like "what goes around, comes around." This worldview sees sickness as a punishment for prior wrongs - either in this life or a past life - or as a warning sign that they are not living their life correctly. How does the Church look upon this worldview? You may want to address these assumptions one at a time.

Fr Jonathan: The doctrine of reincarnation is what the Church has heard before as the theory of the "transmigration of souls." This theory disrupts the eternal bond of unity between body and soul. It is this bond, by the way, that prohibits a Christian from permitting the willful destruction of the human body ( e.g., cremation). This theory also denies the truth, meaning and beauty of the physical world and the body in general. It holds that the soul is better off - or is "saved" - insofar as it separates itself from the physical world. Most of the evils in history have been inspired by this theory.

The Church has heard this doctrine repeatedly for almost two thousand years. There are many varieties of this doctrine, and as many cults devoted to it. But they all are the same in their essential teaching, which is that the present life is less real and less meaningful, something that should be set aside or escaped from. The Church recognizes this ancient pagan wish to set aside this present life as a sophisticated refusal to repent, and a rejection of the Gospel.

The goal of life is to repent from sin, to accept the news of the Gospel, and to participate in the grace of the divine nature through Jesus Christ. God is silent about the meaning of tragedies, and refuses to justify particular events to man, with one exception - all time and experience is appointed to man for the sake of his repentance, salvation, and participation in divinity. It is only when we attach ourselves to other and lesser goals like riches and celebrity (i.e., "strange fire"), that we become afflicted with worrisome questions about theodicy. Theodicy is the questioning of God's fairness - and, more particularly, the questioning of "why this happened to me." The only answer that God has given to this question, whether to Job or to the people wondering about the tragedy of the tower of Siloam, is this: "so that you may repent."

That is why the concept of "karma" is not only contrary to Christian teaching, but it is absurd. At one level, we may safely think that we do not deserve anything good, since we are not good. And yet, because God is good, and only good, then we believe in faith that we are constantly receiving good things we do not deserve: the good rain, Our Lord said, falls on the just and the unjust. Thus, there is no meaningful correspondence between what we are like in our souls, and what happens to us in life.

To be sure, there are consequences to our actions that appear just. Thieves sometimes get caught and go to jail. Alcoholics sometimes die of cirrhosis. But not always. Sometimes, people become physiologically depressed only because their genes have predisposed them to this condition. Sometimes, people get cancer from no perceivable action on their part, and so they are truly "innocent" in their suffering. Sometimes, firefighters perish on their way toward rescue in burning towers. Sometimes, martyrs perish in the flames.

And they are all "practically innocent," and no more deserving of their fate than anyone else. And it will do no good theorizing that God did these acts directly, because that theory flies in the face of our knowledge of God as love, Who is the Comforter, and Whose yoke is easy and His burden is light. All things do indeed work together for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose. That being said, however, it must be remembered that we might know something of His purpose, but we cannot know how "all things work together."

P&H Evans: If suffering is given to us for repentance, is there any validity to the common idea that God brings suffering on us to teach us a lesson? For example, let's take someone who had a heart attack but is recovering. They say that they know God is trying to tell them to slow down at work, or move to another city, or to stop and smell the roses more often. Such people often add, "there is always a reason for everything that happens to us" or "there are no coincidences." Are these Christian ideas? Please address whether God deliberately brings suffering on us or just allows it to happen.

Fr Jonathan: I've heard the same thing, that God is in the business of teaching us lessons. The kind of "lessons learned" I have heard are generally limited to clichés like "Don't be in such a rush"; or "Eat more vegetables"; or, my favorite, "God helps those who help themselves." I have not heard lessons like "I should repent"; or "I should pray more"; or "I will give away my riches to the poor." These latter statements really are lessons that have been learned by the saints of the past, especially those who were given terrifying visions of the afterlife. Smelling the roses is nice, and we should enjoy good things and be thankful: but that statement usually doesn't carry the aroma of thanksgiving, doesn't it? It really denotes what the moderns call, with incredible self-incrimination, "me-time." There is no such thing as lessons from God that have anything to do with self-esteem.

There are no meaningless "coincidences" - in fact, this cliché does not go far enough. Life is completely, infinitely meaningful, as every microscopic and macroscopic event is called into being by the Father, articulated by the Son, and fulfilled by the Spirit: "In Christ," St. Paul (again) says, "all things hold together" (Colossians 1.17). Solomon, writing before the revelation of Christ, says this: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3.1).

But who are we to say just what is being done by God, in His incomprehensible manner, in this moment or that? And who are we to say that God is inflicting evil upon the lives of guilty men and innocent children? No one is who we are, I'd say. God does not inflict evil, and it does not seem right to say that He "permits" evil to occur. He has given humanity freedom to love or to reject love. And now He has veiled the mystery of the course of time to those caught in its stream, so we cannot predict its particular course, and we cannot blame its destructive coincidences on the Headwaters or the Sea: we can, however, "blame" the good coincidences on the One Who speaks to the wind and the wave, and says "Peace, be still." For, as St. James once said, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1.17).

P&H Evans: The Church says "judge not" so who are we to judge someone who chooses suicide?

Fr Jonathan: The Church only says that suicide is sin. It also says that those who commit sins, like suicide, are wrong in doing so. Is it "judging" to say that a decision is wrong, and that a contemplated action is sin? Certainly not. All of society, especially including those who oppose the Church, is quite practiced in identifying choices in their rightness or wrongness. It is interesting that the people who complain about the perceived "judgmentalism" of the Church are usually the ones who are quickest to protest injustice or unfairness. In fact, the very act of complaining that the Church is "judging" someone is itself an act of judging.

The judgmentalism condemned by the Lord Himself is the act of taking a position that only God can have. God's love is the source of goodness, and the revelation of God is the only source of truth. No man can assume the right of determining the relative worth of anyone, for that is what the sin of judgmentalism is - it is more like bigotry and condescension.

But no man is excused from the burden of finding out, from the Church, whether a decision is right or wrong, whether it coheres with God's will, and whether or not it is a sin. If God reveals, in Scripture and in the Tradition of the Church, that man is to die only at God's bidding, then any artificial hastening of that moment is wrong. To call a decision contrary to God's will a "sin" is not only acceptable, it is a responsibility. There are many people today who want to redefine suicide as a "right" or as an acceptable alternative in "end-of-life planning." This is a "redefinition" that does not at all change the moral reality of the act: it only changes the terminology from a word that is patently offensive to a word that is palatable in contemporary jargon.

So are we wrong if we judge someone who chooses suicide? Yes, if we truly are guilty of judging another human being, which we are forbidden to do. But are we wrong if we say that the suicide is wrong? Are we wrong if we say that a person who committed suicide sinned?

No, we are not wrong in saying this. In fact, we would be wrong if we failed to do so.

Read the entire article on the Peter and Helen Evans website (new window will open).

Posted: 03-Jul-07

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