Human life is precious. Christians believe there is something special and unique about human beings: all humans, no matter how tiny, frail or fallible, are made ‘in the image of God’. All humanity shares something of his nature. The Bible says God made people ‘a little lower than the angels and crowned (us) with glory and honour’. Life is a God-given gift. That means men and women should conserve and respect human life. But every person is doing to die - death is inevitable, but it is not the end. Christianity teaches that our time on earth is only a fraction of our existence. God is eternal and has given us the possibility of an eternity in relationship with him. That changes the perspective on death and leads some to the conclusion there is no absolute duty to save every life no matter what the cost. The Bible is very clear that murder is wrong. But there are some issues of life and death where Christians do not agree and continue to debate the ethics involved. Two of these are assisted dying and capital punishment.
God made people ‘a little lower than the angels and crowned (us) with glory and honour’.
The death penalty
The Christian faith is the source of many of the foundations of modern society including the justice system. Many countries have abolished the death penalty or capital punishment for serious crimes but it is still used in others. The Bible refers to capital punishment. The laws which God gave to the ancient Hebrew people around 3,500 years ago set out the exceptional circumstances in which it was to be carried out. These seem very harsh from our modern perspective but the context was very different to our times. Bible books including Exodus and Leviticus refer to taking ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…’ In part, this was about making sure any punishment given to an offender was appropriate for the crime that had been committed.
Some Christians believe that the death penalty is still acceptable as a last resort. But for others it is not. In his teachings recorded in the Bible book Matthew, Jesus says, ‘you have heard that it was said “eye for eye and tooth for tooth”. But I tell you do not resist an evil person… love your enemies, do good to those that hate you…’ The World Council of Churches, which includes hundreds of Christian denominations, campaigns vigorously to have the death penalty abolished around the world. It argues that an irreversible punishment makes it impossible for someone to do what God wants them to do: ask for forgiveness and change their ways.
Medical progress has created new ethical questions about the sanctity of life.
Assisted dying or euthanasia is another subject where Christians disagree. Recent advances in medical treatment have prolonged the lives of chronically ill people and given many the chance of life where it would have been impossible decades ago. But this medical progress has also created new ethical questions about the sanctity of life and a person’s right to end their life or ask someone else to help them to do so. The Bible does not give clear answers to these questions. Some Christians think that a desperately ill person with no hope of recovery should be allowed to choose when and how to end their life. They see assisted dying as merciful. Others believe that everyone’s life has value, no matter the situation; that life is a God-given gift which only God can bring to an end. Critics of euthanasia are also concerned that vulnerable people should never be pushed towards assisted dying because they feel they are a burden to their family and to society. Most Christians would favour the best use of pain control and compassion rather than allowing someone else to intervene to accelerate death.