Death and the Church, Part I

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Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment… Hebrews 9:27 (NIV)

In his recent ETS presidential address, Talbot’s bioethics professor Scott Rae made the following observation:

A final area in which I would suggest our churches are undereducated is the end of life. . . . Though we preach regularly about resurrection and eternity, I rarely hear any application of those biblical principles on death, dying, and eternity applied to how we should approach the end of life as patients and family members.[1]

Obviously, while death and dying are not near the top of anyone’s favorite Sunday sermon topics, Rae’s comments remind us that a faithful reading of Scripture includes these dark realities. In a more positive light, Dr. Rae reminds us that no one is better at navigating death than biblically grounded Christians.

We live in a Western culture in which we find ourselves caught between two opposing secular medical responses to the reality of suffering and death: 1) Suffering and death are the ultimate human foes and must be fought—and conquered—at all costs (often resulting in the over-treatment of patients); or 2) Suffering produces a diminished “quality of life,” so death should be hastened (often resulting in the under-treatment of patients). In regard to this second view, one cannot help but hear the recent words of ACA (Affordable Care Act) architect and current University of Pennsylvania professor, Ezekiel Emanuel:

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but it is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to work, society, and the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.[2]

The utilitarian direction of statements like these have convinced noted Christian physician, ethics expert, and CBHD fellow C. Christopher Hook that the coming bioethical battleground will center around treatment of the elderly.[3] I believe he is right, although I do not think that Emanuel’s version is the greatest challenge to evangelical churches. While there are probably some professing Christians who might be uncritically swayed by Emanuel’s pragmatic view of humanity, I am afraid that there are many more who would be convinced by the first extreme and fight suffering and death at the expense of a patient’s mental, physical, and financial capabilities. Too frequently, Christians get seduced into believing that God’s purposes can only be accomplished through a medical or miraculous “cure.” Consequently, if this “body healing” does not take place, it is viewed as either medical incompetence or a lack of faith. While the afflicted may sometimes harbor these ideas, more often it is found in the attitudes of their family members. As Dr. Rae’s provocative address suggests, maybe many of our suffering loved ones (who are believers) really echo the sentiments of his dying father-in-law, who after surgery for bladder cancer, whispered in Rae’s ear, “Don’t ever bring me here again.”[4]

The second scenario (suffering produces a diminished “quality of life”) seems to command the greatest area of need warranting the evangelical church’s intentional engagement with the death and dying issue. Indeed, too many well-meaning Christians have been co-opted into the “suffering and death are the ultimate foes” myths of secularism.

Such an engagement could take the form of a four- to six-week Sunday school class or seminar and be family-oriented (at least starting at high school age), as death is such a corporate experience. A curriculum might look like the following:

  1. Theology of Suffering and Death
  2. How the Christian Community Prepares for Death
  3. How the Christian Community Ministers to the Dying

In closing, I wish that I could recite numerous cases where evangelical congregations have intentionally and systematically addressed bioethical issues. In a decade or so of my own teaching on the subject, I can only recall two churches that set up such seminars with me. Sadly, this ambivalence is unacceptable for Christ’s people who are under Paul’s magnificent injunction to “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). And who would deny that death occupies a central place in human existence? Since death will be a reality for all—both as an individual event as well as a corporate experience—it behooves today’s Christian leaders to educate their churches in a comprehensive (bioethical) manner that is grounded in the welcome message that death does not have the final word (1 Cor 15:55).

Continue reading this series: Part II, Part III, Part IV


[1] Scott Rae, “Bioethics: The Church and Family,” JETS 59, no. 1 (2016): 15. You can find this portion of Dr. Rae’s address in a piece published on Intersections at

[2] Ezekiel Emanuel, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” The Atlantic (October 2014), (accessed July 26, 2016).

[3] Author’s conversation with Dr. Hook at the Illinois College of Medicine, Peoria, IL, May 6, 2016.

[4] Rae, “Bioethics,” 15. See also