Future Resurrection and the Right to Die: Using Strong Theology in Response to Shifting Societal Values

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Efforts to legalize physician aid-in-dying (PAD) are slowly gaining traction in state legislatures.[1] This traction is due, in large part, to the increasingly broad appeal of mantras like “compassion and choices” and the “right to die.” This rhetoric is frustrating, to say the least. “Compassion” and “rights” are meaningful Christian virtues that have been misused by proponents of PAD to legitimize something the church has historically rejected as immoral.[2]

However, if Christian leaders articulate only frustration at the manipulative rhetoric of proponents of PAD, is that sufficient pastoral engagement of the issue? Will it equip believers to see through the rhetorical appeals to “values” and “virtues” in arguments for PAD? In times of vulnerability, will our church members share our pastoral distaste for rhetorical impropriety, and will that distaste effectively disarm the rhetorical appeal of “compassion” in the face of terminal illness? In times of pain, suffering, and loss of control, appeals to compassion and autonomy can make the “right to die” seem reasonable and attractive, and PAD seem forgivable—or even sanctioned.

Despite the appeal of PAD, believers can be trusted to discern its wrongness when we make loving and impassioned appeals to historical Christian theology. Every believer can wield a sanctified moral reasoning that cuts carefully and humbly through the noise and appeal of popular notions of love, compassion, and autonomy.

What sort of historic Christian theology might inform the Christian’s rejection of arguments for PAD? A candidate for this might be Paul’s theology of the future, bodily resurrection of believers. In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul engages in an extended discussion of the resurrection. After making the assumption that the Corinthians believed beyond doubt in the bodily resurrection of Jesus (vv.1–11), he goes on to show the theological absurdity of minimizing the reality of a future, bodily resurrection of believers (vv.12–23). He engages the topic of what that body will be like and how it is the finale to God’s victory over the personified last enemy, death (vv. 24–58). Paul’s discussion of the future, bodily resurrection of believers is also placed curiously at the end of the letter. Could this discussion be central to Paul’s method of correcting the problems in the Corinthian church? Could an anemic emphasis on bodily resurrection be one of the principal theological deficits in the Corinthian church—a deficit which was partly (if not mostly) to blame for the many issues addressed by Paul in this letter to the Corinthians? At the very least, we must conclude that the future resurrection of believers was of profound significance to Paul.

What would a rightly emphasized theology of future bodily resurrection do for the believer who is confronted with an argument for PAD? I propose that it would strengthen two essential Christian perspectives. First, a theology of future bodily resurrection requires that we understand and value the continuity of this life with the next—the continuity between our present bodily existence and our future bodily existence within the context of God's eschatological plan. It renders absurd the notion that the present earthly body is a disposable object to be used at the autonomous discretion of the individual. A theology of future bodily resurrection exposes PAD as a very "Corinthian" notion that spiritual life has nothing to do with bodily integrity.[3] A theology of future bodily resurrection argues that to abuse the integrity of the body in this life—including by intentionally interrupting our own natural trajectory of biological life—is to devalue the glorified resurrected body in the next.

Second, a theology of future bodily resurrection should cause us to recognize the violence of death. When our united body and soul are separated, it is a violent event that dis-unifies our person. Death is evil and ugly, the antithesis of goodness and beauty. To bring about one’s own death is to completely disregard one’s body-soul constitution and God’s purposes for it and to participate in a profound act of violence. Ironically, PAD purports to preserve the human person by destroying him. PAD fundamentally misconstrues the human constitution by positing a strange beauty in the autonomy of voluntary disembodiment. Resurrection, on the other hand, does not require us to misconstrue our human constitution. It does not force us into the predicament of endorsing a form of violence. Instead it frees us to focus on human flourishing in the midst of difficulty, and it prods us to participate in God’s eschatological plan up to the very moment that death visits us. It is our future resurrection that is beautiful because it reunifies our person in a glorified soul-body unity.

A pastor need not feel threatened when the advocates of PAD co-opt our Christian vocabulary in an effort to broaden the appeal of PAD. But rather than simply exhibit frustration at the manipulative efforts of the PAD lobby, pastors should articulate a robust theology of future bodily resurrection as a way of challenging the pluralistic celebration of autonomy in PAD with a more deeply satisfying prospect of renewed and perfected personhood. If believers in our churches reject the tide of public endorsement of PAD, may they do so out of regard for theological commitments which expose the notion of PAD to be the absurd, but logical, destination of pluralistic, humanistic unbelief.


[1] PAD is already legal in Oregon (1994), Washington (2008), Montana (2009, by court decision), California (2016), Vermont (2013), Colorado (2016). Recently (June 2016) Canada also legalized PAD.

[2] Note: Opinions expressed here are mine and do not in any way represent those of my employer.

[3] By "Corinthian" notion I mean that to separate bodily integrity from spiritual life seems to be a particular fault in the anthropology of the Corinthian Christians.