The Good Death during the Reformation and Modernism | Part 2

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In the previous essay, we have seen how medieval authors such as Johannes Gerson or Anselm established an Ars Moriendi genre of literature to prepare Christians for euthanasia, a “good death.” In this second part, we will trace the history of the term euthanasia from Luther to the modern period.

Martin Luther (1483–1546): Ein Sermon von der Bereitung zum Sterben (1519) (A Sermon on the Preparation for Death)

Only four years after the publication of Staupitz’ book, Martin Luther also authored a writing on the good death: Ein Sermon von der Bereitung zum Sterben (“A sermon on the preparation for death”). Unlike Staupitz, who called for a mystical imitation of Christ’s death, Luther emphasized the connection between Christ and a Christian which is established solely through faith in the forgiveness of sins on the basis of Christ’s complete work on the cross. Christians have a living hope beyond death because of the righteousness of God which was established on Golgotha. It is from this perspective that Luther answers of what constitutes a good death.[1]

Luther argues that a Christian is called to bid farewell to the temporal world. He must make efforts to put temporal things in order (and, hence, not to despise them). It is important that he orders his personal relationships. He must both grant forgiveness and desire forgiveness so that “the soul may not remain afflicted with any matter on earth.” The dying man must turn “to God alone” and understand the coming death as a “new birth”: “The narrow gate begins here, the narrow path to life. Everyone must confidently prepare for it. For it is narrow but it is not very long. It is similar to a child being born out of the small apartment of its mother’s womb, with dangers and fears, into this wide heaven and earth, which is our world.”[2]

A dying Christian has to be aware of the fact that powers will rise up against him. Luther specifically mentions the “frightening image of death, the horrible multilayered image of sin, and the unbearable image of hell and eternal damnation. These occasionally rise up in front of a person in a terrible fashion.” The dying Christian should not feel threatened by these images but instead focus on “death in eternal life,” “sin in grace,” and “hell in heaven.”[3]

In all of this, it is helpful to remember the temptations Christ faced on the cross:

Like us, He [Christ] was tempted with the image of death, sin, and hell. They held up the image of death before his eyes . . . the image of sin before him . . . they drove the image of hell towards him. . . . We see how Christ remains silent in the face of all these words and terrible pictures. He does not fight them. He acts as if he does not see or hear them. He does not answer a single one of them. Rather, he focuses on the beloved will of his father alone. . . . In the same fashion, we want to let the images fall and descend and only think about the fact that we are dependent upon the will of God, which is that we cling to Christ and believe that our death, our sin, and our hell, is overcome for us in him and cannot harm us, so that Christ’s image alone may be in us.[4]

Luther recommends a desire for and a celebration of the sacraments so that the dying Christian does not doubt but realize that he is not alone. Additionally, the love of family and worship of God on one’s deathbed are a great support in dying a good death.

In a way, Luther understood the hour of death to be the climax of a life of faith which is grounded in Christ’s work: temptation of sin and distance from God can only be overcome by trusting the complete work of Christ.

Pietism, Puritanism, and Baroque

In the following decades, up until the period of pietism and puritanism, a plethora of writings on the topics of the “good death” and the “good dying” were published. At times, such publications took the shape of abbreviated laypersons’ dogmatics that emphasize the knowledge of sin and highlight gospel-centered repentance for which faith in God’s mercy in Christ is central. The only point of discussion was whether the process of dying should be celebrated as the Art of dying (ars moriendi; common in Pietism)—one might think about Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas—or understood as a minor transition (for instance by A. Bengel) which should not receive much attention.[5]

In sermons on ethical issues, Bible passages were often used like guardrails (for instance, in answering the question of how one should behave in relation to political authority, preachers commonly used Roman 13:1–8; regarding divorce, Matthew 19:1–12 was popular; regarding suffering, the book Job). In accordance with this practice, preachers often used the death of Jacob (Gen 47:29–30) and Joseph (Gen 50:24–26) to teach the church about a “good death.” Two things can be learned from Jacob’s (and Joseph’s) death: First, this man did not passively accept his death but became active on his deathbed (Gen 47:29). He called for his son and his grandchildren and provided instructions regarding his funeral. In the same fashion, a Christian should not passively endure the dying process but should call for his family, his progeny, and take care of his temporal affairs. Second, Jacob and Joseph changed their focus: away from Egypt where they lived, towards the promised land of Canaan. In the same way, a Christian is called to reorient himself towards the land of Canaan which is promised to him (Gen 47:29–30 and 50:24–26; Ex 13:19; cf. Hebr. 11:21–22).

The Modern Era

During the modern era, the question of the “good death” gradually disappears. People increasingly viewed the dying process from a medical perspective. Care for the dying became an irreligious service designed to delay death as much as possible through medication and machinery. At the same time, there was an attempt to psychologically care for the dying by strengthening their identity through making them aware that they can understand their temporal life as a “fulfilled life”. They were comforted on the basis of their own works: life was not meaningless because they had success and loved other human beings. To summarize: during the modern era, the topic of the good death which was so dominant in the Christian West for centuries lost most of its relevance. The word “euthanasia” ceased to carry its previous meaning.

This is still felt today. In the next part, we will, therefore, explore how the rich Christian euthanasia tradition of preparing for death can inform and reform the process of dying in the present.


[1] Martin Luther, “Ein Sermon von der Bereitung zum Sterben” in Martin Luther: Ausgewählte Schriften in sechs Bänden, ed. Karin Bornkamp and Gerhard Ebeling (Frankfurt: Insel, 1982), 2:15–34.

[2] Martin Luther, “Ein Sermon von der Bereitung zum Sterben,” in D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed.  J.F.K. Knaake et al. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1883-2009), 2:685f.

[3] For all these phrases see Martin Luther, “Ein Sermon von der Bereitung zum Sterben,” in D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed.  J.F.K. Knaake et al. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1883-2009), 2:685-697.

[4] Martin Luther, “Ein Sermon von der Bereitung zum Sterben,” in D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed.  J.F.K. Knaake et al. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1883-2009), 2:691-692.

[5] Oscar Wächter, Johann Albrecht Bengel: Lebensabriß, Character, Briefe, und Aussprüche (Stuttgart: Verlag von Samuel Gottlieb Liesching, 1865), 272.