Bioethics is a branch of ethical inquiry that examines the nature of biological and technological discoveries and the responsible use of biomedical advances, with particular emphasis upon their moral implications for our individual and common humanity.
The term “bioethics,” originally coined by Von Rensselaer in 1970, has evolved from a more specific emphasis upon medical ethics to include a wide range of issues such as allocation of healthcare resources, end-of-life treatment, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, reproductive technologies, genetic intervention, stem cell research, cloning, neuroscience, and other emerging biotechnologies. While a branch of ethical inquiry, bioethics is interdisciplinary in nature integrating such diverse fields as the life sciences, medicine, biotechnology, philosophy, theology, public policy, and law.
The articles in this section explore some of the broader issues involved in bioethics, including theological and philosophical explorations central to the discussion of bioethics, the impact bioethical issues have on society as a whole, and engaging the general public on pressing bioethical issues.
So, how then shall we think about transgenderism given the importance of embodiment and a theology of engendered bodies? How then shall we live as the culture war surrounding us increasingly demands allegiance to one or the other side? Further, in a world of social media polarization and dishonest representations of transgenderism, how then shall we speak to and about trans people and act on their behalf in a way that is humanizing and informed by biblical anthropology?
It was a sunny Californian day when I got the call, while walking on the bustling campus of Biola University. I was closing out my junior year and felt like I knew everything and had forever to know more. All it took was one phone call to destroy that false reality forever. I had been having minor health issues that took me consistently back to the campus health center. And what had they found? I was in Stage 3 (out of 5) kidney failure.
In this short article I will present a way of thinking that might help us avoid such temptations and discover ways in which the church and the mental health professions can come together with mutual understanding and shared healing practices.
For a field that previously prioritized perception and mere verbal exchange, this increasing focus on the lived body is promising. But, for the professional Christian counselor, as well as pastoral counselors, the importance of embodiment in care and counseling should also be fundamentally informed by biblical and theological narratives—not just the scientific or therapeutic.
Medical professionals find themselves trapped in work environments that demand consistent professional postures, service-oriented thinking, secular opinions, and the expectation of being the expert on any given health issue. When they cannot help the ill, they carry that home. It doesn’t go away so quickly. What is a clinician to do when this weight simply becomes too much? Who cares for the caregivers?
Despite the difficulties we may have considering what it means to have a body, the Bible has much to teach us about our physical nature in God’s creation. Using the framework of creation, fall, redemption, and re-creation, let us consider what it teaches about our nature as embodied creatures.
During this Christmas season, as believers celebrate the Messiah’s birth, it is worth looking afresh at the problem of bioethics.
We live at an exciting time in human history, when our medical interventions and technological innovations can do amazing, even seemingly miraculous, things. Yet, amidst all of this there is also a growing discontent with these marvels of our medically and technologically sophisticated age (or what we’ve shorthanded as the MedTech age).
“Disability” is a word tossed about easily in our world. Yet the sheer spectrum of disabilities makes the term ambiguous and even artificial. It is helpful to conceive of disability as a term that points to a limitation due to an involuntary bodily impairment, social role expectation, or external physical/social obstruction impacting participation in communal life. Beyond this definition, the church is faced with a deeper challenge to define disability while wrestling with various theological implications of over-simplifying the term.
What comes to mind at the mention of the word ethics? The most common answers we, the authors, receive to this question involve some aspect of right versus wrong or good versus evil. More religiously minded people will sometimes respond with references to the Ten Commandments or other moral codes derived from sacred texts. While such responses are not necessarily wrong, we believe ethics is much more than abiding by a list of rules in order to choose right over wrong or good over evil. We believe ethics is an expression of worship to the God who created us.
At bioethics.com, I curate and post articles from the media that deal with bioethics issues. A typical post at bioethics.com is a title, link, and short blurb from an article in the mainstream media, such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters, or the Associated Press. Over the past year, one bioethics.com post received more views in a single day than any other post, and it won by a large margin: “The Twitching Generation” by Helen Lewis at The Atlantic (See post here). I posted “The Twitching Generation” on Monday February 28, 2022. On Saturday alone it received 2,512 views, and as of April 2022, it had 5,338 views. Those numbers are just for the bioethics.com post which serves as a thoroughfare to the actual article. The topic is apparently of interest to our bioethics readers, so let’s look at what we can learn from Helen Lewis’s article about teens and technology.
With his book, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, Gilbert Meilaender has given to the church a great gift. As a pastor of a church within an evangelical denomination who gets to walk beside members of my congregation as they wrestle with the ever-changing issues pertaining to real life bioethical questions, I am grateful to have access to a book like Meilaender’s.
Ministry leaders who foster vital congregational community can constructively address the adverse trends in the growing national crisis regarding the upturn in mental illness. In the previous piece on ministry along the mental health continuum, the charge to ministry leaders was to be part of the solution: faith communities serve a stabilizing function that increase disease resistance by reversing isolation. Here, that challenge will be expanded. Ministry leaders can indeed be part of a larger social movement that promotes mental health and fulfills our Gospel calling. Awareness of trends in mental health care can assist clergy to customize and deepen the support offered to struggling parishioners.
Is the clamor regarding an uptick in untreated mental health cases an absurd prophecy or another conspiracy theory? The data would suggest otherwise. There is reputable evidence that increasing numbers of people are inwardly perturbed and exhibit symptoms such as sleep disturbance, suicidal ideation, and addictive behaviors. The COVID-19 pandemic itself brought evidence-based epidemiology -the data driven study of patterns in health and disease- into the public spotlight.
The body as we know it exists in a remarkable tension. On the one hand, Christians confess that the body is unquestionably good; the incarnation of Christ tolerates no lesser opinion, signaling God’s intent to redeem these very bodies. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul also indicated that these same bodies possess an acutely felt awareness that such goodness is not an obvious feature of our ordinary lives. We still await “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23), that ultimate transformation when the “Lord Jesus Christ…will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). This, then, is the tension: we possess bodies that are good and divinely-affirmed, and yet these are also bodies that groan, feel burdensome, and are not quite the way they were meant to be.
We live at an exciting time in human history, when our medical interventions and technological innovations can do amazing, even seemingly miraculous, things. Yet, amidst all of this there is also a growing discontent with these marvels of our medically and technologically sophisticated age (or what we’ve shorthanded as the MedTech age).
The 21st-century world of medicine and biotechnology is simultaneously characterized by hopeful promise and the challenging threats. The issues swirling in our culture at this time represent larger worldview issues. The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity at Trinity International University seeks to address these many and complex issues by helping Christians raise the right questions in the midst of a morally indifferent culture. Involved in these meaningful, thoughtful, and difficult explorations is a need to help followers of Christ develop a coherent and comprehensive way to see and understand the changing world in which we live.
Culture is so easily influenced by the entertainment industry. This is why I am sounding an alarm about a very dangerous message in a film released earlier this summer. It’s simply titled Me Before You.
People sometimes remark that churches are not very good at teaching and counseling their members concerning difficult bioethical issues. It is worth pondering why many faithful churches seem to fall short in this important area.
In 2015, while serving as President of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), I took the opportunity in the annual presidential address to raise what I think are some of the most pressing issues facing the church today in medicine, particularly at the edges of life. What follows are thoughts adapted from my presentation. In my experience, churches are undereducated when it comes to ethical issues raised by advances in medicine and technology, a neglect that is critical because these issues are not just academic ones but touch people’s lives in very tangible and deep ways.
One way of theologically framing bioethical issues, particularly those relating to the beginning and end of life, is through the dialectic of “taking and keeping” versus “receiving and giving.” While there is always a subtle danger in painting our world in black and white colors when in fact it consists of more than 50 shades of gray, reframing issues in this way can help to crystalize a Christian attitude and theological approach to various life and death issues.
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).
[T]he progress that has been made, combined with this hype of decontextualized and often exaggerated claims by the media, continue to fuel the hope of medicine and technology: “If we could only accomplish a little more . . . .” But more is never enough. And hope, commingled with the fear of death (Heb 2:15), can fuel an attitude of “taking and keeping” (the “agency”), one that grasps at and clings to the technological hope of immortality. From here one can easily (and subtly) fall prey to worshipping technology and progress as gods.
Bills to change the law to allow euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide continue to be presented to parliaments throughout the western world, on a wave of overwhelming public support for “the right to choose and have a dignified death.” While it is unlikely the debate will go away, we can still hope for a more honest one.
"...For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died with no one to look after them . . . . The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water." Thus Thucydides (ca. 431 BC) paints a vivid—if morbid—picture of a plague in the classical world. This situation did not change for another seven centuries. We can learn much from what (and who) brought the change.
What are we to make of the claims that a person’s gender identity conflicts with his or her body? Should someone undergo gender-reassignment surgery to match one’s sense of identity, or should it be the other way around? Answers to such questions will depend fundamentally on our understanding of what it means to be a human being, an understanding that derives its intelligibility from the larger story (or metanarrative) in which it is situated. For Christians, this metanarrative is informed by Scripture, which attests to the creative, redemptive, and restorative activity of God as revealed in Christ Jesus.
Too frequently Christians in the West engage questions about medicine and healthcare from within our particular political binary—conservative or liberal. Our pundits endlessly debate the questions, “Who should have access to medical care?” “How should they get it?” And, most of all, “Who should pay for it?” Might Christians have more to say than our polarized political discourse allows? Our ancient brothers and sisters would answer with a strong, “Yes!”
Having been a pastor and professor for a couple of decades, I’ve heard (and spoken) my share of funeral sermons. At times, quite ironically it seems, death is almost personified and praised as the great deliverer, the one who relieves our loved ones of unbearable pain and suffering. And while I understand the “blessing” of death to cease suffering, I can’t help but think of the New Testament portrayal of death as “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26; cf. 2 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 20:14; 21:4). The story of Jesus’s response to the death of his friend Lazarus in John 11 brings not only comfort and hope but much-needed wisdom and perspective.
Given our secular culture’s confusing responses to suffering and death—death is either the ultimate human foe to be conquered at any cost, or is preferable to a “diminished quality of life”—many believers are co-opting a worldview that runs contrary to historic Christianity. While we are most appreciative of the fine and informative work of ministries such as The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, the “think tank” cannot replace the local parish as the center of Christian education. In other words, bioethics (especially issues of death and dying) must be mainstreamed from the academy to the pulpit and pew. This will obviously require a fair bit of intentionality.
When an idea or concept needs a push in popular culture, Hollywood often makes a movie about it. With the power of emotional drama and a film score designed to tug at the heart, Hollywood has the power to advance ideas that we would otherwise reject on moral grounds. Its most recent attempt uses the book-to-movie love story Me Before You to create sympathy for and acceptance of euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS).
Since then, however, my attention to bioethics has waned. So many other matters—the constant demands of pastoral care, leading a ministry staff, administrating programs and events, and weekly preaching, among others—have seemed more urgent, more necessary to the work I am called to do. My membership with CBHD lapsed. The bioethics books on my shelf have remained unread. My intention to educate church members about bioethics has gone unrealized. So, when the invitation came to write this piece I was surprised and, frankly, unprepared. My immediate thought was, “What on earth can I write about and not seem like a totally uninformed fool?” But it occurred to me that many pastors probably find it difficult, like I now do, to integrate bioethical education into the daily, monthly, and yearly work of local church leadership.
Bioethical dilemmas are being explored everywhere. Moral questions embedded in the application of medical technology are not reserved for elite medical roundtables. Rather, ethical decisions are the prevailing substance of entertainment. Stories do touch our souls.
The prevailing cultural narrative, woven into routine dialogue and highlighted throughout the entertainment industry, turns on how the individual alone must define what is good using one’s internal moral compass. The frame of reference for making optimal moral choices is exclusively located within the uniqueness of the autonomous person, who applies private and personal criteria to achieve happiness, wholeness, and significance.
When we can’t find the answers we’re looking for, we can find peace in the only true answer: We need God! Affliction is the lowest common denominator for all of us. Philippians 1:29 tells us to expect suffering: “For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.” But no matter how strong our faith is, it’s natural to ask why.
In my own evangelical tradition, there is a tendency to narrow the focus of salvation so much that we find ourselves wondering, “What are we saved by grace for?" In his book After You Believe, a sequel to Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, the esteemed New Testament scholar N. T. Wright addresses this problem in a compelling and accessible way.
Whatever the case, we have many Rachels in our congregations—women who are “weeping for (their) children because they are not” or “are no more” (Matthew 2:18 quoting Jeremiah 31:15). These women, and men too, find difficulty in joining in the joy of this day. They may be inconspicuously absent because it hurts too much to be reminded of empty wombs, empty hearts, and empty hands.
In The Abolition of Man—published nearly 75 years ago—C. S. Lewis speaks indirectly, though perhaps prophetically, to our current complexities—reminding us that there is truly nothing new under the sun. In the title chapter of the book, Lewis asks the question, “In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?” Are we able to have the control over Nature and live the autonomous lives we desire? In our attempt to understand and fully live out what it means to be human, is it possible to conquer those aspects of Nature we believe hinder, diminish, or destroy our flourishing, thereby solidifying our humanity?
I have intentionally titled this series, “Death and the Church.” Given the highly individualistic character of Western culture, many complex human issues are viewed as personal concerns to be dealt with in a manner that keeps friends, neighbors, and even family at a distance. The well-known expression “It is none of your business,” epitomizes an isolationism that has become a core value of American culture.
When Jesus encountered people dealing with hurts, he very often brought his healing touch. He restored sight to the blind, enabled the lame to walk, and opened the ears of the deaf, indicating the nature of his kingship and his Kingdom. His life and proclamation promised a new creation where there will be no pain, fear, or tears. Nevertheless, it was but a taste. Those he healed still died; their temporary healing pointed toward a full and final renewal that has not yet come. It makes sense that followers of Jesus want to proclaim and offer hope and full healing. Still, this good instinct can easily go astray. Sometimes, even though there may be good intentions behind this impulse, we can really hurt those who face suffering.
From birth control to dementia, the world of bioethics touches us all. And in a world in which cultural norms are moving further away from Christianity, leadership in the church must be informed and aware of these issues and consider them from a biblical perspective. Pastors and teachers must learn to shepherd their flock through the stormy waters of our MedTech age as they make bioethical decisions. Christian Bioethics is a compass that can help navigate these waters.
Christianity provides the radical answer that humans are created in the image of God, or the imago Dei (Gen 1:26–27). But what exactly does this mean? Until the mid-twentieth century, Christian thought on the imago Dei focused on uniquely human capacities, usually reason and morality. But if a capacity is absent, or damaged, does this mean that the imago Dei is degraded? A focus on capacities risks dehumanizing the very old, the very young, or those with disabilities. Recent advances in archeology and history provide scholars a much richer context for understanding how the Bible uses the word “image”—one which goes beyond mere capacity.
As Christians who believe in the God “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,” it can be hard to know how to pray for those suffering from chronic illness (Psalm 103:3, ESV). Often, the church starts strong, praying fervently for the healing of the afflicted person’s body. However, as weeks, months, and even years go by, discouragement can set in. Why keep praying for something that does not seem to happen? As other requests for prayer are shared, it is easy to push those with chronic illnesses into the background.
It is crucial that churches help believers make ethical decisions regarding fertility treatments by first instilling a gospel framework for suffering in general, and infertility in particular, into the congregation’s imagination. In order for the church to counteract believers’ culturally conditioned attitudes about infertility, pastors must present a fully Christian vision of what a virtuous struggle with infertility looks like.
In Edwards’ early modern world, people usually died at home, spending their final days surrounded by friends and family. Evangelicals thought intently about the way that they should die. Deathbed scenes were public spectacles, remembered for posterity. They testified to the Christian faith and character of the deceased. It should come as no surprise, then, that Edwards died surrounded by a group of close companions, people hanging on the words he whispered painfully to them through his contagious, swollen throat.
All too many of us (both those outside the church and sadly too many within as well) look to technology as a kind of savior, believing it will alleviate all our pain and afflictions, leaving us with nothing but happiness. Such an idea, Lawler says, is futile. Not that happiness is wholly elusive; rather it “is more than a chemical problem that has a technological or biotechnological solution.” Even if these means can solve some of our ailments, they will undoubtedly introduce new problems. Lawler points out, “we will never live in a world without the reality of catastrophes, without sin, suffering, loneliness, profound disorientation, dementia, and death.”
“Advent” comes to us from the Latin adventus meaning “arrival” or “coming to.” We celebrate this beginning with the lighting of the hope candle. It reminds us of the promise of a coming savior, the messianic hope—a hope that as Jesus said to his disciples that “many prophets and righteous people longed to see . . . and to hear” (Matt 13:17 NIV). We remember this hope, as it was realized in the coming of the Christ in the most vulnerable of human forms, an infant. And yet, in this very same hope we remember that the fulfillment of the first Advent, was also marked by the promise of a second Advent, the blessed hope. As the Nicene Creed affirms, having been seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.”
Throughout various points of the church calendar we are reminded of how God establishes the value of human life, namely, by the incarnation of God the Son—Christ. No doubt, this divine affirmation is needed now more than ever in a context where discussions on the value of all human life are a part of everyday conversation. But this post isn’t a typical bioethical argument, although it has implications for it given the importance of the subject, namely the human embryo. While other issues could be discussed, for our purposes here we offer some suggestions for thinking through one important issue concerning the embryo, the problem of so-called embryo glut (i.e., excess), which, we think, affords Christians an opportunity for redemptive action, i.e., the rescue of a human life frozen in a perpetual state of inactivity.
In a small way, this illustrates the power of digital technologies. On the plus side, they connect us with people we otherwise could not meet, such as the researcher in Australia I only know through a Skype video call. On the negative side, these technologies have the power to dis-connect us from people, by creating virtual relationships with nameless strangers, whether on Words with Friends or Facebook. When I occasionally—and ever more rarely—drop in to Facebook, I notice posts from people I do not even recognize. (How did they “friend” me?) If I met them in person, no name would come to mind. What aspect of friendship, or even mere acquaintance, could I attribute to these “Facebook friends”?
For those with eyes to see, the movie WALL-E (Disney and Pixar, 2008) can be something of an apocalypse, revealing God’s Kingdom and stoking a Christian imagination. 800 years from now the remnant of humanity exists on the Axiom, a space cruise ship. The high-tech deck chairs supporting their overfed/corpulent bodies double as hovercraft to move them around the ship. All interaction between humans is mediated by a device. Every hobby is virtual. Every meal comes in a cup. The trip on the Axiom was initially billed as a five-year cruise. But 700 years later, the remnant is unaware of any other existence, or indeed, of their ancestral home which had been so thoroughly trashed (literally) that it can no longer support life of any kind.
Thoughtful Christian engagement with contemporary challenges requires careful examination, taking time to think through implications, and learning from experts. I have observed this kind of Christian thinking in action since I first began working at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity (CBHD). But in all the busyness of life, how can someone who is not an expert keep up with such things, especially with all of the pressing issues arising in medicine, science, and technology that impact our everyday lives?
In our death-denying culture (including the evangelical church), it is very rare to hear sermons on Christ’s resurrection except at Easter. Even then, many messages tend to be apologetic in nature, namely, how the empty tomb vindicates Christ’s claims to deity. While I have heard many pastors sermonize on Paul’s “resurrection magnum opus” in 1 Corinthians 15, too little time has been spent on the extensive treatment that the Apostle gives to its implications for believers facing the reality of even untimely earthly death (cf. vv. 35–58). This existential absence has, in my opinion, only exacerbated a secular-like trust in the achievements of modern medicine in the Christian community.
Many studies in neuroscience report that extensive usage of social media and screen technology changes the human brain in ways that make it difficult for a person to maintain sustained levels of concentration. Nearly thirty years ago, Jane M. Healy argued in her book, Endangered Minds, “that we are rearing a generation of ‘different brains.’” How much more might this be the case today than it was then? Such changes raise important questions. How are all of these technologies shaping us? And, what ramifications does this have for worship, preaching, and religious education?
As I have reflected on those conversations, two aspects stand out: 1) their questions represent the public, secular views about death and dying popularized in American culture; and 2) they were more interested in avoiding physical pain than in thinking Christianly about the problem. I want to briefly describe the view they seem to have absorbed, and the consequences we already see from legalization of both euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS).
One of my favorite parts of getting around Washington, D.C. is the Metro system. The zzzip of the Metro fare card that opens the turnstile, the flashing lights that announce the incoming train, and the garbled announcements of the upcoming station create a vivid collage. Even more, the long entrance/exit rides, such as on Rosslyn station’s 270-foot escalator, induce a bit of vertigo. The wide stainless steel divider might tempt brash or drunk riders to emulate their childhood prowess on the playground slide, but large discs mounted at strategic intervals along the divider deter all but the most foolhardy. It is dangerous to descend that slippery slope.
In her 2018 book, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, Christian apologist Nancy R. Pearcey tackles a variety of hot-button ethical issues including abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, hookup culture, and transgenderism. Chapter by chapter, Pearcey makes the case that Western secularism denigrates the human body by embracing each of these practices, and she defends the holistic realism of Christian ethics in response.
Zac and Sally Crippen host Vernacular, a podcast that explores human flourishing through a broad range of categories, from sports, creative media, and food to philosophy and science. This interview highlights their work, experiences, and advice relating to bioethics.
Twenty minutes later we were in the hospital lobby. We walked right past the information booth and straight to the elevator bank. Billy Bob seemed to know where to go. As the elevator arrived, he said, “She’s in room 511.” We stepped in and he pushed the button for the 5th floor. That’s when the first of many pastoral lessons hit me up the side of my face.
Our brave new world is here, thanks to a new gene editing technology called CRISPR. (And it’s cheap! Maybe you qualify for a free CRISPR kit? Google it.) The potential applications of the technology are myriad.
Pastoral and congregational care for my family and me was critical to help us through this time of uncertainty. We needed someone to come alongside us and regularly offer help and encouragement. My wife was affected even more than I was. Because I could not obtain more life insurance, she faced the prospect of raising children on her own with no financial safety net. The compassion and financial assistance from our church and its members significantly helped to ease our minds as we entered this new phase of our lives.
Dr. Keith Plummer specializes in apologetics, hermeneutics, and pastoral counseling at Cairn University. Read his responses to five questions exploring his work as a professor and offering advice for Christians today.
Ministry in the context of trauma can be a challenge. Having survived a devastating traumatic event myself, and having a profession that requires me to respond to students who face trauma every semester, the question of how to respond to situations when it seems there is nothing suitable to say is always before me. Although sometimes trauma occurs as the consequence of unwise decisions, many traumatic situations impact people who are seemingly innocent. This is also the case with the prophet Joel who ministers during a time of a locust plague that has created a nation-wide crisis.
In the first part of this reflection into how Joel responds to trauma, we have seen seemingly innocent people experiencing a national crisis. We have also seen a prophetic encouragement to return to God in the midst of trauma. In this second part, we consider the implications of this biblical model for us today.
In older Christian books on moral theology or ethics, the usage of the term euthanasia was common. However, these works interpret it in a fashion entirely different from how it is currently employed. The word euthanasia is a Greek composite term (eû + thánatos) meaning nothing but “good death,” “beautiful death,” or “pleasant death.” Accordingly, older Christian textbooks presented “euthanasia” as a Christian preparation for death. But what exactly was meant by that?
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.[i]
Preparing for a good death in a society which focuses on the temporal world is not easy for a Christian. On the contrary: it is a struggle. Professionals attempt to relieve the dying from pain, to feed him artificially, and to give him breath with a ventilator. While it is commendable that medical advances are utilized, a tension may arise between the necessary medical procedures and the need for counseling at the end of life. For instance, in order to pray with the dying Christian, to read Scripture with him, and to talk to him about the imminent journey in a confident manner, undisturbed privacy is necessary.
Of note here are three exhortations, all begun by the phrase “let us”: (1) “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith”; (2) “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering”; and (3) “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” The astute reader will notice that the three exhortations encompass faith, hope, and love, common themes in the biblical story. How might we apply these three injunctions to the COVID-19 crisis?
In my previous piece, I discussed the first of three exhortations given in Hebrews 10:19–25 to Christians in a time of spiritual crisis. The first exhortation is to draw near to God with a pure heart. Now I will discuss the second exhortation: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (ESV; v. 23).
Previously, we saw that the author of Hebrews exhorted those who were going through a time of crisis to draw near to God and to hold close to the faith they have confessed. In his final exhortation, he encourages his readers to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24–25). How does this apply to our own time of crisis?
I concur that the reductionism of “biological death” is based on an incomplete picture of who humans are—much like its opposite state “biological life.” According to the Christian tradition, humans have souls (Gen 2:7), the divine image (1:27), and a personal destiny which transcends their death (Rev 20:11–21:27). Therefore, the biblical perspective on life and death may differ in important ways. We might even ask: Will there still be a hard line dividing the two?
We are at a relatively early stage in developing digital social networks. With Facebook, smart phones, and GPS, we can find what we are looking for and track our friends with comparative ease. Interconnectivity is developing to the point at which, when we are sent electronic communications, algorithms identify what we might like on the basis of the included content. Satellite and CCTV offer some degree of surveillance, but not to the extent provided by the Bentham Grid. The narrator tells us that in 2023 “you can’t do anything in New York City without the Grid knowing who you are and where you are.” Merely science fiction? Read on.
This moment in time has created a unique opportunity for pastors and church leaders who are concerned with bioethics. Now more than ever before, people are interested in the questions that bioethics seeks to address. While it would be easy to leave teaching on these matters to experts and news outlets or to focus any teaching on COVID-19 specifically, I believe this misses the opportunity this moment offers. COVID-19 has provided an opening for broadening congregants’ thinking on bioethical issues beyond the current pandemic, and to do so from a distinctly Christian perspective. This chance should not be wasted.
Throughout the last century, the spirit of the age exhibited a voracious appetite for human life. Medicine became the source for myriad racial enmities and immoral projects catalyzed by ascendant science and reckless medical research that was completely oblivious to the dignity of human life. The contingent bioethical lapses reflected the impact of social Darwinism on an age of physicians who primarily acted as scientists, not healers.
In this essay, I want to provide some practical ways in which Christians can approach the end of their lives both individually and as a believing community. Some of these will be relatively easy to implement; others will both require and lead to drastic changes in our thinking. Once again, these recommendations are largely drawn from Rob Moll’s excellent book The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come.
If you’re a pastor, then you’re most likely an accidental bioethicist. How so? For starters, you’ve probably encountered (or will soon enough) a question from your congregation about one of these difficult topics: abortion, assisted suicide, birth control, withdrawing life support, children and technology, etc. As pastors, of course, we are expected to provide answers, or more precisely, biblical answers, to those sorts of questions. Once we start thinking about what the Bible has to say to these challenging issues of our day, we become accidental pastor-bioethicists—though certainly not all pastor-bioethicists are created equal. Are you ready to give a biblical answer to such besetting bioethical issues? What does it mean to give a biblical answer?
Many “in the pews” lack the theological categories needed to respond to the challenges of our MedTech age. Congregants look to the Bible for answers, but the authors of the Bible did not envision a world where babies could be crafted in a lab, tested and rated to determine which is the “best,” and then transferred into someone who may or may not be the biological mother. They did not foresee machines that could keep a person’s heart beating and lungs breathing even though the brain had ceased functioning. They could not comprehend a device that could access the world’s accumulated knowledge and be stored in a pocket.
As more and more of our friends, neighbors, and family members get vaccinated, it occurred to me that it would be helpful to offer some biblical counsel on the topic. As Christians, we must take every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5) as we consult both God’s Word and His world (i.e., scientific research) to discern whether the COVID-19 vaccine(s) are helpful and wise. To that end, I want to offer a set of biblical touchpoints to consider as you think about this issue.
Against such claims, Branch states his thesis as follows: “Transgenderism is not a trait like hair or skin color but is in fact an identity rooted in multiple causes and is completely inconsistent with Christian ethics” (p. 4). However, he is also quick to add an important qualification about his approach: “My goal is to join conviction and compassion in an evaluation of transgenderism. Since the vast majority of us have never experienced gender dysphoria, it can be challenging to understand someone’s subjective experience of this condition” (p. 4).
In Chasing Methuselah, Todd Daly examines the modern biomedical anti-aging project from a Christian perspective, drawing on the ancient wisdom of the Desert Fathers, who believed that the Incarnation opened a way for human life to regain the longevity of Adam and the biblical patriarchs through prayer and fasting. Daly balances these insights with the christological anthropology of Karl Barth, discussing the implications for human finitude, fear of death, and the use of anti-aging technology, weaving a path between outright condemnation and uncritical enthusiasm. Below is an interview with Daly on his book.
Now, an increasing amount of information can be derived through various tests, screenings, and monitoring of the child through its earliest days. For example, genetic tests have become a standard aspect of pregnancy care in medically advanced countries such as the United States. Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) is one such test, and it continues to grow in popularity. Much as going to college is often the assumed next step following high school graduation, prenatal testing is generally accepted as “what you do” when a woman is expecting. It might be prudent, therefore, for Christians to honestly grapple with some of the ethical considerations these tests raise.
The Good Place is a popular comedy show that follows four humans and their experience in an imagined afterlife where people accumulated points based on their good and bad actions on earth and were then sent to either “the good place” (effectively heaven) or “the bad place” (hell) depending on how they lived. As the main characters experience all that the afterlife has to offer, the show consciously addresses a number of moral and philosophical questions revolving around what it means to be a good person and how one can live a moral life.
If the risen and glorified Jesus is holey, wholly, holy, and our aim in discipleship is to look more like Him, then how do we disciple in brokenness (holey)? How do we embrace the whole, not simply neurological, person (wholly)? How do we form followers of Christ who look like Him (holy)?
The questions regarding the sanctity of human life are complex with developments like this. No longer direct questions of who lives and who dies, but questions like “What does it mean to be human?” Where are the boundaries between the human and the non-human? Where is the line between correcting things that are broken and enhancing abilities and even creating new capabilities?
In Ethical Approaches to Preaching: Choosing the Best Way to Preach About Difficult Issues, John S. McClure creates a guide by which preachers can do precisely what the subtitle of the book states—preach about difficult issues. At the core of his premise is the conviction that ethics and theology are interconnected and not different modes of instruction. McClure states: “No matter how interior or transcendent theological ideas may seem, they always harbor implicit or explicit ideas regarding how we ought to live and behave as Christians” (8). Thus, preachers ought to embrace their craft as both a theological and ethical activity.