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The Thanatos Syndrome: What the Bible Says about Euthanasia

Dr. Michael A. Milton

We cannot deny the reality of suffering and we cannot deny humanity's tension with it; the Bible doesn’t. Human suffering can metastasize into inconsolable despair that causes a person to prefer death over life. The Apostle Paul admitted as much when he wrote,

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8, ESV).

To be so burdened by pain, sorrow, weakness, or some other merciless affliction led even St. Paul to despair of life itself. So, we are not alone if we find ourselves in such a situation. The Bible is not silent about agony or the sense of despair that it breeds. But what do we do with such suffering? In Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, the title of this quintessential Postmodern story is established in the closing scene. The female lead of the story, Gloria, a bitter, angry, and ultimately miserable creature, asks Robert, the naïve, anti-hero-protagonist of the book, to end her life.

Robert compliantly shoots Gloria in the side of her head, as directed by the pathetic creature. The police arrive. Robert is detained. On the way to the police station, one of the cops asks the murderer, “Why did you kill her?” Robert replies without the slightest evidence of guilt or immorality, “She asked me to.” The policeman, baffled at such a thoughtless obliging to Gloria’s distraught demand, responds with contempt and incredulity, “Is that the only reason you got?” Robert replies, “They shoot horses, don’t they?

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” is the definitive Darwinian rejoinder to the persistent angst of humanity.[1]

Let us be clear: no one is immune from the helpless feeling of watching another person spiraling downward, trapped by the sinister force of the black hole of despair. We intuitively want to help. To the book cum film, “Yes, we do, indeed, shoot horses to put them out of their misery. But your Gloria was not a horse. And we are not animals. Indeed, that essential fact is at the heart of a worldview debate. Gloria was wrong for her demand that Robert put her out of her misery. We can, at least, understand the physical and mental forces that drive her to such irrationality. Yet, Robert is culpable, too, for, committing—not a “mercy killing”—but rather a homicide. 

 The decline of Western values born out of and nurtured in our Judeo-Christian foundation stones is inevitably accompanied by observable symptoms of such decline. One of those symptoms has persisted throughout world history and has only recently been popularized to the point of legalization in some countries and U.S. states. That symptom has a name: euthanasia. But exactly what is euthanasia? And what does the Bible say about euthanasia? This article will seek to answer these questions as well as provide a scripturally sound and unsurpassably compassionate response to the existential pain that causes humankind to consider euthanasia as a solution.

Therefore, let us construct a response to the question, "What is euthanasia?"

Euthanasia Is a Contradiction of Terms by Definition

 Euthanasia is an English word derived from a Greek compound meaning "good death." Euthanasia is mostly associated with voluntary or patient consented ending of life through the assistance of another. The act is sometimes referred to as "mercy killing." The concept has its origin not only in the ancient Greco-Roman world, which is often cited as such, but rather extends all the way back to the time of David and King Saul. The practice has been universally banned in the Western world until recently. The twentieth century, in particular, witnessed a movement for the legalization of euthanasia. The Netherlands remains the most liberal in its legislative allowance of euthanasia.

Euthanasia Is a Symptom of the Thanatos Syndrome—the Culture of Death

The act of euthanasia is part of the cult of death and is an act condemned in Scripture not only by principle but by example. In principle, we gather the truths from the word of God that touches upon the subject and we are able to conclude that life and death belong solely to the Creator, Almighty God. The Bible says that there is a time to be born in a time to die. The Lord Jesus talked about Paul's suffering and reminded him that when he is weak then he is strong. The Apostle Paul taught the Philippians that he would identify his suffering with Christ so that he might attain unto the resurrection.

Even as advocates of euthanasia sought to normalize such voices such as Dr. Walker Percy, the prodigious author-philosopher-psychiatrist-Christian apologist, from Covington Louisiana penned his final novel in 1987 to call out the culture of death and its consequences. The title of the work is The Thanatos Syndrome. "Thanatos" is the Greek word for death. In the story, Thomas Moore—a quite interesting Catholic name assigned to the protagonist in The Thanatos Syndrome—is a psychiatrist who returns to Feliciana (based on the real East Feliciana and West Feliciana parishes where Dr. Percy once resided) to practice medicine after some serious mistakes in his life. The remnant of a “decrepit empire” of Spain, the Feliciana parishes became a refuge for “all manner of malcontents;” from Tories who opposed the American Revolution to deserters, criminals, and smugglers. Upon his return, he notices bizarre behavior in his patients and even in his wife. Through the means of sabotage of the water system by malevolent forces, the residents of this Louisiana parish began to act like chimpanzees, i.e., mere animals. Even those called to be helpers and caregivers became participants in this strange culture. Through the voice of his character in the Thanatos syndrome, Walker Percy wrote,

You are a member of the first generation of doctors in the history of medicine to turn their backs on the oath of Hippocrates and kill millions of old useless people, unborn children, born malformed children, for the good of mankind —and to do so without a single murmur from one of you. Not a single letter of protest in the august New England Journal of Medicine.”

Walker Percy was exactly right. Sadly, The Thanatos Syndrome is not just a novel. The Thanatos syndrome is an invasive cancer choking out the living conscience of a civilization forged on the teaching of St. Paul and St. Peter, that is, upon the very teaching of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

What Does the Bible Teach Us about Euthanasia?

Let us gather together several salient Scriptures that are unmistakable signposts in these days of biblical ignorance. Let these signs guide us to the truth. Let us compare Scripture with Scripture to see the indisputable evidence: God hates the murderous taking of human life. Therefore, God abhors that wicked and deceitful deed that men call "The Good Death.” Our unequivocal statement is derived from many places in God’s Word. Let us mark well our pathway to this knowledge, this wisdom, this revelation that euthanasia is incompatible with God’s will.

Top photo credit: ©GettyImages/AndriiZastrozhnov

Note

1. The noted film critic, Robert Ebert, wrote of the film, The movie begins on a note of alienation and spirals down from there. "Horses" provides us no cheap release at the end; and the ending, precisely because it is so obvious, is all the more effective. We knew it was coming. Even the title gave it away. And when it comes, it is effective not because it is a surprise but because it is inevitable. As inevitable as death. The performances are perfectly matched to Pollack's grim vision.”

Bibliography

Beauchamp, Tom L., and Arnold I. Davidson. “The Definition of Euthanasia.” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine 4, no. 3 (September 1, 1979): 294–312. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmp/4.3.294.

Ebert, Roger. “They Shot Horses, Didn’t They? | Balder and Dash | Roger Ebert.” Balder & Dash, January 16, 2011. https://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/they-shot-horses-didnt-they.

Edelstein, Ludwig. The Hippocratic Oath, Text, Translation and Interpretation. Vol. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1943.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 1968.

Horace McCoy. “Chapter Thirteen.” In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, 120–21. Serpent’s Tail, 1995. http://archive.org/details/theyshoothorsesd00mcco_0.

“Palliative Therapy - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/palliative-therapy.

Percy, Walker. The Thanatos Syndrome. Macmillan, 1999.

Piper, John. “Does the Bible Prescribe Alcohol to the Depressed?” Desiring God, April 21, 2017. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-the-bible-prescribe-alcohol-to-the-depressed.

Pollack, Sydney. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Film, Postmodern, 1969. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065088/.

Samway, Patrick H. Walker Percy a Life. First. New York: Farrar, Stause & Giroux, 1997.

Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? (L’abri 50th Anniversary Edition): The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Crossway, 2005.

Shiel Jr., MD, William. “Definition of Euthanasia.” MedicineNet, 31 2018. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=7365.

Steck, Nicole, Matthias Egger, Maud Maessen, Thomas Reisch, and Marcel Zwahlen. “Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide in Selected European Countries and US States: Systematic Literature Review.” Medical Care 51, no. 10 (2013): 938–44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42568837.


Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.