Main Menu

Global Christianity

Designed by:
SiteGround web hosting Joomla Templates
Home Life Ethics Euthanasia Kenneth Law: The Ethics of Euthanasia ― Towards an Integrated Theological Perspective of Ethics
Kenneth Law: The Ethics of Euthanasia ― Towards an Integrated Theological Perspective of Ethics PDF Print E-mail
Written by Publisher   
Thursday, 15 July 2010 18:41

The Ethics of Euthanasia ― Towards an Integrated Theological Perspective of Ethics

Referee: Dr. Benedict Kwok
Author: Kenneth Law

Part I. Introduction

This paper is a reflection of my learning in the course of Christian ethics.  During my study of the Christian view of various ethical issues, I found that many of the arguments or “perspectives” were combinations of non-Christian views[1] or some fragmented references to verses or teachings in the Bible.  The Just War Theory[2] proposed by the famous Dutch Christian Hugo Grotius as a result of the 1625 treatise “On the Law of War and Peace” which seems to be the dominant Christian view of war affairs nowadays is a good example.  The first principle of the Just War Theory is just cause (jus ad bellum), or the just condition of entering into war.  Some possible just causes are self-defense or attack on national honor (e.g., when a country’s embassy is attacked).  I find it difficult to justify from the teachings in the Bible that self-defense and attack on national honor are justifiable reasons to enter into war.  One good example was that in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah's reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them.  Instead of fighting against the king of Assyrai, Hezekiah king of Judah surrendered.  He said to the king of Assyria at Lachish, “I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.”[3] According to the Gospels, both Jesus and His disciples did not war against those who attacked them.  Jesus fled when the Jews wanted to stone him to death.[4] When Stephen was stoned, he just stayed there and prayed to God.[5] Similarly, Paul did not fight back when he was stoned by the Jewish flock.[6]

Another example of questionable teachings based on fragmented reference to the Bible is genetically modified (GM) food.  Based on Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” the National Council of churches of Singapore[7] declares that what belongs to the Lord must include new varieties of food and medicine, especially if they sustain life and enhance human well-being.  GM foods are therefore acceptable to the Singaporean church.  What they charge is the enormous profits of the GM developing companies and their inappropriate use of GM foods (e.g., not using them to solve the problem of worldwide poverty and famine).  Based on these teachings, human beings are allowed to change the genetic components of foods so long as they can “sustain human lives.”

I hesitate to call these arguments Christian ethical views for two reasons. First, may of them are not really biblical.  Second, and more important, non-Christian take these ethical standpoints with the same reasoning.  We charge the homosexuals of destroying the family system.  We protest against the legalization of adoption by homosexual “couples” because the parents’ role in these “families” is blurred.  While these are valid arguments that I endorse personally, a Buddhist or Islam may make the same argument.  By definition, I would hope that “Christian ethics” would have a strong Christian orientation.  As a result, I hope that I can develop a possible ethical framework that is biblical in nature, but substantial enough to guide Christians on day-to-day issues.  Given the time constraint, it is impossible for me to develop a complete and theologically sound framework in this paper.  I would therefore only delineate the structure of such a framework.  To better illustrate my arguments, I would further constrain my discussion on one ethical issue, euthanasia.

Meanwhile, it is unrealistic to try to develop a Christian ethical framework but totally neglect the existing literature and contributions of ethical theologians.  I would therefore try to integrate into the proposal framework the views of some masters in the area of Christian ethics.  I choose three famous theologians and would discuss how their ethical views are related to my proposed framework.  They are Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas.

In the next section, I would first define euthanasia and discuss its related ethical concerns.  I would then discuss how Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas may address the issue of euthanasia based on their views of theological ethics.  Finally, I would proposed my hierarchical framework of Christian ethics and discuss (1) how it is related to the views of these three theologians; and (2) how it can be applied to the issue of euthanasia.


Part II. The ethical issues of euthanasia

(1) The problem of euthanasia

Euthanasia is the act or practice of painlessly putting to death persons suffering from painful and incurable disease or incapacitating physical disorder[8].  Euthanasia can be classified using a number of classification systems.  For example, one can distinguish active versus passive euthanasia.  Active euthanasia involves the active acceleration of a “good” death by use of drugs etc, whether by oneself or with the aid of a doctor.[9] Passive euthanasia is the passive allowance of death without human interference.  Euthanasia can also be classified as voluntary versus involuntary.  As the name implies, voluntary euthanasia occurs when the patients[10] ask to be killed.  Involuntary euthanasia occurs when the patient is not conscious and his/her family members decide that his/her live should be terminated, usually under the consent of one or two doctors. Euthanasia can also be classified as natural or initiated.  The former is one form of suicide while the latter can be considered as one form of murder[11].

For example a patient might be unconscious after suffering from apoplexy.  After the doctors’ consultation, they found that the chance of recovery for that patient was very low.  As a result, the hospital discontinued fluid nutrition and oxygen to that patient at the consent of two family members and two doctors.  This was a case of involuntary, active and natural euthanasia because the patient was unconscious, s/he was put to death actively by the doctors, but s/he was died of natural reasons.  Another example would be that a patient of terminal cancer might not want further medical treatments so that s/he could die earlier.  Under the consent of both the patient and the doctors, the doctors stopped medical treatments and the patient died after a short while.  This would be a case of voluntary, passive, but natural euthanasia.  It is passive because the doctors did not do anything (they just stopped the medical treatment).  It is natural because the patient was died of natural cause.  It is voluntary because the patient asks the doctor to stop the medication.

(2) Popularity of euthanasia

The Netherlands is the earliest country in the world in which euthanasia is openly and legally practiced.[12] Based on the statistics in Netherlands, her population in 1991 was 15,022,000, the total number of death in the same year was 135,200.  Of that 135,200 cases of death, 11,800 (9%) was died of euthanasia, about 50% of the cases were under the consent of the patient.

In the United States, Oregon is the only state where physician-assisted suicide is legal.[13] On January 18, 2006, there was a news report that “A recent supreme court decision upheld the Oregon assisted suicide law. This supreme court ruling effectively makes assisted suicide legal in all of the states whereas in most states it is currently illegal.[14] While 44 U.S. states still consider euthanasia as homicide, lawmakers in California and Vermont are considering legalization of euthanasia.

In a survey conducted by a professor at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1996[15], the percentage who thinks euthanasia should “definitely” or “probably” be allowed by law for those who are:





INCURABLE, on life support machine never expected to regain consciousness



DYING from incurable and painful illness



IN COMA, never expected to regain consciousness, not on life support machine



NOT MUCH PAIN OR DANGER OR DEATH but permanently and completely dependant for all physical needs



DYING from incurable but not very painful illness



INCURABLE and painful illness but will not die



NOT ILL OR CLOSE TO DEATH, simply tired of living and wishing to die


There is a clear trend that more and more people start to accept euthanasia.  This is a natural phenomenon.  As medical technology becomes more and more advance nowadays, average lives of human beings increase.  Our ability to extend the lives of patients who are suffering from various health problems also increases.  At the end, the question is not whether we can extend the lives of a patient.  Instead, the controversy turns to an ethical issue of whether we should try our best to elongate the lives of a patient – even when s/he is under extreme helpless or sufferings.  This leads to the discussion of whether euthanasia is ethically acceptable.

(3) The arguments for euthanasia[16]

(a) One common argument to support euthanasia is that people should have the right to die with dignity.  When terminal patients live in a hospital, they would need the help of many people.  Most of the time, s/he would mourn and be in extremely degree of pain.  This is a typical example:


John Close endured the painful deterioration of his body from Lou Gehrig's disease for two years. By the time he died, he couldn't talk or swallow. He could barely move without assistance. "He choked regularly on his own saliva," recalls his sister Lesley. "He didn't want to get to this stage where he could do nothing for himself. That was a step beyond a dignified life for him." [17]


Advocators of euthanasia would argue that these terminal patients should have the human right of terminating their own lives with dignity instead of begging for help from others.


(b) Many people relate euthanasia to abortion or infanticide.  If a mother has the right to terminate the live of a baby (or a zygote who may be considered as another person), and family members have the right to terminate the live of an unconscious terminal patient, one should definitely has the right to terminate one’s own live.


(c) Euthanasia may also be an act of mercy to the patient for those who are suffering under terminal medical conditions.  There are many patients who know that they will die soon.  One may be helping these hopeless terminal patients to have a relief by allowing them to die on their own will.  Euthanasia may also be an act of mercy to the family members of the patient.  Extension of the lives of terminal patients requires huge amount of money, time and efforts from their family members.  It is unethical to argue against euthanasia while allowing these terminal patients to suffer painfully and be alone in the hospital.  As a result, “pull the plug” may be a merciful decision for family member of the terminal patients when they are under severe financial, emotional and psychological stress.


(d) Utilitarianism is also a strong argument for euthanasia.  There are two versions of this argument.  First, given the limited resources of the society, a rational and responsible person should allocate the limited resources to maximize the utility of the society.  Since the contribution of terminal patients to the society is much lower than other patients, one should minimize medical expenses on these patients (especially when this is done on the request of the patient) and use the resources on other patients who may have a higher chance of recovery or contribution to the society.  Second, even if we do not consider the contribution of the patients to the society, one should allow terminal patients to die at their own will so as to save the costs of medication for patients with curable diseases.

(4) The arguments against euthanasia[18]

(a) A common reason against euthanasia is that one does not have the right to murder.  One strong support for this argument is the sixth commandment from God announced through Moses – Thou shalt not murder[19].  If one follows the view of the Catholic church that we are stewards in this world whose responsibilities are to take care of God’s creation,[20] one would not have any right to take away of the lives of others because only God can do that[21].


(b) Another strong argument against euthanasia is that God teaches us many lessons through pain and sufferings.  One should not avoid pain and sufferings by giving up one’s live.  Jesus died for us on the cross and showed to us that He needed to suffer in order to get God’s plan fulfilled.  Before his countless pain, Job only “heard of God” through his ears.  Only by going through those countless sufferings could Job “see God” by his eyes.[22] Sufferings are normal in human lives.  One learns to rely on God instead of oneself through sufferings.  Sufferings also allow us to practice love among ourselves because we have a stronger need to love one another in sufferings.  Supporters of Euthanasia work against these teachings from the Bible by assuming that one can get rid of sufferings by killing others or performing suicide.


(c) Those who support the stewardship argument argue against the utilitarian that there is no way to weight the utility of a human being against anything.  To them, live is invaluable.  It is nonsense to say that resources could be saved for other purposes by giving up the life of a human being.  They also clearly distinguish between means and ends.  For supporters of utilitarianism, ends are more important than means.  For supporters of stewardship, ends should never override means.  If the means are wrong, the ends can never be right.


In the paragraphs above, I have summarized the common arguments for and against euthanasia.  It is clear that the arguments bounce between two basic tenets, namely utilitarianism and stewardship.  Proponents of utilitarianism argue that the ends or results of ethical decisions are of prior importance.  Proponents of stewardship argue that the means of achieving the ends are of prior importance.  Since stewardship focuses on principles and the means, it is easier for its proponents to find fragmented supports from the Bible.  I would say that in both cases, the biblical supports are slim.

(5) The ethical issues of euthanasia

When I prepare for this term paper, I have thought through this issue of euthanasia many times. It seems difficult to argue for or against extreme cases of euthanasia.  For example, I doubt any Christian would accept that anyone has the right to terminate his/her own life if s/he wants to (i.e., extreme case for euthanasia).  This is “suicide” and is clearly not supported by the Bible.  Meanwhile, it is equally difficult to argue for extreme cases against euthanasia.  For an unconscious patient who can survive only because doctors continue to fill in fluid food, oxygen and medication into his/her body, one would question whether s/he is still living.  I guess many Christians would agree that “pull the plug” for that kind of patients may not be an ethical crime.  The problem is that once we accept one specific decision related to euthanasia as ethical, another case would emerge which presses us to further relax our ethical criteria.  For example, if “pull the plug” of an unconscious paralyzed patient is ethically acceptable, how about a conscious paralyzed patient who is under extreme sufferings?  How about terminating the medication of a terminal cancer patient?  Shall we try each and every step to provide chemical or radioactive treatments to a terminal cancer patient, which may induce further sufferings to him/her?  If not, are we giving these terminal cancer patients the option of shortening their lives?  Is that nominally similar to suicide?  Questions like that would be never-ending if we continue to challenge our ethical positions once an ethical judgment is made.  We will gradually realize that euthanasia involves a “continuum” of ethical judgments from one extreme of permitting suicide to the other extreme of endless artificial elongation of human lives.  If both extremes are not acceptable, what should be a biblical and ethical standpoint along this continuum?  If utilitarianism and stewardship are two extremely different basic assumptions for ethical judgment, how can we judge which one is right or wrong?  A more fundamental question is “can ethical baselines or assumptions be wrong?”  If yes, what are the biblical supports for that claim?  It seems to me that just citing a few fragmented Bible verses would not provide comprehensive answers to these questions.  We need a theology, or a set of integrated biblical thought to support our ethical decisions.  We will therefore go from the Bible to theology in order to answer this question of euthanasia.

Part III. Some possible theological views on euthanasia

Based on the discussion above, it is clear that whether euthanasia is ethical depends on the basic assumptions or ethical positions one would take.  What position should a Christian take when faced with a decision on euthanasia?  I would argue that at the end, it is the theological thoughts of the individual which would determine his/her basic tenets.  One’s theological framework, would in turn, be determined by one’s internalization of the teachings in the Bible.  In this section, I would use three examples to illustrate how one’s view on euthanasia be affected by one’s personal theology and understandings of the Bible.


Hays[23] identified four major dimensions across different people when they use the Scripture in ethics.  These four dimensions are:

I. Descriptive

A. How accurate/adequate is the exegesis of texts used?

II. Synthetic

A. Range: How comprehensive is the scope of texts employed?

B. Selection: Which biblical texts are used and not used?  Is there a canon within the canon?  How is selection determined?

C. How does the interpreter handle texts that are in tension with his/her position?

D. What focal images are employed?

III. Hermeneutical

A. What is the mode of appeal to the text?  What sort of work does Scripture do?  What sorts of proposals does it authorize?

1. Rules

2. Principles

3. Paradigms

4. Symbolic world

(a) The human condition

(b) The character of God

B. What other sources of authority do the interpreters rely on?

1. Tradition

2. Reason

3. Experience

IV. Pragmatic

A. The fruit test: How is the vision emboided in a living community? Does the community manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23-23)?


Based on these four dimensions, Hays[24] introduced five representative hermeneutical strategies used by five famous theologians.  They are:

1. Christian realism by Reinhold Niebuhr

2. Obedience to he command of God by Karl Barth

3. Following the way of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

4. Character shaped by tradition by Stanley Hauerwas

5. A Feminist critical hermeneutic of liberation by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza


Given the time constraint and the length of this paper, I would discuss three of them and explain how their theology would affect one’s ethical view on this issue of euthanasia.  They are Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas.

(1) Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr[25] (1902-1971) is famous for his vision of “Christian realism,” which extensively affects many Christians’ ethical view.  Niebuhr emphasizes that Jesus gives an example of moral perfection which transcends human historical possibility.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount covers complete moral perfection such as do not worry about ones’ life (Mat 6:25), love one’s enemies (Mat 5:44), turn the other cheek (Mat 5:39).  These expectations of perfect morality “exceed the possibility of human fulfillment.”[26] How can imperfect human beings work out the perfect ethical and moral expectations of Jesus?  Niebuhr’s answer is that “Scripture does not give us fixed rules of conduct; rather, it serves as a source of general principles that must be applied to specific situations as we reckon the likely results of our actions.”[27] “It is evident that the formal structure of Niebuhr’s ethic is emphatically consequentialist, determining the rightness of any course of action by assessing its consequences or anticipated consequences.  As a result, one should no look for ethical rules of whether euthanasia is acceptable in the Bible.  Instead, one should look for general principles from the Bible on how one would look at life, love, pain and sufferings.

If Jesus’ teachings in the Scripture are mainly used as guidelines for us to develop abstract ethical systems of our own, there would not be absolute principles which guide our morality on specific issues.  When applied to euthanasia, this implies that one should consider each case of euthanasia individually.  It is possible, for example, that one may support one case of euthanasia when a paralyzed patient is very close to death and is under severe pain.  S/he may not have any relatives around him/her and is in an extremely lonely state.  Based on the request of the patient and the principle of love, a doctor may find that euthanasia is acceptable under such a case.

(2) Karl Barth

In contrast to Niebuhr, Barth[28] concerns that if “we conceive of ethics as the application of general principles to specific situations, we will in the end indulge our own wishes and whims, all the while claiming religious – or even biblical – sanctions.”[29] Karl Barth’s idea of faith includes obedience in action.  As a result, a faithful Christian should simply be obedient to the commands of God as reflected in His teachings to us.  He belittles human reasoning and claims that human reason can only bow before the Word of God.[30] Barth’s argument proceeds in two stages: (1) that the divine law in the Bible is always concrete command; and (2) that this concrete commanding to be found in the Bible must be understood as a divine command relevant to ourselves who are not directly addressed by it.[31] (p.229)  In contrast to Niebuhr, Barth would conclude that those who merely extract principles from the Bible “must realize that they are taking a disastrous freedom with the Bible, and if they appeal to the Bible they must be reminded that they are appealing to a Bible which they have first adjusted to their own convenience.”[32]

In Barth’s mind, “ethics belongs not only to dogmatics in general but to the doctrine of God because it deals with the command of God to human beings.”[33] Karl Barth’s view of ethics is quite opposite to that of Niebuhr.  Hays’ interpretation is that “Barth’s approach to ethics as ‘the command of God’ is conducive to an emphasis on the rules in the Bible as directly normative, always with the twin provisos that the rules must be understood in their narrative context as belonging to the story of God’s covenant election of a people, and that God is always free to decree particular exceptions to the rules.  Subject to these qualifications, the New Testament’s rules, such as those given in the Sermon on the Mount, are to be taken literally and obeyed ‘until further notice.’”[34]

When this view of Barth is applied to euthanasia, the sixth commandment “thou shalt not kill” is a concrete command from God.  Any human interpretation or diversion from it based on situations or reasons are to be condemned.  Only God can kill a human being and one should only kill under God’s command.  Barth would argue that while there were cases when Peter executed Ananias and Sapphira[35], he did that under the command of the Holy Spirit instead of his own judgment.  If we follow this line of thought, the Jewish practices of stoning a person to death or cruxification are all sinful.  In fact, one should try one’s best to save other’s lives because Jesus taught us to love our enemies.  It is the command of God that we have to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind and Love our neighbor as ourselves.[36] The story of the Samaritan who helped the man falling into the hands of robbers near Jericho[37] provided a clear command from Jesus that we had to try our best to save the lives of everyone.  Along the same line, “pulling the plug” for paralyzed or unconscious patients are acts of murder which would be condemned by God.


(3) Stanley Hauerwas

Hays used the term “character shaped by tradition” to describe the ethical view of Hauerwas.[38] As a student of Hans Frei, Hauerwas developed his theology of ethics based on narrative theology.  Narrative theology was introduced by Frei in reaction to the pre-critical approach of hermeneutics, which Martin Luther and John Calvin were two famous representatives.[39] The three characteristics of the pre-critical approach to understanding the Bible[40] are: (1) they treat all the Biblical records as real historical events; (2) the Bible is a cumulative record of related events which formed a historical theology; (3) this cumulative Biblical record was a true description of true historical world.  The Bible’s description of the true history of Israel was a defined reality which formed a framework to explain human experience.

However, this pre-critical view of the Scripture was under severe attack by proponents of historical criticism such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) who focused on the sources of a document and tries to determine the authorship, date, and place of composition of the text (higher criticism) and efforts to re-establish the original version of a text (lower criticism or textual criticism).[41] According to these historical theologians, Biblical events can be critically reorganized based on historical facts outside the Bible.  Any Biblical records which did not agree with the historical facts outside the Bible were unreal and unbelievable.  As a result, they reconstruct the “true” Biblical history based on reorganization of Biblical records which matched the “real” external historical evidence.

The pre-critical view takes the Scripture as real historical facts.  Proponents of historical criticism takes the Scripture as unreal stories unless those that can be “verified” by critical history.  Hans Frei introduced the narrative view of the Scripture as a third way of looking at the Scripture.  He argued that for the past 200 years nearly all Christian theology has been engaged in a distortion of bypassing the realistic narrative or literal readings of the Bible.[42] The narrative approach of hermeneutics takes the Biblical records as “history-like.”  Under this approach, one distinguishes “historical” from “realistic narrative.”  One would not first ask whether the Biblical records are real historical events (as the pre-historical approach), or try to reproduce the true historical reality (as the historical approach).  Instead, one reads Biblical records as history-like based on the narrative of the author of the Bible.  One then tries to understand the messages that the Biblical authors try to pass on to their readers by purely relying on the narratives inside the Bible.[43]

As a student of Hans Frei, Stanley Hauerwas applied the idea of narrative criticism to the ethical arena and developed the idea of virtue ethics.  He challenged the rational ethics of Immanuel Kant, who argued that there were common rational commonalities deep inside the ethical system of each individual.  According to Kant, everyone will agree that it is unethical to murder.  Hauerwas also disagreed with Karl Barth’s conception that the Scripture must all be real historical events and every record in the Scripture were word-to-word notes from God which acted as ethical commands to us.  Hauerwas’ idea of virtue ethics suggests that Christian ethics are ethics of character.  Instead of asking “what shall I do?” as proposed by the rational approach, Hauerwas suggested that it may be even more important to ask “what should we become?”[44] This question of “what should I become?” is related to the character of the individual making an ethical decision.  The character of an individual is tightly bound to the virtue of the individual, which would, in turn, affect ethical judgment and decisions.

Hauerwas moved further to explain that the virtue character of an individual was influenced by the society and groups in which the individual grows.  The formation of character and virtue is a result of a combination of rational and affective.[45] Hauerwas also highlighted that narratives, virtue and vision were highly related.  People grown in different societies might develop different narratives which resulted from different virtue.  They would then have different vision and interpretations of ethical issues.  Some might view embryos as a group of human cells, some as “human beings in formation”; while Christians might view them as creation from God.[46] The church forms a society which formulates the culture for the cultivation of Christian virtue and characters through the Scripture as narratives.  That is why “Hauerwas maintains that it is a methodological mistake to ask how Scripture should be ‘used’ in Christian ethics. The question assumes that the ethicist has some privileged epistemological vantage point external to the Bible that allows one first to determine the meaning of the text and then to draw out useful tidbits of that meaning for the construction of an ethical system. But according to Hauerwas’s account, the meaning of the text is knowable only for those who participate in a community whole identity is shaped by the story of Jesus and whole practices therefore already embody an ethic specifically determined by that story.”[47]

With that understanding, it is clear Hauerwas would not propose that euthanasia is definite wrong because of the commandment from God that “thou shalt not kill.”  Meanwhile, he would not agree with the deontological ethics (義務論) of Kant that human beings have common judgments of the wrongfulness of euthanasia based on our free rational mind.  Instead, based on the narratives in the Bible as a nurturing ground of human character and ethics, the church should be able to cultivate moral characters so that they would be able to come up with ethical judgments based on the situational characteristics of each case of euthanasia.  In addition, since the church is the group for character cultivation, the church would also work as a group to deal with each case of euthanasia.  Going back to my previous example of a lonely and dying patient, instead of recommending euthanasia, a viable solution under Hauerwas’ ethics framework might be integral support by the whole church to this patient in order to live out to him/her the teaching of love by Jesus as a group.  At the end, this story of how every member of the church loves the patient and supports him/her by all means would be another narrative to be eulogized among church members so as to cultivate what a character of virtue should be.

Part IV. A proposed integrative framework

I have illustrated in the last section that different theological standpoints would lead to different ethical views.  Euthanasia may be totally unacceptable to some theologians, but has to be considered case by case for others.  At the end, I could not say that one view is “correct” and the other is “wrong” because by doing so, I am echoing one theological view and discrediting another.  This, however, creates serious agitation in my mind because it means that there is no absolute ethics in the world even when we are Christians living under the sovereignty of an absolute creator.  To two Christians, one may claim that euthanasia is totally unacceptable according to the teachings of the Bible.  The other Christian may, however, claim that the Bible only gives us general principles.  S/he may argue that the Bible does not address explicitly whether euthanasia is right or wrong, one may need to apply all principles taught in the Bible on each case of euthanasia to determine whether one particular case is acceptable or not.  A third Christian may take a more narrative approach by saying that Jesus is the perfect example of human virtue.  One should think about “What Would Jesus Do?” based on our understanding of our Lord in the Gospel.

I thought about these seemingly contradictory ethical positions of different Christians for a long while.  At the end, I would try to propose one integrated view of Christian ethics in order to address my agitation.  However, this framework should only be viewed as a first step towards an integration of different theological positions.  Given the limited time and limited efforts, it may take a lot of refinements in order to make this a theologically acceptable view of Christian ethics.

First, as I explained above, it is not advisable to address an ethical issue based on specific verses of the Bible.  One should start from different theological views and try to integrate them into a unified framework.  For example, I would not suggest that one should not kill others because God commanded us not to murder in Exodus 20:13.  This is because there are other instances when God commanded Israelites to kills Canaanites.  In fact, God participated actively in each and every battle fought by the Israelites.  God even commanded them on whether the people in a city should be killed, including women and children, after it was conquered.

When Saul is about to died and “leaning on his spear, with the chariots and riders almost upon him,”[48] he asked the Amalekite soldier to kill.  This is a vivid case of euthanasia recorded in the Bible.  At the end, David asked his soldier to kill this Amalekite because he “lifts his hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed.”[49] Note that David killed the Amalekite because he killed “the Lord’s anointed,” not because he killed any other human beings.

Moreover, when the Israelites divided the land of Cannon, God commanded them to build cities of refuge (逃城) for those who committed manslaughter.[50] However, for those who committed murder, the teachings from the book of Numbers are: “If a man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or if anyone has a stone in his hand that could kill, and he strikes someone so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or if anyone has a wooden object in his hand that could kill, and he hits someone so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death.”[51]

In other words, some Bible verses teach us that capital punishment is the command from God.  It is incorrect to say that no one has the right to kill other human beings based on the Bible. As a result, there must be some higher order ethics originating from God, which overrides the “thou shalt not murder” principle.

Again, I suggest that a Christian view of ethics must be based on theology.  Theology is the basis of hermeneutics, and hermeneutics is the basis of Christian ethics.  I would therefore suggest that Christian ethics consists of a hierarchy of standards.  The highest of this hierarchy is Christian theology.  In order to limit my scope, I would use one specific theological view of the New Testament to illustrate my argument.  Prof. Tan of the China Graduate School of Theology proposed that “The kingdom of God” is the core theme of the four Gospels.[52] I would use this as my theological theme for illustrative purpose.  If the ultimate theme of the Bible is to facilitate the kingdom of God, this would be the ultimate objective of every Christian living in this world.  I suggest that the path to this ultimate objective is our Lord’s summary of the two largest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[53]

I do not agree with Paul Ramsey’s argument that love is the core of Christian ethics.[54] Ultimately, God is the final reference for ethical judgment.  Even when a person acts purely based on agape, there are still chances s/he is working against God’s will.  A fond mother’s endless love to her son is a good example of that.  At the end, we need some ultimate higher-level ethical directions to guide our daily judgment.  Love is only the means to these ultimate ends.

With expanding the kingdom of God as the ultimate objective (i.e., highest order objective) and love God and others as the path to that objective (which is the second order objective), one can then talk about various teachings in the Bible and interpret them as third order principles guiding our ethical judgment.  For any ethical issues not covered in the Bible, we can use these three orders of principles to develop our ethical judgment.  Finally, I want to make it clear that I use the term “higher-level ethical values or principles” versus “lower-level principles” not to imply that higher-level ethical principles are necessarily more important than lower-level ethical principles.  Different levels of ethical values have different degrees of abstraction and generalization.  Because of their abstract and general nature, higher-level ethical principles are usually more strategic and better reflect the overall value system that God commands to us.  In contrast, lower-level ethical values are more situational specific.  They are clearer ethical guidelines which point to specific issues and events.  They are, therefore, handy and can be quoted immediately for specific ethical decisions.  However, their generalization without reference to higher-level ethical principles is dangerous.  This classification of different levels of ethical judgment seems to be in agreement with Atkinson’s[55] view that one should distinguish “guiding principles from the Bible” from “specific ethical principles” when making ethical judgment.

Let me use the ethical issue of euthanasia to illustrate this how this framework can be used.  First, the psychology of a dying patient thinking about euthanasia is perfectly understandable.  Even Paul said in the epistle to the Philippians that “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”[56] Paul chose not to die but stay with the Philippians only for the purpose of realizing the kingdom of God.  On the surface, euthanasia may not be related to the kingdom of God.  This is, however, not the case.  A Christian who chooses to die in face of sufferings sends a strong negative signal about the reality and love of God to unbelievers.  Paul said, “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.[57] Similarly, if a Christian who chooses euthanasia makes an unbeliever question about the reality and love of God, s/he works as a stumbling block of the kingdom of God.  In contrast, if this dying patient can show his/her endurance irrespective of the pains and sufferings, s/he works as a living sacrifice[58] to show to unbelievers the almighty power of our Lord who can strengthen us in our sufferings.  A few years ago, there was a very famous case of a film actor, Chenggui Chen, who suffered from nasopharyngeal cancer.[59] His cancer cells were very tough.  In a few months’ time, he turned into a terminal cancer patient.  With his strong will and commitment to God, he worked as a life witness of the almightiness of God and spread the Gospel effectively using his remaining live.

Given this higher-level ethical values of spreading the kingdom of God, one would then be able to work against lower-level ethical values.  For example, the Leviticus states clearly what animal is unclean.  As a result, Peter said, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” when he saw the animals, reptiles and birds wrapped inside the large sheet let down to earth from heaven.[60] However, he realized later on God’s plan was that both Jews and non-Jews were in the kingdom of God.  As a result he said at the end, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”[61]

The same is true when this problem of seemingly conflicting teaching from the Bible is applied to the case of euthanasia.  While “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a teaching by our Lord, it is a means to achieve the ends of spreading God’s kingdom.  As a result, a doctor cannot say that s/he would kill a patient upon the patient’s request because s/he loves the patient so much and really wants to stop the patient from suffering.  While loving our neighbor or even our enemies are clear commands from Jesus, the principle of love is subordinate to the ultimate mission given by our Lord to us, namely “to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us.”[62] This is because one who endorses euthanasia is working as a stumbling block to many unbelievers, which shows that we do not love these unbelievers.

Part V. Conclusion

In this concluding section, I would try to show that the ethical views of Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Stanely Hauerwas can all be integrated into this framework of hierarchical Christian ethical values.  First, Niebuhr’s idea of Christian Realism looks for principles taught in the Bible which can guide Christians on their ethical decision.  This is exactly what the hierarchical Christian ethical values framework is about.  All higher-level ethical values are principles guiding Christian’s ethical behaviors as compared with specific lower-level ethical teachings.  The only difference is that Niebuhr did not list out these principles explicitly.  As a result, a Christian can read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and generalizes any principles s/he can think of.  In contrast, I would suggest we start with these generalized principles and lay them out explicitly based on our theology.  After some in depth dialogues and discussions, we should be able to come up with a reasonable set of higher order ethical principles with strong and clear theological grounds.


Karl Barth takes each and every teaching from the Bible as specific commands from God.  I would do the same under the hierarchical Christian value framework.  The only difference, as I have elaborated before, is that individual teaching in the Bible has to be interpreted under or together with the general higher-order principles taught in the Bible.  When God says, “Thou shalt not murder,” the Israelites still fought against their enemies when they entered the land of Canaan.  In fact, they “destroyed with sword every living thing in Jericho – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”[63] Similarly, Moses taught that if “a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.”[64] However, our Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was that “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”[65] There are numerous examples like these in the Scripture.  One cannot read individual biblical verses without referring to the large picture or higher-level ethical principles.

Finally, Hauerwas described the process of ethics formation – by narratives, virtue and visions.[66] But what should one narrate in the church society?  He assumes that when a large number of biblical stories are narrated in the church, characters of virtue can be formed which provide visions on ethical judgment.  It seems to me that these characters of virtue are actually vivid realization of second-level ethical principles.  These characters or virtue cannot be ends by themselves.  At the end, they are pointing to visions of where human beings or Christians should go.  The final direction is what I would label as the first-level ethical principles.  Therefore, although they are not fully equivalent, I would say that visions are similar to first-level ultimate ethics for human beings.  Characters and virtue are related to second-level ethical means to achieve the ultimate ethical ends.  Stories and narratives are third-level substantial and vivid applications of higher-level ethics.

In challenge to Thomas Kant’s assumption of a set of objective rational truth inside each individual, I echo with Hauerwas that virtue and vision are society-specific.  I do not think that it is necessary that we have a set of “Christian ethical judgments” for every controversial ethical issue.  Even though all of us are made in the image of God, it does not mean that all of us should give the same ethical judgment on each and every matter.  However, on the other extreme of the continuum, I would work against the logic of post-modernism that we should respect the ethical judgment of each individual as unique and acceptable.  The commonality and uniqueness of ethical judgment depends on the level of values in the ethical hierarchy we are talking about.  There is no question that higher-level ethical principles and standards should be common across Christians.  We should, however, accept individual differences when these higher-level ethical principles are realized into lower-level principles.  At the end, everyone is directly responsible to God.  Our Lord, not the church or other Christians, is the final judge of our behaviors.  I like Niebuhr’s criticism on Social Gospel.  We cannot accept the Social Gospel because it is just like a God without anger who bring unsinful man into a non-judgmental kingdom by a christ without the cross (一位不發怒的神,藉著沒有十字架的耶穌,將無罪的人帶進一個毫無審判的國度).[67] On the other hand, it may be equally wrong to ask for a set of universal dogmatic ethical judgment from the Pope.  While everyone should be clear about his/her hierarchical Christian ethical framework, it may be the will of our Lord that we only show our endless love to others instead of applying our framework to judge on others.  This is especially true when others have met the higher-level ethical principles taught in the Bible.  I would use the following quotation from Paul’s teaching in the Epistle to the Romans to end this term paper.

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.   (Rom 14:1~6)



[1] By “non-Christian,” I do not mean that they are anti-Christian.  Instead, I mean they are general ethical arguments which are not unique to Christianity.

[2] http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig4/vance1.html

[3] 2K18:13-14

[4] John 8:59

[5] Act 7:59

[6] Act 14:19

[7] National Council of Churches of Singapore,A Christian response to the life sciences(Singapore:Genesis Books2002)p.58.

[8] Encyclopedia Britannica (www.britannica.com)

[9] http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=7422

[10] I use the word “patient” to represent the target of euthanasia (that is, the person to be killed).

[11] 賈詩勒著,李永明譯《基督教倫理學,》(香港:天道),169-170頁。

[12] http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=7422

[13] http://www.keepmedia.com/pubs/USATODAY/2005/11/23/1094751?ba=a&bi=0&bp=18

[14] http://sayanythingblog.com/2006/01/18/assisted_suicide_euthanasia/

[15] http://www.euthanasia.cc/97-1dvd.html

[16] Most of the arguments comes from 賈詩勒著,李永明譯《基督教倫理學,》(香港:天道),170-173

[17] http://www.keepmedia.com/pubs/USATODAY/2005/11/23/1094751?ba=a&bi=0&bp=18

[18] 賈詩勒著,李永明譯《基督教倫理學,》(香港:天道),173-176

[19] Exodus 20:13

[20] Genesis 1:28

[21] Job 1:21

[22] Job 42:5

[23] Richard, B. Hays:《The Moral Vision of the New Testament(NY:HarperCollins1996), p.212-213

[24] Hays, op. cit., p.213-282.

[25] Most of my discussions of Niebuhr’s views are summarized from Hays, op. cit., p.215-224.

[26] Hays, op. cit., p. 217.

[27] Ibid, p.219.

[28] Most of my discussions of Niebuhr’s views are summarized from Hays, op. cit., p.225-239.

[29] Hays, op. cit., p. 228.

[30] Ibid, p. 227.

[31] Ibid, p. 229.

[32] Ibid, p. 229.

[33] Ibid, p. 225.

[34] Hays, op. cit., p. 236.

[35] Act 5:3

[36] Luk 10:27

[37] Luk 10:30

[38] Hays, op. cit., p. 253.

[39] 曹偉彤著:《敘事與倫理——後自由敘事神學賞析》(香港:浸信會神學院,2005)

[40] Ibid, p.6-7.

[41] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_Criticism

[42] http://religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=15

[43] 曹偉彤, op. cit., p. 11.

[44]曹偉彤, op. cit., p. 105.

[45] Ibid, p.109.

[46] Ibid, p.110.

[47] Hays, op. cit., p.256.

[48] 2Sa 1:6

[49] 2Sa 1:14

[50] Num 35:6

[51] Num 35:16-19

[52] 陳濟民:《新約神學精要》(香港:宣道出版社,1996)

[53] Mat 22:37-39

[54] Stanley J. Grenz著,江淑敏譯:《基督教倫理學導論》(台北:中華福音學院,2004), p.195

[55] David Atkinson著,匯思譯:《基督教應用倫理學》(香港:天道書樓,2002), p.8-11

[56] Phi 1:23-24

[57] Rom 14:14-16

[58] Rom 12:1

[59] 呂院雅等編著:《雲中的約會》(香港: 宣道出版社,1998)

[60] Act 10:14

[61] Act 10:34-35

[62] Mat 28:19-20

[63] Jos 6:21

[64] Deu 24:1

[65] Mat 5:32

[66] 曹偉彤, op. cit., chapter 6.

[67] Stanley J. Grenz, op. cit., p.185

Global Christianity and Contextual Theological Reflection, Powered by Joomla! | Web Hosting by SiteGround