October 2020 Special Article

NOTE: This essay is a revised version of a talk that I gave at a workshop on Issues at Life’s End organised by the Anglican Diocese of Singapore in March 2019.

In 1976, the Christian writer and apologist Francis Shaeffer published his famous book that examines the rise and fall of western thought and culture entitled, How Then Should We Live? Quite apart from the issues discussed in that book, its title poses a question that should be of great concern to every person who claims to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ. The answer to that question is the Christian should live in faithful obedience and surrender to the word and will of God as revealed in Scripture. But the Christian should also ask a second and complementary question, one that is seldom asked. That question is, ‘How then should we die?’ If there is an approach to living that is distinctively Christian, there is surely also an approach to death that can be characterised as irreducibly Christian. The answer is just as the Christian is expected to live faithfully, so he is also expected to die faithfully. But what does it mean to die faithfully? What does the dying and the death of a faithful Christian look like?

At around the fifteenth century, there came into existence a body of Christian literature called the Ars Moriendi or the ‘art of dying.’ The purpose of this body of work is to provide practical guidance to Christians who were dying and the people who were attending to them. Although we can still read this ancient work with some profit, the Church should perhaps publish an updated Ars Moriendi that would include the many moral and ethical issues that modern medicine presents. This talk, however, is not an attempt at such a project. What I hope to do in the time given for this presentation is to address some important issues as we reflect on sickness and suffering, dying and death. In this talk I want to reflect on what it means for the Christian to die faithfully.

I begin with a brief reflection on the meaning of human life and argue that because life is a divine gift, it is sacred and must therefore be valued. I turn next to examine precisely how our culture has devalued human life by failing to acknowledge its sanctity, and how this has in turn led to the medicalising of death in practices like euthanasia and physician-assisted-suicide. Thirdly, I reflect on the whole question of suffering, death and the will of God. This is not just a theological question. It is also an existential and pastoral question, one which Christian healthcare professionals cannot avoid. And finally, I reflect on the Christian attitude to suffering and death in light of the hope that he has in Jesus Christ.

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Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.