How Christian faith can guide us through the new legal quandaries surrounding health care and dying.

As of late last year, every American entering a federally funded hospital, nursing home, or hospice had to face the unsettling question, “Do you have a living will?” A new law requires these institutions to tell incoming patients of their right to some form of “advance directive,” a document that specifies treatment preferences should one become incapacitated by a potentially fatal illness. What special questions do such documents raise in the light of Christian faith and practice? A theologian responds below. Accompanying articles offer a Christian physician’s counsel, followed by cautions from an anti-euthanasia advocate.

It is the ultimate statistic, wrote George Bernard Shaw—one out of one dies. We should hardly need to be reminded. Yet death catches us unawares. We don’t expect anyone to die, least of all me. It goes right back to Adam and Eve. What did the serpent say? “You will not surely die.” And they lapped it up. The illusion that they could sin and yet live forever proved irresistible. Only when someone we know dies do most of us wake up, briefly, to the truth.

The illusion has never been stronger than it is today. A century back our old people died at home, and so did some of our children. For the Victorians, the great unmentionable was sex, not death; with us it has been reversed. Part of the devastating significance of AIDS has been to remind us forcibly—all of us—of our mortality. Thou shah surely die.

Understanding this helps explain why we have been caught off guard by the mounting debate about death in the wider community—“living wills,” suicide machines, and Derek Humphry’s best-selling suicide manual, Final ...

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