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When Does Life End?

In connection with a number of questions about life support systems, one of our readers has asked where the soul of person on a life support systems is, and whether or not such a person is really still alive.

These are not an easy questions.  With today's technology it is possible to keep the heart beating and lungs functioning when brain activity has ceased.  For the doctor or scientist this is no problem since they now define death in terms of brain activity.

Yet Scripture, if it gives any clinical definition of death, defines it primarily in terms of ceasing to breathe.  Breath is called "the breath of life" (Gen.  2:7; 6:17; 7:22; etc.).  Breath is synonymous with life in a number of passages (Job 12:10; Ps. 146:4; Ps.  150:6).  Most significant of all is the fact that the Biblical words translated "breath" are the same words that are translated either as "soul" or as "spirit."

This would seem to mean that the soul or spirit of man departs with his breath, not with the cessation of brain activity.  Indeed, if brain activity defines life, does that mean that a "person" born without a brain (encephalic; with only a brain stem) is not really a person at all since he does not have a soul?  Also, what about the newly conceived fetus?  Is it, as some abortionists claim, no person because its brain is not fully developed.

Such ideas are, obviously, reprehensible to the Christian.  Yet it is also difficult to see that a person whose bodily functions including his breathing are kept going only by artificial means, is really alive.

These questions, as we have already pointed out, are not just abstract matters.  They are of enormous practical significance when we ourselves or a loved one are on life support systems with little or no evident possibility of recovery.  Especially today and with the cost of such treatment, families are often pressed to make decisions about such matters and often without even time to consider them carefully.

For us as Christians, then, the question of withdrawing life support is not just a question of doing what is best for the person himself and for the family.  Involved for us is the question of whether the person is really dead and the subsequent question (if there is any possibility that he is not in fact dead) whether we are taking a person's life which we have no right to take.

Here, too, without laying down hard and fast rules or judging the decisions that God's people have made in such circumstances, we would suggest several things in light of the Biblical evidence:

(1) That we not allow ourselves under the emotional strain and distress that is inevitably part of such decisions, to make these decisions as a result of pressure put upon us by doctors or others involved in health care.

(2) That if we are not convinced before God that the withdrawal of life support is right and good, then we not do consent to it against our own conscience, and especially not under pressure from others.

(3) That such decisions not be made without prayer and (if possible) consultation with the pastor or elders of the church or with other Christians in the medical profession.

(4) That we take into account and take seriously what the Bible says about life and breath, and even more what it says about these being God's gifts and possession.  In these things, too, we must commit ourselves to HIM (I Pet.  4:19).

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 6
  • Issue: 26
Hanko, Ronald

Rev. Ronald Hanko (Wife: Nancy)

Ordained: November 1979

Pastorates: Wyckoff, NJ - 1979; Trinity, Houston, TX - 1986; Missionary to N.Ireland - 1993; Lynden, WA - 2002; Emeritus October 15, 2017

Website: www.lyndenprc.org/sermons/

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