byFaith | Fall 2013
By Alan Dowd
For weeks and weeks, the pastor came to the altar and began
his sermon with an update about a gravely-ill member of the congregation and a
prayer that the Lord would restore the man back to full health. I didn’t know the
man—it was an enormous church—but I knew he meant a lot to the church, and I
knew the doctors and the family were doing all they could to keep him alive.
Then, one Sunday morning, the pastor climbed the altar stairs
and said something I’ll never forget. “Isn’t it funny how our prayers for a
loved-one sometimes change?” he began, his voice cracking. “What starts as, ‘Lord,
heal him!’ turns into, ‘Lord, please take him home.’ Well, it’s time to pray
There is wisdom in this—in knowing when to change the
pleadings of the heart, when to let go, when to say goodbye. But it’s hard to
do—and not just because we want to hold on, perhaps selfishly, to someone we
love. It’s hard because science and medicine—to their credit—make it hard. Every
day, the best and brightest among us use their God-given talents to hold back what
Paul called “the last enemy,” death.
Their default bias for life is a good thing. Oftentimes it gives life a
chance—a chance simply to be born, a chance to survive some horrible accident,
a chance to beat cancer or heart disease, a chance at a second chance.
But there are times when the struggle against our last enemy
merely—and painfully—delays the inevitable. At those times—the times when our
prayers change from “heal him” to “take him”—what does God want us to do?
Shouting at Death
Those of us who have prayed those schizophrenic heal-him-take-him
prayers are in good company. David did the same thing. At first, he fought hard
to keep his dying baby boy alive. Hoping the Lord would be “gracious…and let the child live,” David “pleaded with God for the child…spent the
nights lying in sackcloth on the ground…fasted and wept.”
But when God’s answer became clear, David let go. “He will not return to me,” the broken king
grimly said of his son. Yet David believed in the resurrection, holding out
hope that one day, “I
will go to him.” One day, David would be reunited with his boy.
Jesus, too, dealt with death during his life on earth. In
fact, death was all around Jesus, stalking him, mocking him, lunging at him.
It pays to recall that Jesus was under a death sentence from the moment he was
born. Herod’s mad death decree erased uncounted baby boys in and around the
town of Bethlehem. But Herod’s henchmen were not finished; they murdered John,
the one who officially introduced the world to its savior. Later, Jesus had
firsthand brushes with death in Nazareth, when a mob tried to throw him off a
cliff, and in Jerusalem, when religious leaders tried to stone him.
Moreover, when Jesus unleashed his healing power, the sick
and suffering and dying flocked to him. Before long, as a sign—a proof—of his
authority over death, he was raising the dead back to life.
Let’s look at three of these resurrection miracles.
“My daughter has just died,” Jairus pleaded to Jesus. “But
come and put your hand on her and she will live.”
arrived at the girl’s deathbed, he held her hand and shouted across the great chasm separating this life from
the next: “Little girl, wake
up!” The response came “immediately,” and “the girl stood up and
began to walk around.”
On another occasion, Jesus watched as a
funeral procession made its way through town. “A dead person was being carried
out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow,” Luke’s account tells us.
In other words, death had left the woman completely alone.
“When the Lord saw her,” Luke writes, “his heart went out to her.”
He told her, “Don’t cry.” And then, touching the casket,
he declared, “Young man, I say to you, get up!”
Notice again the use of an exclamation point. Jesus is issuing an order. He’s shouting at death. It’s as
if he is angry at death, contemptuous of it.
As with Jairus’ daughter, death obeyed. Life flooded in.
Finally, there’s the story of Lazarus. John tells us he was gravely
ill. As his condition worsened, Mary and Martha (sisters of Lazarus) turned to
Jesus for help, sending word that
Lazarus was dying. The problem was, Jesus was in another city, and he
wouldn’t return for another four days.
By the time Jesus arrived on the outskirts of Bethany,
Lazarus was dead and buried.
“If you had been here,” Martha said, after racing to meet
her savior, “my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Her next sentence underscores that her words weren’t meant
to wound Jesus, but rather to acknowledge his authority and power. “I know that
even now God will give you whatever you ask,” she cried.
Jesus was “deeply moved” by Mary and Martha’s sadness, this
time to the point of weeping.
Through his own tears, he made Martha a promise: “Your brother will rise
He prayed to the Father, turned toward the grave and with “a loud voice”—there it is again, an
exclamation point falling like a hammer onto death—shouted, “Lazarus, come out!”
And the dead man,
now alive, walked out of the tomb.
The main message of these miracles is that death has no
power over the Author of Life. Jesus—straddling the
expanse of eternity and the box of time—could see beyond the little girl’s
deathbed, beyond the widow’s heartache, beyond her son’s casket, beyond
Lazarus’ grave and Martha’s tears, to a place where all of them were fully and
There’s a secondary message of these stories. Think about
what Jesus didn’t do: He raised the widow’s son, but he didn’t
raise the widow’s husband. He promised that Lazarus’ sickness would not end in
death, and he awakened Jairus’ daughter from “sleeping.” But he didn’t promise
Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter that—once called back from the other side of
eternity—they wouldn’t taste death again. Similarly, he didn’t stay death’s
hand at Bethlehem or Golgotha.
In other words, by pulling back the curtain on eternity—for
a moment—Jesus wasn’t saying to Jairus or Mary or the widow or us that this
life is so important that we should cling to it or prolong it indefinitely.
Quite the opposite, he was saying that this life is a shadow of what he is
mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,” that death is not an end but a beginning, that believing in him is the
key to real life—eternal life.
This shouldn’t be difficult for followers of Christ to
understand and embrace. “For we know
that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,” as Paul explained, “we have a
building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
imagery. Paul was a tentmaker. So he knew well the difference between a
tent and a house. One is temporary, rudimentary, weak and can barely stand up
to the elements. The other is permanent, strong and sturdy and safe, complete,
a refuge. One represents the very essence of being away from home; the other is
This earthly tent is perishable,
decaying and can be downright ugly, but it covers something that
endures—something that’s eternal and glorious and beautiful.
A few important caveats are in order as we wrestle with these
First, there are times for heroic measures, times to
struggle against our last enemy. Doctors and pastors can guide us through this
murky territory. In this regard, it pays to recall that Paul—the Spirit-filled
evangelist—and Luke—the physician-turned-follower of Jesus—worked together and
don’t think there is a rule or formula that covers making these choices,” says Professor
Bill Davis, who teaches bioethics at Covenant College and has served on
hospital ethics panels. “As with many choices requiring wisdom, the most
important thing we can do is obey James 1 and pray that the Lord will give us
wisdom,” he explains. But he is quick to add, “It is impossible not to
rely heavily upon the physicians’ recommendations. Only the medical
personnel—and especially the doctors—can speak confidently about the medical
likelihoods regarding benefits and burdens” of a particular course of care.
I remember how my dad leaned on pastors and doctors when his
dad was in the hospital. My grandfather actually was preparing
to leave the hospital after treatment for a series of mini-strokes. It was a
Friday night, and the doctors expected him to be discharged before Monday. But
Grandpa Dowd fell headfirst onto the hard hospital floor that evening. He was
fine for a few minutes. He thought it was just a bump, but it was much more
serious. An emergency CAT scan revealed a hemorrhage on Grandpa’s brain.
In the span of just a few minutes,
Grandpa Dowd had gone from packing his bags for home to emergency brain surgery.
There was no debate or delay about whether or not to operate. Grandpa was
healthy, and the doctors moved rapidly to do what needed to be done to save
After the five-hour surgery, the doctors
allowed us to see him. But we couldn’t touch him. So we prayed over him—a
priest, a pastor and all the people he shared his good name with—that the Lord
would restore Grandpa back to health. My prayer was that the Lord would bring
Grandpa back so his wife and five sons could say a real goodbye, hold his hand,
hug him and hear his happy voice again.
What Jesus did for Mary and
Martha, he did for us. At first, Grandpa just smiled and used sign language to
communicate. (He had two sons who were deaf, so it came in handy.) A few days
later, the bandages came off, his eyes opened, and he talked. He was as sharp
as ever. He hugged and laughed and cried. He and I watched a good chunk of the
NCAA tournament together that spring in his hospital room. He was Grandpa, and
he was alive again.
All five sons were able to say what
they needed to say. And Grandma was able to share that precious gift of time
with her best friend. But Grandpa’s body was weakened by the trauma, the
surgery and the hospital stay itself. Slowly, his body began to shut down. It
was then we began to pray that “Lord, take him home” prayer. And Jesus answered
that prayer later that spring.
Through it all, from the extraordinary
measures taken after his fall to the difficult decision to authorize a “do not
resuscitate” order as Grandpa’s earthly tent gave way, my grandmother, my dad
and my uncles listened to the doctors and the pastors—and did what was right
That brings us to a second end-of-life caveat: It’s not cold
or uncaring for doctors to tell a family, “It’s time to say goodbye.” And it’s
not selfish or unfeeling for a family to allow their loved-one to pass from
this life to the next. A “do not resuscitate” order is not a death sentence. Resuscitate,
after all, means “to revive from death.”
As Davis puts it, “Declining
treatment that might forestall a disease or dysfunction that is killing someone,
is not causing death.”
However, there is a bright line between allowing life to end
naturally and “mercy killing”—just as there is a difference between, say, choking
someone and removing a device that artificially keeps a person’s lungs working.
The former takes a life; the latter merely allows life to take its own course.
To be sure, we are not to hasten someone’s death without
cause—that is murder—or decide that someone is unfit to live—that is
euthanasia—or allow someone to bring about his or her own death—that is
suicide. But we must recognize that “There
is an appointed time for everything,” as Solomon explained in one of the Bible’s
most beautiful passages. There’s a time to be born and to live, and there’s “a time to die.”
Christian pursuit of holiness,” as Tristram Engelhardt, a physician and
professor of philosophy at Rice University, and Ana Iltis, a professor of bioethics
at Wake Forest University, conclude, “prohibits using medicine in an
all-consuming pursuit of health and postponement of death; the attempt to save
life at all costs is thus forbidden.”
“The Bible does not value
extending our earthly life over every other consideration,” Davis adds,
pointing to the example of Stephen and other martyrs, who are “praised for
choosing a shorter earthly life that
included testifying to Christ’s Lordship over a longer earthly life
without that spiritual good.”
of us who believe in the sanctity of life often quote from Psalm 139 to make
our case: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb,” David gasped. “Your eyes
saw my unformed body.” But we sometimes overlook another passage from this life
song: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of
them came to be.” In other words, we are allotted a finite number of those days.
The days in this world, in these temporary bodies, in these “tents,” are
supposed to come to an end.
A third caveat: Our actions and decisions in end-of-life
situations should be humane, honoring and humble.
and Iltis note that a great deal of controversy exists, even within the
Christian community, “about the appropriateness of withdrawing artificial
hydration and nutrition at the end of life and for people in a persistent
injunction from Proverbs 3 quiets the controversy for me: “Do not withhold good
from those who deserve it, when it’s in your power to help them.” To deprive a
human of water and food—no matter his or her state—is to hasten death. We water
our lawns. Why would we do any less for people, even dying people? It pays to recall that even on the cross,
Jesus was offered a drink—and by his executioners no less.
End-of-life decisions should honor and respect the dying person’s wishes, so
long as they are in line with scripture. “The family may not be emotionally
ready to say ‘goodbye,’ and yet if the one dying would not choose the longer
life of pain, distress or spiritual deprivation, the family should honor what
the patient would want,” Davis advises.
More importantly, end-of-life decisions should honor and
respect the Author of Life. Genesis tells us that God created man in His image
and blessed humanity with a part of Himself—“the breath of life.” By taking on
this temporary tent and entering into our humanness, God made an unequivocal
statement about the sacredness of human life. To dishonor or degrade human life
at any stage is to dishonor and degrade the Author of Life.
If we don’t approach life and death with a humble attitude, they
will certainly humble us. We cannot defeat this last enemy—no matter how many
vitamins we take, miles we run, Big Macs we avoid, medicines we ingest,
surgeries we have—but Christ can. Indeed, Christ already has. “I am the resurrection and the
life,” he promises. “The one who believes in me will live, even
though they die.”
promise should give us the peace to recognize those moments when the struggle
against our last enemy doesn’t really extend life, but rather just delays it.
Sidebar: The Limits of Life
Not long ago, Dr. Ken Murray let the world in on a little
secret. Most physicians “make sure that, when the time comes, no heroic
measures are taken” to extend their life. The reason: Because they understand
“the limits of modern medicine,” Murray explained in a Wall Street Journal essay, “they know exactly what is going to
happen” at the end of life.
Hence, almost two-thirds of doctors have “an advance
directive specifying what steps should and should not be taken to save their
lives should they become incapacitated.” Only 20 percent of the general
population has such a document on file.
“It is an enormous blessing for the person dying
to have left an advance directive concerning end-of-life care,” says Covenant
College professor Bill Davis, Ph.D., who teaches bioethics and advises hospital
ethics panels. Davis emphasizes the importance of “clearly identifying an
‘agent,’ a person empowered to speak for the one dying when medical decisions
are needed” and “talking through” end-of-life situations with the agent.
own advance directive,” Davis explains, “instructs my wife to decline medical
treatment that will extend my earthly life unless it will maintain or restore
my ability to receive the Word of God (read or preached), to pray and to
partake in the Lord’s Supper.”
Dr. Carolyn McClanahan encourages people to “plan to die
like a doctor.” The first step is “a change in how life and death are
viewed”—an “understanding that we all get sick and die.”
When a person grasps that, she argues, “death isn’t so scary.”
next step, according to McClanahan, is to prepare your loved-ones financially
and emotionally long before you’re on your deathbed. “Good financial planning
gives people great peace in end-of-life situations,” she explains.
everyone is healthy,” she adds, “talk about how you want to be taken care of,
what type of funeral you want, and how you want people to celebrate your life.”
 2 Samuel 12
 See Luke 4:29, John 5:18, John 8:58
 Matthew 9:18
 Luke 16:26
 John 11:33-35
2 Corinthians 5
 Acts 18:3
 1 Corinthians 15
 See Acts 27-28
 Ecclesiastes 3.
 Tristram Engelhardt Ana Iltis, "End-of-life: the
traditional Christian view," The Lancet, September 17, 2005
 John 11