Robin Williams, Brittany Maynard, Suicide and Suffering

29-year-old Brittany Maynard was diagnosed in January with glioblastoma—a terminal brain cancer—and was given only 6 months to live. She has recently moved to Oregon, where the law allows terminally ill patients the option of assisted suicide. “I will die upstairs in my bedroom that I share with my husband, with my mother and my husband by my side, and pass peacefully with some music that I like in the background.” She is currently campaigning to remove laws that prohibit euthanasia to terminally ill patients in other states. Naturally, this has raised a lot of attention, and has yet again thrust the issue of suicide back into the spotlight.

I was hesitant to write a post on suicide after the death of Robin Williams back in August. Anytime the subject of human suffering emerges, it’s very important to choose your words carefully (if you choose any at all). And because of the emotional stir-up surrounding the issue of suicide in particular, there are many things that must be first considered.

Now Brittany’s case varies from Robin’s in a number of ways that are clear. Brittany is terminally ill, Robin, to our knowledge, was not. Robin was chronically depressed, Brittany, to our knowledge, may not be. But the one thing that both suicide cases have in common is a desire to escape from human suffering. The question that we raise is this: Is it right for a suffering person to commit suicide?

From a Christian perspective, we see that human beings are given special, inherent value by God in ways that no other creatures compare. They are created in his image (Genesis 1:27), he pays special attention to them (Psalm 139), and he sympathizes with their suffering (Hebrews 4:15). In fact, Christ comes down, suffers through torture and ridicule for humanity, and dies (innocently) the death of the worst criminal, out of his love for the very people that did this to him. To say that God is indifferent to suffering is to ignore the central theme of the New Testament.

For Christians, the reason we live, as Piper would say, is “to reflect back to God the radiance of his worth.” We do this through worship. Worship in Christianity is not just an activity that takes place in the presence of music—worship takes place everywhere, all of the time. Even working a job that you do not naturally enjoy can be used as an opportunity to worship. We worship through giving thanks to God (Ephesians 5:20) in all circumstances. Think about marriage vows. When you say your vows, you are essentially say that “regardless of the condition that you are in, I will love you and stay with you—in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, etc.” Now remember that human marriage is a representation of Christ’s relationship with his church. When we become Christians, the same message is essentially given: “I will love you regardless.” So when I am chronically ill, my faith abides in the promises and mercy of God. When I am depressed, my hope is in the Lord.

As someone who struggles on and off with deep depression from time to time, I can assure you that these things are easy to say when the sun is shining. But when the light seems eclipsed by the darkness, it can be very difficult to recognize the promises and the hope of God. That is the case for all human suffering. It’s easy to critique and give advice while on the outside of it, but when you are in the thick of it yourself, it is drastically different. However, our circumstances do not determine what is true. Truth is true, regardless of my experiences. When our judgment is clouded by pain and suffering, it is an evidence based faith that we lean on. CS Lewis describes it in this way: “Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” As Christians, are lives are centered on God’s purpose for his glory. We use the short amount of time we have here to worship him, and to point others to him. So even in the worst circumstances, through depression and illness, we have a purpose for living that fulfills us.

Outside of Christianity, I cannot ultimately justify a reason to continue living. That does not mean that all non-Christians should end their lives—absolutely not. What that means is that, outside of a theistic framework, there is no ultimate purpose in life. William Lane Craig points out in his book Reasonable Faith, Dr. L. D. Rue’s address to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in 1991, the sad predicament that a non-theistic framework presents to mankind: “There is no final, objective reading on the world of the self. There is not universal vocabulary for integrating cosmology and morality.” Our purpose comes from a Noble Lie, one that “deceives us, tricks us, and compels us beyond self-interest, beyond ego, beyond family, nation, and race.” It is a noble lie, because it claims that we ought to act a certain way, but gives no reason for us to act a certain way. One cannot deny absolute truth, and assert it at the same time. Subjective morality raises the question of why we should be upset about suicide in the first place. After all, who are you to say what is right and wrong? From inside of this framework, I have no comment at all on suicide. Subjective morality, as Peter Singer points out, reduces the value of men to that which is no higher than the value of pigs.

But we believe that human life is intrinsically more valuable than pigs. This is why we raise our eyebrows at the Maynard or Williams case, but would pay little attention to the suicide of an animal. God has created us as moral beings with purpose. Without God, this is no absolute morality, and no absolute purpose. Within a godless framework, we have no right to be outraged—there is no right or wrong, good or evil, should or ought; as Richard Dawkins points out, “Nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Nature may view us with blind, pitiless indifference, but God does not. Our lives find their meaning and fulfillment in worshipping him.

Christianity says this: Human beings do not belong to themselves. “You were bought with a price. So glorify God with your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:20) But we were not bought into some kind of sick slavery; we were bought into the bondage of the love of God displayed in the gospel. Tim Keller describes it this way: “This gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”


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