Does Christian compassion ever justify euthanasia?

The other day I went with friends to see a showing of Allelujah, a film based on the 2018 Alan Bennett play. Set in a geriatric hospital unity in Yorkshire, it stars a galaxy of distinguished British actors including Judi Dench, Jennifer Saunders and Derek Jacobi. I confess that I went to see the film with some trepidation, because I had been warned that what appears to begin as a comedy toward the end takes a darker turn. A somewhat sensitive soul as far as the medium of film is concerned, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend my Saturday afternoon having my heart-strings pulled. I much prefer pure comedy. So I told my friends that if I find it all a bit too much, I would walk out and have a coffee while they watched to the end. But I didn’t walk out. Indeed, by the time film ended I was very pleased that I had sat through the whole film. It proved a most moving and thought-provoking experience. Indeed, when we were having dinner together later that day, I said to my friends that I thought Allelujah should be a set text for GCSE and/or A level students.

Strangely some film critics have well and truly panned the film. The Guardian in its review talked of Allelujah being “jarringly uneven” and dismissed it for “clumsily” swerving into ‘thriller territory’. The Evening Standard was no better and spoke of it being “an incoherent jumble of ideas and feelings” and like The Guardian wrote off the end of the film as being “spectacularly awful”. ‘Did they really watch the film?’ I asked myself. I strongly disagree with their verdict.

Over dinner with my friends we debated the many issues raised by the film, and not least the challenge we increasingly face of coping with ill-health as we grow older. How do we ourselves cope as we grow older with the challenge of poor health? Indeed, how do we cope when ageing loved ones develop chronic ill health? Or how do we cope when loved ones begin to suffer from dementia which can rob us of our God-given personality? Are their times when euthanasia is the answer?

Our English word euthanasia is derived from a Greek word, and literally means a ‘good death’. Is there a place for ‘mercy killing’, not least in those cases where dementia has been diagnosed and where our loved ones face ‘losing their dignity’?

At this point Christians are increasingly divided in their opinions. For some euthanasia is a form of killing, and traditionally Christians have viewed it as a form of murder. In the past the penalty for murder warranted the death penalty – and even today it normally leads to life in prison with no remission. In the Old Testament there are only four exceptions to killing not leading to the death penalty: accidental killing, killing in self-defence, killing in the context of a holy war, and of course the exercise of capital punishment.

However, today some Christians argue that that there is a place for assisted suicide. For instance George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2014 supported a change in the law to permit assisted suicide. Openly acknowledging that he had changed his mind, he wrote that “the old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering”. He went on to explain his position:

I began to reconsider how to interpret Christian theology on the subject. As I did so, I grew less and less certain of my opposition to the right to die… Both the Bible and the character of God laid far more importance on open-hearted benevolence than on upholding this particular law. As I reminded myself, one of the key themes of the gospels is love for our fellow human beings. Indeed, Jesus’s mission was underpinned with compassion for those suffering from the most dreadful conditions.

The Christian Medical Fellowship responded with a strong criticism of what Laurence Crutchlow described as ‘situationism’. “Love and compassion are key themes of the gospels”. But surely the law is also an expression of God’s love for his people. Carey and others believe that the law must give way to ‘compassion’ , which the CMF dismiss as:

an example of situationism. …. Effectively a Christian could be breaking God’s law, but still acting in love. This isn’t consistent with scripture…. Jesus was clear that obeying the greater commandments of the law didn’t negate disobedience over the lesser ones.

For Laurence Crutchlow the answer to the dilemma which we face when a loved one is in the kind of situation depicted in Allelujah is good palliative care where a person’s physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs can be addressed. But is that always so? In my experience that is not always the case. Hence I found the exploration of the theme in the film so riveting. Does Christian compassion ever justify euthanasia? Caring for the terminally ill is indeed a real challenge.


  1. How we care for the terminally ill is indeed increasingly important now that medicine can keep people alive almost indefinitely , it seems. It is a problem we certainly need to have discussed with our families so that they are quite clear what our feelings are while we are of sound mind. I’m sure compassionate doctors sometimes give a heavier dose of drug to relieve pain etc which also hastens the end, and I would certainly be wholly in favour of that. Of course it is more problematic when dementia sets in, but one hopes that we have all managed to be open enough with our families for our doctors to come to a good decision.
    I agree with your idea that young people should be exposed to the dilemma, and I shall try to make sure that I communicate well on that subject with children and grandchildren! I hope to see the film sometime !

  2. This whole debate is interesting and difficult. In part it rests on what we think “life” actually is – for instance, is a person whose “mechanism” (for want of a better term) being kept going by machines truly alive in any meaningful sense?
    It also might be worth considering that, until fairly recently, suicide itself was not only a criminal act but regarded as a mortal sin.

  3. Dear Paul (and Andrea above),
    writing as a retired GP i can reassure that doctors do not give an extra shot of morphine to relieve pain at the risk of shortening life. This is because morphine, in the doses used in terminal care, does not shorten life as has been shown in many trials starting with those of Dr Cicely Saunders, the founder of the hospice movement.
    My 35 years as a GP have made me profoundly opposed to legalising euthanasia, even if my initial reason was that, as a Christian, i think it is wrong. I can understand the sympathy for it, especially as a person gets older. But there are at least two other groups concerned by the legalising of euthanasia; the doctors who will carry it out and society at large.
    Whereas polls of the general population show support for euthanasia, those groups who would actually have to carry it out: GPs and palliative care doctors are most against.
    Then we come to society at large. Old people already feel a burden on their relatives, even where those children are most keen to help them. Once euthanasia is a possibility, old people will feel a pressure to choose this option which will make them not a burden, even where this is the last thing on their children’s minds. Finally legalising euthanasia is a slippery slope, as recent experience in Canada dramatically shows.
    There is so much more that should be said on this topic, Some of these are made in this letter by a group of palliative care doctors,

  4. As a long retired GP, Hospice Medical Director and Consultant Physician in Palliative Care this is an issue that I have wrestled with and had to deal with in one form or another. for most of my professional life. Consider just two practical issues. Firstly, whose emotional and physical distress are we talking about, that of the patient, relative(s) or perhaps the doctor(s) and at what point does our compassion move on to actively ending life? In these sad and distressing situations, good palliative care for the patient, modelled on the insights and work of the Hospice movement, dealing with all the physical, emotional and spiritual issues through verbal and non verbal interactions, first class nursing skills and prescribed medication levels is possible and vital in all these situations at home or in hospital. If it sometimes isn’t good enough we need to put our compassion into improving training, mentoring and good communication rather than just disposing of the problem. The family too needs the same portfolio of measures available to them in their distress. There is no short cut. And the doctors too. Do we get compassion fatigue and desperately want to move on to other, less stressful issues? Who is to make the decision to remove a God- given life when the one who gave it said,”I will never leave you or forsake you”? An unconscious patient, at least if he/she is a believer, presumably still has the Spirit of God within them. What are we tampering with?! The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord Our compassion may, at bottom, ‘simply’ need to come down to ‘accompanying’ the dying person on their last journey. A high privilege indeed but costly.

    Secondly, I began my medical career under the shadow of the rearguard battle against abortion on demand. That was held at bay for some years but eventually an apparently tightly ring- fenced bill for abortion in certain appropriate medical circumstances was pushed through….. and in an amazingly short time had morphed somehow. into abortion virtually on demand.

    Led by Drs. Dame Cicely Saunders, Robert Twycross and others, Britain has led the world in the delivery of Proactive Palliative care for all dying patients. There is obviously more to be done but please don’t let us devalue Human life even when in our moribund patient, as with Jesus in his final hours, the quality of that life appears to be almost non-existent. Appearances are deceptive.

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