I was thinking about death the other day.
I’m hardly qualified to do that. My experience with death is blessedly limited. I’m hestitating to even write about this but it’s on my mind. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the Prosperity Gospel and Euthanasia.
They don’t seem to have much in common, do they?
The Prosperity Gospel promises health and wealth to its adherents. It says that Christians were made to be blessed in mind, body, and possessions and that all you need to do is name and claim your blessings in faith (usually with a monetary donation attached). It’s convinced that physical healing is every Christian’s right and a miracle is always just around the corner.
Euthanasia proponents seems to take the opposite approach. It assumes that death comes to all of us and certainly leaves no room for miraculous healing. Better to die on our own terms, at our own convenience, than drag out what is simply a meaningless spectacle of suffering.
So opposite are the two in their rhetoric, I’d hazard that no one who believes in Prosperity Gospel supports Euthanasia — and vice versa. But are these two really so far apart from each other?
The Most Painful Forms of Certainty
I was thinking about this question as I read Kate Bowler’s haunting article on Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me. Bowler is an historian of the Prosperity Gospel movements and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. She was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer at just age 34. In a recent article in the New York Times, she reflected on this diagnosis and her own work, exploring how the Prosperity Gospel is basically the age-old denial of death.
The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you. […]
The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister’s deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability.
The Idol of Control in Euthanasia and Prosperity Gospel
It’s not hard to imagine these words being applied to Euthanasia just as surely as the Prosperity Gospel. Both hold “to this illusion of control until the very end.”
Euthanasia and Prosperity have different means — one seeking life, one seeking death — but the same goal: control.
Both Euthanasia and the Prosperity Gospel are attempts at the ultimate self-rule. Although one seeks the right to die and the other, the power to live, both ultimately hunger for control over the uncontrollable. Both scream “NO, I will not die according to God’s will. I will not decline. I will not be weak or frail. I will rule even over my own death.” In this, they are two sides of the same Charon’s obol, desperately trying to buy our own out of death.
In Kate Bowler’s words later in this article, both have “replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty”, denying “much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder.”
The Christian Approach to a Happy Death
So what’s a Christian to make of this?
We can’t hide the horror of death. It is unspeakably evil. Death is the price we pay for sin. (Romans 6:23) The devil, by the fear of death, subjects us to lifelong bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15) Death is a horrifying reality of our lives. Both the Prosperity Gospel and Euthanasia are understandable flights from the great suffering many people experience.
But we also need to remember that death has been conquered. “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Co 15:15) The Prosperity Gospel captures the truth that death has been conquered. Euthanasia gets the second bit. It sees death as, in some ways, something that should not be feared and instead, can even be a blessing.
But both Euthanasia and Prosperity Gospel seem to miss what Christians know. They both neglect how death has been conquered. Death is only defeated through death. Christ entered into death and by truly embracing death in all its horror and futility, made a way through death for us.
As such, the goal of the Christian life isn’t to avoid death, it’s to be renewed in the image of Christ, the crucified and risen Son of Man. When we receive the gift of faith, we don’t receive a “Get Out Suffering” card. No, we take up our cross and walk with Christ to be crucified with Him. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) God, in His wisdom, does not allow us to escape from the physical reality of death. Instead of escape, He offers us a way through death so that, like that grain of wheat, we might bear much fruit.
That is just the problem with both Euthanasia and the Prosperity Gospel; neither can imagine any good coming out of death. Both see death as an absolute end. Death is always a defeat. It is always futile. Because of this, they seek to “control” death, just as we seek to control anything that we fear.
But we can’t control death.
We can’t flee death by denying its power and inevitability, nor by fixing the moment and means ourselves. God alone has the power of life and death. (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; Wisdom 16:30) Both Euthanasia and the Prosperity Gospel try to wrest the power of life and death out of hands of God.
It is, as Kate Bowler says, the ultimate illusion of self-rule.