Question: "Who is really 'playing God' - the doctor who euthanizes a dying patient, or the doctor who extends the life of a terminally ill patient?"
Answer: This question brings to the surface some of the hidden considerations involved in end-of-life decision-making. The primary consideration for many people is whether life can have “meaning” beyond certain thresholds of suffering or the loss of vital functions. One problem in evaluating such “meaning” is the often subjective nature of the decision-making process.
A deeper consideration is the will of God, the Giver of life and the Giver of wisdom—wisdom that is sorely needed amid life’s suffering (Psalm 27:11; 90:12). It is God who gives life purpose and meaning up to the point of death. As a gift from God, life should be preserved. God Himself is sovereign over the time and manner of our death. A doctor who administers a life-saving treatment is not “playing God”; he is honoring the gift of God.
The conflicting values in end-of-life decision-making lie at two extremes. At one end of the spectrum are those who promote euthanasia, or mercy killing: suffering is evil and must therefore be eliminated—by killing the sufferer, if necessary. At the other end are those who view life as sacred, to be extended at all costs, using any technology available.
The problem with the first view, besides the fact that euthanasia is murder, is that Scripture nowhere urges us to avoid suffering at all costs. In fact, believers are called to suffer like Christ in order to fulfill His righteous and redemptive purposes in us (1 Peter 2:20-25; 3:8-18; 4:12-19). Often, it is only after someone has been disillusioned by significant suffering and loss that he takes stock of what is truly meaningful and can then make progress in advancing God’s purposes.
The complication inherent in the other view is the definition of “life.” When does life actually end? The classic illustration is the so-called persistent vegetative state in which a person can live for many years by simply being fed and hydrated. Many assume that such patients have no cognitive awareness and therefore have no “life” at all. Neurologists measure patient response to certain neurological stimuli in an attempt to inform the decision-makers. However, others believe that, if a person in this condition has a heartbeat, then there is hope and life must be preserved, even if only by machines.
The best answer probably lies somewhere between the two views. The Christian will attempt to preserve life, but there is a difference between preserving life and prolonging death. Artificially maintaining a semblance of life functions simply because someone finds it too emotionally difficult to allow their loved one to die would indeed be “playing God.” Death comes at the “appointed” time (Hebrews 9:27). When a patient’s body begins shutting down, when medical intervention will not heal but only prolong the natural process of dying, then removing the machines and allowing that person to die is not immoral. This calls for wisdom. Alternately, actively speeding up death is wrong. That would be “playing God.” Passively withholding life-saving treatment might also be wrong. But allowing life to run its course, providing palliative care, and permitting a person to die in God’s time is not wrong.
Given these considerations, a clear and present danger of “playing God” exists at both extremes: eliminating suffering at all costs, and utilizing every possible therapy at all costs. Rather than play God, we should let God be God. Scripture tells us to depend on God for wisdom (James 1:5) and to weigh what is meaningful while life remains (Ecclesiastes 12).