How do you define Death?

The Sanctity of Life and the Resurrection - Fourth in a Series

The purpose of this blog series is to consider reasons from Scripture that belief in the doctrine of the Resurrection means a Christian 1. should not share body parts and 2. should be buried, not cremated.

Pertaining to the second focus, cremation does not prevent resurrection, but it is not the way the Bible teaches us to handle a dead loved one. For that matter, organ donation does not prevent resurrection, but does God approve of it? There are Scriptural reasons not to sign your driver’s license, if you accept them.

The first reasons, covered in the previous posts, say there is an unbreakable link between body and soul and an integration of body and soul by design; resurrection means each person will once again be clothed with his or her own body. As Job said, And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:26-27)

A third reason derives from the biblical commandment, Thou shalt not kill. (Ex 20:13) People whose organs are harvested are not dead yet, at least not if we accept the traditional definition of death. That concept is: When the person stops breathing, the soul has left the body. (Gen 2:7; Job 33:4; Ps 104:29…)

Doctors who stand on this rule tell us that transplantation depends on living beings. Vital organs cannot be transplanted from a corpse!

But the current definition of death reads: “An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem is dead.” This is from The Uniform Determination of Death Act which further states: “A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.”

The current definition was approved by the American Medical Association in 1980 and by the American Bar Association in 1981. Prior to this, in 1968, a Harvard Medical School committee determined that legal death ought to be defined as: 1. Coma or Unresponsiveness, 2. Absence of Brainstem Reflexes, 3. Absence of Breathing (Apnea). That demeaned the biblical concept. You could say it opened a new front in the culture war.

Today, even though there is controversy over brain death and a belief that donating an organ should not cause death, in a national survey “to evaluate the public's opinion about organ removal if explicitly described as causing the death of a donor in irreversible apneic (without breathing) coma”, 71% agreed it should be legal. (Please read the comment about the survey sample in the second to last paragraph of the linked article.)

However, simply because a person is on life support in a coma does not mean he or she is dead. A ventilator can push air into a body, but after death, the air cannot come out. A current news story about Jahi McMath spotlights this truth. Is she dead or alive? Her fate will be decided in a court of law, with the initial hearing scheduled for March 18, 2018. [Jahi passed away in June 2018 - ed]

Most who sign their driver’s license have never studied what will occur in the hospital to facilitate transplantation. Perhaps that person has also signed an Advance Directive stating that he does not want to ever be put on a ventilator. But the organ donor will be put on life support because it will be presumed that his desire to donate his organs overrides his desire not to be put on a ventilator. (ref) They may be given anesthesia as well to block any pain, prior to harvesting their organs.

Does the sixth commandment apply?

You must be alive to donate your organs. Technically it is the medical staff handling the process, but the organ donor has agreed to this arrangement.

A Christian must decide whether he agrees with the current scientific definition of death or the old standard.

Perhaps this blog post and series seem too strict, even legalistic. There are many things to ponder in this ethical minefield, and no one can answer all the questions. A pastor who is dogmatic about organ transplantation may cause some to depart the Church.

For anyone who is offended at this point, remember, people will always disappoint, but Jesus never will. The writer is a layperson trying to evaluate advanced biomedical experimentation and practices in the light of Scripture.

Who would want to call for an end to scientific progress in addressing the needs of patients who require new organs? Good techniques and procedures are exciting and laudable. Some examples are noted in the Flesh & Bone & The Protestant Conscience ebook (see links, below right) and in some News Odyssey posts on this blog site.

Here are several reasons not to go along with the current definition of death:

  1. When biblical boundaries are overstepped, the first break with tradition may not seem significant, but inevitably, further erosion of commonly held beliefs will follow. Before we know it, the government controls what we once were free to choose. A good example is the recent news that the Netherlands has adopted “opt-out” legislation, so that any citizen not registered as an organ donor will be considered one. Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith has noted, “…a patient could very conceivably be both killed and harvested without having requested it”. (ref)
  2. The more we view a body as a commodity or medical treasure, the less we see it as a sacred place where God lives, a temple of the Holy Spirit. Confusion results.
  3. Much good may be accomplished as a person’s life nears its end. Can we know what the comatose person may be addressing or concluding? Attending loved ones are given time to reflect and perhaps mend fences, become less impatient, feel repentance, or think about their own life in the light of death. Should we stop this process of character improvement?
  4. It is God's call. Let God decide when a life should end. [We hope to address the topic of life extension ethics and the love and sovereignty of God in a future post or series.]

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Angel fish
Public Domain, Link

...and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind ... the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind ...the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. -Genesis 1


A SistersSite eBook

Flesh and Bone and The Protestant Conscience is an e-book on It is 99¢ and in the Amazon lending library as well. It is also available here in PDF format. The book description follows.

Would you let your conscience be your guide?

Does God care if the skin and bone of the dead are passed along to the living for medical uses? Is organ donation OK with God? Should you sign a Living Will?

Did you know that dead organ donors are often anesthetized before their organs are removed? Do you know the current definition of death? The conscience cannot function without facts.

As we ponder the ethics of in vitro fertilization, stem cell research and man-made chimeras, our thoughts trail off. How then should we live? (Ez 33:10)

How should a Christian think about euthanasia by starvation when doctors and the state attorney general all agree it is time to withhold feeding from a brain injured patient? Some things are family matters, but someday it may be our family.

Here is a small book to help you think about whether you want to sign your driver's license, donate a kidney, cremate your loved one, and many other practical questions that may arise in the course of your healthcare decisions or watch over others.

It offers a special focus on the doctrine of the Resurrection that is related to such decisions. Sunday School classes and Bible Study groups could use this book to facilitate discussion about the issues covered.