The Physician’s Lament

Posted Sep 10, 2019

This article originally appeared in the June 1991 issue of FOCUS. When our editorial team stumbled upon it, we were struck by how prescient it was. Dr. Scott was graciously given us his permission to reprint this piece with minor revisions and a new postscript by him. 

Life and Death!

As healers, what is our relationship with death? The doctor, and the priest: What does our society expect of us in relation to death? As doctors and priests, we are viewed as experts on death – explainers of death. We are expected to answer the question why. Why did this man die? Why do all men die? We are definers of death. We set the rules, the criteria. This is death and this is not yet death. 

We pronounce death. This man is dead. The pronouncement is both a medical and priestly function common to all cultures. The doctor and priest by stethoscope or by prayer say “Yes, now he is dead” – thus grief is officially sanctioned. In former times, doctor and priest worked together to help the dying man in his final rite of passage. Now, as sociology has documented, the doctor is more and more the priest of our society – a role for which he has no training or motivation. 

We are the predictors of death, “This man will die”. Within reasonable doubt, based on this evidence, he is dying. Thus, we become the heralds of death. We announce: “That man will die” and eventually work towards the personal “You will die”. We all struggle to communicate that information in a way that is truthful and loving. 

At times healers are called upon to be arbitrators of death as we allocate scarce resources and decide on the distribution of life support systems. As healers, as doctors and priests, what should be our relationship with death? I would like to present two models, or typologies of death that I see at work in the hospital and in the Church. 


In this model, our role is to fight and defeat the dragon of disease and death. Death is the enemy and healing is possible when we destroy or hold back the forces of evil. This model has been and continues to be very important in the history of health care. For example, death continues to be the gold standard of medical care evaluation. We judge its quality by changes in the death rate. While the high-touch movement in the hospital world and the anti-triumphalism movement in the Church has decreased the influence of this model, it continues to be the dominant one and should be the dominant one.

A pastoral theology of death must keep these two models of death in balance –even if they appear to be paradoxical.

However, now the sword of St. George has become space-age. The tools of diagnosing disease and attacking death are so complex and costly and isolating that they begin to take on a life of their own and escape from the control of the healer’s hand. When not kept in balance, the St. George model can lead to frantic attempts to prolong death at all costs even in the face of imminent and irreversible death. This is meddlesome medicine. Side by side with the St. George model is another equally ancient typology of death. 

The Simeon Model

“Now, Lord, let your servant depart in peace.” 

Here death is associated with waiting, fulfilment, even joy, active relinquishment and peace. This image of dying is a powerful one in Scripture and in the history of Christian health care. Following the pattern of Gethsemane, our patients beg us and invite us to “Watch with me”. Watch and pray as I prepare to die. As Christians, as we search for better ways to serve the dying, we look to the cross and there I find elements of both the St. George and the Simeon typologies. 

We see the stark ugliness, pain and isolation of death, the abhorrence and curse of death. We see the image of death as the enemy and the cross as the symbol of defeat over death. But at the same time the cross speaks to us of the Simeon model –relinquishment, love, peace, fulfilment. 

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  • CMDA has campus ministry on more than 280 campuses.

A pastoral theology of death must keep these two models of death in balance –even if they appear to be paradoxical. There must be a creative tension between the two. All of us have found these two relationships with death in our patient care. In the same patient, sometimes in the same conversation, we can hear readiness and acceptance of death side by side with grasping for life. 

I want, however, to focus particularly on the issue of euthanasia. Now a totally new relationship with death is being contemplated and openly advocated – a radical departure from all historical precedents.

1 Luke 2:25-34.
2 As of this issue, it is now 40 years!
3 Psalm 22.
4 Psalm 55.
5 Psalm 130.