Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting? 6

On the Meaning of Suffering, Pain, and Death

Fr Joseph Tham

Fr Joseph Tham

A few years ago, I remember being at the scene of a traffic accident in the outskirts of Rome. The car apparently lost control and smashed into a tree.

The front of this small car was totally caved in with fumes and smoke coming out.  The police had not yet arrived, and so, dressed in clerical garb, I got out of the car to see if I could be of service.

One of the passengers, a middle aged woman had many facial abrasions and was bleeding, supported by a younger man who appeared shaken but well.

When they saw me approaching, they waved for me to go away before I could offer my assistance.

I had known that Italians were a superstitious bunch, and priests were a sign of bad luck in that situation.  In fact, Italians are notorious for avoiding not calling in the priests until the last moment.  Since I realized they were not in any real life-threatening situation, I left the scene but with a bit of sadness in my heart.

This incident made me realize how secularized the society has become when confronted with the mystery of death.  This mentality has indeed affected the Western culture and we see this in the inroads made by euthanasia proponents on several fronts.

Indeed, religion has traditionally played an important role in medical ethics up until recently.  This is unavoidable since the general public wants answers regarding the meaning of pain and suffering, death and immortality.  Nevertheless, a profound transformation has occurred with the advance of Secularization.  As it progressed, the meaning of death underwent remarkable changes.

There was a noticeable shift from the biblically based religious visions which sought transcendental meaning in the reality of death and suffering as a prelude to eternal life and final encounter with God, to a secular vision which now sees death as a dreaded unknown to be ignored or conquered, if not controlled or delayed so that it will be quick and painless.

These, then, are the two very contrasting conceptions of death.

On the one hand, the religious person understands death as a part of divine plan in creation and redemption.  Believers are encouraged to prepare for death and accept suffering as a means of purification and sanctification.  For the Christian, suffering becomes elevated: it is never aimless or solitary, but a means of participating Christ’s own passion.  This was eloquently witnessed in the last days of recently beatified Pope John Paul II.

Suffering is not to be feared but embraced, and suicide is shunned as contrary to acceptance of God’s providence.  Life is considered a fundamental good to be safeguarded above all, since dignity is considered inherent to every individual.  Death, as St. Francis of Assisi would coin it, becomes “our sister” and merits contemplation rather than apprehension.  In all this, the truths of faith are accentuated—the condition a finite creature, the gift of life, salvation from eternal death, and immortal life as eternal union with God.

On the other hand, the secular vision sees suffering and death as meaningless, something to be dreaded, ignored and postponed as long as possible.  A quick death is desirable when suffering or pain becomes intolerable.  This vision advocates self-determination and autonomous decision to end one’s life, controlling the timing, method and circumstance.  Quality of life here becomes the measure of worthy and “dignified” living.  Hence, life is conceived materialistically, devoid of any transcendent component.

Yet, the secular version of a good death is terribly lonesome and ultimately inhumane.  The emphasis is invariably on unbearable suffering and patient autonomy or right to “die with dignity” as it proposes to eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferer.  When carried to the extreme, a good death might mean the killing of those who are no longer autonomous or are even aware of their sufferings out of utilitarian calculation.

Unfortunately, many professed believers today are tinged with this secular vision of death, as my brief encounter above seemed to show.  In our anaesthetized society, pain-killers make enormous sales, and immortality is sought through medical technology.

At the beginning of the Easter Season, we need to examine our conscience.  Can we confidently say with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy sting?  O death, where is thy victory?”  If we are not able to bear witness, like the early Church martyrs, of our belief in the afterlife, it is no small wonder that the advocates of euthanasia are having success in propagating their cause.

Blessed John Paul II, pray for us!

Author: Fr Joseph Tham, LC, MD, PhD. Assistant Professor of Bioethics, Regina Apostolorum University, Rome; Visiting Professor, Holy Spirit College Seminary, Hong Kong; Fellow, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights

Also by Fr Joseph Tham:


  1. Great article, Fr Joseph. Regarding the theme of secularism, how would you articulate a definition of secularism? I know that atheism cannot be defined without the concept of God. It is present, even etymologically. Could a secularist define secularism without at least some implicit concept of transcendence present in the definition? I understand secularism as the assertion that man can find meaning and fulfilment without the need for recourse to God and transcendence, but I realize it is a negative definition. How would a secularist define secularism?

    • I should ask a secularist that question. I’m sure you’d get a different definition from anyone you asked. Here’s what I think most would agree on — without making it a negative definition. The secularist holds that this physical world is the only world there is; hence, we must preserve it and make it a better place, not only for ourselves, but for future generations to enjoy. I find nothing wrong with that notion, except that I don’t believe this is the only world there is, and I still have good reasons for wanting to preserve it and make it a better place.

  2. Great post. It is interesting to see how our culture flirts with death, fascinated and terrified. It shows in art, music, fashion, and actions. So obvious with our “lost” young people.
    Euthanasia is so tied up with the evidence of what we, as human beings on earth, share with animals in our physicality. With putting animals down out of mercy. With the meaning of suffering as we recognize the ability to feel pain, suffering, fear in God’s other creatures. I think the church will have to readdress some of these issues. To identify what we (creatures on earth) have in commonality, and what makes humanity distinct–and then to support compassion and loving stewardship even more strongly and definitely than ever before.

    • I could not agree with you more. The notion of stewardship is introduced in the very first chapter of the Bible. We need to protect and care for all of God’s creation and treat all beautiful things according to their dignity. If we can recognize in ourselves a higher dignity, we can also see varying degrees of dignity in creation and recognize that the beauty we see in other things come not from ourselves, but from the God who made them. Therefore we must respect all God’s gifts accordingly.

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