Bad Advice about Donating Organs

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:48). Thank God for the verb “to be”! This little phrase carries the meaning of striving and not of arriving. This blog aims to correct the sincere but wrong advice I gave about donating organs in my book Compassionate Jesus: Rethinking the Christian’s Approach to Modern Medicine.

While I affirm everything else in the book, I’ve modified my view about donating organs since its publication in 2013. I believe it’s essential to make this clear to the public. On pages 80-81, I offer the following suggestions when drafting a living will:

Also on most standardized living wills, there is an area to indicate a person’s desire concerning “anatomical gifts,” or the donation of organs. I already commented on the major difficulty with organ donation. I noted previously that a true declaration of death cannot be made while a person is still on life support. Harvesting organs from “brain dead” people still on life support may kill them, and this is murder. I have been present at several “vent-weans” (breathing machine is gradually withdrawn) for so-called “brain dead” people—many of these people breathe on their own after the ventilator is removed. Christians need to be extremely careful in this area.

I am of the opinion, however, that there may be a biblical warrant for making anatomical gifts in certain situations. Jesus taught us “greater love has no one than this; that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:3). Christians are to be self-sacrificing and should be willing to give up their lives for the benefit of others. With this in mind, I believe it is OK to donate organs provided a person is not potentially murdered, by being pronounced legally dead on a ventilator, and having his or her organs removed. Therefore, I suggest the following statement for organ donation:

If the life-support apparatus is withdrawn and my heart and lungs cease to function for a period of three minutes, I will consider myself dead. After I am dead, I desire that my organs be preserved any way possible, and I hereby will them to anyone in need of them. The person receiving my organs needs to know that I donated them to him or her as a gift, with the intent and purpose that he or she will repent and believe in Jesus Christ and that he or she will dedicate his or her life to the advancement of Jesus’ kingdom.

Destruction will not occur to most body organs if they do not receive blood for a period of five minutes. If a person has not taken a breath and the heart has not had a beat in three minutes, he or she is dead. This stipulation allows death to occur, permits a chance at organ procurement, and serves as a last effort for evangelism.

This is bad advice due to the statement: “I desire that my organs be preserved any way possible.” Under this situation, the person using my recommendation would be resuscitated. If the heart and lungs are restarted after three minutes, that indicates the person is biologically alive and was never a corpse. Therefore, this sentence is false: “If a person has not taken a breath and the heart has not had a beat in three minutes, he or she is dead.” My counsel assumes a body can be revived without the presence of the spirit of life, which confuses resuscitation with resurrection.

Corpses cannot be resuscitated; they can only be resurrected. Holy Scripture provides a clear historical record of the difference, and it zooms in on Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is one reason why Jesus emphasized his three-day interment about a dozen times in the Gospels, and the other writers of the New Testament repeatedly link his real death with his resurrection. The Jews believed the spirit stayed with the body immediately after breathing stopped, and that it could even resuscitate it. It was usually the odor of decay and elapsed time that marked the line between life and death for the ancient Jew (cf. John 11:39).

My advice was sincere, but it was sincerely wrong. It’s important for me to correct it because it dishonors Jesus and my heavenly Father, who instructed me to be perfect like them (see Phil. 3:12). My error stemmed from a desire to love others but I did so by adopting a view of life rooted in philosophy rather than Holy Scripture; and by affirming a modern assertion about death after three minutes that may not reflect the biological facts of life, especially since I believe life starts at conception. By God’s grace, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (3:14).

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