When a person is “in a coma,” the brain of that person is in a state of deep unconsciousness for a prolonged or indefinite period. The Bible says nothing specific about a person who is in a coma, because the medical intervention required to sustain life in a coma was not yet available when the books of the Bible were written. While a coma often precedes death, stories abound of comatose people who suddenly woke up. What should be the biblical response to a comatose person?
In most hospitals, medical staff treat comatose patients as though they were aware of their surroundings. Studies have shown that often a person’s hearing is still functioning, even while the person is in a deep state of unconsciousness. So nurses and others often speak directly to comatose patients or refer to them as though they understood the conversation. Since we are not sure whether comatose patients can hear what’s being said, it is wise to behave as though they can. Some families of comatose patients keep music playing softly in the room, discuss upcoming events as though the patient was going to participate with them, and refuse to allow negative prognoses or opinions to be voiced within hearing distance of the patient. Whether or not the comatose person can hear, treating the patient this way reminds those in attendance that this is still a person worthy of respect.
In recent years, several highly publicized legal battles have been fought over comatose patients. Families have sued for the right to either keep their loved one alive or to withdraw life-prolonging interventions and allow the person to die a natural death. These are sticky situations, and each needs to be treated individually with compassion and wisdom (James 1:5). Questions about when life ends and “death with dignity” are made more complicated by our modern medical abilities. In Bible times, if a person became comatose, there were no feeding tubes, life-support machinery, or IV’s to sustain earthly life longer than perhaps it should be sustained. Death usually followed within a few hours or days.
While no specific passages of Scripture speak about the state of being in a coma, we do know that, since only God can give life, we must leave the decision to Him about when that life ends (see Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6). Murder is always wrong because it places us in God’s role of pronouncing personal judgment on another human being (Genesis 9:5–6; Exodus 20:13). The personal choice to end an innocent life is always condemned by God (Exodus 23:7; Jeremiah 22:3; Revelation 22:15). Hastening the death of a comatose patient may fall into this category.
So-called “mercy killings” are hard to justify in this age of pain-reliving drugs and techniques, since the wonders of modern medicine provide many ways to minimize pain. When a person is comatose, of course, we cannot know for certain whether he or she is in pain or simply trapped inside a body that won’t respond. As caregivers and decision-makers, we should opt for making the comatose person as comfortable as possible. Death comes at the “appointed” time (Hebrews 9:27). This calls for wisdom, but allowing life to run its course, providing palliative care, and permitting a person to die in God’s own time is not wrong. As advanced as modern medicine has become, we still cannot know everything that is going on inside the body of a comatose person. Therefore, all decisions concerning a person in a coma should be made with the goal of doing the least harm while trusting God to bring good from it (Romans 8:28; Exodus 4:11; John 9:3).