People have been asking the question, "What is the purpose of life?" for time in memoriam. One confession of faith reads, humanity's "chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever" (Shorter Catechism, ¶1). Paul says, "For me to live is Christ" (Philippians 1.21), indicating that his life would be lived as a reflection of Christ within him. By studying the life of Christ we could conclude that loving our neighbor and our God is the primary purpose for living. However, philosophically there at least four reasons or purposes for lifeand these encompass the above biblical reasons.
The first reason is life is lived so that we might contribute. This contribution may be our life's contributions to society, to our family, to ourselves, or, altruistically to our God. But as long as we can contribute, we have a "reason" to live.
Another reason for life is the pursuit of happiness. This was certainly the philosophy of the Epicureans and is a popular creed for our own society. We might never find happiness (those who look for it seldom find it), but as long as we're pursuing it, we have a purpose for life.
A third reason for life is found at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: self-actualization. This reason for life implies we are endeavoring to become all that we can become (sort of like Marines!). The quest for fulfillment certainly includes the need for spiritual realization in our personal lives as well. As long as we strive to achieve this fulfillment, we have a purpose to live.
Finally, there are those who claim that life is lived as an end to itself. The purpose of life is to enjoy and/or endure it. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled could be accused of such a view. Thus life continues in its quest to endure until the endand some Christians believe life is like a spiritual test to see if we will be true and faithful while we endure.
With the exception of the latter reason above, the question of when life ends becomes relevant. If life is lived to contribute, pursue happiness, or to be self-fulfilled, is life over when an individual is no longer able to participate in these ends? Or is life over only when our heart stops?
The ancients defined a living being as anything that was animate, that is, anything that moved (Genesis 7.21; Psalm 69.34). Since life was wrapped up in breath and life, plants were not elevated to the realm of the "living." In any event, many would agree that in-animate objects are those that have no life (and, as the PBS special The Strange Life of Plants demonstrated, plants are animate and so have life). In the case of the animal kingdom, however, when the heart has stopped and the body has become inanimate, then physical life is generally considered overassuming it is not resuscitated.
But as we've seen above, our question isn't only about physical life. It includes the possibility that life may end when the purpose for life is no longer attainable or even pursuable.
Of late the question of "quality of life" has come to the forefront. The quality of life equation includes both of the above definitions of life: life has animation and life has purpose. The issue of quality, however, asks whether one is able to fulfill their purpose in life with quality. A life with a degenerative or terminal illness, or a life lived in excruciating pain is often considered without quality by those who live within these bounds. Some of these insist their "life" has already come to end and they await anxiously the termination of their animate life.
Many of those who impatiently await their physical death, do so with great faith that there is a better life to live on the other side of this life. Indeed, Paul was torn by this very notion as he approached death at the hands of the Romans, "I am hard pressed between the two [life and death]. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (Philippians 1.23).
For those whose quality of life has deteriorated such that they cannot pursue fulfillment, happiness, and who believe they can no longer make a contribution with their lives, the question remainscan they end their life with the blessings of Christianity, the Church, and God? Clearly there are philosophic questions clouding the issue. We have societal norms muddying the waters. And many Judeo-Christian traditions speak against it.
Then we have Godwho doesn't seem to care about our rules or traditions. And we have scriptureand the stories that don't seem to support our rules or traditions. Which will win out? Time will tell, but it seems, for now, it's not in the hands of the churchit's in the hands of the Supreme Court.