Suicide Among Saints... Is Killing Oneself A Sin?
God does not send us despair in order to kill us;
He sends it in order to awaken us to new life.
Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)
One of the true joys that has come my way as a by-product of these Reflections is the open door for ministry to a great many people. People's lives are being touched as they boldly step forth from their comfort zones and religious ruts and truly begin to reflect upon their beliefs and practices in light of God's inspired revelation. It has also opened a door for more personal ministry to those who have some very specific questions pertaining to special challenges in their lives. Whenever I get such a plea from a brother or sister in Christ, I always try to reach out to them with the love of Christ and with as much biblical guidance as I'm able to perceive and provide. It is my conviction that the solutions to life's challenges can always be found, at least in principle, within God's Word. Sometimes we all just need a little help perceiving those eternal truths, and a little encouragement in applying them to our lives.
Very few of us have not been personally touched in some way by this great personal struggle some have over whether to continue living their lives or to terminate them. Suicide is defined as "the taking of one's own life, or causing it to be taken by another, regardless of motive, circumstances, or method used" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 652). The idea of willful intent has been added to the equation in the brief definition of Webster's Dictionary: "The act of killing oneself intentionally." Although the Bible, as well as certain extra-biblical literature, has much to say about the matter, "no single word for suicide occurs in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek." The concept is known, but no specific term portrays this reality.
Suicide has almost always been listed among the top ten causes of death in the United States, and it accounts for nearly 31,000 deaths annually in the United States alone. It is estimated that a suicide occurs about every fifteen minutes, and that there are at least ten unsuccessful attempts to every fatal one. "Suicide is higher among the divorced, widowed, and the higher socioeconomic groups. Suicide also occurs more often in Protestants than it does in any other religious group" (Dr. Frank Minirth, MD, Christian Psychiatry, p. 130). Suicide attempts occur three times more frequently among women than men, but four times as many men actually succeed as compared to women. No group is exempt. Christians are just as susceptible to suicidal tendencies as non-Christians.
It is a growing problem in society, with major depression being the psychiatric diagnosis most commonly associated with suicide. According to the American Association of Suicidology [www.suicidology.org] , which is headquartered in Washington, DC, and dedicated to the understanding and prevention of suicide, about two-thirds of all people who succeed in committing suicide are depressed at the time of their demise. Statistics show that one out of every sixteen persons diagnosed with depression eventually goes on to end their own lives. The risk of suicide in severely depressed people is twenty times higher than in the general population.
Last month I received the following email from one of the readers of these Reflections ---
"Brother Al, I have a question for you. If a person commits suicide after finding out that they have a very serious health problem, and because they don't want to be a burden on their family, will Christ condemn them to hell? I have a very good friend whose father committed suicide. He was such a good person to everyone. The family is really having a hard time because of their Christian beliefs about a person taking their own life. He was also a faithful Christian. What are your views on this matter? You are just wonderful at explaining the Scriptures in your Reflections. Keep up the good work!"
Examining the Biblical Evidence
As always, any investigation into a difficult moral or ethical or spiritual dilemma should begin with an appeal to the Word of God. "What saith the Lord?" should always be our first question. It is true that God may not specifically or directly address each of our concerns, but one will rarely, if ever, fail to find some guidance via principles, examples and illustrations. One may well be forced to employ a measure of good old-fashioned common sense, but we ought to be doing that more than we do anyway! The wisdom to govern our lives is available if we will prayerfully seek it. Although the Bible does not employ the word "suicide," nevertheless we see several dramatic examples of those who took their lives, or who pondered doing so. Following is a fairly exhaustive list:
Abimelech --- Judges 9:50-57. Although Saul was the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel, Abimelech, of the tribe of Gideon, was the first Israelite to bear the title "king," although he was most likely not recognized as such beyond the boundaries of Ephraim. He was an extremely wicked despot, known as The Bramble King, who murdered 70 of his father's household to help secure his power. While attacking the city of Thebez, a woman in a tower dropped a millstone on Abimelech's head, crushing his skull. He called out to his armor bearer, "Draw your sword and kill me, lest it be said of me, 'A woman slew him.'" The armor bearer complied with this request and "pierced him through, and he died." Some would argue that this was not a suicide, because Abimelech himself did not commit the fatal act. However, by definition, it does apply --- "suicide = the taking of one's own life, or causing it to be taken by another."
Samson --- Judges 16:29-30. The story of Samson, and his death, is well-known ... even to our children. He was captured by the Philistines, following his betrayal by Delilah, his eyes were gouged out, and he was led in chains to a prison in Gaza. When brought into the temple of their god Dagon one day, to amuse the crowd of about 3000 men and women, he grasped the pillars of the temple, cried out unto God, "Let me die with the Philistines," and brought the place down on top of everyone. "So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life."
It can be argued, and has been, that this was a case where God assisted this suicide, and indeed guaranteed its success. Just prior to taking his own life that day, and the lives of a great many others, Samson prayed, "O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes" (Judges 16:28). Although the text nowhere specifically states God either heard or responded to this plea, the act of Samson in bringing down the temple with his bare hands strongly suggests God did. One must also not overlook the fact that Samson is listed in Hebrews 11:32 as one of the giants of faith, a man "of whom the world was not worthy." There seems little doubt, therefore, that God extended eternal salvation to this man of faith who committed suicide.
King Saul and his Armor Bearer --- 1 Sam. 31:4-5; 1 Chron. 10:4-5. Saul had been mortally wounded by an archer during a battle with the Philistines. During this battle several of his sons had been slain, including Jonathan. Saul asked his armor bearer to draw his sword and kill him (much like the request of Abimelech), "lest these uncircumcised come and pierce me through and make sport of me." The armor bearer, however, was afraid, and was unwilling to kill the king. "So Saul took his sword and fell on it. And when his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died with him." "Scholars generally consider a different account of Saul's death -- 2 Sam. 1:1-10 -- as a story invented by an ambitious young man who thought he would thereby please David" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 652).
Like Samson, some scholars have suggested that Saul also was extended salvation by the Lord God. After all, did not "Samuel" (who at the time was very much dead) say to Saul, "Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me" (1 Sam. 28:19)? Few would doubt that Samuel was saved, thus, they argue, Saul and his sons must be saved as well. I believe this argument to be without merit, however. For those who might be interested in pursuing this further, I would refer you to Reflections #80 --- Samuel, Saul and the Witch. [www.zianet.com/maxey/reflx80.htm]
Ahithophel --- 2 Sam. 17:23. "One of David's most influential advisors (1 Chron. 27:33), Ahithophel was an astute, crafty politician who later encouraged Absalom to rebel against David. When Absalom turned down the key part of the plan that Ahithophel had prepared, Ahithophel shrewdly knew that the revolt was doomed and hung himself -- the only suicide in the Old Testament that was not motivated by war" (William Barker, Everyone In The Bible, p. 27).
Zimri --- 1 Kings 16:18. He reigned as king over Israel for only 7 days, after killing the previous king, Elah, who was in the palace drinking himself drunk. Zimri had previously been the commander of half of king Elah's chariot forces. Omri, however, led the people against this usurper, and "when Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the king's house and burned down the royal palace over himself, and died."
Judas Iscariot --- Matt. 27:5; Acts 1:18. Although the passage in Acts does not specify that the death of Judas was by means of suicide, nevertheless the reading of the account in Matthew leaves little doubt -- "And he threw the pieces of silver into the sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself."
With regard to the above, "None of these accounts explicitly condemns suicide as a sin or a crime, or has a clear statement that suicide per se was a punishment for past sins. Indeed, in some instances the suicides were honored by their survivors. But in other instances they were clearly outside the divine will and purpose" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 652). Thus, we find only seven (there are two listed under #3) actual suicides in the pages of the Scriptures. The context really does not offer a lot of commentary as to the rightness or wrongness of these actions, although, certainly, we can all draw our own conclusions.
We should also note at this juncture that there is temptation to commit suicide, as well as attempted suicide, found in the New Testament writings. Satan, following our Lord's forty days and nights in the wilderness, took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down" (Matt. 4:5-6; Luke 4:9). The Devil would have liked nothing better than to have Jesus jump off the temple prior to the beginning of His public ministry! Jesus didn't fall for it, however! We also find a near suicide in the city of Philippi during Paul's second missionary journey (51-54 AD). Paul and Silas had been imprisoned, but a powerful earthquake shook the foundations of the prison and caused the doors to be opened and the chains to fall from the prisoners. "And when the jailer had been roused out of sleep and had seen the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped" (Acts 16:27). This jailer would later be converted to Christ, he and his whole household. Some scholars feel the statement of Jonah, in Jonah 1:12, constitutes, by definition, suicidal intent -- "Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you." Suicidal intent is also perceived by some in Amos 9:2 and Rev. 9:6, both of which may reflect a desire for death, and an effort to effect it, during times of great personal distress.
As distasteful as it may be for some, it must nevertheless be pointed out that there are not a few biblical scholars who see our Lord's self-sacrifice upon the cross as a form of suicide, albeit a noble one! After all, Jesus clearly declared, "I lay down My life ... No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative" (John 10:17-18). This would certainly tend to fall within the definitional parameters of the term suicide. Later Jesus would say, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). This is exactly what Jesus did for us.
Before we get into an analysis of suicide itself, and the various pros and cons proffered through the years by those who have studied the issue from a biblical perspective, we need to briefly notice some of the ancient extra-biblical testimony regarding suicide. The Apocrypha, for example, speaks of such tragic occurrences on several occasions. Notice just a few:
Eleazar --- 1 Maccabees 6:43-46. During a major battle with the occupying army, Eleazar, also known as Avaran, ran up underneath a large war elephant, upon which he supposed the enemy king to be riding, and stabbed the elephant in the belly, thus causing it to fall dead on top of him. This allowed others to attack the ones riding that elephant, which he hoped would turn the tide of battle against the enemy. "So he gave up his life to save his people, and he won an everlasting name for himself."
Razis --- 2 Maccabees 14:37-46. This man was one of the elders of Jerusalem, and highly regarded by the Jews, whom he loved dearly. In an effort to discredit him, a group of soldiers from the occupying forces was sent to arrest him and make a public spectacle of him before the Jews. The text relates a very gruesome account of how Razis attempted suicide three times before finally succeeding, "preferring to die nobly rather than fall into the hands of vile men and suffer outrages unworthy of his noble birth."
We could also list the suicide of the youngest of seven brothers, who, after witnessing the horrible torture and murder of his six older brothers by the enemy, refused to deny His God and took his own life. Just before he died, he shouted to the enemy, "I myself, being about to die, will not forsake the testimony of my brethren. And I call upon the God of my fathers to be merciful to my race" (read 4 Maccabees 8-12 for this moving account of the martyrdom of these seven brothers). We could also list the mother of these seven, who, "when she herself was about to be seized for the purpose of being put to death," took her own life "rather than that they should touch her person" (4 Maccabees 17:1). "O thou mother, who together with seven children, didst ... exhibit the nobleness of faith" (vs. 2). Thus, they were praised by the people of Israel for remaining faithful, even to the point of sacrificing themselves.
The Jewish historian Josephus also lists several notable suicides in his ancient writings. For example, he tells of the heroic Phasaelus, "who died with great bravery." He had no weapons available to him, but "he prevented all abuses by dashing his head against a stone" (Wars of the Jews, book 1, chapter 13, section 10). A suicide pact among several patriots is recorded by Josephus in Wars of the Jews, along with the various conflicting emotions that accompanied that resolve (book 3, chapter 8, sections 4-8). Yet another suicide pact is described in Wars of the Jews, book 7, chapter 8:6 - 9:1. These were all Jewish patriots who preferred to die at their own hand, and dispatch their own loved ones, rather than suffer the atrocities and tortures that would be inflicted upon them by the enemy.
"The history of Judaism presents a varied pattern. After the Exile suicide was basically ruled out because of the strong reverence for human life. Yet mass suicides occurred at both Gamala (67 AD) and Masada (73 AD) at the time of revolt against Roman rule" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 653).
"Some early Christians' acceptance of, even desire for, martyrdom seems to suggest an acceptance of suicide -- e.g., Ignatius, but Lactantius vehemently opposed it. Chrysostom cautioned against hurrying one's appointed end, and Jerome considered Judas Iscariot's suicide a crime. Augustine used the sixth commandment to crystallize the opinion that suicide was wrong. Probably in reaction to a large number of Christians who were eager to leave this life, he argued that suicide foreclosed any opportunity for repentance and that it was also an act of cowardice. Later church councils (Council of Guadix in 305 AD, Council of Carthage in 348 AD, Council of Braga in 563 AD) and thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas, reinforced this teaching. Aquinas relied on natural theology to insist that suicide was against nature and therefore against God's ordinance. God alone has the right to give and to take away life. The negative view went virtually unchallenged until the 17th century, when John Donne, the English cleric, wrote Biathanatos, in which he argued cogently for a positive view of suicide. Donne relied heavily on Jesus' saying in John 15:12f -- 'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' Even more explicit is 1 John 3:16, 'By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren'" (ibid, p. 652-653).
Rationale Against Suicide
"Thou shalt not murder" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy. 5:17). This is one of the Ten Commandments, and those who argue against suicide declare that taking one's own life is self-murder. Thus, they declare it forbidden by God. "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man" (Genesis 9:6). It is further argued that we are created in the very image of God, therefore it is not the prerogative of mere man to shed the blood of man ... either of others or of himself. Such is viewed as an affront to God, the very One who created us all in His own image! The opposing side, however, would argue that God has many times commanded men to kill, and that there is a significant difference between killing and murdering. What is universally condemned is murder. There are situations, however, it is argued, that would justify killing ... even of oneself. There is no question, scholars will admit, that the biblical text does make a distinction between murder and killing. The former is condemned by God, the latter often is condoned, and at times even commanded, if circumstances warrant such an action.
See Thou Shalt Not Kill
There are several other biblical passages used to demonstrate suicide is not in keeping with the will of God. "I have set before you life and death ... choose life in order that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). When given the choice, we are urged to choose life. Obviously, Moses was not talking about suicide, but some believe these words convey a principle that could be made to apply. Job said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). The thought here, say those who oppose suicide, is that only the Lord has the right to "take away" (which they assert applies also to one's life). When the Philippian jailer "drew his sword and was about to kill himself" (Acts 16:27), Paul cried out to him in a loud voice, "Do yourself no harm!" (vs. 28). This they believe is a command of an apostle universally applicable to those who seek to harm themselves, whatever the cause. This same apostle would write, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" (1 Corinthians 6:19), therefore we have no right to destroy this "temple" which is not our own! Paul also wrote, "No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church" (Ephesians 5:29). Putting to death one's flesh, they argue, hardly constitutes nourishing and cherishing it.
Rationale For Suicide
Those who argue that there are legitimate occasions when ending one's life may be an acceptable choice before both God and men, argue strongly from the position of situational ethics. They declare our journey through life to be far from the series of clear "black or white" choices seemingly advocated by the anti-suicide legalists. It is easy, for example, to declare suicide wrong in ALL situations; no exceptions. It is much harder to justify that position, argues the pro-suicide group, when faced with real life situations. For example, is the soldier who throws himself on the live grenade to save the lives of his beloved comrades committing a sin? Is he not rather evidencing the truth of Jesus' words, "'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13)? And what about 1 John 3:16? -- "We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." By definition, such an action is "suicidal" -- "The act of killing oneself intentionally; the willful termination of one's own life." Yet, we characterize such men and women as "heroes!" Are we wrong?! Yes, some deaths, self-inflicted, are acts of cowardice; none would deny that. Others, however, are without doubt acts of tremendous courage and love. Indeed, they evidence the heart of Christ Jesus. Life is not always "black or white" ... such thinking is fallacious and denies reality.
On September 11, 2001 we all watched with horror as men and women leaped to their deaths from the burning, crumbling Towers in New York City. Some undoubtedly fell accidentally as they climbed out windows seeking to flee the flames. Others, however, made a conscious choice: they could either suffer an agonizing death in the fire, from which they had no escape, or they could take the lesser of two evils: jump to their deaths. Were these suicides? Yes, they were. Were they "sinful" acts? I personally don't see how! Given the same two fatal choices, I would have jumped also. Situation ethics? Yes! We face such choices daily in every area of life. When several passengers brought down that jet airliner in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, rather than allow it to become a flying bomb which might kill hundreds or thousands, they made a choice to give their own lives to prevent others from perishing. Should they have sat there passively like cattle, or was their sacrifice an act of love and courage? I believe it was the latter. A soldier is captured during war and bites into a cyanide capsule rather than reveal under torture information that would cost the lives of thousands of his comrades. Was his sacrifice sinful? Good, honest men would argue passionately on both sides of the debate.
I believe it comes down to motivation of heart. Neither God nor men think highly of those who flee life's difficulties because they don't have the courage to face them head-on. Some choose to "opt out of life" simply because they are tired of the daily struggle; thus, they run away. It is the ultimate act of escapism. It evidences no faith or trust in one's God. Some noble souls, however, motivated by great love for others, placing their good above that of their own, sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice so that the lives of others might be preserved or enriched. When the Titanic sank, there was limited room in the life boats. Only so many could be saved. Many brave souls gave up a chance to get on one of those boats so that a spouse or child could survive. Is this suicide? Yes, by definition. Is this sinful? Never! "In the ongoing debate, scholars and ethicists reject the harsh condemnations of the Middle Ages" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 653).
I am convicted that many have chosen suicide with noble motivation; more others-centered than self-centered. The man who gives up his place on a life boat so a child might live, does so knowing he is forfeiting his own life so another might be saved. One who chooses to end his life rather than reveal to terrorists the hiding place of loved ones, is willingly laying down his own life to preserve the lives of others. We serve a God who is certainly no stranger to the idea of a personal sacrifice that is motivated by love for others.
Some see the broader principle of self-sacrifice contained, at least to some degree, in such passages as Mark 8:34-35, where Jesus speaks of self-denial, taking up a cross, and not fearing to lose one's life for the sake of the gospel .... John 13:37, where Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You" .... Romans 5:7, which speaks of some who would dare to die for a good man .... Romans 14:7-8, where Paul speaks of some willing to "die for the Lord," rather than simply living for oneself. Paul declared, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philp. 1:21). There are indeed times when there may be great gain, not only for oneself, but also for others, in death.
Having examined the biblical and extra-biblical evidence, as well as the arguments both for and against suicide, let me share my own personal conviction on the matter (and I hasten to repeat: this is only my own conviction; I have no intention of being dogmatic about it). I would never counsel a person to end their own life. I believe life is precious, that it is a gift from God, and should never be tossed back in His face merely because life becomes a difficult or painful struggle. As we used to say in the military, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" With a strong faith and trust in God, we face the daily foes that array themselves against us, whether those foes be physical, spiritual, or emotional. It is my view that life's trials and tribulations should never be allowed to gain the victory over us, especially to the point where we end our own lives. As long as we have breath in our lungs and the Lord in our hearts, there is reason to hope!
When our focus is entirely upon ourselves, it is easy to despair. Part of the solution is to keep the eyes of faith upon the Lord, and place the good of others above ourselves. In counseling with suicidal patients at the hospital, one of my primary goals as a chaplain is to help them perceive how their actions will impact others, and to help these patients appreciate the fact that they most likely have loved ones who regard them as being of great worth, and who would be devastated by their actions. When the focus begins to shift from themselves to those persons around them with whom they have influence, oftentimes the seeds for an acceptable resolution begin to germinate within their hearts and minds.
Having said that, I am also fully convicted that some who choose to end their lives do so because they have become so overwhelmed by either physical pain or emotional despair that they are literally outside the parameters of rational thought; they are "not themselves" in a very real sense. Under much calmer circumstances they might be horrified that such a thought of self-destruction would ever even enter their minds. Intense pain and despair can indeed create seasons of departure from sanity. If God is the type of God I believe Him to be, He will look beyond the madness of the moment into the real state of that person's heart.
Brother Edward Fudge was once asked the following question by one of the readers of his GracEmail, "I've heard it said that a genuine Christian would never commit suicide and that it is a sin which God does not forgive. Any thoughts?" Edward answered that question, in part, "Although I know of no biblical passage which says that suicide is a sin, it is undoubtedly a horrible tragedy and a source of horrendous grief to God. In the Bible, the unforgivable sin is not suicide. The Savior, who came seeking lost sinners whose place He would take on the cross, understands most fully the agonizing darkness which falls when God truly turns His face. And He is able to receive those who, mistakenly thinking themselves in such a darkness, reach out to the One they cannot see as they cast themselves into the abyss."
God can see deeper than the pain, and irrational acts prompted thereby, to the true person who lies beneath. Such depth of divine perception will triumph in judgment over our weaknesses and frailties. Thus, let us not judge too quickly or harshly those whose circumstances have led them to seek suicide. We don't fully perceive the intensity of their struggle, nor what lies within their hearts. God does, however, and I leave it in His merciful hands. His judgment will be fair.