and the Grace of God
Dr. Jim Denison
More people die from suicide than from homicide in America. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15-24, and is most common among those aged 65 years and older. Suicide rates among the elderly are highest for those who are divorced or widowed. In the last half-century, the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults has nearly tripled.
These are some of the facts regarding the tragedy of suicide. However, you are likely reading this essay because this subject is more personal than objective for you. I hope the following conversation can help.
I am writing as a pastor and theologian, not a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I will offer a brief overview of our subject from a biblical and theological perspective, with some practical suggestions at the conclusion of our conversation. But if suicide is a very real issue for you, I urge you to seek professional help immediately. Our pastoral care staff can support you in finding the assistance you need, today.
Much confusion abounds in our society regarding the theological and spiritual dimensions of suicide. Is this the “unpardonable sin”? Can those who take their lives still be in heaven? Why does God permit such a tragedy? How can faith sustain us in this hardest of all times?
The history of suicide
The term “suicide” is traced in the Oxford English Dictionary to 1651; its first occurrence is apparently in Sir Thomas Browne’s Religion Medici, written in 1635 and published in 1642. Before it became a common term, expressions such as “self-murder” and “self-killing” were used to describe the act of taking one’s own life.
In Greek and Roman antiquity, suicide was accepted and even seen by some as an honorable means of death and the attainment of immediate salvation. Stoics and others influenced by them saw suicide as the triumph of an individual over fate. Socrates’ decision to take his own life rather than violate the state’s sentence of execution influenced many to see the act as noble. However, he also made clear that we belong to the gods and cannot end our lives unless they wish it so (Plato, Phaedo 62bc).
Many of the early Christians knew they would likely die for their faith, but chose to follow Christ at any cost. These deaths are not usually considered “suicide,” since they were not initiated by the person but accepted as a consequence of his or her commitment to Jesus.
Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was the strongest opponent of any form of self-murder (cf. City of God 1:4-26). He appealed to the Sixth Commandment and its prohibition against murder. And he agreed with Socrates that our lives belong to God, so that we have no right to end them ourselves. Over time, many in the Church would see self-murder as an unpardonable sin (see the discussion of the Catholic Church’s position below).
In the nineteenth century, social scientists began to view suicide as a social issue, and as a symptom of larger dysfunction in the community and/or home. Medical doctors began to identify depression and other disorders behind the act. Suicide became decriminalized, so that the individual could be buried, his family not disinherited, and a survivor not prosecuted.
Many are confused about this difficult subject, as our society and its churches have adopted such a wide variety of positions on it. So let’s discuss biblical teachings on the issue, the Catholic position, a Baptist response, and practical help for those dealing with this tragic issue.
The Bible and suicide
God’s word does not use the word “suicide,” but it has much to say on our subject.
The Old Testament records five clear suicides:
When Abimelech was mortally wounded by a woman who dropped a millstone on his head, he cried to his armor-bearer to kill him so his death would not be credited to the woman (Judges 9:54).
The mortally wounded King Saul fell upon his own sword lest the Philistines abuse him further (1 Samuel 31:4).
Saul’s armor-bearer then took his own life as well (1 Samuel 31:5).
Ahithophel hanged himself after his advice was no longer followed by King David’s son Absalom (2 Samuel 17:23).
Zimri set himself afire after his rebellion failed (1 Kings 16:18).
Additionally, some consider Jonah to have attempted suicide (Jonah 1:11-15). And Samson destroyed the Philistine temple, killing himself and all those with him (Judges 16:29-30). But many do not see this as a suicide as much an act of military bravery.
The death of Judas is the only clear example of suicide in the New Testament (Matthew 27:3-10). Paul later prevented the suicide of the Philippian jailer and won him to Christ (Acts 16:27-28).
Some consider Jesus’ death to have been a kind of suicide, since he made clear: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18; all references are from the New International Version). However, as the divine Son of God, he could only have been killed, by any means, with his permission.
God’s word makes clear the sanctity of life:
“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
“No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29).
There are times when believers may have to give their lives in the service of Christ and his Kingdom (cf. Mark 8:34-36; John 13:37; Philippians 1:21-22). But voluntary martyrdom is not usually considered “suicide.”