A Theological Look At Suicide

August 13, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments


It’s never easy to lose a loved one.  Whether it’s an illness when someone is middle aged, a tragedy when someone is young, or even a so-called “natural” passing when someone is old, death brings tears and mourning.  People may sometimes quaintly call a funeral a “celebration,” but if it is, what a strange way to celebrate – with lowered heads and furrowed brows and muffled sobs.  Truth be told, death is sad.  And death is heartbreaking.

Death becomes especially heartbreaking when it is the result of suicide.  We will often speak of “preventable deaths” – those that could have been avoided if only he wouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel when he was drunk, or if only she would have gone to the doctor sooner after feeling a lump.  But suicide seems to be the ultimate example of a “preventable death.”  After all, the person who lost his life is the same person who took his life…voluntarily.  He held in his own hands the power to choose life or the power to choose death.  And he chose the unthinkable.

When suicide strikes, many questions inevitably arise.  People ask everything from, “How could he be so selfish?” to “Is killing oneself the unforgivable sin?”  Because of the many questions connected to suicide, I thought it would be worth it to take a look at suicide broadly from a theological perspective and seek to clear up some of the persistent misperceptions that surround this heartbreaking act.

In order to understand the Bible’s estimation suicide, we must begin a fundamental observation:  suicide is tragic.  Though this may seem self-evident to many, the reason this observation is necessary is because not everyone has believed this, nor does everyone now believe this.

The most famous suicide of the ancient world is that of Socrates.  After being convicted of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens by criticizing the city’s democratic government, the town’s officials sentenced Socrates to death by poisonous hemlock.  Plato, his close friend and pupil, recounts Socrates drinking the lethal cocktail:

[Socrates] took it, and very gently…without trembling or changing color or expression…Said Socrates, “But I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.” With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it.[1]

Notice how nobly, stoically, and even, as Plato says, “cheerfully,” Socrates drinks his poison, more in control of his life – and death – than those who handed down his capital sentence.  It is this stately picture of Socrates’ suicide that gave rise to the opinion of the ancients that it is perfectly acceptable to take one’s own life.  Seneca, a well-known Stoic philosopher, says of suicide, “The best thing which eternal law ever ordained was that it allowed to us one entrance in life, but many exits…This is one reason why we cannot complain of life; it keeps no one against his will….Live, if you so desire; if not, you may return to the place from whence you came.”[2]  More recently, suicide has made headlines because of those who support “Death with Dignity,” a movement which maintains that doctor assisted suicide, in cases of grave and terminal illness, is justified and, yes, even dignified.[3]  For some, suicide is moral and noble.  The Bible, however, paints a starkly different picture of suicide.  Suicide, according to the Bible, is unambiguously proscribed.  Consider the reasons why below.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in death.  Death is deeply evil.  Indeed, the apostle Paul calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26), ultimately to be defeated at Christ’s Second Coming.  Death is so evil because it is utterly incompatible with God’s original creative intent.  As we confess in the Nicene Creed, our God is “the Lord and giver of life.”  God is in the business of life, not death!  However, sin introduced what God never intended.  Therefore, we are to hate death rather than embracing it as suicide does.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in murder.  Most famously, murder is prohibited by the Fifth Commandment:  “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  But long before Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to Israel, murder was outlawed as a heinous ill.  Immediately following the great flood of Noah’s day, God commands, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6).  Notice the general nature of both of these prohibitions.  Moses’ prohibition against murder is a blanket one without so much as a direct object to specify who should not be murdered.  God’s prohibition to Noah does contain a direct object – “man” – but this direct object is a general one, referring to mankind.  The killing of humans by other humans, then, is clearly and consistently forbidden in the Scriptures.  Thus, even the killing of oneself breaks the command of God.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in abuse.  It is difficult to think of a more dire abuse of one’s body than the taking of one’s life.  Because God created our bodies, redeems our bodies through His Son Jesus Christ, and will raise our bodies on the Last Day, our bodies – and what we do with them – matter to God!  As Paul writes, “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).  Killing one’s body can hardly be considered an honorable way to treat one’s body.

It is important to note that honoring God with one’s body precludes not only suicide, but anything that damages the body.  There are many people who refuse to honor God with their bodies in countless ways and for countless reasons.  Some do not eat well.  Some do not exercise.  Some do not visit their physicians.  When these people sometimes die prematurely, they do so to everyone’s sorrow, but not necessarily to everyone’s shock.  After all, we know that abuse can eventually result in death.  So often, we confine our definition of “suicide” to a one-time act that ends in the loss of life.  But far too many people are willing to commit what I call “slow-motion suicide” by abusing their bodies over months, years, and decades.  This too is prohibited by Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 6.

Though the Bible flatly condemns suicide, even something as seemingly final as the taking of one’s life is not unsalvageable for the Christian.  People will sometimes refer to suicide as “the unforgivable sin.”  The thinking goes like this:  because a person who commits suicide cannot repent of his sin, he cannot be forgiven and will therefore be eternally damned.  This thinking, however, is flawed on two counts.  First, this thinking does not take into account the extenuating circumstances that often accompany suicide, for a person who takes his own life often does so during a moment of deep despair, depression, or even insanity.  This can hardly be considered to be a belligerent and unrepentant sin against God.  Rather, the person who takes his life in this kind of an instance may not even understand what he is doing.  Second, the thinking that calls suicide “unforgivable” assumes repentance is a cognitive act of sorrow that feels remorse over a specific sin and that this remorse is necessary to offset a sin’s damnable effect.  This, however, is not a true picture of biblical repentance.  For if a person had to feel cognitive remorse for every sin specifically, none could be saved, for we all commit sins that we either do not remember or do not even notice in the first place.  This is why the Psalmist pleads with God, “Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression” (Psalm 19:12-13).  Notice that the Psalmist makes a distinction between “hidden faults” and “willful sins.”  The “hidden faults” are those sins unknown to the Psalmist whereas the “willful sins” are those sins which the Psalmist has intentionally and knowingly committed.  The Psalmist believes that God will forgive both types of sins – both his known and unknown sins.

Martin Luther says of repentance, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Repent, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”[4]  Like the Psalmist, Luther believes that repentance is more than just specific remorse over a specific sin; rather, repentance is part and parcel of the posture of a Christian’s heart, for a repentant Christian continually believes that he is a person who continually sins and is thereby continually in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.  Thus, just because a person does not express remorse for committing suicide specifically does not mean that he is not living a life of repentance generally.

Some people may still ask, “But what about Judas?  Didn’t Judas commit suicide and didn’t he go to hell?”  Though it is true that Scripture implies Judas’ ultimate eternal damnation (cf. Acts 1:25), we must understand that Judas did not go to hell because he committed suicide, but because he refused to trust in Jesus to forgive his sin.  Matthew tells us, “When Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse” (Matthew 27:3).  The Greek word for “remorse” is metamelomai. Though there is some semantic overlap, this word is nevertheless distinct from the Greek word for “repentance,” which is metanoia.  Thus, even though Judas seems to experience some level of remorse over his terrible wickedness, he does not seem to repent of his sin and turn to Christ for forgiveness.  Tragically, Judas’ remorse leads only to despair which leads only to his eventual suicide.  The stain of human sin cannot be absolved by feeling bad about oneself through remorse.  It can only be absolved by turning to Jesus in repentance.

Finally, it is important that we support and encourage those who have lost loved ones to suicide and seek immediate help for those who may be considering suicide.  As Christians, we are called to remind everyone that, through faith in Christ, despair and death do not need to have the final say.  God’s plan of eternal, joyous life for us can ultimately prevail.  As the apostle Paul exclaims:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

Despair and death are no match for the victory and life that Jesus brings.  Of this we can be sure!  And in this we can take comfort.


[1] Plato, Phaedo 117b-117c.

[2] Seneca, Epistulae Morales 70.

[3] In 1994, Measure 16 established the state of Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act.”  This allows terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives by means of a doctor-assisted suicide.

[4] Martin Luther, “95 Thesis,” Thesis 1.

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Entry filed under: Theological Questions. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

“For Thine Is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory” – Where Did That Come From? Is Cremation Okay?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. revkev97  |  August 13, 2012 at 7:39 am

    Hi, Zach! I’ve had to deal with this issue a couple of times since becoming a pastor, sometimes as an attempt and recently in succeeding. This breaks the hearts of family and friends and belittles even the best of pastors – you can imagine what it did to me, one who doesn’t consider himself in that number.

    The funeral sermon was a major struggle. The problem everyone was having was a plethora of questions which could not be answered. Everywhere folks turned, there were more unanswered questions.

    In the funeral sermon, we went to the holy place there was real confidence, and that’s what Jesus says. We went to the promise of God in Holy Baptism and at the Lord’s table.

    My point in this rambling is that, as you so well point out, our only source of truth and hope and comfort in the deepest of uncomfortable situations can only come from God’s holy Word in Christ. There is no dignity in death if folks are honest, for it is the ripping of life from the body. People weren’t created to die. There is no perfect society, as the Hemlock Society and other pro-suicide organizations will tell us.

    As usual, this is a very good, timely post.

    God bless!
    Kevin

    Reply
  • 2. Robin Williams: 1951-2014 | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  August 18, 2014 at 5:59 am

    […] I should add that, when Jesus speaks of His forgiveness, He never singles out suicide as some sort of an unforgivable sin. Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them” (Mark 3:28). How many sins does the word “all” include? All of them. Even suicide. Thus, a person who takes his own life can be forgiven by Jesus and saved by Jesus just as well as any other sinner can.  If you want to know more about suicide from a theological perspective, you can check out a blog I wrote a couple of years ago here. […]

    Reply

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