Over the last few weeks, I have been finishing a series of essays, longer and shorter, that will constitute entries for a new dictionary of Christian history under construction. My initial forty essays were submitted last Tuesday, and I heard almost immediately from the editor about writing some additional entries by the end of the month. I have begun the process and one topic—suicide—I consider this week on my blog. Below is the entry I have written as it now stands. I still have a couple of weeks for revision, but my word limit is about 500 words. Obviously so much more could be said. As with my entry on MLK Jr from several weeks ago, this is a work in progress, and as I was editing this last night, I thought I would address this important topic on my blog for several reasons.
First, we live in a world filled with despair and one recognized alternative to ending the despair is terminating one’s life—suicide. It can take many forms, but the goal is always the same—the end of life and its suffering. Suicide is real and constantly being studied to determine how to curtail its practice. According to one recent report, suicide rates in the US were down by 3% from 2019 to 2020. While the suicide rate declined minimally, there were still nearly 46,000 suicides in the US in 2020. A second reason to consider suicide on my blog is the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide, now expanding around the world. In 2016, Canada, our home for 19 years, passed Bill C-14 permitting medical assistance in dying (MAID). Last March, Bill C-7 expanded MAID to permit “euthanasia for those whose psychological or physical suffering is deemed intolerable and untreatable.” This is frightening. Suicide is irreversible. Once chosen, there is no going back. Third, ministry individuals are choosing suicide as a way out of their troubles. Recent examples are tragic. Also here and here. I have known several men who committed suicide over issues of sin. One man, a leader among his peers, led a double life that was about to be exposed. The other, an area pastor with whom I had some relationship, chose suicide when his sin was about to be made public through his arrest. The suicide prevented that arrest, but in its wake, left havoc, devastation, immense sorrow for his family, and lots of questions. Fourth, even if ministry leaders don’t commit suicide, they often experience it close to home. I know one man whose wife committed suicide, another who had a son die at his own hand. And well-known CA pastor Rick Warren also lost a son to suicide. How could a Christian commit suicide? How could a pastor? Was he even a believer? What hope is there for me if pastors commit suicide?
Below is my entry (minus the hyperlinks) followed by some concluding remarks. I welcome feedback.
Suicide, death by one’s own hand or actions; self-killing. There are examples in the Bible depicting suicide, the most prominent of which is Judas who hung himself after betraying Jesus (Matt 27:5). Old Testament examples include Abimilech who instructed his armor bearer to kill him with a sword (Judg 9:52–54); Ahithophel who hung himself after the rejection of his counsel (2 Sam 17:23); Israelite king Zimri who burned his house down with him inside (1 Ki 17:18); Saul who fell on his sword followed by his armor bearer (1 Chr 10:5); and Samson who died when he brought the building down killing his enemies (Judg 16:30). Christians debate whether Samson’s death should be called suicide since it was a death in a conflict with Israel’s enemies and God blessed his action. It is significantly different from the story of Judas, who killed himself over his own treachery. Some have even suggested that Jesus’ death was a suicide since he willingly chose a path that led to his demise.
Many Christians view suicide as “self-murder.” If murder is the willful killing of another human, capital punishment and war excepted, then the willful killing of one’s own person would be self-murder and a violation of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV), “You shall not murder” (ESV). Nevertheless, debating the entailments of suicide raises problems for many believers.
From the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have grappled with suicide. A Donatist extremist group of the 4th century, the Circumcellions, had adherents who provoked Roman soldiers or others to kill them that they might become martyrs. However, Christians opposed self-murder from the beginning. Augustine (354–430) in City of God rejected suicide vigorously, even in cases where no other sin occured, such as a woman ravished who bore shame from the act but no guilt from sin. “It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’” (City of God, 1, 20). Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) followed Augustine on suicide (Summa Theologica II, II, Q. 64) and both suggested that Samson’s death, while technically a suicide, was justified by God since he enabled Samson to do what he did (City of God, 1, 21).
Roman Catholicism has been strong in its rejection of suicide as acceptable for a Christian, punishable by eternal damnation in most cases as a mortal sin, often leading to the denial of a Christian burial. In the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, suicide is “contrary to the moral law,” but provision is made for mitigation for those who commit suicide under extreme conditions. “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC, 2282). Since Vatican II, denial of Christian burial has been applied infrequently.
There are two additional difficult questions for believers to consider which ultimately relate to each other. Can a genuine believer commit suicide? (Also, here.) Or put another way, is suicide evidence that the one who commits it was lost? A second question raised, is suicide the “unpardonable sin”? Suicide is irreversible. Counseling should be sought and hope in God offered. The discussion on Christians and suicide is particularly relevant with the increasingly common practice of euthanasia, terminating the life of an individual with an incurable disease, or ending the life of someone who simply wishes to die. Euthanasia goes together with assisted suicide, helping someone terminate their life for whatever reason.
What can the church and believers do about suicide? Obviously, believers are called upon to minister to those left behind when a suicide occurs. Great care must be offered as the grief involved is deep and will be lasting. Beyond what is done after the fact, the subject of suicide needs to be a part of our preaching and pastoral care before is occurs. In pastoral care, someone may express a desire to commit suicide. These threats should not be taken lightly. Intervention may be a first priority. What is contributing to these feelings? How can we help the individual involved?
More broadly, we should address suicide from our pulpits, directly or indirectly. We need to write about it, talk about it, pray about it, and seek to mitigate it where ever possible. This is a good start. What are its causes and what are its cures? Why do believers consider it? How can we mitigate its potential practice among our congregation? People need to know there is hope in Christ. “My hope is in the Lord!”