If you are feeling suicidal, please consider calling or emailing The Samaritans…
I have been suicidal many times. I have seriously attempted suicide several times. My bipolar disorder (which, in me is characterised by deep depression) has led me close to the brink of death by my own hand. I have to say that when I am actively, acutely suicidal (I am not at the moment) I generally think that suicide is the only option available to me, I can see no future, no hope, and the thought of Christ is not helpful to me. My mind is too disordered to see – or feel – the hope of God, and my only thought is to make the pain stop, somehow, even if that means stopping me too. I, certainly when ill, take the view that suicide is wrong, that I will be punished in the hereafter for it, but I don’t really follow that view any more. I would like to explore that here.
Suicide & the Bible
There are seven suicides recorded in the Bible, of which three are “big names”. These are Samson (Judges 16:30), when he killed the Philistines in the temple of Dagon and killed himself with them; Saul (1 Samuel 31:4) when he was about to be overwhelmed by the Philistines in battle; and of course, Judas (Matthew 27:3; Acts 1:18-19) who hanged himself after his betrayal of Jesus.
The curious thing about the suicides in the Bible is that the Bible makes no comment, either positive or negative, about the manner of the deaths. Suicide is not mentioned directly in either the Old or New Testaments. This is curious in itself as suicide was no stranger to Roman society, in Massalia those who wished to die applied to the Senate and were provided with the materials! The only people who were not permitted to kill themselves were those accused of a capital crime, soldiers and slaves, and this was for economic reasons rather than moral. Given that it was so normal, it is a bit peculiar that the Bible doesn’t really talk about it.
Christians have traditionally seen suicide as a violation of the commandment: “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13) Indeed, “suicide” means “self-killing” or “self-murder” and the earliest synonyms of suicide were words such as “self-destroyer” and “self-slayer”. Murder, of course, is “to kill a person unlawfully” (Oxford English Dictionary) and, it is argued, suicide is always unlawful. The reason for this is the idea that to kill is wrong because it is God who should decide when a person dies:
“See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.”
Of course this leaves the idea of warfare in a problematic place, although the idea of a just war and God decreeing war would come into play there.
There are a number of people recorded as having suicidal feelings in the Bible, such as Jonah (Jonah 4:8) and Elijah:
while he [Elijah] himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
(1 Kings 19:4)
Elijah had just won a major victory against the priests of Baal, and was at the height of his ministry.
The Bible also records the feelings of Job:
“Oh, that I might have my request, that God would grant what I hope for, that God would be willing to crush me, to let loose his hand and cut off my life!”
There is also the prevention of the suicide of a jailer in Acts 16. The Bible does not condemn those who have suicidal feelings – for example Elijah was fed and rested, and then God appeared before him in the famous “still small voice”.
The Bible as a whole, however, doesn’t say anything particular about suicide, although there are a few verses which can be used to see whether suicide is a sin/going to send a person to hell.
Historical Christian Views
It took some time before Christian thought developed to be anti-suicide. In the early church a group called the Donatists were eager for martyrdom, something which, to them, guaranteed a place in heaven. They were so eager that they taught that suicide was a path to heaven. The Catholic Encyclopaedia entry states that:
They frequently sought death, counting suicide as martyrdom. They were especially fond of flinging themselves from precipices; more rarely they sprang into the water or fire.
As a result of their excesses, there was backlash from other quarters of the church. Augustine in his book City of God wrote that the Bible states that we must not kill ourselves as the commandment “thou shalt not kill” does not include the qualifier “thy neighbour” so therefore it refers to ourselves as well. He did include a caveat though, when discussing the case of Samson, stating “he who knows it is unlawful to kill himself may nevertheless do so if he is ordered by God” (City of God, Book 1, Sections 18-26)
The great theologian Thomas Aquinas declared suicide to be a grave sin, based on three points. He argued that it is contrary to nature, because every animal wants to live and will resist dying; that it is contrary to our social obligations, as it affects and injures our families and friends; and that it is contrary to our religious rights, as only God can and should decide when a person ought to die. This forms the basis of Catholic teaching on suicide.
The final decision on suicide came in 1562 when the church declared that suicides must not be allowed Christian burial, and in 1693 an attempt at suicide became punishable as an ecclesiastical offence, often entailing excommunication.
In Protestant circles, too, suicide was condemned. The Westminster Shorter Catechism states:
Q. 67. Which is the sixth commandment?
A. The sixth commandment is, Thou shalt not kill.
Q. 68. What is required in the sixth commandment?
A. The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “even if a person’s earthly life has become a torment for him, he must commit it intact to God’s hand, from which it came.” (Ethics, Macmillan 1955 pp124-5)
Things have changed somewhat. You will not find a Christian who will say suicide is fine, because it goes against our society, because it brings immense pain to those left behind and mostly, because the majority of suicides or those who attempt it are mentally unwell. I’m aware that there are those who wish to or indeed do die because they are terminally ill and wish to be spared suffering, and that is another issue, but most people who attempt suicide are suffering from some sort of mental illness. I know that I, sitting here well, have no idea in my mind of wanting to do that and I know that the treatment for my mental disorder has helped with that. As something which comes to mind only in extremis it is certainly not something which I would say God wants for me.
The Catholic church has now changed its view slightly. It still considers suicide a grave sin, but acknowledges that the mind can be disturbed at the point of killing oneself, and as such prays for the souls of the deceased and for their families. This came in 1997, according to the notes I have here.
Many Protestant churches will say that suicide is a sin but that a Christian who commits suicide will still enter heaven. John Piper writes that Christians still sin, because we are not yet perfect, and that just because we have committed a sin, even a grievous one, that does not mean we are going to hell. He writes:
But this does not mean that the saving relationship with Christ goes in and out of existence with each of our sins. When a believer yields to temptation, his faith in Christ is weak and the enticements of sin and the power of Satan get the upper hand. But there is a great difference between Satan getting a temporary upper hand and Satan being the Lord of life. There is a great difference between yielding with resistance to an evil that I hate to do, and doing that evil as part of the usual pattern of my life.
So what do I think about suicide? I would say it is a wrong thing to do. God doesn’t want me to kill myself, he doesn’t want me to be in the sort of situation where that even comes to mind. In the sense of “doing what God does not want” then yes, it is a sin. In the sense of “an active crime against God” then no. Most of us who have felt suicidal have not really had a choice, it is something that takes over when the mind is paralysed with pain, when we can see no escape, when pious platitudes about laying it on Jesus and talking with God don’t actually help us. When sin seems overwhelming and God seems very far away, that is when I feel suicidal. I know I should not do it – but it is very hard sometimes, and sometimes it is as though I am hanging onto a ledge with my fingernails trying not to fall off.
I do think that Christians who kill themselves will go to God, and he will accept them. I like what John Piper said above and in the rest of his sermon. We are not perfect, and sometimes an awful temptation might strike us, and we do what we ought not to. God forgives, even when that last sin is one we cannot confess.
If you are feeling suicidal please do not take this post as a “you can do this”. I would hate to think anyone read this and it was the decider for them. If you are struggling, there is some information here with numbers to call and so on, or contact The Samaritans.