Christians have a range of opinions on suicide
10 MINUTE READ
Some questions for us to consider
- What is your perspective of suicide?
- Is suicide sin?
- What do you think of Christians who come to the point of being suicidal?
- Does the Bible say anything about suicide?
Suicides in the Bible
- King Abimelech (Judges 9:50-54): “Abimelech next attacked the city of Thebez, and captured it. However, there was a fort inside the city and the entire population fled into it, barricaded the gates, and climbed to the top of the roof to watch. But as Abimelech was preparing to burn it, a woman on the roof threw down a millstone. It landed on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull. ‘Kill me!’ he groaned to his youthful armour-bearer. ‘Never let it be said that a woman killed Abimelech!’. So, the young man pierced him with his sword, and he died.”
- Samson (Judges 16: 29-30): “Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left. And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’ And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So, the dead who he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life.”
- King Saul (1 Samuel 31: 4-5): “Then the archers overtook Saul and wounded him badly. He groaned to his armourbearer, ‘Kill me with your sword before these heathen Philistines capture me and torture me’. But his armour-bearer was afraid to, so Saul took his own sword and fell upon the point of the blade, and it pierced him through.”
- King Saul’s armour-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5) “When his armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him.”
- Ahitophel (2 Samuel 17:23): “Meanwhile, Ahitophel – publicly disgraced when Absalom refused his advice – saddled his donkey, went to his hometown, set his affairs in order, and hanged himself; so he died and was buried beside his father.”
- King Zimri (I Kings 16:18): “When Zimri saw that the city had been taken, he went into his palace and burned it over him and died in the flames.”
- Judas (Matthew 27:4,5): “’I have sinned,’ he declared, ‘for I have betrayed an innocent man.’ ‘That is your problem,’ they retorted. Then Judas threw the money onto the floor of the temple and went out and hanged himself.”
Contemplated Suicides in the Bible
- Rebekah (Genesis 27:46): “Then Rebekah said to Isaac, ‘I am sick and tired of these local girls. I’d rather die than see Jacob marry one of them.’”
- Rachel (Genesis 30:1): “Rachel, realising that she was barren, became envious of her sister. ‘Give me children or I’ll die,’ she exclaimed to Jacob.”
- Moses (Numbers 11:14,15): “’I can’t carry this nation by myself! The load is too heavy! If you are going to treat me like this, please kill me right now, it will be kindness! Let me out of this impossible situation.’”
- Elijah (1 Kings 19:4): “Then he went on alone into the wilderness,travelling all day, and sat down under a broom bush and prayed that he might die. ‘I’ve had enough,’ he told the Lord. ‘Take away my life. I’ve got to die sometime and it might as well be now.’”
- Job (Job 3:11-16): “’Why didn’t I die at birth? Why did the midwife let me live? Why did she nurse me at her breasts? For if only I had died at birth, then I would be quiet now, asleep and at rest…Oh, to have been stillborn! – to have never breathed or seen the light’”.
- Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:18): “’Why was I ever born? For my life has been trouble and sorrow and shame.’”
- Jonah (Jonah 4:8): “Then when the sun was hot God ordered a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah, and the sun beat down upon his head until he grew faint and wished to die. For he said, ‘Death is better than this.’”
- Philippian jailor (Acts 16:27,28): “The jailor wakened to see the prison doors wide open, and assuming the prisoners had escaped, he drew his sword to kill himself. But Paul yelled to him, ‘Don’t do it! We are all here!’”
- Paul (2 Corinthians 1:8): “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”
Russell Blacker writes in a booklet on Euthanasia1 for the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF UK) that one of the difficulties facing Christians who wish to arrive at an ethical understanding of suicide is that the Bible has little to say about it (directly or indirectly), probably because it was an extremely rare event in ancient Jewish society. This lack of clear scriptural guidance was a problem for the early church fathers who were obliged to draw upon a mixture of pagan and rabbinic tradition in formulating their view. When looked at more closely we see that the church’s attitude in this, as in so many areas, is shaped by that of society around it. Moreover, society’s attitudes towards suicide have changed dramatically and are still evolving. Thus, there is a lack of a firm standpoint on this issue. Perhaps this is why Christians themselves have a range of opinions on suicide and moreover, why so many Christians object to it from an emotional perspective, finding it difficult to articulate their view point or justify their objection from biblical argument.
As mentioned, Christians hold a spectrum of views and beliefs about suicide. It is therefore important for us to understand our personal view, as our theology affects how we view suicidal people and our response as Christians. In research done among pastors, it was found pastors struggle with the paradox of telling individuals that suicide is sin – as a deterrent – and talking about God’s mercy to loved ones who have lost someone to suicide – as a comfort.2 J.T. Clemons states, “It is precisely this complexity, and the resulting confusion, uncertainty, and discouragement, along with a lack of understanding of what the Bible says and does not say, that have kept most religious communities from addressing suicide with the urgency and careful attention it deserves in the midst of today’s crisis.”3
Karen Mason explores various views, including that suicide is not a sin, that suicide is sin, that suicide is a forgivable sin and that suicide is an unforgivable sin.4 I personally found this very helpful in understanding the theology of suicide and I am therefore quoting a modified version of what I understand from her writing.
VIEWS THAT SUICIDE IS NOT A SIN
- Some Christians hold that suicide is not a sin, citing diminished responsibility. The belief here is that suicide is not a sin because a person who kills themself is a victim of insanity or demonic possession and therefore unable to make a rational decision. Luther said, “I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.” In other words, the person who attempts or dies by suicide has diminished responsibility and is therefore not guilty of sin. Within this position, the theological question of eternal security is immaterial because suicide is not viewed as a sin.
- Some Christians hold that suicide is not a sin, citing the Bible’s silence. The Bible mentions suicide seven times, but none of these narratives condemn it. In addition, not all Christians view the sixth commandment as prohibiting suicide.
- Some Christians hold that suicide is not a sin, citing the early Church’s silence. Historically, the Church did not offer any opposition to suicide before the third century. Many Christians were martyred in the early Church. What one person viewed as martyrdom may be viewed by someone else as a suicide. The early Church fathers grouped all voluntary deaths together and did not condemn suicide.
VIEWS THAT SUICIDE IS A SIN
- Some Christians hold that suicide is a sin, stating that the Bible’s silence does not imply approval. Bonhoeffer argues that the silence of the Bible on suicide is not a basis for condoning suicide. And the Bible does not always comment on the sinfulness of acts.
- Some Christians hold that suicide is a sin, citing the sixth commandment. The sixth commandmentstates, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Augustine’s position in the fourth century was: “The law, rightly interpreted, prohibits suicide, for those who die by their own hand have no better life after death” and “it is wicked to kill oneself”. He argues, “Since the sixth commandment does not have the qualification ‘your neighbour’, as do the ninth and tenth commandments, the commandment applies both to other people and to oneself.” In addition to the sixth commandment, Augustine had other arguments against suicide: Christ never recommended it, Christians should live lives of faith and trust in God even in midst of suffering, and death cuts off the possibility of repentance. According to Augustine, the only time a person may take their own life is if God commands it. He distinguished between suicide and martyrdom. Chesterton has an interesting take on this and states, “A suicide is the opposite of a martyr.”
- Some Christians hold that suicide is a sin, citing the sanctity of life. These Christians emphasise that life is sacred and inviolable. Calvin believed that suicide was sin and wrote, “Let us wait for the highest commander, who sent us into the world, to call us out of it.” The most systemic argument against suicide in medieval Christianity came from Thomas Aquinas who, in his Summa Theologica, presented three main objections:
- it is a violation of natural law according to which everything naturally keeps itself in being and prescribes self-love;
- it is a violation of moral law, being an injury to the person’s community; and
- it is a violation of divine law because of the sixth commandment. Aquinas thus reiterated Augustine’s view that the one who deliberately takes away the life given to him by their Creator shows the utmost disregard for the will and authority of God; in addition, they do so in a way that prevents the possibility of repentance, and thus jeopardise their salvation. Furthermore, suicide is worse than murder for in killing one’s fellow man, one is killing only the body, whereas in suicide, one is killing both the body and soul.
VIEWS THAT SUICIDE IS A FORGIVABLE SIN
- Suicide is like any sin. Some Christians believe that suicide is forgivable because the sin of suicide is no different from any other. Biblically, the only unpardonable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31), or the sin unto death (1 John 5:16). This view emphasises that all Christians are miserable sinners, equally in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Our focus is on Christ’s righteousness, grace, intercessional ministry and our Heavenly Father’s love and forgiveness. In Romans 8:32, we read that neither life nor death can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
- All of us will die of unrepented sin. Through sudden death, many Christians have died with unrepented sins. While God clearly condemns sin, He is also merciful and He deals with sin not as we deserve. He is a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34) and can be trusted to be a fair judge.  
- Issue of eternal security. A classical Calvinist would argue that a Christian who dies by suicide remains secure in salvation. Mental illness can damage the soul, but it cannot destroy the soul, as God is the ultimate guardian of our souls. It is thought to be similar to a cancer which can lead to physical death, but God will give us a new body at the resurrection (Romans 8:29,30).
VIEWS THAT SUICIDE IS AN UNFORGIVABLE SIN
- Damnation to hell follows the unconfessed sin of self-murder. Hebrews 6:4-6.
- Suicide is the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Represents a complete loss of faith in God.
- Possible Wesleyan Arminian approach. A Christian who commits suicide commits either a sin that remains unconfessed or the sin of apostasy, either of which might result in damnation.
Here are a few quotes from Christians about suicide that I came across from various sources (books and online):
- “Suicide is a tragedy and a loss, and never to be encouraged or seen by Christians as a positive good.” (Warren Kinghorn).
- “Some suicidal people in crisis say fear of hell, has kept them from killing themselves.” (S.R. Blauner).
- “Telling people that suicide condemns them to hell may not keep them from the act, because the hell they are experiencing may be worse than any eternal hell they fear.” (Karen Mason).
- “Many Christians, if they were really honest, would talk of times of depression and desperation with thoughts of death and dying.” (Kuruvilla George).
- “The bottom line is that the Bible says nothing about God’s response to suicide, so all our theologies are conjecture.” (Rachel A. Keefe).
- “Even Christians can, and do, take their own lives.” (Lloyd and Gwen Carr).
- “Central to all ethical deliberation is the question, ‘Can we be open to a more humane, compassionate response without giving the impression that suicide is acceptable for anyone under any circumstance?’” (James T Clemons).
- “As Christians, we should worry less about whether Christians who have killed themselves go to heaven, and worry more about how we can help people like that find hope in living.” (Lewis Smedes).
- “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38,39).
William Cowper, a well-known poet and hymnologist, suffered severe bouts of depression with reported suicidal thoughts and attempts. Edward J Carnell contemplated suicide and died from a drug overdose. Francis Schaeffer, theologian, pastor and founder of the L’Abri Fellowship had suicidal thoughts.
Many Christians, if they are honest, talk of times of extreme depression and desperation with thoughts of death. I do hope that this short article will be some assistance for us as Christians, so that we can walk alongside those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, and with suicide survivors.
Professor Kuruvilla George
Professor Kuruvilla George (KG) retired in 2020 as Clinical Director of Aged Person’s Mental Health and ElectroConvulsive Therapy (ECT) for Eastern Health, Victoria. KG was also a Clinical Professor at Deakin University and Clinical Associate Professor at Monash University. He served as the deputy chief psychiatrist for the state of Victoria from 2002 to 2012. KG currently serves as the honorary associate director of the Centre for Theology and Psychology at the Melbourne School of Theology.
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- Blacker R. Chapter 3, Suicide Down the Ages – A Judeo-Christian Perspective. Euthanasia Booklet, CMF publications.
- Mason K et al. Clergy Referral of Suicidal Individuals: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Pastoral Care and Counselling. 2011; 6(3).
- Clemons JT. What does the Bible Say About Suicide? Fortress Press; 1990.
- Mason K. Preventing Suicide – A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counsellors. IVP; 2014.