SUICIDE AND THE CHRISTIAN
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Shakespeare said, "Against self-slaughter there is a prohibition so divine that cravens my weak hand." He was expressing the attitude of the vast majority towards suicide. We did not find that prohibition in either the Old Testament or the New Testament. The whole Bible does oppose the taking of one's life even if there is no explicit prohibition. Life is sacred; God is its author; we are to present our bodies a living sacrifice; we are to do all that we do to the glory of God. No one can doubt that self-destruction is sinful, and opposed to the whole plan of God.
So obvious is this truth that it has been recognized to be evil by the majority of non-Christians. Pythagorus and Plato, the ancient Greek philosophers, condemned it "on the ground that we are all soldiers of God, stationed at appointed posts of duty, which it is rebellion against our maker to desert." Aristotle and Greek legislators condemned it as abandonment of duty to the state. The ancient poets, like Lucretius the Roman, condemned it as cowardice. Buddhism and Islam condemn it. Practically all pagans have recognized it to be a sin. The rare exception is the Stoics whose goal of life was to avoid trouble and pain. If all did not go right, they encouraged suicide as a solution. Zeno the founder hanged himself when he broke his finger, and the famous poet that Paul quotes in Acts 17:28, Cleanthes, starved himself to death because his gums were sore. Apart from these we have the whole weight of the moral conscience of heathenism again suicide.
That it is a sin we cannot doubt, and that it is a grave sin we cannot question, but what we want to do is to get some answers to some very important questions related to suicide. These may be only idle speculation for some, but there are Christians in our world who would feel them to be desperately relevant, and the day may come when American Christians will also feel this. Now is the time to ask the questions, and prepare ourselves for proper attitudes and understanding. The first question is this:
I. IS IT POSSIBLE FOR A CHRISTIAN TO TAKE HIS OWN LIFE?
If we come to this question with preconceived notions, we will, of course, already have an answer before we examine the evidence. There is only one preconceived idea we can have, however, and that is that it is sin, and a grave sin at least as bad as murder. This means that we are seeking to determine if a Christian can do the worse kinds of sin.
Jesus implied it was possible when He gave the Sermon on the Mount. He said that it was not only murder when you kill, but it was also murder when you are angry without a cause, and so full of hate that you call a brother a fool. This puts the believer in grave danger. This becomes meaningless if it is not possible for the believer to do such evil. The whole New Testament implies by its moral standard and prohibitions that it is possible for a believer to commit any of the sins forbidden by the ten commandments. There is no basis for saying that the sin of suicide is impossible for the believer. It is morally impossible, just as stealing, adultery, lying, and covetousness.
What does history tell us. The question was debated in the early church. One of the big questions was this: Could a Christian woman take her own life in times of persecution to escape the dishonor she would suffer by brute soldiers, who would rape her before she was killed? Eusebius, the church historian, Chrysostom, the golden mouth preacher, and Jerome, the Bible translator, all favored it as the lesser of two evils. Augustine condemned it, however, and later church councils did also. They passed a law refusing church burial to anyone who did so. The debate arose out of life's battles where women did take their lives to escape the awful fate awaiting them. Even Augustine allowed exceptions, since some were called martyrs and made saints. The modern Catholic Encyclopedia says this question is still open for debate.
What is not debatable is the fact that true Christians did take their own lives. In more modern times we find that after the Reformation the question arises again. There was no problem with suicide in the so-called dark ages. It became a universal problem only since the Enlightenment. In Tirospol, Russia in 1897, 28 persons buried themselves alive to escape the census which they felt was evil and against God's will. In 1666 Russian Zealots looked for the antichrist to come so soon that they urged Christians to escape him by suicide and entering into heaven. Whole communities hailed with enthusiasm this gospel of death, and they put it into practice. Such fanaticism characterized the Anabaptist also. They claimed they were setting up the kingdom of God, and they brought destruction on themselves when they tried to rebel and make society socialistic. Luther and his princes went to war and killed over 100,000 because of this fanaticism.
This was not suicide in the same sense as it was with the Russians, but it was close to it in terms of the folly of it all, and in terms of getting Christian people so fired up over fanatical ideas that they were willing to die for some man made scheme. The purpose of sharing this history is to show that God's children can, and have, been victims of false and fanatical leadership, and have even taken their own lives as a result. Martyrdom was so prized at one time that Christians fought to be killed. Some early Christians deliberately threw themselves to their death under the delusion that a violent death gained merit.
Leslie T. Lyall in his book Come Wind Come Weather gives an account of evangelical reactions to the Communist takeover in China. Christian leaders were disgraced and accused by other Christians of crimes and sins. He reports that people of evangelical persuasion were driven insane, and a number of them committed suicide. These he mentions were leaders and not just new Christians. They were people like T. H. Sun who was editor of the Christian Farmer. Some were pastors, and one was archdeacon James Fu who was accused by his own sons. How are we to look at this? First we must recognize the differences in cultures. To be accused by ones own family and friends, and have public demonstrations, and have it put in the paper was, for an oriental mind, a burden beyond us to comprehend. The saving face attitude is a part of the Christian life in the orient, and this type of thing could crush the heart of even the strongest. It will not do to say that maybe none of them were true Christians. That could very well be, but it begs the whole question, and ignores the testimony of their lives. Since there is no basis for believing that it is impossible for a Christian to take their own life, it is better to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The Bible makes it clear that the most godly of men can develop all the symptoms of loneliness and despair that lead to suicide. Moses who was tired and discouraged cried out to God in Num. 11, "The load is far to heavy! If you are going to treat me like this, please kill me right now; it will be a kindness. Let me out of this impossible situation." Moses spoke with the mind that fits the majority of people who commit suicide. Then there is Elijah who was emotionally and physically exhausted in his battle with Jezebel. He cries out to God in I Kings 19, "I've had enough. Take away my life. I've got to die sometime, and it might as well be now." Keep in mind, we are not looking at the words of new believers who could not take the pressure. These were pros, and the cream of the crop of God's best men. Job and Jeremiah both cursed the day of their birth they fell so low in depression.
What about the prophet Jonah who was so embarrassed because God in His mercy did not destroy Nineveh after He preached that He would. He cried out to God in despair in Jonah 4, "Please kill me Lord: I'd rather be dead than alive." Life was unbearable, and that is precisely where the suicide is when he takes his life. From the time you ate breakfast this morning until the time you eat breakfast tomorrow one thousand people will have killed themselves on this planet. And not a day goes by but that some of that thousand are born again Christians. Christian doctors, psychiatrists, and those working with suicide prevention centers as well as pastors know this to be true. I have counseled a number of Christians who were suicidal.
Billy Graham has acknowledged that Christians can so fall under the deceptive power of Satan that they can be enticed into suicide. Duane Peterson who headed the Jesus People Organization published many letters from Christians who attempted or succeeded in suicide. Leslie Weatherhead, the well known preacher and author in England writes, "When Captain Oates-a valued colleague of Captain Scott in his epic journey to the South Pole-found that frost-bite in his feet was holding up his companions, he walked out into the blizzard to lay down his own life and was rightly labeled, "A very gallant gentleman." No one would criticize a man who, after a shipwreck, leapt to certain death in a stormy sea because a raft containing women and children was already over filled." What he is pointing out is that there are circumstances in which the taking of one's life is an act of heroism.
You might think it is dangerous to make these facts known, and ask, won't this encourage Christians to take their own life? Not at all. The reason the Bible does not hide the deep negative emotions of the best of God's people is because God knows that the key to conquering Satan's temptation to suicide is the freedom to share your burden and be accepted. No Christian will ever be defeated by the devil or depression who can feel free to share their despair without fear of rejection. Christians need to know they can commit suicide and will if they refuse to use the weapons God has given to outwit the enemy. If I fell and sprained my back I would not hesitate to share with you about the pain, and get your encouragement and prayer. But if I fell into depression and life became a dark pit with no light penetrating into my gloom, I may try to hide that from you, and in so doing be playing right into Satan's hands. If I could treat my mental injuries as I do my physical injuries, and be honest and open about them, I would discover they were often easier to heal than the physical ones.
All of this is to say that we need not fear to talk of suicide and despair. Nothing is more necessary than to get the gloom out into the light of God's love and understanding. It is the only way you are going to beat it. Since most human beings consider suicide at some point or another, it is folly to feel you are some kind of freak or weirdo if the thought ever comes to you. Fear it and hide it, and it could ensnare you. Face it and fight it, and you will certainly win. Having thoughts of suicide is not a sign you are not a Christian. Don't let Satan deceive you. Many of the greatest people God ever used in history had these same thoughts. If you recognize this you will disarm Satan of one of his most powerful weapons against you.
Christians can and do commit the grave sin of suicide, but they would do it far less if they could only realize it is no different than temptation to any other sin. Christians are tempted to lie, cheat, steal, and every other sin, but because they know it is possible to fall into these sins they fight the temptation. But when it comes to suicide they feel so depressed over it that they tend to yield to Satan out of sheer despair, and feeling forsaken even by God for such a horrible desire. Don't let Satan get you into a guilt trip where he can persuade you that you are so unworthy that suicide is all you deserve. Since all the evidence indicates it is possible for the Christian to commit this sin, the next question is all the more important.
II. IS SUICIDE UNFORGIVEABLE?
If a Christian does take their own life for any number of reasons such as, to avoid what they think to be a greater evil, or out of devotion to a fanatical leader, or because pressure to the breaking point, do they commit a sin so evil as to forfeit their salvation? We know Judas was not forgiven, but the New Testament nowhere condemns his suicide, but only his betrayal of Jesus. Judas was not lost because of the way he took his life, but because of his betrayal. Nothing he could do after that could add to his condemnation.
Jesus made it clear that there is only one sin that is unforgivable both in this world and the next, and that was blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. If suicide was also unforgivable, Jesus would have said there are two such sins, but he said there is only one, and suicide is not it. So then the question is, is it possible to be forgiven after one is dead? Catholics have their purgatory, and so they say very definitely the answer is yes. Protestants have no such doctrine, and so they have to wonder how sin can be forgiven after death. If a Christian dies with some sin unconfessed, will he enter heaven with a sinful soul? This is, of course, not possible, and so the common view is that when a Christian dies he is made whole by the blood of Christ. If this be so, then we have no basis for saying the same is true of the suicide who is a Christian. This sin will be cleansed by grace just as all other sins.
In debate on this issue one of the first text to come to the surface is, "Thou shalt not kill." I do not know of anyone in all of history who does not agree that murder is forbidden by God, and that it is one of the gravest sins. Self-murder then is obviously also a grave sin. But this says nothing about it being unforgivable. David plotted to murder the innocent Uriah to cover up his adultery with his wife. It is one of the most despicable sins of history. Yet I know of no one in all of history that does not recognize that David was forgiven for that grave sin. What he did makes the suicide victim seem mild in comparison. The suicide may be laying down his life for the sake of others. David's sin was pure evil, and yet he was forgiven.
The Bible has been searched from cover to cover to find a shred of evidence that suicide is worse than murder, and after reading dozens of books by those who have done the searching, I know of no Bible verse that support the view that suicide is unforgivable. Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, said, "If there is forgiveness of sin at all, there is surely forgiveness of suicide." Bonhoffer and Thielicke are two other great theologians who agree. All you have to ask is the question, did Jesus die for this sin also, or is this one He left out when He took on Himself the sins of the world? Unless you would risk the wrath of God by adding this sin to the only one Jesus said was unforgivable, you have to leave it where Jesus left it, and that is with all the other forgivable sins.
Joseph Bayly, one of the outstanding evangelical authors, says that he finds nothing in the Bible that alters his conviction that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from the sin of suicide. John R. Rice, a great fundamentalist leader who has influenced millions, responded to a letter about a Christian girl who committed suicide. He wrote, "I am so sorry about your sister, but I'm sure you can have sweet confidence that she is with the Lord, and now happy." This is from a fighting fundamentalist who split hairs over all kinds of issues. Why? Because he knew the Bible gives no basis for thinking there is any difference in the destiny of a Christian who dies by the sin of suicide then the Christian who dies with the sin of lust, envy or pride in his soul.
Where then does the idea come from that so many Christians have in their head that anyone who commits suicide is automatically damned? It is a tradition that grew out of the middle ages, and has not yet died, but like many old wise tales and superstitions it clings to men's minds. The motive of the tradition was good. It was to so frighten people with the fear of hell that they would not dare kill themselves. It probably saved many lives through the centuries, and still does yet today. But there is a better way, and that is the way of truth. If the Bible does not teach it, then it is false doctrine, and it is wrong to use false doctrine even if you do good with it. It is better to use true doctrine and do more good in the will of God.
I have no desire to go and steal, or lie, or murder, because I know it is forgivable. Nor do I feel less repulse by suicide because it is forgivable. But I feel more secure knowing that if I should be deceived and fall into the snare of Satan, I am not cut out of the family of God. I have assurance in Christ, and this makes me stronger to face up to the causes of depression that could lead to suicide. I do not need to suppress it in fear, but I can openly face it in faith and conquer it. This is better than going through life scared stiff that I could kill myself and end in hell. To prevent suicide by fear does not lead to the abundant life, but to prevent it by faith does.
This brings us to our text at last. This is the only New Testament text I am aware of that is used to show the danger of suicide, and to support the view that if one does take his own life he is forever damned. On the surface it appears to be a sound argument, but closer examination reveals it to be another case of taking Scripture out of context to prove something that the passage is not even hinting at. The whole context makes it clear that Paul is not talking about their bodies as such, but about themselves as the church-the temple-the dwelling place of God. The problem is that they are a disgrace to the temple. All their divisions and strife and envy are terrible, and Paul rebukes them and warns them that if they destroy the temple of God, they will be destroyed by God. Self destruction is not the issue here, but the destruction of the body of Christ-the church. To read suicide into this passage is called eisegesis, or a reading in of what is not there. It is an abuse of the Bible to use this passage to deal with suicide.
It may seem to be a logical implication, however, since they body of a believer is the temple, and even if Paul does not refer to it, self destruction would be destroying the temple of God, and would be worthy of being destroyed by God. The only problem with this deduction is that it proves too much. It proves more than those who use it would want to admit. It proves that one can lose his salvation by doing anything that mars his body. This would lead to damnation for smoking, drinking, getting a tatoo, and many other self inflicted injuries. Nobody wants to take this to its logical conclusion, for it damns millions of believers.
The Greek word used here is worth studying. There are ten Greek words translated destroy in the KJV. The differences are very great. Some mean to kill; some to demolish; others to lay waste or to make of none effect, and still other to mar or corrupt. The word here is phtheiro which means to mar or corrupt. It does not even mean to mar or corrupt thoroughly, for there is another word for that which is diophtheiro. So the KJV translators had a right to give weaker meaning to the first use of it, and say defile, for envy and strife do not demolish the church but they do defile it, and bring evil into the holy place. The whole point is, if you try to draw teaching about suicide from this text, you end with a view that Christians are in danger of losing their salvation for anything that mars of defiles their body, or the church.
Even those theologians who strongly believe that it is possible for a believer to be lost do not take this passage as support, for they recognize with all biblical scholars that this, though a serious matter of judgment, cannot be applied to the loss of salvation. It does teach that the Christian who causes division in the church is in danger of judgment, but even such an unholy Christian as this will not be damned for his hindrance to Christ. If it could be made to mean this, it would be taken advantage of by those who warn of Christians losing their salvation. Therefore, to use this passage to prove that suicide is unforgivable is foolish, for it does not even prove that about the very sin that it is written about, which is church division. If anything can be inferred from this passage about suicide, it would be that there is more hope for the suicide than for the trouble maker in the church.
If suicide cannot be forgiven because the person doing so is dead, then neither can any other sin, and we are caught is the same dilemma that led the early church at one point to baptize people just before they died so they could die without sin. We need to face the fact that most every Christian will die with some sin in their life. If nothing else, there are the sins of omission. If one needs to be free of all sin to go to heaven, then all sins are unforgivable is not forgiven before you die. This is theology not found anywhere in God's Word. All sin can be forgiven after death, and must be, and this includes the sin of suicide. Paul says in Rom. 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that would include the sin of suicide, or his statement is not true.
If all we have said is true, what are the implications? It means that the Christian must be on guard and recognize they can be victims of Satanic forces; they can be misled by fanatics; they can be crushed by psychological warfare, and circumstances can lead them to lose all interest in life. These dangers are real, and they call for increased devotion and maturity in Christ. It calls for the practice of the Biblical exhortation to bear one another's burdens. It calls for a commitment that goes beyond all that life has to offer, so that we can say at the lowest ebb with Job, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him." Satan is still going about seeking who he may devour, and not one ought to know better than Peter that Satan is more than a paper lion. He has real teeth, and he who stands must beware lest he should fall.
Self-destruction is just one of the many grave sins that Christians can be ensnared with. If we had time we could examine many of the forces that compel people to self-destruction, and we could see that all of us are subject to these forces. Our defense against these, as well as all forces of evil, is constant commitment and growth in Christ. All sin is possible for the believer, but it is to be avoided, and we must include more subtle sins as well. John Howe said, "What a folly it is to dread the thought of throwing away life at once, and yet have no regard to throwing it away by parcels and piecemeal." All of life is sacred and needs to be used for the glory of God.