My first confrontation with suicide was when I was the head assistant dean in the dormitory at Adventist institution Avondale University. The dean of men sat down beside me in morning worship and quietly asked, “Remember Johnny*?” I nodded. He had returned home part-way through the year.
“Well, last night he drove his car up into the hills and ended his life.”
I immediately wondered what difference we might have made if we had been aware of his depression. Could we have changed the course of his decision? Then came the soul-wrenching thought—What happens to him and his eternal destiny?
Almost 20 years later came another question. “David, what will I say to my brother? What can I say at the funeral? There is no hope beyond the grave for his son. He took his own life.” The question came from a grieving pastor. Then later, the same question from a grieving school staff member following the tragic action of a Year 8 student. Then the same question from a bereaved spouse.
Is suicide a sin?
What does the Bible teach? Where did the common Christian acceptance that suicide is a mortal sin come from? Is it really biblical?
Suicide is seen as a self-inflicted, intentional death1 . One of the best Christian books on suicide was written by Dr Lloyd and Gwendolyn Carr in response to their daughter-in-law’s suicide just after she turned 30. There’s a prevailing attitude in the Christian community that “real Christians” do not commit suicide. Even if you aren’t a Christian, you have no doubt been influenced by Christian thought on suicide, as the prevailing modern view on the subject has in large part been shaped by the church. The Fierce Goodbye: Hope in the Wake of Suicide gives a biblical and historical perspective to the apparent truism that is prevalent in the Christian community.
In the early Christian Church, after AD 100, there developed a theology of martyrdom that upheld that true discipleship was a martyr’s death. It was so strong that a Roman governor told the Christians “If they wanted to die, they should go and cast themselves over the cliff, rather than ‘keep troubling the magistrates to execute them’.” 2
This is the background to Augustine’s appeal (AD 415) to the command “Thou shalt not kill” as expressly forbidding suicide. This was an attempt by the Church to remove the martyr theology. Aquinas, in the 13th century, reinforced this with three key arguments from non-biblcal sources:
- It was a denial of the self-love for life inherent in every being (Josephus).
- It was the right of the state to deny suicide privileges (Aristotle).
- Since human life is God-given, only God can take it back (Josephus). 3
Thus, the Church ruled that suicide was a mortal sin, an unforgivable sin, and that a person committing suicide could not be buried within the normal church cemetery and would not be in heaven. This has permeated Christendom ever since.
The impact of suicide
Suicide is a growing concern. A 30 per cent increase in suicide rates in this millennium from 2000 to 2016 has seen it become the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.4 It is the second leading cause of death for American university– aged people with that of women doubling in the last decade.5 In Australia the statistics are similar with one sobering statistic standing out—suicide is the leading cause of death for 15–44 year olds.6 In New Zealand, suicide is likewise a leading cause of death among Māori and Pacifika peoples.7
Perhaps surprisingly, it appears that a growing awareness of the need for support during lockdowns has held suicide at normal rates, at least in Australia.8 The data released by the three most populated states, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, provide no evidence of any increase relative to previous years, up to September 2021.9
However, anecdotal and emerging statistics in America show a troubling increase, with at least 25 per cent of young people indicating they have contemplated suicide since the Covid pandemic, impacted by lockdowns and restrictions.10 A fascinating insight on the effect of isolation and lockdown is highlighted with the following: “According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking three-quarters of a pack of cigarettes a day . . . every day.”11
Carol Graham generalised from her analysis that poorer, more vulnerable countries and communities were more susceptible to emotional trauma and the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. She noted a comment by Karen Deep Singh: “Lockdowns resulted in millions more Indians entering poverty and exacerbated one of the highest suicide rates in the world”12. This article was in October 2020. In the current acute pandemic stress in India, it will be horrendous to finally review the statistics as they are collated.
What does the Bible say about suicide?
The Bible records six examples of suicides, all of which suggest that “death with honour” is preferable to either torture or public humiliation.13 It is treated in the various accounts as simply another death with no moral judgement. They give no sense that it is a sin. The six examples are:
- Abimelek (Judges 9)
- Samson (Judges 16)
- King Saul (and Saul’s armour bearer) (1 Samuel 31)
- Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17)
- Zimri (1 Kings 16)
- Judas (Matthew 27)
Where possible in these examples they were buried in the family tomb.
Come back to the example of Samson in Judges 16. He chose to take his life and take out many of his enemies with him. But Hebrews 11:32 records the name of Samson in the honour roll of the faith heroes. That is incredible comfort to those who are suicide survivors—having lost a loved one to suicide.
In many cases, people contemplating suicide are depressed, have a chemical imbalance and are not in their right minds. Rather than the Church having the power to determine one’s eternal destiny, the question that Abraham asked God in Genesis 18:25 in relation to the pending judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah is so pertinent: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Leave it to God.
As Carr concluded, while there are no valid biblical grounds for the church’s condemnation of suicide, we cannot encourage the act. Each human life is precious to God and despite the struggles associated with mental illness, “Christians can and do take their own lives, but even in this situation, God’s grace is sufficient.”13
To learn more about depression and suicide, visit Beyond Blue. For crisis support or suicide prevention, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (AU), 0800 543 354 (NZ), 1543 (Fiji), 3260011 (PNG) or Lifeline’s equivalent in your local country.
David McClintock is the education director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific region.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
1. Davidson in James T Clemons, ed. Perspectives on Suicide (Westminister, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1990), 11.
2. G Lloyd and Gwendolyn C Carr, The Fierce Goodbye: Hope in the Wake of Suicide (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1990), 96
3. Ibid, 77
11. Rebecca Doigin, The Impact of COVID–19 on Suicide Rates: https://www.psycom.net/covid-19-suicide-rates
12. Carol Graham, “The human costs of the pandemic is it time to prioritize well being”: (November 17, 2020) https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-human-costs-of-the-pandemic-is-it-time-to-prioritize-well-being/
13. Carr, 55
14. Ibid, 97