by Al Maxey

Issue #153 ------- October 18, 2004
God does not send us despair in order to kill us;
He sends it in order to awaken us to new life.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)

Suicide Among Saints
Is Killing Oneself A Sin?

One of the true joys that has come my way as a by-product of these Reflections is the open door for ministry to a great many people. People's lives are being touched as they boldly step forth from their comfort zones and religious ruts and truly begin to reflect upon their beliefs and practices in light of God's inspired revelation. It has also opened a door for more personal ministry to those who have some very specific questions pertaining to special challenges in their lives. Whenever I get such a plea from a brother or sister in Christ, I always try to reach out to them with the love of Christ and with as much biblical guidance as I'm able to perceive and provide. It is my conviction that the solutions to life's challenges can always be found, at least in principle, within God's Word. Sometimes we all just need a little help perceiving those eternal truths, and a little encouragement in applying them to our lives.

Suicide -- very few of us have not been personally touched in some way by this great personal struggle some have over whether to continue living their lives or to terminate them. Suicide is defined as "the taking of one's own life, or causing it to be taken by another, regardless of motive, circumstances, or method used" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 652). The idea of willful intent has been added to the equation in the brief definition of Webster's Dictionary: "The act of killing oneself intentionally." Although the Bible, as well as certain extra-biblical literature, has much to say about the matter, "no single word for suicide occurs in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek." The concept is known, but no specific term portrays this reality.

Last month I received the following email from one of the readers of these Reflections --- "Brother Al, I have a question for you. If a person commits suicide after finding out that they have a very serious health problem, and because they don't want to be a burden on their family, will Christ condemn them to hell? I have a very good friend whose father committed suicide. He was such a good person to everyone. The family is really having a hard time because of their Christian beliefs about a person taking their own life. He was also a faithful Christian. What are your views on this matter? You are just wonderful at explaining the Scriptures in your Reflections. Keep up the good work!"

Examining the Biblical Evidence

As always, any investigation into a difficult moral or ethical or spiritual dilemma should begin with an appeal to the Word of God. "What saith the Lord?" should always be our first question. It is true that God may not specifically or directly address each of our concerns, but one will rarely, if ever, fail to find some guidance via principles, examples and illustrations. One may well be forced to employ a measure of good old-fashioned common sense, but we ought to be doing that more than we do anyway! The wisdom to govern our lives is available if we will prayerfully seek it. Although the Bible does not employ the word "suicide," nevertheless we see several dramatic examples of those who took their lives, or who pondered doing so. Following is a fairly exhaustive list:

  1. Abimelech --- Judges 9:50-57. Although Saul was the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel, Abimelech, of the tribe of Gideon, was the first Israelite to bear the title "king," although he was most likely not recognized as such beyond the boundaries of Ephraim. He was an extremely wicked despot, known as The Bramble King, who murdered 70 of his father's household to help secure his power. While attacking the city of Thebez, a woman in a tower dropped a millstone on Abimelech's head, crushing his skull. He called out to his armor bearer, "Draw your sword and kill me, lest it be said of me, 'A woman slew him.'" The armor bearer complied with this request and "pierced him through, and he died." Some would argue that this was not a suicide, because Abimelech himself did not commit the fatal act. However, by definition, it does apply --- "suicide = the taking of one's own life, or causing it to be taken by another."

  2. Samson --- Judges 16:29-30. The story of Samson, and his death, is well-known ... even to our children. He was captured by the Philistines, following his betrayal by Delilah, his eyes were gouged out, and he was led in chains to a prison in Gaza. When brought into the temple of their god Dagon one day, to amuse the crowd of about 3000 men and women, he grasped the pillars of the temple, cried out unto God, "Let me die with the Philistines," and brought the place down on top of everyone. "So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life."

  3. King Saul and his Armor Bearer --- 1 Sam. 31:4-5; 1 Chron. 10:4-5. Saul had been mortally wounded by an archer during a battle with the Philistines. During this battle several of his sons had been slain, including Jonathan. Saul asked his armor bearer to draw his sword and kill him (much like the request of Abimelech), "lest these uncircumcised come and pierce me through and make sport of me." The armor bearer, however, was afraid, and was unwilling to kill the king. "So Saul took his sword and fell on it. And when his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died with him." "Scholars generally consider a different account of Saul's death -- 2 Sam. 1:1-10 -- as a story invented by an ambitious young man who thought he would thereby please David" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 652).

  4. Ahithophel --- 2 Sam. 17:23. "One of David's most influential advisors (1 Chron. 27:33), Ahithophel was an astute, crafty politician who later encouraged Absalom to rebel against David. When Absalom turned down the key part of the plan that Ahithophel had prepared, Ahithophel shrewdly knew that the revolt was doomed and hung himself -- the only suicide in the Old Testament that was not motivated by war" (William Barker, Everyone In The Bible, p. 27).

  5. Zimri --- 1 Kings 16:18. He reigned as king over Israel for only 7 days, after killing the previous king, Elah, who was in the palace drinking himself drunk. Zimri had previously been the commander of half of king Elah's chariot forces. Omri, however, led the people against this usurper, and "when Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the king's house and burned down the royal palace over himself, and died."

  6. Judas Iscariot --- Matt. 27:5; Acts 1:18. Although the passage in Acts does not specify that the death of Judas was by means of suicide, nevertheless the reading of the account in Matthew leaves little doubt -- "And he threw the pieces of silver into the sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself."

With regard to the above, "None of these accounts explicitly condemns suicide as a sin or a crime, or has a clear statement that suicide per se was a punishment for past sins. Indeed, in some instances the suicides were honored by their survivors. But in other instances they were clearly outside the divine will and purpose" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 652). Thus, we find only seven (there are two listed under #3) actual suicides in the pages of the Scriptures. The context really does not offer a lot of commentary as to the rightness or wrongness of these actions, although, certainly, we can all draw our own conclusions.

We should also note at this juncture that there is temptation to commit suicide, as well as attempted suicide, found in the New Testament writings. Satan, following our Lord's forty days and nights in the wilderness, took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down" (Matt. 4:5-6; Luke 4:9). The Devil would have liked nothing better than to have Jesus jump off the temple prior to the beginning of His public ministry! Jesus didn't fall for it, however! We also find a near suicide in the city of Philippi during Paul's second missionary journey (51-54 AD). Paul and Silas had been imprisoned, but a powerful earthquake shook the foundations of the prison and caused the doors to be opened and the chains to fall from the prisoners. "And when the jailer had been roused out of sleep and had seen the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped" (Acts 16:27). This jailer would later be converted to Christ, he and his whole household. Some scholars feel the statement of Jonah, in Jonah 1:12, constitutes, by definition, suicidal intent -- "Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you." Suicidal intent is also perceived by some in Amos 9:2 and Rev. 9:6, both of which may reflect a desire for death, and an effort to effect it, during times of great personal distress.

Extra-Biblical Evidence

Before we get into an analysis of suicide itself, and the various pros and cons proffered through the years by those who have studied the issue from a biblical perspective, we need to briefly notice some of the ancient extra-biblical testimony regarding suicide. The Apocrypha, for example, speaks of such tragic occurrences on several occasions. Notice just a few:

  1. Eleazar --- 1 Maccabees 6:43-46. During a major battle with the occupying army, Eleazar, also known as Avaran, ran up underneath a large war elephant, upon which he supposed the enemy king to be riding, and stabbed the elephant in the belly, thus causing it to fall dead on top of him. This allowed others to attack the ones riding that elephant, which he hoped would turn the tide of battle against the enemy. "So he gave up his life to save his people, and he won an everlasting name for himself."

  2. Razis --- 2 Maccabees 14:37-46. This man was one of the elders of Jerusalem, and highly regarded by the Jews, whom he loved dearly. In an effort to discredit him, a group of soldiers from the occupying forces was sent to arrest him and make a public spectacle of him before the Jews. The text relates a very gruesome account of how Razis attempted suicide three times before finally succeeding, "preferring to die nobly rather than fall into the hands of vile men and suffer outrages unworthy of his noble birth."

We could also list the suicide of the youngest of seven brothers, who, after witnessing the horrible torture and murder of his six older brothers by the enemy, refused to deny His God and took his own life. Just before he died, he shouted to the enemy, "I myself, being about to die, will not forsake the testimony of my brethren. And I call upon the God of my fathers to be merciful to my race" (read 4 Maccabees 8-12 for this moving account of the martyrdom of these seven brothers). We could also list the mother of these seven, who, "when she herself was about to be seized for the purpose of being put to death," took her own life "rather than that they should touch her person" (4 Maccabees 17:1). "O thou mother, who together with seven children, didst ... exhibit the nobleness of faith" (vs. 2). Thus, they were praised by the people of Israel for remaining faithful, even to the point of sacrificing themselves.

The Jewish historian Josephus also lists several notable suicides in his ancient writings. For example, he tells of the heroic Phasaelus, "who died with great bravery." He had no weapons available to him, but "he prevented all abuses by dashing his head against a stone" (Wars of the Jews, book 1, chapter 13, section 10). A suicide pact among several patriots is recorded by Josephus in Wars of the Jews, along with the various conflicting emotions that accompanied that resolve (book 3, chapter 8, sections 4-8). Yet another suicide pact is described in Wars of the Jews, book 7, chapter 8:6 - 9:1. These were all Jewish patriots who preferred to die at their own hand, and dispatch their own loved ones, rather than suffer the atrocities and tortures that would be inflicted upon them by the enemy.

"Some early Christians' acceptance of, even desire for, martyrdom seems to suggest an acceptance of suicide -- e.g., Ignatius, but Lactantius vehemently opposed it. Chrysostom cautioned against hurrying one's appointed end, and Jerome considered Judas Iscariot's suicide a crime. Augustine used the sixth commandment to crystallize the opinion that suicide was wrong. Probably in reaction to a large number of Christians who were eager to leave this life, he argued that suicide foreclosed any opportunity for repentance and that it was also an act of cowardice. Later church councils (Council of Guadix in 305 AD, Council of Carthage in 348 AD, Council of Braga in 563 AD) and thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas, reinforced this teaching. Aquinas relied on natural theology to insist that suicide was against nature and therefore against God's ordinance. God alone has the right to give and to take away life. The negative view went virtually unchallenged until the 17th century, when John Donne, the English cleric, wrote Biathanatos, in which he argued cogently for a positive view of suicide. Donne relied heavily on Jesus' saying in John 15:12f -- 'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' Even more explicit is 1 John 3:16, 'By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren'" (ibid, p. 652-653).

Rationale Against Suicide

"Thou shalt not murder" (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17). This is one of the Ten Commandments, and those who argue against suicide declare that taking one's own life is self-murder. Thus, they declare it forbidden by God. "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man" (Gen. 9:6). It is further argued that we are created in the very image of God, therefore it is not the prerogative of mere man to shed the blood of man ... either of others or of himself. Such is viewed as an affront to God, the very One who created us all in His own image! The opposing side, however, would argue that God has many times commanded men to kill, and that there is a significant difference between killing and murdering. What is universally condemned is murder. There are situations, however, it is argued, that would justify killing ... even of oneself. There is no question, scholars will admit, that the biblical text does make a distinction between murder and killing. The former is condemned by God, the latter often is condoned, and at times even commanded, if circumstances warrant such an action.

There are several other biblical passages used to demonstrate suicide is not in keeping with the will of God. "I have set before you life and death ... choose life in order that you may live" (Deut. 30:19). When given the choice, we are urged to choose life. Obviously, Moses was not talking about suicide, but some believe these words convey a principle that could be made to apply. Job said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). The thought here, say those who oppose suicide, is that only the Lord has the right to "take away" (which they assert applies also to one's life). When the Philippian jailer "drew his sword and was about to kill himself" (Acts 16:27), Paul cried out to him in a loud voice, "Do yourself no harm!" (vs. 28). This they believe is a command of an apostle universally applicable to those who seek to harm themselves, whatever the cause. This same apostle would write, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" (1 Cor. 6:19), therefore we have no right to destroy this "temple" which is not our own! Paul also wrote, "No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church" (Eph. 5:29). Putting to death one's flesh, they argue, hardly constitutes nourishing and cherishing it.

Rationale For Suicide

Those who argue that there are legitimate occasions when ending one's life may be an acceptable choice before both God and men, argue strongly from the position of situational ethics. They declare our journey through life to be far from the series of clear "black or white" choices seemingly advocated by the anti-suicide legalists. It is easy, for example, to declare suicide wrong in ALL situations; no exceptions. It is much harder to justify that position, argues the pro-suicide group, when faced with real life situations. For example, is the soldier who throws himself on the live grenade to save the lives of his beloved comrades committing a sin? Is he not rather evidencing the truth of Jesus' words, "'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13)? And what about 1 John 3:16? -- "We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." By definition, such an action is "suicidal" -- "The act of killing oneself intentionally; the willful termination of one's own life." Yet, we characterize such men and women as "heroes!" Are we wrong?! Yes, some deaths, self-inflicted, are acts of cowardice; none would deny that. Others, however, are without doubt acts of tremendous courage and love. Indeed, they evidence the heart of Christ Jesus. Life is not always "black or white" ... such thinking is fallacious and denies reality.

On September 11, 2001 we all watched with horror as men and women leaped to their deaths from the burning, crumbling Towers in New York City. Some undoubtedly fell accidentally as they climbed out windows seeking to flee the flames. Others, however, made a conscious choice: they could either suffer an agonizing death in the fire, from which they had no escape, or they could take the lesser of two evils: jump to their deaths. Were these suicides? Yes, they were. Were they "sinful" acts? I personally don't see how! Given the same two fatal choices, I would have jumped also. Situation ethics? Yes! We face such choices daily in every area of life. When several passengers brought down that jet airliner in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, rather than allow it to become a flying bomb which might kill hundreds or thousands, they made a choice to give their own lives to prevent others from perishing. Should they have sat there passively like cattle, or was their sacrifice an act of love and courage? I believe it was the latter. A soldier is captured during war and bites into a cyanide capsule rather than reveal under torture information that would cost the lives of thousands of his comrades. Was his sacrifice sinful? Good, honest men would argue passionately on both sides of the debate.

I believe it comes down to motivation of heart. Neither God nor men think highly of those who flee life's difficulties because they don't have the courage to face them head-on. Some choose to "opt out of life" simply because they are tired of the daily struggle; thus, they run away. It is the ultimate act of escapism. It evidences no faith or trust in one's God. Some noble souls, however, motivated by great love for others, placing their good above that of their own, sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice so that the lives of others might be preserved or enriched. When the Titanic sank, there was limited room in the life boats. Only so many could be saved. Many brave souls gave up a chance to get on one of those boats so that a spouse or child could survive. Is this suicide? Yes, by definition. Is this sinful? Never! "In the ongoing debate, scholars and ethicists reject the harsh condemnations of the Middle Ages" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 653).

Some see the broader principle of self-sacrifice contained, at least to some degree, in such passages as Mark 8:34-35, where Jesus speaks of self-denial, taking up a cross, and not fearing to lose one's life for the sake of the gospel .... John 13:37, where Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You" .... Rom. 5:7, which speaks of some who would dare to die for a good man .... Rom. 14:7-8, where Paul speaks of some willing to "die for the Lord," rather than simply living for oneself. Paul declared, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philp. 1:21). There are indeed times when there may be great gain, not only for oneself, but also for others, in death.

Concluding Thoughts

Having examined the biblical and extra-biblical evidence, as well as the arguments both for and against suicide, let me share my own personal conviction on the matter (and I hasten to repeat: this is only my own conviction; I have no intention of being dogmatic about it). I would never counsel a person to end their own life. I believe life is precious, that it is a gift from God, and should never be tossed back in His face merely because life becomes a difficult or painful struggle. As we used to say in the military, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" With a strong faith and trust in God, we face the daily foes that array themselves against us, whether those foes be physical, spiritual, or emotional. It is my view that life's trials and tribulations should never be allowed to gain the victory over us, especially to the point where we end our own lives. As long as we have breath in our lungs and the Lord in our hearts, there is reason to hope!

When our focus is entirely upon ourselves, it is easy to despair. Part of the solution is to keep the eyes of faith upon the Lord, and place the good of others above ourselves. In counseling with suicidal patients at the hospital, one of my primary goals as a chaplain is to help them perceive how their actions will impact others, and to help these patients appreciate the fact that they most likely have loved ones who regard them as being of great worth, and who would be devastated by their actions. When the focus begins to shift from themselves to those persons around them with whom they have influence, oftentimes the seeds for an acceptable resolution begin to germinate within their hearts and minds.

Having said that, I am also fully convicted that some who choose to end their lives do so because they have become so overwhelmed by either physical pain or emotional despair that they are literally outside the parameters of rational thought; they are "not themselves" in a very real sense. Under much calmer circumstances they might be horrified that such a thought of self-destruction would ever even enter their minds. Intense pain and despair can indeed create seasons of departure from sanity. If God is the type of God I believe Him to be, He will look beyond the madness of the moment into the real state of that person's heart.

God can see deeper than the pain, and irrational acts prompted thereby, to the true person who lies beneath. Such depth of divine perception will triumph in judgment over our weaknesses and frailties. Thus, let us not judge too quickly or harshly those whose circumstances have led them to seek suicide. We don't fully perceive the intensity of their struggle, nor what lies within their hearts. God does, however, and I leave it in His merciful hands. His judgment will be fair.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Brother Al, Your latest Reflections article, "Paying the Penalty for Sin," is an unequivocal masterpiece! This is the heart and soul of Christianity! How could anyone believe that Christ's death was only a partial payment?! How absurd! Once again, great job!!! I also enjoyed your previous Reflections article "Unequally Yoked Together." My wife is a Presbyterian and we've had many struggles in our marriage. Because we love each other, just as Christ loves the church, we get through (and over) our differences. Although, I've never considered my wife an "unbeliever!" Once again, Al, thanks so much for your efforts!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, When I think back 30 or so years, I am reminded of all our fretful studies concerning the "unpardonable sin." And at the very same time we had turned the grace of God into law. Pray tell how can we be saved by being law keepers? We believed it to be so and we preached it that way as well. I must confess that I was as guilty as the rest. It was the way we were taught. Men like yourself and others within our brotherhood helped me see the light, but it was a difficult struggle. Ironically, the old songs we sang had more grace in them than our sermons. "Blessed Assurance" was one of those great hymns. I believe it now. Thanks!

From a Minister in Arkansas:

Brother Maxey, your last Reflections on Jesus paying the penalty for sin was a job well done. I surely did enjoy this edition. May God continue to bless you.

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

Al, I am sure this email will be just one of hundreds of responses you will receive, but I heartily agree with your reasoning and conclusions in your last issue of Reflections. Not only did Jesus pay the debt I could not pay, not only did He get me out of the red and back to zero, but He filled my account to overflowing. He has sanctified me, raised me up, made me HOLY, given me righteousness. I have inherited the heavenly treasures shared only by the SON. It was not enough to simply catch up my back debt. He more than released me from the shackles of sin; I am more than a freed slave, I am a property owner and my lot is in heaven. Just a little south of Peter and the Twelve, just over the hill from David, around the corner from Abraham, next to the river of life, my property faces and adjoins the throne room. I have a perfect, unobstructed view of the Son ... and He is risen. Do you live in my neighborhood? Won't it be wonderful to get home? Amen, Lord come quickly. (Gotta go, the tears are not good for the keyboard. Love ya!)

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Brother Al, you've set my faith on fire with your article: Paying the Penalty for Sin. Powerful and challenging. I can't wait to print it off and study it more thoroughly. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift! And thanks be to God for servants like you who set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to assist us who are simply trying to be more like Christ. I think of you often and your name is well-known in my Sunday School class. You obviously have the gift of prophesying (instructing and teaching the Word of God), and I am so grateful that you love the Lord and His people enough to take the time to instruct us in His Word more perfectly! I am eager to study the eternal punishment issue -- I have been ignorant of this debate until recently, but look forward to learning more about it. Thanks for the links to your past articles and debate!

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