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Suicide: A Biblical Assessment

Sep 14, 2006

Suicide is a major problem in the Western world. This paper has a very limited focus however. It will not look at such issues as why people attempt suicide, or how we can prevent such attempts. Instead it will focus on one aspect, namely its relationship to euthanasia, and how it should be considered from a Biblical perspective.

Suicide (literally, self-killing, or more properly, self-murder, since the intention is death) is closely related to the issue of euthanasia, although they are not exactly the same. I discuss the issue because there seems to be some clouded thinking amongst believers when dealing with the subject. For example, on a number of occasions I have debated fellow believers on the topic of euthanasia. They will often say that they support euthanasia, and they appeal to several examples of suicide in Scripture as justification.

As with some other contentious ethical issues, the Bible does not have too much to say directly on the issue of suicide. Indeed, the term does not even appear in Scripture. The Bible certainly does have a lot to say about the sanctity of life however. Those numerous passages will not here be discussed. But they form a necessary backdrop to the discussion that is being made here.

While suicide is not a pervasive topic in Scripture, we do have some examples of it recorded therein. All up there are five clear incidents, four in the Old Testament, and one in the New. It is interesting that in each episode, the one performing the act is clearly shown as not being in God’s favour. The New Testament example is the most well known. Judas takes his life after betraying Jesus, and very few will argue that we should follow his example.

The men in the Old Testament are also seen as being out of God’s will. Thus it is very difficult to find any justification for suicide by pointing to these characters.

The first is Abimelech, who is depicted as a wicked ruler (Judges 9:50-56). He asked his armour-bearer to do him in after being wounded by a woman. In verse 56 we hear God’s commentary on Abimelech: “Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers.” The judgment of God is here recorded, not a commendation for us to go and do likewise.

Another case of suicide involves Ahithophel, a counsellor to David, who turned traitor by joining the conspirators with Absalom. He ended his life by hanging himself (2 Sam 17:23). While Scripture offers no comment on this action, the story makes clear that he was not someone to be emulated, nor were his actions seen as praiseworthy.

A third case involves Zimri, an evil king (1 Kin. 16:15-20). He died by setting the royal palace alight. This is how Scripture speaks of his suicide: “So he died, because of the sins he had committed, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD and walking in the ways of Jeroboam and in the sin he had committed and had caused Israel to commit” (vv. 18, 19). Certainly not a good role model here.

(Another possible case of suicide might be that of Samson – Judges 16:30. But it is certainly not clear that he intended to end his life. This seems to have been an unintended consequence of wreaking revenge on his (God’s) enemies.)

The fourth clear case, one that is often appealed to by believers, is that of Saul. The story is described in 1 Samuel 31, and 2 Samuel 1.  The interesting thing to note about Saul is that God had departed from him in dramatic fashion (1 Sam 16:14). Indeed, Samuel later asks him “Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy?” (1 Sam 28:16-20). Thus all of his actions after God left him were not examples to be emulated but signs of a man out of God’s will and favour.

The story of Saul’s end is a very sad tale indeed. God had abandoned him because of his disobedience and rebellion, and his life is a tragic example of one being judged by God. As such, there is no biblical commendation of Saul’s suicide to be found in all of scripture. Indeed, there is no commendation of suicide anywhere in scripture.

So the next time a believer tries to defend euthanasia by appealing to Saul, our response is simple. Not only is Saul not an example, but he is a clear counter-example. His actions are the direct result of disobedience and defiance of God, not of obedience and commitment to God.

(A fifth Old Testament case might be mentioned, but it really goes in tandem with the death of Saul: his armour-bearer also fell on his sword – 1 Samuel 31:5.)

Thus there are no Scriptural passages which can be appealed to in support of suicide. Interestingly, the Christian church, with very few exceptions, has seen suicide as sinful, from the earliest times through to today. Augustine for example said that suicide was worse than murder, because at least the murderer can turn around and repent, whereas the one who commits suicide cannot.

Moreover, Christians have almost always seen suicide as a personal affront to the sovereignty of God in the affairs of human life. And it is not just Christianity that has condemned suicide. The pre-Christian Hippocratic Oath, for example, also condemns not only suicide but euthanasia as well.

But if Scripture provides no comfort for the support of suicide and/or euthanasia, the argument does not end there. A Christian may still want to argue for euthanasia or suicide using non-scriptural reasons. For example, one may appeal to compassion, or some such reason, to make a case. Indeed, one can always find emotive and moving stories to argue for anything, be it suicide, drug legalisation, abortion, or whatever. That should never be our starting pointing, however. The biblical revelation is our authoritative point of reference and must always be our first and determinative port of call.

Moreover, what is compassionate about killing the sufferer? The biblical position would be to comfort those who suffer, not kill them. The modern hospice movement arose out of Christian convictions, and should be where we direct sufferers to, not to the executioner.

Still others will want to say that Scripture simply is not clear-cut on these difficult ethical issues. Indeed, many argue for 99 shades of grey, while refusing to acknowledge any black and white. There is a hint of truth in this. Some issues do seem to be more ambiguous than others in Scripture. But a general rule of them would be this: when Scripture is black and white, then we should be too. When it is ambiguous, then we have more latitude, more room to move.

Admittedly, the line between the two can be blurry at times. But some issues are always treated as sinful (for example, idolatry or adultery). Therefore on such issues we have no ground to vote or debate what we think. If Scripture condemns something, then we are to have nothing to do with it.

Still, some will argue that we just cannot take a black and white approach to something like suicide, and they try to offer counter examples. I have been told that the Bible is ambiguous on divorce and remarriage, for example, so we must hang loose with this and all tough ethical issues as well.

My response to this objection is as follows. This seems to be a case of comparing apples with oranges. The suicide issue is much different from the marriage question. There does happen to be a range of positions on marriage and divorce. Some are more lax on these questions while others are more strict. And Scriptures can be found to support a number of positions on these contentious subjects. (For what it is worth, my position is aligned with the more conservative end of the scale, as reflected in Mal. 2:10-16. Divorce rates are a shame, a scandal and an appalling indication of a culture adrift. And given that divorce rates in the church are just as bad as in the world, it is an appalling indictment on the church as well. God surely is greatly grieved about this tragedy, and we should be too.).

To say that Christians can disagree with the marriage issue is far from saying there is no clear sanctity of life ethic which runs throughout Scripture, or that the biblical record is ambiguous concerning suicide. While one might find biblical support for divorce, one will not find it for suicide. Therefore, even though there are some ethical issues which can be debated amongst believers, there are other issues which seem to be much more straightforward. I believe suicide is one such issue.

Other arguments can be brought forth in the attempt to justify suicide. However, none of them, it seems to me, are really convincing. For example, one might raise the issue of heroic self-sacrifice, such as when a soldier jumps on a live hand grenade in order to save his companions. But this should not be seen as suicide however. The intent was not to kill self, but to save others. In suicide one’s intention is to kill oneself.

Neither is martyrdom to be equated with suicide. If someone dies for his beliefs (such as a Christian martyr), he is remaining faithful to Christ, even at the cost of his or her own life. Again his intention is not to take his or her life, but to be willing to die for his faith. (The case of radical Muslim suicide bombers does however seem as much like suicide – including the promise of paradise on the other end – as real martyrdom. But that is another discussion.)

In the end we must come down on the Biblical side of the debate. Emotions and particular cases of course cannot be dismissed altogether, but neither should they take precedence when we consider these weighty issues. Our final authority on all such mattes must be the revealed word of God, not the latest social theories.

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14 Responses to Suicide: A Biblical Assessment

  • Dying animals receive more humanity than human beings.

    Delma Visser

  • Rather than dredging up your folk stories from thousands of years ago why don’t you look at contempory issues in a rational manner. I have no problem with you wishing to end your life in a long agonizing manner if that is your what you want. It would be nice if you could allow other people the same freedom,but I suppose you are against freedom as well as rational thought as evidenced by your rambling rant.
    John Robert

  • I agree with the general thrust of your argument, Bill, but the situation is complicated by the fact that medical advances have been such that many people live much longer in pain than has previously been possible. There is a fine line between actively seeking one’s own death to alleviate prolonged agony and refusing any treatment that would artificially prolong life.
    We are in a society which so idolises life that we want to delay death at all costs. This is not a biblical position. Paul, in a sense, offered himself the choice of life or death (Philippians 1:22). For the sake of others, he chose life, against his desire to be with Christ.

    David Esdaile

  • Thanks Delma.

    Of course it is exactly because human beings are not animals that we treat them so differently. Because humans are not animals, we do not send them to the executioner to deal with pain. It is a strange kind of compassion that says the way to treat suffering is to kill the sufferer.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks John

    It should be noted that this article was an attempt by a believer to deal with the objections of other believers. Thus it was limited in its purpose. But a perfectly good case against legalised euthanasia can be made without any appeal to religion or scritpure. And that I have done elsewhere. See for example the other articles I have posted in the ‘Euthanasia’ section’.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks David.
    A few points. Yes we can now live longer, but we can also better treat pain. And no opponent of euthanasia argues that people in the course of dying should have their life artificially prolonged. And yes, many desire immortality, especially those who do not believe in an afterlife.

    As to Paul, he like any believer relishes the thought of being with Christ and out of this troubled world. But that desire was of course not a plea for either suicide or euthanaia on his part.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill,
    I have struggled with this idea of euthanasia for a long time and I passionately love life and believe that only God has the right to take life. However, in Deuteronomy 30:19, there was a choice given to God’s people to choose life or death and it was strongly advised to choose life but as it appears, it was a choice given to them. I somehow do not seem to think that this verse was merely talking about spiritual death, but I could be wrong, would you kindly shed some light in this matter? If this verse is indeed literal, then maybe we should give the people the choice of life and death in their last days but with a warning that it is not the preferred choice or would it indeed be a direct disobedience to the Lord? I hope you can offer more insight in this manner. Thanks.

    Veena Roberts

  • Thanks Veena

    A good question. At the outset it can be said that this passage has absolutely nothing to do with euthanasia or suicide.

    The context is this: Moses is concluding his discussion about the covenant made between Yahweh and Israel. The book of Deuteronomy spells out the obligations, conditions and consequences of this covenantal relationship. Briefly, the covenant enjoins faithful, obedient relationship. If that is maintained, there will be blessings (life) of all kinds, but primarily physical: the land will be secure, children will abound, the crops will flourish, flocks will be large, life will be long and healthy, and so on. Conversely, disobedience brings curses (death): enemies will invade, the crops will fail, animals will die, health will give way, and so on.

    What Moses is doing in this verse is encouraging the Israelites to make the right choices. If they choose to follow Yahweh and obey his commandments, they will experience his blessings: life in its fullest, in other words. But if they disobey and choose to violate the covenant conditions, they will experiences the curse, which can be summarised as death.

    Thus life and death here are the results of the choices that Israel make. They will get life or death depending on whether they obey or disobey God. It is clear that Moses wants the people of Israel to be faithful and obedient to God, and as a result enjoy long and prosperous life. If they do not, they will forfeit life and the blessings associated with it.

    Thus this verse has nothing to do with deciding whether one wants to end one’s life prematurely or not. Nowhere in Scripture are we encouraged to seek death by suicide or assisted suicide.

    I hope this helps.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill, While I am not supportive of the idea of suicide, or of euthanasia – I find each to be an affront to the life we have been given – I am at the same time not supportive of the position that I can, because of my beliefs, tell and direct others as to how they are to behave. Further, the Bible is a book for its time, not an final, sole, authoritative reference for today’s much more complicated, and enlightened world. The ongoing revelations of the nature of God and man lead us to making our own, individual choices in all matters. Unfortunately, the real sadness of choices for suicide and euthanasia is that we have failed one of our fellow human beings, and must live with that failure. We cannot make ourselves feel better by removing others’ freedom to make thier own choices. I hope this gives you another perspective.

    Glenn Staunton, Calgary, Alberta, Canada (temporarily)

  • Thanks Glenn

    You raise a few issues here. As I said elsewhere, a solid case can be made against euthanasia without appeal to scripture or religion. I and others have done that elsewhere.

    As to the Bible and current issues, well, yes and no. Sure, the Bible does not speak to us directly about such recent issues as stem-cell research, genetic engineering, and the like. But there are basic principles which can be drawn upon as we consider such controversial subjects.

    For example, many of the modern bioethics issues have to do not just with new developments in science and technology, but with age-old philosophical and theological questions, such as, What is it to be a person?, or, How do we understand human nature?

    For a believer, the Bible is a timeless book, and its truths are not culture bound nor subject to the whims of the clock. If there are absolute truths, then they must apply to all people at all times and in all places. But admittedly, applying universal truths to particular cases is still a difficult task.

    Finally, as to forcing our beliefs on to others and making their choices for them, that is certainly not what I am on about. I simply make a case on certain issues, and allow that discussion to take place in the public arena. It is the nature of democracies to allow competing beliefs and values to be discussed and debated openly in public. That is what I seek to do.

    I of course cannot compel people to do anything. But I can make my case, I can seek to persuade others, and I can let my opinions be made known to legislators. I hope that helps clarify where I am coming from.
    Thanks for writing

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • This issue gets confusing because of our cultural ideals of personal peace and prosperity. In this day of age nothing is right or wrong unless if crosses these two things. Instead of sanctity of life we uphold quality of life. We cannot judge whether we or others should live or not live based on what we perceive to be quality of life, because this is an extremely relative measure. Is a life worthless when it become painful, when the quality decreases?

    Furthermore how do we determine when someone is at this point to be able to take their own life? The line will become increasingly blurry until we end up in a future with suicide clinics. If we allow euthanasia to happen what’s to stop people from getting legal aid to take their lives when they are in extreme emotional pain. Who decides when people are in enough pain to be eligible for euthanasia? Will people who are in extreme emotional pain but are healthy physically start fighting for their right to be aided in ending their life because they don’t deem it worth living anymore.

    Rachel Kollar, Perth

  • Rachel I made a similar statement about emotional pain the other day. It is interesting to note that abortion to save the mother’s life, became abortion to save the mother’s health, which was broadened to included the mother’s emotional health, which basically became, if the mother is not happy about being pregnant. I see no reason for euthanasia to follow the same slippery slope in addition to the issues of coercion etc. Coercion has become an abortion issue for that matter. When will our society wake up and see the truth.
    Kylie Anderson

  • What Biblical support is there for divorce? And what Biblical support is there for remarriage after divorce while the other party is still alive?
    Amanda Fairweather

  • Thanks Amanda

    A bit off topic! And a huge subject of course. Not one easily covered in a brief comment. Evan an article would just scratch the surface. But I may write something on this in the near future.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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