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.