To mark/reflect on World Suicide Prevention Day (10th September) I’ve decided to serialise an essay I wrote for one of the modules in my MA Studies at St John’s College, Nottingham. I will share it in 4 parts, and make the entire essay available soon. I would recommend, if this is an issue you struggle with, react to, or need help with, to get in touch with TWLOHA/The Samaritans, links at the bottom. This is the first of five parts. It is dealing with sensitive topics, and is ‘academic’ in nature, though it is also meant to be pastoral. I hope it is of help to some people. Part two considers what the biblical text has to say around and about the topic of suicide.
Suicide has traditionally been seen as an affront to God and the Church: to what extent can the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God provide a pastoral response?
The Christian tradition has traditionally seen suicide as a sinful affront to God, and sanctioned those who have chosen that path. Theologians and pastors have considered the topic from the Early church to the present day, reflecting on the relatively sparse biblical material in light of changing cultural contexts. In contemporary global culture, according to recent statistics (Palmer, 2008, 14), the rate of suicide is increasing per annum. If nothing changes, it is not unreasonable to expect that ‘for the year 2020, approximately 1.53 million people will successfully commit suicide’ (Palmer, 2008, 14). So-called ‘successful’ suicides are just part of the picture, as Palmer goes on to note that ‘between ten and twenty times more people will attempt suicide’ (2008, 14). Clearly, and we have barely scratched the statistical surface, this is an issue that will not likely disappear any time soon and cries out for pastoral engagement and theological reflection.
Consistently throughout Church history, and arguably through the biblical witness, the Christian tradition has taught that God is in some way sovereign in relation to life and death. With this in mind, Harris notes that ‘Suicide is seen as a challenge to the sovereignty of God’ (1995, 825), and it could be argued that in a view of reality that sees God as the director of a play and us al as actors in it, suicide is in stark contrast to the expected unfolding of the plot. Verhey writes that;
‘the story of Scripture, stories of a cross and of an empty tomb, determined the significance of life and death for Christians. It required… a dialectic in the dispositions toward life and death. To intend one’s death is forbidden by the story’ (2011, 759).
Regardless of any individual view of the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, the notion of the centrality of the Easter narrative and the idea of God as author of a story is a powerful image, which can be applied helpfully to the topic of suicide. It is through this lens that the way in which the topic of suicide can be pastorally addressed will be considered, subject to the witness of the tradition and some qualification regarding the nature of the Sovereignty of God.
The pastoral dimension of the issue of suicide raises a multitude of questions, many beyond the scope of this present inquiry. Jean-Pierre Jossua notes, and this is vital, that ‘the reality of suicides has always vastly exceeded the definitions into which religious moralists have tried to fit them’ (1985, 82). The topic of suicide is not one that has easy answers. However, since the earliest Christian engagement with the topic, there has been the recognition that a key way of thinking and talking Christianly about death is to recognize and make applicable sense of the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. For the purposes of this present discussion, we will appropriate a definition of the Sovereignty of God from Paul Helm’s summary of John Calvin’s thought (2004, 93), and identify it as the notion that, in an active way, God is all-powerful, and that God is all-good. Karl Barth expands upon this in terms of God’s providence, by which he means ‘the superior dealings of the Creator with His creation, the wisdom omnipotence and goodness with which He maintains and governs in time this distinct reality according the counsel of his own will’ (2010, CD. III.3, 3). For pastoral purposes, we will identify the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God as being the overwhelming direction of God’s Grace to his creation.
In order to productively engage with this difficult topic, it is necessary at this point to articulate a working definition of suicide, that is broadly reflected in the tradition, and makes sense for present day pastoral application. For a shorter definition, in line with Palmer’s observation about the first occurrence of the word, suicide is to be understood simply as ‘to kill oneself’ (2008, 11), a form of self-murder. We shall thus work with Durkheim’s sociological definition, keeping the notions of murder in mind, that suicide is ‘death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result’ (1968, 44). This longer definition makes sense of the different examples of suicide in the Bible, and is broad enough to apply generally to the broad variety of pastoral situations today.
In the second part of this essay/series, we will explore what the Biblical Texts have to say about the sensitive issue of suicide.
Bibliography for this section:
Barth, K. (2010). Church Dogmatics: Vol. III The Doctrine of Creation part 4, (Hendrickson, Peabody)
Durkheim, E. (1968). Suicide: A Study in Sociology, (Routledge, London)
Helm, P. (2004). John Calvin’s Ideas, (Oxford University Press, Oxford)
Jossua, J-P. (1985). Life no Longer has any Meaning for Me, p. 82-90 in Eds., Pohier, J. and Mieth, D. (T&T Clark, Edinburgh)
Ed., Palmer, S. (2008). Suicide: Strategies and Interventions for Reduction and Prevention, (Routledge, London, 2008)
Verhey, A., (2011). Suicide, p. 758-60 in ed., Green, J. B. Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids)