Suicide and the Sovereignty of God: Part 2

suicide and theology

Following on from yesterday’s post on World Suicide Prevention Day, which introduced the topic, defined some terms, and explained the scale of the problem, today I want to turn to Scripture, and consider what the Bible says about suicide, the act of killing ones-self. This comes from the largest section of my essay, ‘Tradition and Text’, and I hope provides an overview of what the Bible says and doesn’t say about suicide, dovetailed with what the Bible teaches about murder, the act in general of ending the life of a specific person.

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ii. Tradition and Text Part 1 – The Bible

The general reception, from the biblical text through the early Church, and across church history to the present day, can be clearly identified as recognising suicide as an affront to God, and a sin tied up with murder. In its role as an act of freedom in an ultimate sense, it has variously been seen as being a rejection of God’s sovereignty over and in human life, especially in regard to timing. Suicide is a complex topic in the tradition as it impinges as a topic on the doctrinal areas of death, sin and creation. The Biblical Text is remarkably sparse, in many ways, on the specific topic, and we can agree with Kuitert that ‘All that the biblical stories of suicide do is to tell us what happened. It is quite significant that they contain no commentary. There is no prohibition of suicide to be found either in the old Testament… or in the New.’(1985, 104). Harris concurs, noting that ‘There is little in the Bible concerning the morality of suicide. Indeed, the word ‘suicide’ (self-murder) does not appear’ (1995, 825) A brief consideration of the biblical texts, then, is in order, before a journey through the Christian tradition in relation to suicide, and perhaps also the sovereignty of God.

The Old Testament has significantly more mention of suicide than the New, and it is worth briefly considering the foundations for a biblically sensitive view of this topic. All discussion of human life and death must flow from a consideration of the fact that humanity is made in the Image of God. In Genesis 9:6, we read ‘whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image’. Sarna writes that ‘murder is the supreme and capital crime because the dignity, sanctity, and inviolability of human life all derive from the fact that every human being bears the stamp of the divine maker’ (1989, 62), echoing the vital importance of the sanctity of life that Christianity has inherited from the Jewish faith. Biggar concurs, noting in a more modern work that ‘Christianity has… followed its Jewish and incarnational foundations in rating human life most highly among the manifold forms of bodily life’(2004, 5). It is from this that all subsequent theological understanding of the beginning and end of human life is derived, and it is the context that later clarifications and codifications of the law regarding movement are painted in.

The condemnation of murder implicit in Genesis is made explicit in Exodus 20:13, with the simple yet open command, ‘you shall not murder’. Blazquez observes that ‘it is generally held that Mosaic law made no express ordinance against suicide because it held it to be included under the general condemnation of homicide’ (1985, 65), and this is apparent in the text. Augustine is clear as an early commentator on this passage, stating that ‘the commandment is, “Thou shall not kill man;” therefore neither another nor yourself, for he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man’ (City of God, I, ch. 20). An over-simplistic but broadly accurate reading of the Decalogue is that God is telling his people what to do and how to live, the specifics will be worked out later and the ‘you’ is from God to his people. Textual relation to a Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God is limited, beyond a basic observation that God is telling his people how to live. Further examination of the Old Testament will reveal a startlingly detached attitude on behalf of the biblical authors regarding this particular kind of murder.

The five suicides mentioned in the Old Testament, and what is arguably the assisted suicide of Abimelech in Judges 9, all follow the dispassionate, commentary-free style recognised by Kuitert as being representative. Saul takes his own life after his armour-bearer refuses to do so (1 Samuel 31:4), whereas Abimelech is successful in asking his armour-bearer to do so (Judges 9:53-54). Barth comments penetratingly of Saul that his suicide ‘reveals that his desire is to be a king in Gentile fashion… as his own sovereign instead of in acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God’ (2010, 408).  Samson has something of a redemptive suicide, leading to his identification by Barth as a ‘dubious saint’(2010, 411), in that God answers his prayer; ‘So those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life’ (Judges 16:30), but the text is concerned with reporting rather than commentary, again echoing this somewhat dispassionate pattern. In 1 Kings 16:18-19 Zimri burns himself, and his city, in recognition of his sin, in an account that is part of a long narrative of the unfaithfulness of Israel. Overall, then, the Old Testament clearly recognises the existence of suicide, but does little more than record its existence. There is no sustained reflection on it in the Old Testament texts.

The Old Testament, unlike the New, does not appear to have any attempted suicides described in its pages, but there are certainly examples of those for whom death was attractive. Johnston notes that ‘Several prominent Old Testament characters apparently wish to die… yet they do not contemplate committing suicide’ (2002, 38). These include Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4, Job in Job 7:15, and Jonah in Jonah 4:3. The feelings of these individuals are vital parts of their own narratives, and each is used by God in unexpected ways. For pastoral reflection on the Sovereignty of God in the lives of the depressed and suicide-tending, these three characters offer profound resources to reflect on the idea that feelings of despondence and despair might be part of the journey, rather than the end of it. That these episodes are included in the narratives of these three goes to support Johnston’s contention that ‘life was of supreme importance to the Israelites’ (2002, 38), even a life that is occasionally troubled. Johnston closes his discussion by noting, in line with the thread that runs through biblical treatment of suicide, that ‘suicide may have occurred very occasionally and in tragic circumstances, but was hardly normal, natural, or generally acceptable’ (2002, 39). The inclusion of these narratives does not provide ‘answers’ to this particular pastoral question, but demonstrates the breadth and depth of Scripture as a resource for pastoral use.

The New Testament, compared to the Old, has very sparse pickings on this topic. Indeed, there is one ‘successful’ and one ‘attempted’ suicide recorded in its pages. The first and most famous is of course the suicide of Judas, as recorded in Matthew 27:5, and referenced in Acts 1:18-19. Blomberg notes of the passage in Matthew that from this report of events ‘It is not possible to conclude from Judas’s actions that suicide automatically damns a person’ (NAC, 1992, 408), and this appears to further the Old Testament approach of merely reporting the suicide. Judas appears as an actor in a play, reported by an onlooker. For our discussion of a pastoral application of the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, there is little to gain at first glance, but we might note with Barth the issue for Judas here is ultimately one ‘of wanting to be fundamentally sovereign’ (2010, 409), in contrast to his readiness to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

It is worth noting that there is, in the New Testament, the occurrence of an attempted suicide. On the escape of Paul and Silas from the Philippian jail, Acts 16:27 notes that ‘the jailer woke… he drew his sword and was about to kill himself’ (ESV). This can be seen, quite simply, as an attempted suicide, though it is important to recognise the social factors that may have driven the jailer to this point, for example as noted by Polhill, as ‘guards were personally responsible for their prisoners and in some instances were executed for allowing them to escape’ (1991, 355). Given the already-noted large numbers of attempted suicides in contemporary society, reflection on this brief passage is important. It is notable that the jailer is thwarted by Paul’s initial challenge ‘don’t harm yourself! We are all here!’ (Acts 16:28) and that this is an opportunity for the jailer – and ‘all his family’ (Acts 16:33) –  to believe and be baptised. There is precious little to build pastoral response for the present day on, but it is worth noting two things. Firstly, that Paul was quick to call out and reassure the jailer that circumstances did not dictate that he should kill himself, and second, that this was an opportunity to confront the jailer with the Gospel.

Like the biblical authors, the Early Church was well aware of suicide, and the Church Fathers occasionally addressed the issue. When considering the approach of the early church to suicide, care must be taken with regard to the related but distinct, generally speaking, issue of martyrdom. Droge and Tabor note that ‘Clement of Alexandria had distinguished between genuine martyrdom and a mere killing of oneself’ (1992, 167), and this distinction is important. Martyrdom aside, then, there is a generally negative attitude towards suicide, which finds its most forceful expression in Augustine, who is to dominate Western discussion for centuries on this topic. It is from Augustine’s influential discussion of suicide in the light of martyrdom that sets the scene for later (and, in some cases, contemporary) discussion.

If this has raised something for you, please do connect with “To Write Love on Her Arms”  and the ever-faithful Samaritans – who seek to bring light and hope into the darkness.

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In the third part of this essay/series, we will explore what the Church Tradition has had to say about the sensitive issue of suicide.

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Bibliography for this section:

Augustine, The City of God, (Penguin, London)

Barth, K. (2010). Church Dogmatics: Vol. III The Doctrine of Creation part 4, (Hendrickson, Peabody)

Biggar, N. (2005). Aiming to Kill: The Ethics of Suicide and Euthanasia, (Darton, Longman and Todd, London)

Blazquez, N. (1985). The Church’s Traditional Moral Teaching on Suicide, p. 63-75 in Eds., Pohier, J. and Mieth, D. (T&T Clark, Edinburgh)

Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew, (Broadman and Holman, Nashville) [New American Commentary]

Eds., Droge, A. J., and Tabor, J. D. (1992). A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity, (HarperCollins, New York)

Harris, B. (1995). Suicide, p. 825-826 in eds., Atkinson, D. J., Field, D. H., Holmes, A. F., O’Donovan, O. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, (IVP, Nottingham)

Sarna, N. M. (1989). Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, Commentary, (The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia)

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