The emotional scars left to family and friends in the wake of suicide are deep and produce not only feelings of loneliness but often a sense of guilt and disorientation. These negative feelings may be compounded by the plaguing question of what the Bible says about suicide. In this article we will attempt to provide some guidance on this question by making a few observations.
In the Bible
The Bible lists seven cases of suicide and one of an attempted suicide. The best-known story is that of Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. Disappointed that Jesus was not setting up an earthly kingdom, Judas tried to force His hand by betraying Him. Yet, when confronted in Gethsemane, Jesus still refused to fight. Seeing the failure of his plan, Judas was so emotionally disturbed that he hanged himself (Matt. 27:5).
Another well-known story is that of King Saul. After being seriously wounded in battle, he asked his armorbearer to kill him. When his armorbearer refused, Saul killed himself (1 Sam. 31:4). Seeing what the king did, the armorbearer “also fell on his sword, and died with him” (verse 5). Their actions were motivated by fear of what the enemy would do to them.
Other less-known stories include that of Ahithophel, one of the counselors of King Absalom, who hanged himself after realizing that the king had rejected his advice (2 Sam. 17:23). Abimelech, mortally wounded by a millstone thrown at him by a woman, asked his armorbearer to kill him to escape shame (Judges 9:54). Zimri became king after a coup d’état, but realizing that the people did not support him, he went into “the citadel of the royal palace and set the palace on fire around him,” killing himself (1 Kings 16:18, NIV). Samson took his own life in battle against the enemy (Judges 16:29, 30).
In response to a vision, Paul and Silas journeyed to Philippi, where they baptized the influential Lydia, cast a demon out of a slave girl, and were unceremoniously thrown into prison. As Paul and Silas sang and prayed that night, an earthquake opened all the doors and loosed all the chains. Fearing that the prisoners had all escaped, the jailer “drew his sword and was about to kill himself” when Paul called out to reassure him that not one prisoner had escaped (Acts 16:25-28). Thankfully, Paul managed to convince the jailer to abandon his plans to end his own life and instead begin a new life in Christ.
Most of the suicides in these biblical accounts took place in the context of war, during which the individuals were already immersed in the immediate context of death. We also see fear or shame as a significant factor in the accounts of self-killing. Correspondingly, there is evidence of a low self-image in some instances, as well as guilt in others. This highlights how an individual’s mental health state can impact the decision to take one’s own life. All incidents take place in the context of a highly emotional state of mind.
We must take a moment here to distinguish between suicide and martyrdom. The distinction lies in one’s view of life. Martyrdom is the willingness to surrender one’s life for fundamental convictions and values that are held as nonnegotiable. It also encompasses heroic acts of self-sacrifice that result in the preservation of other lives (a soldier throws himself or herself on a grenade to save others). Martyrdom is grounded in a respect and love for life. On the other hand, suicide is fundamentally a denial of the value of the present life. It is a person’s final solution to a life perceived as unbearable.
In these Bible stories the self-killing is mentioned without passing any judgment on the morality of the action. That is not to say the action is morally neutral, nor does it mean that it is morally right. The lack of judgmental statement merely indicates that the biblical writer is simply being descriptive and not prescriptive.
How then do we determine the moral impact of suicide? We must arrive at a biblical understanding of human life and use the entirety of the Bible’s teachings to reach our conclusions. We know from Scripture that God created life and that we are not the owners, to use it and dispose of it as we please. For a Christian, then, suicide does not constitute a morally valid solution to the predicament of living in a world of physical and emotional pain.
It was Christ’s purpose in coming to this earth to give us life—abundant life (John 10:10). He wants us not only to experience the physical reality of life, but in all aspects of our emotional, spiritual, and mental states He wants us to thrive.
There are cases, however, in which an individual fails to find any other course of action and chooses death by suicide. How, in those situations, should we relate to this reality?
First, psychology and psychiatry have revealed that very often suicide is the result of profound emotional upheaval or biochemical imbalances associated with a deep state of depression and fear. We should not pass judgment on the person who, under those circumstances, opted for suicide.
Second, God’s justice takes into consideration the intensity of our troubled minds. He understands us better than anyone else. We must place the future of these individuals into His loving hands.
Third, with God’s assistance we can face any feelings of guilt that may plague us in the aftermath of the suicide of a loved one in a constructive way. Keep in mind that often those who die by suicide needed professional help that most of us were unable to provide.
Finally, if you are ever tempted to take your own life, there are medications that can help overcome depression, there are friends who love you and would do all they can to help you, and there is a God who is willing to work with you and through others to sustain you as you walk through the valley of death. Never give up hope! Like Paul in that Philippian prison, we may be the ones to help someone choose life. By God’s grace we may bring encouragement to someone about to give up.