Suicide and the Silence of Scripture
Some years ago one of my better students came by my office for a chat. Several times before, she had talked of her troubled past. However, her faith had showed marked development.
But on this day she announced that she had recently planned for her suicide. I was shocked and confused.
Suicide is confusing for Christians. Although the general thrust of scripture is clearly opposed to the taking of one's own life, it provides no clear disapproval of the few cases of apparent suicide it recounts. Suicide also confuses us because some of those we believe to be strong in the faith have considered it as a "way out."
Samson and St. Augustine
Must we believe that hose who have taken their own lives suffer the eternal punishment of God? Nothing in scripture drives us to that conclusion.
Of the seven or so suicides reported in Scripture, most familiar are Saul, Samson, and Judas. Saul apparently committed suicide to avoid dishonor and suffering at the hands of the Philistines. He is rewarded by the Israelites with a war hero's burial, there being no apparent disapproval of his suicide (1 Samuel 31:1-6). And while there is no hero's burial for Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:5-7), Scripture is once more silent on the morality of this suicide of remorse.
The suicide of Samson has posed a greater problem for Christian theologians. Both Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the case and concluded that Samson's suicide was justified as an act of obedience to a direct command of God.
Objections to suicide have a long history in the church. But the idea that suicide is an unforgivable sin is less easily traced. Among the church fathers, Saint Augustine was the most prominent and influential opponent of suicide. And early church synods declared that bequests from those who committed suicide (as well as the offering of those who attempted suicide) ought not to be accepted; and throughout the medieval period, proper Christian burial was refused those who committed suicide.
Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that suicide, by excluding a final repentance, was a mortal sin. Dante is likely to have influenced Christian thought at least as much as Saint Thomas, placing those who committed suicide in the seventh circle of the inferno. Luther and Calvin, despite their abhorrence of suicide do not suggest that it is an unpardonable sin. John Calvin is perhaps the most helpful on the issue, concluding that blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is the only unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:31), and suicide need not be viewed as blasphemy. The pedigree of the view that suicide is unforgivable seems to lie in the medieval church and its distinction between mortal and venial sins.
We must understand suicide as free and uncoerced actions engaged in for the purpose of bringing about one's own death. Once we define it this way, it is easy to grasp the church's clear teaching throughout the centuries that suicide is morally wrong and ought never to be considered by the Christian. Life is a gift from God. To take one's own life is to show insufficient gratitude. Our lives belong to God; we are but stewards. To end my own life is to usurp that the prerogative that is God's alone. Suicide, the church has taught, is ordinarily a rejection of the goodness of God, and it can never be right to reject God's goodness.
If we define suicide as consisting of only free and uncoerced actions, we must ask a series of questions as we try to understand any particular suicide: To what extent do we know the suicide in question was genuinely free? Could pain (either physical or emotional) have coerced the individual to do what he otherwise might not have done? But even if we could know that an act of suicide was genuinely free, can we know that the aim of the act was indeed one's own death rather than a misguided cry for help? Can we know that the suicide believed this action would really kill?