Saturday, July 28, 2012

Suicide

Q: I was recently reading a book from a semi-famous evangelist that indicated that there are six (6) suicides recorded in Scripture. I can only recall four (4); 1.) Samson, 2.) Saul, 3.) Saul's armor bearer, and 4.) Judas Iscariot. Then he went on to say that the Bible did not necessarily condemn these men. Conversely, he wasn't suggesting that these men are saved either. I'm not sure about the others, but Samson is identified as one of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:32; so I assume I'll see him in heaven some day. The passage itself was oddly inserted as it did not have much relevance to the subject at hand, but it did bring up some thought provoking questions in me.

Do you know who the other two characters in Scripture were that may have committed suicide? And the more difficult question, Is suicide a forgivable sin? I had been raised with the theology that suicide condemns the soul as it is a sin that can never be repented of (assuming one is successful in the effort). Now that might make sense for a "sane" individual, but is a person that commits suicide sane? If a person is mentally incapacitated or unstable or distraught, will the Lord of the universe look at the last moments of a life and reject one who otherwise might have been a faithful servant?


A: A very interesting question!

Suicide is a very difficult subject to tackle for many reasons, not the least of which is the emotional pain that is associated with this act in the lives of anyone who has experienced loss in this life due to suicide. As with any potentially emotionally charged topic, it is wise for us to tread very carefully in order to not add to the burden of anyone who is walking with hurts caused by suicide.

That being said, it seems that there are many who would argue that there were seven suicides recorded in the Bible, not six. It is interesting that the above mentioned author didn't include a list to go along with his statement, but to fill out the list from our questioner many would add the following three:

1) Abimelech (Judges 9:54)
2) Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23)
3) Zimri (1 Kings 16:18)

To consider these all "suicides" is a bit of a stretch for me. Suicide is the act of taking one's own life but Abimelech more accurately asked to be euthanized by a (male) friend so as to not be dishonored by being killed by a woman (Judges 9:54) and Samson seems to be more interested in killing Philistines than he is in ending his own life -- it just so happens that he is willing to die with them as more of a suicide attack. However, the primary intention of Samson's final act was not the ending of his own life, but the infliction of vengeance upon his enemies.

If we were to classify this as the same as other cases of suicide, then I can see the difficulty that the questioner has in the fact that Samson is included in the Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews 11. However, the author of Hebrews seems to point to Samson's actions as heroic and strong (based on Hebrews 11:33-34) towards his enemies. Samson is included even though his act of faith killed him.

It may simply seem like semantics, but I don't believe Samson is "suicidal" unless we want to describe anyone who acts heroically and dies also as a "suicide". For example, would we consider a police officer or firefighter to be "suicidal" simply because they lost their own life through their actions while on duty?

I think not.

(It is important to point out, as a side note, that this inclusion of Samson in Hebrews 11 does not in any way validate other forms of "suicide attacks" like we see in our contemporary culture. Although the God of the New Testament and Old Testament is the same God, it is fairly clear that the Old Testament records far more instances of sanctioned bloodshed than the New Testament does. Although war and death are always ugly, Samson lived in a very different time and culture than we do and it is difficult to judge his actions by our own, contemporary, standards. What is clear in the New Testament is that we are no longer to wage war as the nation of Israel was once commanded to do. Our weapons are not fleshly, but spiritual, and in no way, shape, or form do Samson's actions condone suicide killings in our own day.)

Based on such a loose idea of suicide, some argue that even Jesus himself committed suicide!

Perhaps I'm missing someone, but if we use the standard understanding of "suicide" as the intentional taking of your own life, there are five (5) examples recorded in Scripture that will form the basis of our biblical testimony:

1) Saul; 2) Saul's armor-bearer; 3) Ahithophel; 4) Zimri; and 5) Judas Iscariot.

To say that the Bible never condemns these men is a bit misleading.

The Scriptures tell us that Saul's death was a result of the judgment of God, not the product of him choosing to end his own life:

So Saul died for his trespass which he committed against the LORD, because of the word of the LORD which he did not keep; and also because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it, and did not inquire of the LORD. Therefore He killed him and turned the kingdom to David the son of Jesse. (1 Chronicles 10:13-14, NASB)

Notice that verse 14 says that "He killed him"! God killed Saul for his trespass and his seeking a medium by handing Saul and his army over to the Philistines. When seriously wounded in the battle, Saul did not want his enemies to get the glory for killing him or to capture him and abuse him (1 Samuel 31:3-4; 1 Chronicles 10:3-4) so he sped up the process, but the Chronicler says that God killed Saul as an act of judgment.

This issue can get really complicated, really fast. We see divine sovereignty (in the orchestration of events, leading to the Scriptures declaring that God killed Saul) and human responsibility (Saul's own action and participation in the judgment by falling on his own sword and actually committing suicide). We also have a distinction to draw between judgment in the temporal sense and eternal judgment (i.e. condemnation). While Saul was clearly "condemned" to death in this life because of his actions (pre-suicide), the Scripture doesn't describe Saul as being condemned (eternally) as a result of his suicide (or other actions)... at least, not explicitly.

Similarly, the account of Zimri's death by suicide is linked to the judgment of God for the sins he committed:

When Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the king's house and burned the king's house over him with fire, and died, because of his sins which he sinned, doing evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of Jeroboam, and in his sin which he did, making Israel sin. (1 Kings 16:18-19, NASB)

Verse 19 tells us that Zimri's death was caused ("...and died, because...") by his sin. However, the condemnation upon Zimri results in his earthly death without any commentary on the eternal state of his soul as a result of his suicide.

Similarly, Judas is clearly condemned in the Scriptures, being described as the "son of perdition" (or, "the one destined for destruction") who was lost (John 17:12). Of course, the reason for his condemnation is more complicated than simply the way in which his biological life ended here on earth.

After a closer examination, it seems that 60% of the individuals who are revealed in the Scriptures to have committed the act of suicide were under the condemnation of God even before their death, with two of the three examples actually having their death linked to the judgment of God! The other two individuals (Saul's armor-bearer and Ahithophel) deaths pass without much discussion in the Bible.

Going simply on the information presented by our questioner (without knowing the book or the author of the comments in question), it seems like the conclusion is on the right track: it is difficult to make a case from the Bible that any of these men were condemned (eternally) as a result of their suicide. It seems like a case could be made in the opposite direction, however, that the condemnation upon these men ultimately led to their death -- even a death at their own hand (cf. Romans 1:18ff)!

I, too, was raised to believe that suicide was an "un-pardonable sin". However, it seems clear to me that this view is not based on a clear teaching of the Scriptures.

One of the aspects of the question above includes an inquiry into the sanity of someone who commits suicide. I'm not a mental health professional and so I hesitate to wander into such foreign territory, but I do feel safe in saying that the person who commits suicide (or even contemplates it) is in a dark place. As someone who has battled depression and suicidal thoughts in my past, I can honestly say that I don't ever believe I was "out of touch with reality" (which, of course, is usually what someone who is out of touch would say!), even though I was hopeless and desperate.

Being without hope and being desperate are not emotional states that are reserved for the person who is insane. I don't think that the sanity of Saul, his armor-bearer, or Judas should necessarily be in question or that such psycho-analysis would prove fruitful for our purposes. All of these men, however, were clearly in a dark place and were being tormented and led by external (and sometimes internal; Luke 22:3) forces beyond their understanding and control.

Unfortunately, this describes most of us -- especially before we come to Christ.

It becomes a leap in logic and faith to connect the reality that suicide is outside of God's plan for His children and that it is, therefore, a sinful act to the conclusion that it is unforgivable.

According to my understanding of Scripture, there is only one unforgivable sin: blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Of all of the possible interpretations of this particular passage, I've never heard anyone attempt to link suicide to the blasphemy of the Spirit!

The question raises a different reason for this being "unforgivable": the fact that repentance for this particular sin is impossible if the act itself succeeds. As I was growing up, this was the reasoning I remember receiving for the belief that suicide was a direct ticket to Hell. However, I'm not sure that this theological reasoning is sound.

The major reason is that this brings us dangerously close to a works-based salvation, which the Scripture clearly denies (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 1:9). Salvation is not something that can be "lost" on a technicality. I don't believe that this reasoning works any better than one I hear a Christian radio host use frequently:

"If I am driving down the road and see a billboard with an immodestly dressed woman on it selling some product and a fleeting lustful thought crosses my mind, and then I'm killed in a car accident without having the opportunity to repent, have I lost my salvation?"

I think that the answer to this question is clearly, No. Repentance is a gift from the Lord and all of His children should walk in a lifestyle of repentance in order to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us constantly and move freely in our lives without being hindered or quenched by our living in sin. However, each of us has more "sin" in our life than we even realize and you would be hard-pressed to convince me that anyone (aside from Jesus) ever passed into death without any un-repented-from sins on their account!

So, what reason would we have for believing that suicide is the exception? I suppose it could be argued that suicide is an act of apostasy, but you'll have a hard time making that case from Scripture.

In the end, I'm not sure that I can answer this question with certainty. The admonition of the Scripture is to endure until the end because His faithful promises are for those who endure (Mark 13:13; 2 Timothy 2:12). I'm not sure that someone who commits suicide has fallen short of that goal or not.

Ultimately, entrance into relationship with the Living God and consequently, into His heaven, is based on a relationship with Jesus Christ. While it is difficult for me to understand how someone who is genuinely saved and walking as a child of light could be in such a dark place as to commit suicide, that doesn't mean it's impossible.

Many things that are hard to believe are never-the-less true.

We have to trust in the One who judges all things impartially and who is always good to do what is right. And He will.

Every time.

Suicide isn't a good option, nor is it the only option. My prayer is that all who are in darkness will come into the light of Jesus and that they will allow Him to be their source of victory and joy in this broken world.

For those who have endured the loss of a friend or a loved one through the act of suicide, my encouragement is that the Bible does not declare without a shadow of a doubt that this is clear evidence of their damnation for eternity. God will do what is right and we can rest in His goodness, even in such a difficult case.

1 comment:

P. Scott said...

Nicely done. As one who has been trained in "suicideology" and the ASIST method for suicide prevention, I fully agree with your argument against it being an "un-forgivable" sin. There are way too many factors involved in the study of the psychology of the suicidal mind to try and give a standard formula for helping those who are struggling or considering it. The best you can do is to offer them the hope that is only found in Christ, and seek to get them some professional help. Thanks for your answer, this was a tough question!