How has Christian view on suicide evolved?


The view of the Christian Church – a work in progress

The following is a preliminary to the question of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.

The Bible mentions three suicides.  Judges 16:28-30 tells the story of Samson killing the enemy of Israel by killing himself and became a sort of first suicide bomber.  Samson is a national hero.  1 Samuel 31:4 describes King Saul falling on his sword in stead of a life of shame after being defeated by the Philistines.  He redeemed himself in the eyes of Israelites by committing suicide.  Acts 1:18 reports Judas Iscariot hung himself out of guilt for betraying his master and teach Jesus.  I also found four passages which mention writers’ death wish.  Job 3: 20 – 22, Jonah 4:8, Acts 16:28, Philippians1:23.

Job lost all children who were killed in a natural calamity, lost all wealth and possessions by marauding brigands.  Afterward, he suffered skin disease which caused unbearable incessant itch.  Seeing his suffering his wife said, “Curse God and die.”  His friends assumed he commited grievous sins that brought to him such misery.  Job cursed the day he was born and wanted to die.  Jonah couldn’t stand the heat of the Sun without a shade and wanted to die: the most frivolous excuse!  In the Acts, a jail guard in Philippi was going to kill himself when he found that all his prisoners escaped.  As for Paul, students of the Bible have suspected him of chronic health problem that bothered him for a long time.  In the letter to the Philippians, he said death and being with Christ would be preferable than life of suffering.  They all preferred death to horrible quality of life.   They had no good reason to live on in such agony, guilt, misery, pain, or shame.    Death seemed to be a better option than mere longevity.

The Bible dose not say explicitly that suicide as such is a sinful act.  Then, where does the concept that suicide is an unforgivable sin comes from?  Suicide was a crime until recently in the Christian West.  As recently as 1970’s, at the university where I taught for eight years, there was a piece of land consecrated as the burial ground.  The Catholic Church sold the university to the government at the time of independence, but the cemetery remained under the control of the church.  One time, a faculty member committed suicide, but the church did not allowed him to be buried in the cemetery, even though the dead man was a devote Catholic.  In the United Church, I remember the controversy in B.C., during the sixties, of a couple of respected former missionaries who killed themselves in the garage instead of watching his wife dying slowly of cancer.  In this case, the argument for compassion and understanding for the tortured souls won rather than condemnation.

In Japan, the notion of honourable suicide has been a long held tradition.   The Japanese Protestant churches did not follow the western dictum of equating suicide to murder,  and didn’t refused funerals for those who killed themselves.  In fact, my first funeral in Tokyo after being designated as a Deacon was for a friend who committed suicide.  He opted for death rather than telling his newly wedded wife that he lost his job.  This is why I never had trouble accepting suicide as a tragic but inevitable way of dying for some people.  Where, then, does the prohibition of suicide come from?  Thomas Kennedy in the “Christianity Today” traces the origin of the doctrine that suicide was unforgivable sin to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. They influenced the doctrine of the Catholic Church, not the Bible.  Protestant Martin Luther and John Calvin down-graded it a notch by making it forgivable nevertheless “sin”.

The Bible was not the source of the doctrine of suicide as sin: the Church was.  It seems the whole notion against suicide comes from the ten commandments and for the respect for God’s creation.  It is absolutely right to accept the sanctity of life as the gift of God, thus prohibiting its willful destruction.  The sixth commandment “Thou shalt not kill” should be universally adhered to.   However I have trouble equating suicide with murder.  Furthermore, the Church has never observed the sixth commandment unconditionally.  There have always been “justifiable homicides” both in the church and the state.  I am happy that the progress in understanding of human conditions is nudging us toward the idea that suicide is a tragedy that should not happen, but definitely is not sin.  We are almost in agreement about the need to work towards a society where such a tragedy does not happen.

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