Theology Thursday: Suicide by Lisa Hunt-Wotton and Dr John Drane
Suicide is a difficult topic. In general we are not well informed at all about suicide in fact it is a big black theological hole. In all my decades as a Christian ministry leader I have never heard suicide spoken about: not at University, not in a staff environment and not from the pulpit.
When I ask about the modern theological thought on suicide and what to say to suffering families I draw a blank. Is Suicide a sin? Is it the unrepentable sin? Is there hope for after life and eternity? If you suicide are you damned?
So what do we do?
We contact a friend.
I email my wise friend Rev Dr John Drane. John and I agreed that there is very little information available on the topic of suicide. John kindly also agreed to attempt to answer my questions.
John is founder of the religious studies program at the University of Stirling, Scotland.
He is also appointed to teach Practical Theology in the Divinity School at the University of Aberdeen. An adjunct professor in New Testament and Practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, California, a visiting scholar at Spurgeon’s College in London and a visiting Fellow of St John’s College, Durham. John is also an ordained minister and well known throughout the UK and western world for his academic contributions.
Firstly I will give a brief historical overlay of suicide and then John and I will have a chat.
Suicide is the act of killing yourself, most often as a result of depression or other mental illness.
“Throughout history, suicide has evoked an astonishingly wide range of reactions—bafflement, dismissal, heroic glorification, sympathy, anger, moral or religious condemnation—but it is never uncontroversial. Suicide is now an object of multidisciplinary scientific study, with sociology, anthropology, psychology, and psychiatry each providing important insights into suicide”. Particularly promising are the significant advances being made in our scientific understanding of the neurological and genetic bases of suicidal behaviour (Stoff and Mann 1997, Jamison 2000, Joiner 2010, 228–236) and the mental conditions associated with it.
Nonetheless, many of the most controversial questions surrounding suicide are philosophical. For philosophers, suicide raises a host of conceptual, moral, and psychological questions. Among these questions are:
What makes a person’s behaviour suicidal?
What motivates such behaviour?
Is suicide morally permissible, or even morally required in some extraordinary circumstances?
Is suicidal behaviour rational? (Stamford).
Recorded suicide discourse goes back to Plato and Socrates. Before that not a lot was said in the ancient world about suicide except that most of the ancient city states criminalised self killing. Socrates believed that ‘suicide is always wrong because it represents our releasing ourselves (i.e., our souls) from a “guard-post” (i.e., our bodies) the gods have placed us in as a form of punishment (Phaedo 61b-62c)” (Stanford).
“In contrast, the Stoics held that whenever the means to living a naturally flourishing life are not available to us, suicide may be justified, regardless of the character or virtue of the individual in question. Our natures require certain “natural advantages” (e.g., physical health) in order for us to be happy, and a wise person who recognises that such advantages may be lacking in her life sees that ending her life neither enhances nor diminishes her moral virtue” (Stanford).
The advent of institutionalised christianity had perhaps the most influence on philosophical thought around suicide as it declared that suicide was both morally wrong and a sin, even though there was no biblical text to confirmed this. Augustine put suicide alongside the ten commandments and believed that is was the same as the command: “Thou shalt not kill”. He declared that is was an unrepentable sin.
“St. Thomas Aquinas believed that (1) Suicide is contrary to natural self-love, whose aim is to preserve us. (2) Suicide injures the community of which an individual is a part. (3) Suicide violates our duty to God because God has given us life as a gift and in taking our lives we violate His right to determine the duration of our earthly existence”(Aquinas 1271, part II, Q64, A5).
Why do I mention these ancient philosophers and church fathers. When we begin to study any topic it is helpful to use the Wesleyan quadrilateral. This quadrilateral is a method for theological reflection and is in short a lens through which we look at different topics to help us establish a balanced approach.
Those lenses are:
1: Scripture – what does scripture have to say about his?
2: What does church history, church fathers have to say about his?
3: What is normative experience?
4: What is reason or reasonable?
Which is why it is important to include church history as we explore this topic. Unknowingly quite a lot of our modern thought comes from ancient thinkers.
Most religious thinkers especially the Catholics believe in the ‘sanctity of life’ view, human life is inherently valuable and precious, demanding respect from others and reverence for oneself. Hence, suicide is wrong because it violates our moral duty to honour the inherent value of human life (Stanford).
Along with the philosophical and theological implications there are also the psychological implications. Suicide in society is treated very carefully and very differently to other deaths. News mediums and the police do not like to report it. Numbers of suicides are not publicised. There is a psychological phenomena called copy cat killing or the ‘Wherther’ effect.
“Research identified by Mindframe, the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing’s national strategy for responsible reporting of suicide and mental illness in the media, has concluded that the way the media presents stories on suicide can have a direct influence on the public’s perception of suicide and its related mental health issues”. As Madelyn Gould, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in the US, stated in a recent article on copycat suicide (Australian Psychological Society).
“Suicide contagion is real. Social behaviour is contagious and influential”.
So lets summarise these findings:
▪It is linked to mental health
▪Biblical texts do not talk about suicide
▪Church history says that it is morally wrong and a sin
▪There is a known copy cat effect of suicide in society
Hi John, thank you again for joining me today on Sunday Everyday. I am attempting to tackle this subject today because I am pretty frustrated that we have very little narrative on this topic and also because there are thousands of families who have to grapple with death and loss through suicide and who are at a loss to know what to think about it.
Lisa: Is suicide a sin? I’m a student of theology and I can’t answer this question because quite frankly I’ve never had a conversation about it.
Interestingly scripture has nothing to say about suicide. It is also interesting to note that the church in the past has condoned martyrdom, killing in war, and capital punishment but not the taking of ones own life. One argument is that it is Gods prerogative to decide when we die and that we cannot take that decision into our own hands. I know this is a big question, what are your thoughts on this?
John: You’re right, Lisa – the Bible doesn’t have an angle on suicide, in fact the word ‘suicide’ or its equivalents doesn’t appear anywhere in its pages. That isn’t to say that there are no examples of people ending their own lives. The most high profile example is probably king Saul and his armour bearer, who committed suicide following the defeat of their army and the death of Saul’s own sons (1 Samuel 31:4-5). Not long after that, Ahithophel is another one who took his own life (2 Samuel 17:23). A later king of Israel, Zimri, ended up killing himself while taking revenge on his enemies (1 Kings 16:18), while Samson is another example of the same thing (Judges 16:28-31). There is just one New Testament example of suicide, and that is Judas following his betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 27:5).
Taken together, these examples from the Bible reflect the same factors that often lead people to commit suicide today. Saul is generally believed to have suffered from what we today would recognize as a mental illness, while Ahithophel and Zimri felt themselves to have been betrayed in some way, and Samson was already in poor physical shape, chained up and blinded by his enemies and no doubt longing for a speedy end. Judas Iscariot was consumed with guilt and remorse, and death seemed the best way out.
Guilt, physical suffering, disappointment, betrayal and failure – these are all common causes of suicide and self-harm today. The interesting thing about these Biblical examples is that they are just described in a matter-of-fact way, and in none of them is there any moral judgment passed. The only possible exception to that is the case of Samson, where the moral judgment is entirely positive as his suicide is viewed as a heroic act that saved his people from the Philistines.
Lisa: John what do you say to families who are experiencing the loss of a loved one through suicide? There seems to be a lot of fear around this topic. Words like Sin, Hell and Damned come into the conversation. Its pretty scary. Have you ever had a bereaved family member ask you about the deceased’s eternal resting place? I assume that the fact of their faith and belief in Christ would also come into it?
John: The very first funeral I ever conducted was of a man in his thirties who committed suicide. Like many such individuals, his was a complex and challenging story. He had been in prison for molesting his own children, and when he was released was determined to make a fresh start – supported by his wife and kids who welcomed him back. Sadly, he struggled with his sex addiction, and took the only way out that he could see, which was suicide.
I learned many things as a consequence of that experience, the main one being that actually you don’t say anything to families at such a time: you listen, because if you don’t you’ll almost certainly end up talking about your own questions and chances are they won’t be the same as theirs.
In that particular case, his family were mystified by his actions because, as far as anybody knew, he hadn’t reoffended – certainly not with any of them. So their questions were mostly focused on what they could or should have done to help rehabilitate their husband and father.
Inevitably, the suicide of a family member results in an exaggerated form of the normal responses we all have to bereavements of any sort – this time, heightened by what is usually the sudden and unexpected nature of it, quite often overlaid with a sense of intensified guilt in relation to the fact that nobody saw it coming. There is very little that anyone can helpfully say in such a situation, and always whatever I might say will be directed by the questions and statements that others bring. We all know that behind such experiences are the big unknowns of why bad things happen to good people, but at a time of tragedy that is not usually the question that is uppermost in people’s minds. More often than not, it is something like “does anybody still love me?” – and the answer to that doesn’t always come through words at all.
Lisa: Finally John, the Catholic church calls it the ‘unrepentable sin’. I’m assuming that this is because if you are dead you can’t ask for forgiveness whereas if you commit murder you have a chance to repent and ask for forgiveness. What are your thoughts on this?
John: This notion goes back to Augustine in the 5th century, whose reasoning you’ve summed up pretty well: if suicide is murder, it’s wrong, but if you’re dead, you can’t repent, therefore it’s the one sin for which you can’t be forgiven.
It’s worth pointing out that even in the earliest times not everyone agreed with that, and also that it’s not just a Catholic notion as it’s found in the Westminster Larger Catechism of the 17th century, which is still foundational for many Calvinist denominations even today.
So the notion that suicide is a worse sin than others is deeply embedded in the Protestant psyche as well. You can’t argue with Augustine’s logic!
But for me it’s like the logic that asks how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – the sort of conundrum that fascinated previous generations, but which bears little relationship to real life or (and this is more important) to what we know of God.
I find it significant that nowhere does the Bible even hint at such a question, let alone try to address it, because God is not predictable in that sort of way.
The first disciples wrestled with the fact that Jesus didn’t seem to be what they thought (logically) a messiah should look like, and not only in his demeanor but in his teaching he repeatedly undermined the rules of logic – something that Paul continued with his insistence that wisdom and foolishness aren’t necessarily what we think they are when viewed from God’s perspective (1 Corinthians 1:18-21).
To limit God to what we would do (which in essence is what this sort of rational discourse does) is to undermine the very thing that, according to Jesus, is God’s core character – something otherwise known as ‘grace’. Actually, in relation to the final summing up of all things, and in light of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), who could possibly second guess God’s intentions?
So while there are still many other things to be said here, I think we can confidently entrust our loved ones to the care of God, regardless of how they end their days.
Australian Psychological Society https://www.psychology.org.au/Content.aspx?ID=1830
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