This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume31, number3 (2008). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Christianity claims that suicide is atheism exemplified—simultaneously denying the true God and putting oneself in His place. Most people probably are unable to organize their thoughts well enough to navigate the complex metaphysical maze of theological reasoning before killing themselves, but, in their violent deaths, they nonetheless put themselves in the place of God as master of life and death. Christianity historically has viewed the act of suicide as a terrible evil and the murder of a living being created in the image of God. It teaches that the only person who has the confidence to destroy his or her life without thinking of that as murder is the person who believes the false and superficial reasoning that life belongs to humankind alone. Any right of ownership any of us may claim is predicated on the false principle that the God and Creator of all that we survey has no right to claim ownership of it. Christianity asserts that it is possible for a person to bear the cross of life through the hardest of times, to escape the frightening grasp of self-destruction, and to be transformed by faith, hope, and love. To do so, however, Christianity further explains that one must have an understanding that transcends the personal, by which one lives not only for oneself, but perceives that he or she belongs not only to time, but also to eternity, not only to the world, but also to God.
Man in essence never actually desires to kill himself, and indeed this is an impossibility, since man belongs to eternity, he wants only to annihilate the instant, mistaken by him for eternity, at this one point he wants to annihilate all being and for this infringement upon eternity he answers against eternity.
–Nicholas Berdyaev, “On Suicide”1
In his novel The Devils,2 Fyodor Dostoyevsky introduces us to Kirillov, a man obsessed with the notion of man-godhood: the idea that there is no God and that in order to express his self-will he is bound to shoot himself and to be the only one to do so simply of his own free will. “I am bound to express my unbelief,”3 he argues with Stavrogin, another desperate man whose loss of faith makes him tormented and dangerous. “No higher idea than that there is no God exists for me. All man did was to invent God so as to live without killing himself. I am the only man in universal history who for the first time refused to invent God.”4
Kirillov asks Stavrogin to imagine three crosses side-by-side on a rugged hillside in the middle of the world. Hanging on one of the crosses there is a man with an other-worldly faith who says to another, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.”5 The day comes to a close and both men die finding neither paradise nor resurrection. This man was supposed to be the God-man for whom the world was created and yet nature’s laws do not even allow His miracle to continue. Kirillov writes, “If the laws of nature did not spare even Him, if they did not spare their own miracle, and made Him live in the midst of lies and die for a lie, then the whole planet is a lie and is based on a lie and a stupid mockery. So the very laws of the planet are a lie and a farce of the devil. What then, is there to live for?”6
Kirillov conducts a grand metaphysical experiment in which he decides to kill himself in order to master both life and death, and thus become God. Kirillov’s metaphysical suicide results in his actual death; Christ’s sacrificial death results in eternal life through resurrection. As Dostoyevsky shows, the two are exact opposites. Kirillov’s gesture is empty and unable to vanquish death or time or to conquer eternity. Like all suicide, Kirillov’s is ugly, even though it could be perceived as lofty among those who, like him, have killed themselves, too.
Dostoevsky reveals through Kirillov that suicide is atheism exemplified—simultaneously denying the true God and putting oneself in His place. Most people probably don’t navigate the complex metaphysical maze that Kirillov did before killing themselves—they are more likely in a confused emotional state and unable to organize their thoughts that way. In their violent deaths, they nonetheless “put themselves in the place of God,” as Russian theologian and philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev notes, since each of them considers him- or herself to be “the sole master of life and death.”7
PREVALENCE AND SOCIAL EFFECTS OF SUICIDE
In the year 2004, 29,350 people committed suicide in the United States.8 For every completed suicide there were about 25 attempts; that’s an average suicide rate of 3.4 people per hour, 80.4 per day, 564.4 per week, and 2,445.8 per month. Suicide ranked eleventh as a leading cause of death in the United States, as compared to homicide, which ranked fourteenth. There was a gradual increase in percentages of suicides as each age cohort went up; the suicide rate among people ages 5–14 was .08 percent, 15–24 was 10.4 percent, 25–34 was 12.8 percent, 34–54 was 14.6 percent, 55–74 was 12.5 percent, 75–84 was 17.7 percent, 85 and older was 19.4 percent. For as many who attempt or complete the act of suicide, there is no way to estimate the untold numbers of people who have resolved to kill themselves or have thought about killing themselves in the past or who are presently thinking about it.9
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche considered “the thought of suicide [as] a great consolation: by means of [which] one gets successfully through many a bad night,”10 whereas philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev considered the question concerning suicide to be “one of the most disquieting and tormentive”11 humankind must confront. He wrote:
Suicide belongs to those complex aspects of life, which evoke towards them a twofold attitude. On the one hand, the person killing [himself] evokes…profound pity, a sympathy for the torment endured by him. But the fact itself of suicide evokes terror, the condemnation as a sin and even as a crime. Those near and dear often want to hide this horrid fact. It is possible to sympathize with the suicide, but it is impossible to sympathize with suicide.12
The phenomenon of suicide has existed through time immemorial, here as an individual act isolated from community or there as a societal movement spurred on by a collective urge to sound a disturbing note. Either way, however, Berdyaev argues, “the suicide becomes contagious and the person, killing himself, commits a social act, and instigates others onto the selfsame path, and it creates a psychological atmosphere of disintegration and depression.”13 It isn’t just the suicide, in annihilating herself, who suffers; through her sowing of the seeds of death, all who are left behind in the violent wake share in her suffering.
HISTORICAL VIEWS OF SUICIDE
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Ancient Greek society viewed suicide as universally wrong simply because the gods had created humans to serve them and killing oneself was a betrayal of such a role. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras believed the world was able to contain just so many souls at any given time, and suicides put this delicate balance at risk. Roman society, on the other hand, allowed suicide in certain circumstances, as in the case of a member of the aristocracy who was suffering from unbearable pain or an enemy of Julius Caesar who would rather end his life than suffer torture at the emperor’s hand. Christians in Roman society drastically affected such views, however, and suicide was banned by the church in the fourth century. St.Augustine, in emphasizing the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” later elevated the act of suicide to a sin against God. In the years that followed St. Augustine’s decree, the Church held various synods or councils to explore the issue and status of suicide. The following is a brief list of synods and their outcomes:
· Synod of Aries (AD 452)—prohibited suicide because it was an act of murder
· Synod of Braga (AD 563)—denied church rites to the deceased in ordinary cases of suicide
· Synod of Tolego (AD 693)—excommunicated the deceased in cases of suicide and denied church rites and consecrated burial to them
· Synod of Nimes (AD 1096)—declared that the deceased in cases of suicide should be buried outside the church yard or city
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the idea that suicide could be explained through a medical model or through a victim’s mental condition emerged, which gave way to the idea that a person therefore had the right to take his or her life without others passing judgment on the act. Society saw suicide as “not wrong in itself, just [in the sense] that it prohibits the person from doing any more social good,” as researchers Ronald and Stephen Holmes note, and “coupling that thought with the medical model, no person would commit suicide if that person’s life was fulfilling and enjoyable.”14 This attitude no doubt set the stage for the thought of nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), who believed that suicide was an individual prerogative.
A SOCIOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF SUICIDE
Known as the father of suicide studies, sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) believed suicide was always a social act that should not be viewed as a sin against God, society, or fellow humans. He believed that every member of society had two dimensions: integration, or how one assimilates into society, and regulation, or how one follows the rules of society.
How we adapt to society’s demands and accept its rules will result in how we cope with our own identity, and these two areas will influence the way we behave and, ultimately, the way we function. Durkheim categorized four types15 of suicide: anomic, altruistic, egoistic, and fatalistic, a categorization that ignores the psychological or psychiatric elements that may be responsible for suicide:
· Anomic—suicide motivated by anomie or social instability as a result of a drastic change in societal norms, such as a drastic change in the economy or individual economic status (consider the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States and the rate of suicides associated especially with downward mobility).16
· Altruistic—suicide motivated by undue and all-encompassing importance placed on assimilation into a group rather than on the individual. (This type of suicide describes the person who offers his or her life for a social, personal, or religious cause. It is apparent that a person who commits altruistic suicide suffers from a lack of individuation as well as a lack of social integration.)17
· Egoistic—suicide motivated by the all-importance of the individual over any cause. (This type of suicide is exemplified in a soldier’s suicide note, in which he said, “I cannot return to war. It is unjust,” yet proceeded to commit suicide.)18
· Fatalistic—suicide motivated by life in a hyper-regulated society, from which a person believes there is no exit. Durkheim provided little explanation of fatalistic suicide, though he believed that some of the suicides of his day were fatalistic.19
Durkheim’s suicide study is by far the most influential in history, mainly due to its comprehensive nature. Many researchers believe, however, that his work carries little value today.20 Even so, his studies have concentrated on the role of social constraints and integration as important factors in suicide and thus remind us that “the nature of the social order and people’s integration in it are equally important.”21
As the Holmes brothers observe, “No one theory of suicide can explain such a complex chosen behavior. Biology, genetics, psychological traits, and social forces all play an important role in the decision to commit suicide.”22
POETIC REFLECTION ON DEATH
Suicide results in death and so with death we must concern ourselves. In the movie Wit,23 Vivian Bearing (played by Emma Thompson) is an English professor and scholar of seventeenth-century metaphysical poet John Donne. She has a biting wit that educates but also alienates her students. She keeps her teaching and life both rigidly under control, never letting down her defenses—until the day comes when they are taken down for her. Diagnosed with Stage Four metastatic ovarian cancer, she agrees to undergo a series of procedures that are brutal, extensive, and experimental. For eight months she is no longer a teacher, but a subject for others to study.
Donne’s “Holy Sonnet VI” serves as a centerpiece in the last days of Bearing’s life. Having returned to her hospital room nauseous after a full dose of chemotherapy, she recalls a life-changing encounter with her mentor, the great Donne scholar E. M. Ashford, from years before:
Ashford: Your essay on “Holy Sonnet VI” is a melodrama with a veneer of scholarship unworthy of you…to say nothing of Donne. Do it again….
Bearing: Death be not proud
Though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for Thou are not so.
Ashford: You’ve missed the point of the poem…because you used an edition of the text that is inauthentically punctuated. Miss Bearing?… You take this too lightly. Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with death, calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life. In the edition you chose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation.
And Death (capital D) shall be no more; (semi-colon)
Death, (capital D, comma) thou shalt die! (exclamation mark)
…Gardner’s edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript. Not for sentimental reasons, I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar. It reads:
And death shall be no more, (comma)
Death thou shalt die.
Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting. Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause. Life, death, soul, God, past, present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semicolons. Just a comma.
THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES ON DEATH AND SUICIDE
Having understood the comma, this pause between life and life everlasting, the early church, as reflected in New Testament writings, carved out a perspective of death as both foe and friend in order to embrace both the tragedy and the victory of it. Theologian Peter Davids writes, “The death of martyrs could be celebrated and the death of the faithful, while sorrowful, could be spoken of with confidence and joy…Death was not denied nor sorrow suppressed, but death was seen as hopeful, an event in Christ, an event for which one could prepare.”24 C. S. Lewis picks up on this when he writes regarding the Christian view of death: “It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon; it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.”25
A theology of death and suicide, theologian Dennis P. Hollinger believes, should hold together human stewardship—“we are called to be caretakers and decision-makers who must exercise wisdom in the use and allocation of all the resources that God places into our hands”26—and divine providence—“God is in total control of the affairs of this world and humans have virtually no legitimate say over what transpires regarding life and death.”27 He writes, “When Christians differ with secularists over the issue of suicide, it is fundamentally a worldview or theological difference. It is therefore imperative that Christians grapple with the moral dilemmas from within an explicitly Christian framework. In the face of…suicide, we must hold together what humanity tends to pull apart: death as friend and foe, suffering as challenge to persevere and opportunity to overcome, and the dual affirmation of divine providence and human stewardship.”28
These theological assertions will not always address the details of complex moral and ethical dilemmas such as suicide, Hollinger notes. They nonetheless are able to provide a framework and a guide that prevents us from playing God in ethical dilemmas while simultaneously preventing us from shirking our responsibility to face up to our being created in the image of God and protecting all that that means when it comes to choosing life over death.
Paul’s Position on Suicide
The New Testament puts forth the idea of eternal life beyond this mortal coil where the believer experiences intimate fellowship with the Creator God and pain and suffering (both mental and physical) are vanquished (Rev. 21:1–5). Suicide proponent Arthur J. Droge advances the thesis that the ancient philosophers understood the afterlife as a major determinant in its view of suicide, or what he calls “voluntary death”:
The two schools with the strongest belief in an afterlife (the Pythagoreans and Platonists) expressed the strongest opposition to voluntary death. In contrast, the Cynics and Epicureans, who did not believe in an afterlife, were prepared to defend the right of an individual to take his own life. In fact, it appears that the Cynics were prepared to die on the slightest provocation.29
Droge makes the bold claim that Paul’s particular perspective of the sweet spoils that awaited him in the afterlife caused him to “lust after death.”30 As theologian Donal P. O’Mathuna shows,31 however, “the Bible never uses the hope of the afterlife to devalue this life. It emphasizes the significance of this life and the service we can give to others.”32 Our bodies, O’Mathuna says, may deteriorate and fail, but they are never to be considered worthless or useless, or in need of closing. “[Our bodies] remain gifts from God through which He can be glorified (1 Cor. 6:20; Phil. 1:20), even when they suffer humiliation, loss, or pain.”33
According to Paul, we are to follow Christ‘s example and consider others and their interests as more important than we are (Phil. 2:3–5, 21). Paul showed himself an example of this when he endured the worst of beatings and imprisonment for the sake of others (2 Tim. 2:10). He also used Epaphroditus as an example of one who served others at the risk of his own life (Phil. 2:25–30). O’Mathuna writes, “Even when he was sick, his focus was on the well-being of the Philippians (v. 26). We can continue to serve others even in our illnesses and in our dying. For example, we can pray for others or witness to the hope that is within us. We will always have relationships that need healing and depth.”34
O’Mathuna sets the challenge squarely before us. If, as Christians, we are blessed with health in body and mind, do we place the needs of others before our own? Or, if we find ourselves struggling with the extraordinary circumstances that the human mind and body inevitably must encounter, are we able to accomplish the Herculean task of considering the needs of others, especially of those who are ill or struggling with issues such as depression and suicide? O’Mathuna believes that how we face death is a gift to those who remain when we move on, one that can bring glory to God and take away the desire to hasten death, but that suicide denies them this gift. Theologian Ralph P. Martin states that if death were the answer to despair, “we would think that Paul would desire death, but this is not what we find. Rather, he considers it still an enemy (1Cor.15:26). He is thankful that he has escaped death (2Cor.1:10) and he desires to finish his ministry in this life (Phil.1:20–24; 1Cor.9:23–27).”35 If we love and know Christ we also understand that to die is to be in His presence, to join the one we love so much (2Cor.5:6‑8), and that death is a time of release from a corruptible body (Rom.8:23; 2Cor.5:4) and the actual inheritance of a new incorruptible body, free from pain, illness, or death (1Cor.15:42–44; Rev.21:4).
Contemplation of the afterlife, says O’Mathuna, “should lead to a greater desire to please the Lord in this life (2Cor.5:9; Rom.14:7–8). This is done by serving others and suffering with them. As we do this, our relationships with Christ deepen, and we desire to be with Him even more (Phil.3:8).”36 Paul admits (see Phil.1:19–26) that death has a certain attraction and that the desire to die can be overwhelming in the midst of this life’s great pain, but affirms that Christians should turn boldly and confidently from the temptation and search for ways to love and serve others and glorify God.37
THE MEANING OF SUICIDE
A Christian apologist and bioethicist by training, I have spent several decades immersed in the study of death and dying, especially in their psychological, sociological, and theological aspects, a field known as thanatology. During this time, I have collected hundreds of thanatopses, a particular sort of meditation on death and suicide. Of my collection, “On Suicide,” a booklet written by Nicholas Berdyaev, has had the most profound influence. In this work, Berdyaev puts forth and meticulously develops the thesis that suicide is a transgression against life and death and constitutes murder, a theme that today meets with great controversy in both sacred and secular circles.
Suicide as a Transgression against Life and Death
Christ through His death destroys death’s hold on humanity, and we, as followers of Christ, must see clearly the redemptive significance of that in light of what having to face our sin over and over again for eternity might be like. Berdyaev believes that “suicide is directly the opposite to the Cross of Christ, to Golgotha, it is a refusal of one’s cross, a betrayal of Christ,” that “it is therefore in deep contradiction to Christianity,” and that “the image of the suicide is the opposite to the image of the Crucified, crucified for truth.”38 Christ’s sacrifice of redemption sets us free from death and all it represents, a freedom that the person who commits suicide will never realize since the path he or she chooses espouses a refusal of such redemption.
Suicide as Murder
Suicide is a terrible evil and the murder of a living being created in the image of God, Berdyaev proclaims. Only the person who believes his or her life is his or hers alone has the confidence to destroy it without thinking murder is involved. Berdyaev, who sees this as “a false and superficial line of reasoning,”39 states, “My life is not mine merely, upon which I possess an absolute right of ownership, but is as it were a life on loan, it is first of all a life, belonging to God, Who alone has in it an absolute right of ownership, and it is likewise a life relating to those near and dear for me, other people, my nation, society, and ultimately, all the world, which has need of me.”40
You may think you own the shirt on your back or the glasses through which you read these words, but any right of ownership any of us may claim is predicated on the false principle that the God and Creator of all that we survey has no right to claim ownership of it. Such an assertion, Berdyaev believes, represents a false and non-Christian individualism.
SUICIDE CONQUERED BY CHRISTIAN FAITH, HOPE, AND LOVE
It is possible for a person to bear the cross of life through the hardest of times, to escape the frightening grasp of self-destruction, and to be transformed by faith, hope, and love. To do so, one must have an understanding that transcends the personal, by which one lives not only for oneself and in the name of oneself, but perceives that he or she belongs not only to time, but also to eternity, not only to the world, but also to God.
For those who cannot find their way, to whom suicide appears to be the only way, Berdyaev believes that it is never our right to “harshly and mercilessly judge the suicide. [Such a] judgment is not… given us to make.”41 As much as we in a contemporary culture that is steeped in the denial of death, especially death by suicide, would like to idealize suicide, Berdyaev would not have us do so:
It is not…the one committing suicide, but rather the act of suicide that ought to be condemned, as a sin, as a spiritual failing and weakness. Suicide is a betrayal of the Cross. During that moment, when a man is killing himself, he forgets about Christ, and were he to remember, his hand would tremble and he would not inflict the mortal blow upon himself. He would preserve his life, since therein he has found the resolve to sacrifice it. He wanted to kill himself, since he did not want to sacrifice his life, since he was thinking only about himself and was affirming only himself.42
It is precisely this illusion, the self-deception that suicide is the final liberation from time and torment that shows the act to be most clearly what it was from the very beginning of its conception—a refusal of immortality. In that very moment, the still point in which suicide rings out, time stands still for everyone involved in the act; but nothing we could attempt, and certainly nothing the one taking life any longer could attempt, can prevent eternity and judgment from moving ever closer to us all.
1. Nicholas A. Berdyaev, On Suicide (Paris: YMCA Press, 1931), part 2, paragraph 3. Also available online at http://www.berdyaev.com/berdiaev/berd_lib/1931_27.html.
2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Devils (New York: Penguin Books, 1953).
3. Ibid., 612.
4. Ibid., 613.
5. Ibid., 614.
7. Berdyaev, On Suicide, part 3, paragraph 3.
8. See Ronald M. Holmes and Stephen T. Holmes, Suicide: Theory, Practice, and Investigation (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005), 3–5.
9. It is difficult also to count the many ways there are to take one’s life by one’s own hand. As Seneca notes, however it may happen, “Whether the throat is strangled by a knot, or water stops the breathing, or the hard ground crushes in the skull of one falling headlong to its surface, or flame inhaled cuts off the course of respiration—be it what it may; the end is swift.” Lucius Annasus Seneca, Moral Essays, Vol. I. Loeb Classical Library, trans. John W. Basore (London: W. Heinemann, 1928–1935), available at http://www.stoics.com/ seneca_essays_book_1.html.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), foreword.
11. Berdyaev, part I, paragraph 1.
14. Holmes and Holmes, 24.
15. Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology (New York: Routledge, 1970), quoted in Holmes and Holmes, 27–37.
16. Holmes and Holmes, 30.
17. Ibid., 31.
19. Ibid., 32.
20. Ibid., 37.
21. Allen Liska, Perspectives on Deviance, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1987), 45.
22. Holmes and Holmes, 33.
23. Wit, directed by Mike Nichols, HBO Productions, 2001; based on the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edison.
24. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), s.v. “Death,” (by Peter H. Davids).
25. C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 130.
26. Dennis P. Hollinger, “A Theology of Death,” in Suicide: A Christian Response: Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life, ed. Timothy J. Demy and Gary P. Stewart (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 265. This chapter also appeared as an article in Ethics and Medicine 12, 3 (1996): 60–64.
27. Ibid., 264.
28. Ibid., 265.
29. Arthur J. Droge and James D. Tabor, A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), 43.
30. Ibid., 122.
31. See Donal P. O’Mathuna, “Did Paul Condone Suicide? Implications for Assisted Suicide and Active Euthanasia,” in Suicide: A Christian Response, 387–97. This chapter also appeared as an article in Ethics and Medicine 12, 3 (1996), 55–59.
32. Lloyd R. Bailey, Sr., Biblical Perspectives on Death (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 101, quoted in O’Mathuna.
33. O’Mathuna, 394.
34. Ibid., 395.
35. Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, World Biblical Commentary, vol. 40 (Waco, TX: Word, 1986), 106, quoted in O’Mathuna.
36. O’Mathuna, 395.
38. Berdyaev, part 3, paragraph 2.
39. Ibid., part 3, paragraph 4.
40. Ibid., part 3, paragraph 5.
41. Ibid., part 5, paragraph 2.