Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Life, Death & Growing Old (part four): Suicide

* The following is part of a teaching series for a Sunday school class.
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Life, Death & Growing Old

·      Suicide

Philosophical Considerations

1.     Defining “suicide”:

a.     Standard definition: “A suicidal act involves the intentional termination of one’s own life.”

                                               i.     This definition is too broad

                                              ii.     Does not match our intuitions about various cases

“When an ethical term is being defined, a proposed definition should explain the ordinary language intuitions of people of good will regarding clear and borderline cases of what to count as acts of suicide.”[1]

b.     Which of the following cases are suicides—and why?[2]

                                               i.     An elderly man, despairing of life, leaves a note behind and jumps off a bridge.

                                              ii.     A soldier captured in war takes a capsule in order to avoid a torturous death and to hide secrets from the enemy.

                                            iii.     A truck driver, foreseeing his own death, drives off a bridge in order to avoid hitting children playing in the road.

                                            iv.     A hospitalized cancer patient with six months to live shoots himself in order to save his family from unneeded psychological and financial suffering.

                                              v.     A terminally ill patient, realizing death is imminent, requests that she not be resuscitated again if another heart failure occurs.

                                            vi.     A Jehovah’s Witness refuses a simple blood transfusion for religious reasons and subsequently dies for lack blood.

c.      Key concepts to consider:

                                               i.     Intention: what is a person trying to do?

·      Truck driver example (iii.)

a.    Seeking to sacrificially preserve life

b.     Truck driver did not desire to die but permitted his death to save lives.

                                              ii.     Coercion: the decision to terminate one’s life is done under a coercive duress of another or others.

* Soldier situation above (ii.)—“If the soldier were not under coercion but terminated his life anyway, this would most likely be classified as a suicide.  Thus if an act is coerced, it probably does not count as a suicide.”[3]

                                            iii.     Others-directed: the act of terminating one’s life is not done from a self-directed motive but, rather, from an other’s-directed motivation.

1.     Seems relevant for cases (ii.) and (iii.) above.

2.     What about case (iv.) above?  J. P. Moreland argues:

“Some philosophers add the stipulation that other-directed acts are suicidal if they are done for animals or nonpersonal states of affairs (e.g., wealth).  Thus case four is an act of self-destruction for others (a cancer patient shoots himself to save others economic and psychological distress) and should be classified as a suicide because it is not done to save the lives of others, but to realize a nonpersonal state of affairs.”[4]

3.     The Jehovah’s Witness/blood transfusion case (vi.) could be seen not as a suicide but as a sacrificial act of martyrdom.  Moreland adds:

“An important issue in this case is whether the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation of Scripture is accurate.  Most biblical scholars do not think so and thus would have a factual problem with case six.”[5]
                                            iv.     Direct and active means: the person has a direct and active hand in bringing about their death

1.     The cancer patient shooting himself (case iv.) would be considered suicide.

2.     Case (v.)—a terminally ill patient with a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order would not be considered suicide.  Form of “passive euthanasia” which seems ethically allowable.

d.     Moreland’s definition:

“An act is suicide if and only if a person intentionally and/or directly causes his or her own death as an ultimate end in itself or as a means to another and (e.g., pain relief), through acting (e.g., taking a pill) or refraining from acting (e.g., refusing to eat) when that act is not coerced and is not done sacrificially for the lives of other persons or in obedience to God.”[6]

Biblical Considerations

2.     Some general biblical principles[7]

a.     Suicide is sin against God as the Creator and sustainer of life.  It rejects God’s sovereignty and usurps his prerogative in regard to life and death (Job 12.10).

b.     Suicide disregards the image of God and the sanctity of human life (Genesis 1.26-27; 9.5-6).

c.      Suicide is poor stewardship of one’s body (1 Corinthians 6.19-20).

d.     Suicide demonstrates misdirected love and is injurious to others (Matthew 22.36-39; Ephesians 5.29).

3.     Suicide is a violation of the sixth commandment—“ You shall not murder” (Exodus 20.13; Deuteronomy 5.17).

a.     Suicide is a form of homicide.

b.     Scripture does present exceptions to the general prohibition of killing; might suicide fit under these exceptions?

                                               i.     Capital punishment (Genesis 9.6)

                                              ii.     Just war (Genesis 14.1-16)[8]

                                            iii.     Defending one’s own or another’s life (Exodus 22.2-3)

“The common denominator that connects the three exceptional situations—capital punishment, war, and defense of life—is that they all spring directly out of profound respect for the sixth commandment itself.  All of them reflect the positive side of the sixth commandment: the sanctity of human life and the duty to preserve and protect it.”[9]

                                            iv.     Suicide does not advance the good purpose of the sixth commandment.

4.     Biblical examples of suicide:

a.     Abimelech (Judges 9.52-54)

b.     Saul and his armor bearer (1 Samuel 31.3-6; 1 Chronicles 10.3-5)

c.      Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17.23)

d.     Zimri (1 Kings 16.18-19)

e.     Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27.3-5)

f.      Note: Some add Samson to this list (Judges 16.25-31) but others do not.[10]

5.     Scriptural perspectives to consider:

a.     “Scripture does not say explicitly that suicide is wrong, but it places the act in a context of shame and defeat.”[11]

b.     “The stories were meant to be instructive to future generations, portraying biblical suicides not as examples to be followed but rather as cautionary warnings of how not to go.”[12]

c.      Some experienced such frustrations and pain that they asked God to take their lives; Scripture implies that these requests were not godly.  God did not grant these requests.[13]

                                               i.     Moses (Numbers 11.12-15)

                                              ii.     Elijah (1 Kings 19.4)

                                            iii.     Jonah (Jonah 4.1-11)

d.     Job’s extreme adversity made him hate his life but he did not take his life

                                               i.     Job 2.9-10

                                              ii.     Job 3.1-26 (cf. 6.8-9; 10.1-22)—Job laments the day of his birth and wishes for death

Why is light given to him who suffers, and life to the bitter of soul, who long for death, but there is none, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures, who rejoice greatly, and exult when they find the grave.  –Job 3.21-23

                                            iii.     “In his suffering he desired to die at times, yet as a godly man Job refused to bring about death by his own hand.”[14]

6.     Suffering together… not suicide.

a.     Life is going to include suffering: Romans 5.3-5; 8.18-25; 2 Corinthians 4.16-18; 12.7-10; James 1.2-4

b.     We live in community and need to share each other’s suffering: Galatians 6.2; Ephesians 4.28; Colossians 3.12-15; 1 Thessalonians 5.14; Hebrews 13.1-3

Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.
Galatians 6.2

“We should try to understand the extremes of sadness, confusion, suffering, and defeat that lead people to want to take their own lives.  People who contemplate suicide are in special need of the compassion of the body of Christ and the grace of the cross.  Our first approach should not be to judge, but to point to a better way, as God himself did with his weary prophets.  God never forsakes his children.  He never leads them to a situation where sinful self-destruction is the only option (1 Cor. 10:13).”[15]

7.     Suicide is sin… but not unforgivable!

a.     Objection: “Suicide does not allow one to repent of their sin of self-murder therefore they are lost.”

                                               i.     “Many Christians have died sudden deaths without having repented of all their sins.”  --Dietrich Bonhoeffer[16]

                                              ii.     “Contrary to what Christians have often believed, such rational suicide does not necessarily damn one.  The suicide dies, so to speak, in the moment of sinning, without opportunity to repent.  But then, so may I be killed instantly in a car accident while plotting revenge against an enemy of mine.  God judges persons, not individual deeds, and the moment in one’s life when a sinful deed occurs does not determine one’s fate.”  --Gilbert Meilaender[17]

b.     “Is Suicide the Unpardonable Sin?”  Theologian Sam Storms answers:

“People often answer “yes” to this question because suicide leaves no room for repentance; a person enters eternity with unconfessed and therefore unforgiven sin. But nowhere does the Bible say that suicide is an unforgiveable or unpardonable sin. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that all sin—past, present, and future—is forgiven through faith in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One’s eternal destiny is sealed and set at the moment of justifying faith. Our depth of intimacy, fellowship, and joy is certainly affected adversely when we fail to confess and repent of daily sin. But our eternal destiny has already and forever been determined. We must recognize the distinction between eternal forgiveness that is ours the moment we embrace Jesus in faith, and that temporal forgiveness we receive on a daily basis that enables us to experience the happiness of intimacy with the Father.”[18]

·      Importance of the doctrine of justification by faith: Romans 5.1-2

     [1] J. P. Moreland, “The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 (April-June 1991), 216.
     [2] The following list comes from Moreland, “The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options,” 216.
     [3] Moreland, “The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options,” 217.
     [4] Moreland, “The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options,” 217—bold-face added.
     [5] Moreland, “The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options,” 217.  For a brief analysis of the Jehovah’s Witness teaching on blood transfusions see Brian J. Wright, “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions: Their Use of Scripture in Their Blood Doctrine” Christian Research Journal vol. 37, no. 5.  Online:
     [6] Moreland, “The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options,” 218.
     [7] These are taken from David W. Jones “Suicide in Christian Perspective” The Southeastern Center for Pastoral Leadership & Preaching—Equip Workshop: Death, Dying, & Funerals (March 25, 2015).  Online:
     [8] For a brief discussion of Just War Theory see my notes posted at: 
     [9] VanDrunen, Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions, 199.
     [10] Yael Shemesh has Samson on his list of suicides in the Bible (“Suicides in the Bible,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 37[2009], 157) but John Frame places Samson’s death in the larger category of laying down one’s life for others.  “When he pulled down the temple of Dagon, killing many Philistines, he accomplished God’s judgment and empowered the people of God.  In this one case, God answered affirmatively a prayer for death (v. 30).  There was indeed something shameful about Samson’s death, as in the cases of Saul and Judas, for Samson was often disobedient to God’s will.  But his last moments were full of faith.  In a small way, he anticipated Jesus, gaining God’s victory by dying for his friends.”  The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 739.
     [11] John Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 738.
     [12] Albert Y. Hsu, “Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin?” Family and Community Ministries 25 (2012), 5.
     [13] Albert Hsu has a larger list: “Interestingly enough, the Bible also records stories of at least seven people who despaired of life but did not go the way of suicide.  These include Rebekah (Genesis 27:46), Rachel (Genesis 30:1), Moses (Numbers 11:10-15), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Job (Job 6:8-13; 10:1-22), Jonah (Jonah 4:3, 8) and the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).  These are positive role models for us, in contrast to those who chose death instead of life.  ‘Given the clear example throughout the Bible of men and women who thought about killing themselves and chose not to, we should follow their example.’”  Albert Y. Hsu, “Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin?” Family and Community Ministries 25 (2012), 5 (bold-face added)—Hsu quotes Donal O’Mathuna, “But the Bible Doesn’t Say They Were Wrong Does It?” in Suicide: A Christian Response, ed. Timothy J. Demy and Gary P. Stewart (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1998), 362, 366.
     [14] David VanDrunen, Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2009), 202.
     [15] John Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 738.
     [16] Quoted in Albert Y. Hsu, “Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin?” Family and Community Ministries 25 (2012), 4. 
     [17] Quoted in Albert Y. Hsu, “Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin?” Family and Community Ministries 25 (2012), 4.
     [18] Sam Storms, “Is Suicide the Unpardonable Sin?” Gospel Coalition Website (June 17, 2015).  Online: