Suicide is enough of a problem in this country that we have a national suicide prevention call center (1-800-273-8255).1 Nevertheless, America does not have the highest rates of suicide worldwide.2 On a recent TV show a character committed suicide for no reason that was apparent to investigators. The investigators later discovered that the man had inoperable brain cancer, and they concluded that he committed suicide rather than face the suffering he would experience in his last days. The show prompted the question: why do people commit suicide? The leading explanation for suicide seems to be depression, but there are many possible reasons.3 One possibility is that someone decides everything they care about has passed away so they simply make plans for them to go as well. In this regard one might immediately recall the movie Soylent Green and the suicide of the scholar who remembered how to read books (played by Edward G. Robinson).4
There are several examples of suicide in the Bible but they are not condemned by the biblical narrator. On the contrary, some of those people might even be said to have died nobly.5 In short, suicide is not condemned either in the Old or New Testaments, as is, for example, murder (1 John 3:15; Exodus 20:13 [usually translated “You shall not kill unjustifiably]). Josephus, on the one hand, calls suicide “an impious act against God our creator” (War III.viii.5), but on the other he writes approvingly of acts of suicide by a large body of Jews (War VII.viii.6-7).6
Prior to the Christian period Greeks and Romans had different attitudes about suicide. For example, Socrates committed suicide rather than be exiled from Athens. Some Roman authors (for example, Cicero and Seneca) at times seem to glorify suicide but they grant “the act greater complexity on other occasions.”7
In the early Christian period (second century) the solicitation of martyrdom as a positive act on the part of Christians blurs the distinction between suicide and martyrdom so that even martyrdom might be viewed as suicide, as the legendary Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas clearly shows.8
In the fifth century, St Augustine wrote the book, The City of God, in it making Christianity's first overall condemnation of suicide. His biblical justification for this was the interpretation of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," as he sees the omission of ‘thy neighbor,’ which is included in ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,’ to mean that the killing of oneself is not allowed either…
In the sixth century AD, suicide became a secular crime and began to be viewed as sinful. In 1533, those who died by suicide, while accused of a crime, were denied a Christian burial. In 1562, all suicides were punished in this way. In 1693, even attempted suicide became an ecclesiastical crime, which could be punished by excommunication, with civil consequences following. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas denounced suicide as an act against God and as a sin for which one could not repent. Civil and criminal laws were enacted to discourage suicide, and as well as degrading the body rather than permitting a normal burial; property and possessions of the suicides and their families were confiscated.9
From this very brief schematic history of attitudes about suicide in Western civilization it does not appear that the prohibition against suicide in modern society is to be tracked to an early Christian consciousness of the sacredness of life, but it grows out of a later ecclesiastical development that condemns suicide as usurping God’s prerogative to give and take life (Job 1:21). Prohibitions against suicide do not rest on concerns for the welfare of the individual as much as they rest on it being an offense against God. Modern attitudes about suicide, however, seem to be motivated by humanitarian concerns for the welfare of the individual. In my view, if suicide involves an offense at all, it is not against God (if God there be), but against Being, since it is an unnecessary diminishment of all existence.
“My personal view of this situation is that being conscious even with pain, is better than being insentient; or put another way, life lived with physical difficulties and pain is better than a death that instantly banishes all pain—for as long as there is life there is hope…But I cannot fault those who might choose a quick death over an inevitable painful lingering death.”10
How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
6Young, “Suicide,” IDB 4.453-54
7Cicero and Seneca on suicide: https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2018/06/09/the-course-fortune-gave-me-cicero-and-seneca-on-suicide/
8Droge, “Suicide” ABD 6.230-31.
10Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion: “End-of-Life Issues” Tuesday March 15, 2016: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=End-of-life+Issues