What is the “Christian” view of suicide?
Frankly there is no single “Christian View of Suicide“. Different Christian groups believe different things… and views may change over time.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate such differences is the case of Martin Luther, who began his ministerial career as an Augustinian (Roman Catholic) monk.
In the 2003 Movie “Luther” he is depicted burying a person who has died by their own hand in the church graveyard. To the general public, the “teaching of the church” was that suicide was a mortal sin immediately condemning the soul of the suicide to eternal punishment. (As usual the general understanding people have may be a distortion or oversimplification of any church’s doctrine.)
The “popular view” – that all suicides are doomed to punishment – may have come from piecemeal readings of church fathers like Augustine who said:
For if it is not lawful to take the law into our own hands, and slay even a guilty person, whose death no public sentence has warranted, then certainly he who kills himself is a homicide, and so much the guiltier of his own death, as he was more innocent of that offence for which he doomed himself to die.
For that reason early church councils forbade the burial of suicides in cemeteries consecrated for Christian burial.
But Augustine also spoke about virgins (we may call them “nuns”) who killed themselves to avoid torture and rape. In their case he wrote: “And consequently, even if some of these virgins killed themselves to avoid such disgrace, who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them?”
So while the general principle of the sanctity of life is upheld by most Christians based on the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, mitigating factors are noted.
Luther – who himself suffered great depressions and sensed himself in dramatic spiritual battles with the devil himself – notably said in his Table Talks that:
It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ‘tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.
Mention was made of a young girl who, to avoid violence offered her by a nobleman, threw herself from the window, and was killed. It was asked, was she responsible for her death? Doctor Luther said: No: she felt that this step formed her only chance of safety, it being not her life she sought to save, but her chastity.
I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber. However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc. Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned. However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.
Dr. Ravi Zacharias on Suicide (Video)
Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (1992) on Suicide
Perhaps oddly enough the modern Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church agrees with Luther to no small extent! While noting that suicide is a mortal sin, there may be mitigating circumstances where the person committing suicide suffers conditions that diminish their capacity and moral responsibility for the act of suicide.
The catechism states:
2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.
2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
As obvious from the above quotation, the Roman Catholic Church makes allowances for “psychological disturbance” and even the fear or torture or other suffering as situations where suicide, while not encouraged or approved, might at least be understood. Furthermore it is stated in the catechism and believed, evidently, by Luther and other Protestants, that while suicide reflects a failure of belief, it is not an unpardonable sin. In the words of the father in Mark 9:24 who said “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”, it may be possible that those who commit suicide believe, however imperfectly.
Protestant Views on Suicide
Many Protestant groups would likely echo the views of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod on Suicide as they write:
The Synod does not have an official position regarding the eternal state of individuals who have committed suicide, though theologians of the Synod have commented from time to time on pastoral questions that often arise in such cases.
Since the spiritual condition of an individual upon death is known only to God, our theologians have proceeded cautiously in making judgments in this regard….
“Assuredly we would not wish to judge anyone who resorts to self-destruction. It is impossible for us to plumb the depths of gloom into which even Christian people may sink and irresponsibly lay unholy hands upon themselves. Perhaps the Lord will not hold them responsible, but we do not know.” (What’s the Answer, Concordia Publishing House, 1960, p. 144).
A Southern Baptist organ the “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” speaking on Suicide notes that “Suicide is not the unpardonable sin, however suicide is sinful (cf. Matt. 12:31–32; Mark 3:28–29)” though they offer no explicit hope for eternal salvation. Southern Baptists are noted for believing in a doctrine called “the eternal security of the believer” which would allow for the salvation of a “believer” who later commits suicide, however that doctrine is not referenced on this page.
There are still fundamentalist individuals and likely also sects who basically refuse to differentiate “mental illness” from personally chosen sinful patterns for whom no mitigating factors are possible.
In general the Christian View of Suicide is that:
- It is a grave and serious sin.
- It is not, however, an unpardonable sin.
- Those left behind by those who commit suicide may yet hope that their loved ones may still obtain eternal salvation.
Note: while the Wikipedia entry on Christians and suicide notes that the Donatists, a group ultimately considered heretical by Rome believed in suicide as a form of martyrdom, that seems to be a questionable reading of the sources according to this article mentioning the Circumcellions.