Recently a beautiful 22-year-old girl in my church who had suffered from severe chronic depression for years took her own life. She was loved by everyone in our congregation, and we feel the trauma of a terrible loss.
Two days later a very sincere young man in our church family circulated an e-mail to our church staff lamenting that, in taking her own life, she had committed a sin that God cannot pardon (murder, in this case), because she can never ask forgiveness. He begged us to warn the members of our church not to follow her example lest they too be eternally separated from God by their actions. A few years before, he and his family had experienced the trauma of an uncle who had jumped from a very high bridge, leaving behind many family members dealing with thoughts and feelings that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
These two juxtaposed events have caused me, maybe for the first time in my 60 years, to ask how God really feels about this terribly serious subject. I have discovered that my beliefs have been conditioned more by traditions and ideas passed down from well-intentioned pastors, teachers, friends, and family than from anything in the Bible.
So, what clear, specific understanding can we gain from the Bible regarding God’s perspectives on this important topic?
However, before we start our Scripture journey, let’s deal with terminology. Certain words are so emotionally charged that they can confuse any attempt to rationally look at a subject. The term “suicide” is one of those terms. So throughout this article I have chosen to use a neutral biblical phrase, “to lay down one’s life,” instead.
Why Do People “Lay Down Their Lives”?
A person can choose to deliberately lay down their life for a number of different reasons, which, if located on a continuum, would range from the very self-centered (negative) to the ultra-altruistic (positive). The list would include spite, anger, fear, shame, pain, emotional isolation, despair, mental illness (including chemical imbalances), quality (or lack thereof) of life, care for the larger community, sacrifice for the well-being of others, as well as an act of mercy or grace.
There is one common thread linking all these reasons and motives. Somebody deliberately and willingly chooses to lay down his or her life, bringing it to an end by conscious choice. If the issue is truly that a person is lost or not lost based on the choice to intentionally end their human existence, then we have to say that all of them are lost.
Looking at the list of reasons, we could formulate at least three different categories. Most of us would agree that some people laying down their lives would be eternally lost—particularly taking into consideration their actions prior to laying down their own lives. Adolf Hitler would be such an example. We are not so certain when it comes to the lives of the mentally ill or the chemically imbalanced. Would a loving God really hold such a person responsible for their actions? We start looking for ways to excuse a soldier or a firefighter or the person who gives up their seat on the lifeboat. And we have no idea what to do with a God who puts a man who deliberately ended his life (Samson) into the hall of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11.
Back to Scripture
Just what does the Bible say about this very important topic? The Bible lists at least seven people who chose to terminate their lives willingly. They are: Abimelech (Judges 9:54), Samson (Judges 16:28-31), Saul (1 Sam. 31:1-6), Saul’s armorbearer (1 Chron. 10:5, 6), Ahithophel (2 Sam. 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18), and Judas Iscariot (Matt. 27:3-10). In no instance is there any value judgment placed on their act in the text. It is just stated that, in one manner or another, they ended their lives. Even Judas is not condemned for laying down his life, but for what he chose to do to the Savior. The aforementioned Samson is even listed as one of the faithful in Hebrews 11.
So how do we discover God’s view on this issue? Almost everyone turns to the sixth commandment in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The reasoning goes like this: God commands not to kill. Killing is breaking a commandment of God, which is one biblical definition of sin. Suicide is “self-killing.” Unconfessed sin will result in eternal separation from God. Since a dead person cannot confess their sin regarding the “killing” of themselves, they are unquestionably lost—case closed!
Let’s Reopen the Case
Have you noticed the overall perspective of the Ten Commandments? They are all about relationships and what we do to or with others. The first four describe and order our relationship with God—ways by which we can dishonor or honor Him. The remaining six have to do with our relationship with others—how we can damage our relationship with them. In no case are any of the commandments concerned with something I do to myself. While the Bible in other places makes it very clear that how I treat myself is very important to God, the Ten Commandments, including the sixth, are not concerned with that issue. So the commandment not to kill does not appear to address our topic.
A closer look at the sixth commandment makes this even clearer. The Hebrew term ratsach, used in the commandment, frequently means to “murder, assassinate.” It is much more specific than just to take a human life. It is something done in cold blood, without justification.
In fact, the Old Testament made provision for a number of instances when the taking of human life was allowed or not considered a sin, including capital punishment for any number of different transgressions, accidental killing, killing in war, and blood avenging (cf. Num. 35; Deut. 19; Joshua 20).
So the act of killing oneself is not in itself a sin, a transgression of the sixth commandment. Rather, it is the motive in any killing that determines whether it is a violation of the law or not.
What other texts might be cited in this discussion? The primary New Testament passage noted is 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20, where we are told that our bodies are “a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”
First and foremost, this passage is concerned with the damaging effects of sexual immorality, not with laying down one’s life. Even if we were to apply it in a larger context, it is still concerned with taking care of the temple, not with whether we choose to shut the doors of the temple and turn off the lights or not.
Let’s suppose that one decides (for whatever reason or tradition) to consider taking one’s own life as a sin leading to eternal death; here is an important biblical issue that does need our attention: while the Bible does not specifically address the subject of the deliberate act of ending one’s life, it does spend considerable space, especially in the New Testament, addressing our tendency to judge others. To believe that a person who chooses, for their own reasons, to lay down their life is lost forever and is beyond God’s forgiveness and grace is to place oneself in the place of God and to venture out onto very thin and crumbly ice, where the one judging quickly becomes the judged (cf. Matt. 7:1; Luke 6:37).
One of my favorite passages on salvation is found in the little book Steps to Christ, published more than 100 years ago. It places an act such as suicide in its proper perspective. “If the heart has been renewed by the Spirit of God, the life will bear witness to the fact. While we cannot do anything to change our hearts or to bring ourselves into harmony with God; while we must not trust at all to ourselves or our good works, our lives will reveal whether the grace of God is dwelling within us. A change will be seen in the character, the habits, the pursuits. The contrast will be clear and decided between what they have been and what they are. The character is revealed, not by occasional good deeds and occasional misdeeds, but by the tendency of the habitual words and acts.”*
The idea that God would keep a person whose overall life trajectory is toward heaven out of paradise because of a single act done in a moment of deep despair is not something that one will find supported in the Bible.
The Fear Factor
I can hear the concern about salvation in my young friend’s e-mail. He wrote me, “Maybe I should just kill myself and forgo all the pain and suffering that this world brings and still make heaven? That is not character building, and the character is all we take to heaven. We all have problems and deal with terrible things on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean we have to go it alone. Suicide is never the answer, and should be thought of as a terrible sin and a separation from God.”
His basic reasoning involves the fear factor: if people aren’t scared to death of suffering the divine penalty for murder, they are much more likely to kill themselves.
While I sympathize with his intent, I do not care for his methodology. Fear is rarely a good motivation for doing anything. In the short term it can be effective, but studies have shown that the effect is very short-lived. That is why Paul in Titus 3:4-7 says that God chooses to use His kindness, love, and grace to motivate us and draw us to Himself.
Consciously choosing to lay down one’s life is not in itself a sin. It is very often a very poor choice, though not always. It is sometimes a choice that is made when we are not in control of our faculties; sometimes it is made out of the very best rationale; and sometimes it is chosen for the worst of reasons. It all comes down to motive. It is not the act itself that determines right or wrong; it is the reason for the act that is the determining factor.
As humans, we judge from outward appearances; God, on the other hand, looks at the heart. And, because man cannot read the human heart, we are in no position to judge in general or in the specific case whether this act is a sin or not.
What we can know is that the God who was willing to die to make every provision to save us will bend over backwards to make the right (and just) decision. And when someone like my young friend, who loved God with all of her heart, in the darkest moments of her mental illness chooses to lay down her life, I will believe that the love of the God who died for her is big enough to do whatever is necessary to offer her eternal life.
* Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, pp. 57, 58.
Dan M. Appel is senior pastor of the Auburn Seventh-day Adventist Church in Auburn, California. This article was published April 14, 2011.