Suicide: Some Biblical, Ethical and Pastoral Directives (1)
Written by L. W. Bilkes
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Reformed Ethics - Suicide

Sometimes we're faced with the issue of suicide1 either because one of our church members or family members has committed suicide, or because a loved one of a church member has done so. When confronted with suicide, we feel perplexed and guilty. We wonder: 'What could I have done to prevent this?' It always seems as if we could have done more. In this article I do not intend to pronounce judgments. Instead, I intend to make some suggestions by giving Biblical, ethical, and pastoral directives.

Many questions surround the complex topic of suicide. Who knows what is going on inside a person, except the person's own spirit? (cf.1 Corinthians 2:11). Moreover, who knows his own heart? Who knows his own motives? Isn't everyone a riddle to himself at times? Those who have died by suicide lie in the grave and do not speak. There is a dark veil lying over their death. 2


Although there appears to be "little agreement on a formal definition,"3 I take the word suicide to mean self-murder or self-destruction. It is the deliberate or intentional taking of one's own life. It is to be distinguished from the willing surrender of one's life, often called self-surrender.4

Reasons for Suicide
We are being told that most suicides and suicide attempts are reactions to intense feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, helplessness, depression, etc. At the same time, it is important to note that many people cause their own death without making a conscious decision to commit suicide. People who drive recklessly, abuse alcohol or other drugs, or ignore serious illnesses often do so because they have the same feelings as those who consciously commit suicide. We are being told that the process of a crisis which leads to suicide begins with a sudden, traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one through death, or the loss of a loved one through divorce, or the loss of a job [demotion at work], or financial loss, etc.5

Scriptural Directives to be Practiced
The following are simply some directives and do not pretend to be exhaustive.

a. The Sovereignty of God
Scripture proclaims the reality of the Sovereign Lord over all of creation, from Whom all value and meaning flow (Genesis 1, 2). The world we live in is a world under God. Scripture pictures all that exists as having value and meaning only as seen as a gift and favour from God. For this reason value and meaning are not intrinsic to any person or thing as such, but neither is the life in this world devoid of meaning and value. Rather, life is bestowed upon all creatures by God as His gift. Because of this, God calls upon society and each member of society to recognize Him and His Word and to recognize the value and meaning which God has given to them. In this world view of a cosmos under God, we are not in a position to argue intrinsic rights, such as, for instance, the right to self-determination.

Scripture describes life as a gift from God (Genesis 1, 2). In Him is the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9). God did not need human life, for He in Himself is life. But He was pleased to create human life outside of Himself, yet entirely in dependence upon Him, although He gave human life a measure of freedom. He gave human life a place on this earth and in a community with other human beings. This is how God construed it and how He wants it to be lived. These things are all involved in man bearing the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 9:6).

Man is not the author of his life. Parents are not the authors of the lives of their children, even though the Lord made use of them as His instruments. Neither is man the absolute owner of his life or of his children. Therefore, no one may do with His life or the life of others as he pleases.

Life is also a favour of the Lord. After all, sin came into the world by man (Genesis 3). Through sin man rejected God's sovereignty and deprived himself of life. After all, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Nevertheless, God intervened and promised him life. Eve is called "the mother of all living" (Genesis 3:20). From her the Son of God was born many centuries later. However, He had to lay down His life. Through Him God has bestowed His favour on man to live for Him and live in love with one another.

Nevertheless, death is a reality in this world. As a result of sin there is sickness, suffering, and death. Hezekiah's sickness, narrated in Scripture, may serve as illustration at this point. One day he "was sick unto death" (Isaiah 38:1). His life was ebbing away. He expressed the implication of death in these words: "I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord in the land of the living; I shall not behold man again with the inhabitants of the world" (Isaiah 38:11). Life is more than just breathing, eating and drinking, working and relaxing, being awake and asleep; it is more than thinking and enjoying pleasures. Life is living in fellowship with the LORD on this earth and in companionship with man. That is the biblical meaning of life on earth as a favour of the Lord.

On his sickbed Hezekiah learned to see the high value of life as a gift from God and as a favour from the LORD. In the Isaiah 38 passage he refers to his sins (verse 17). The LORD did not only confront him with death, but also with his sins. Then he called upon the LORD. The LORD heard his prayer and granted him another fifteen years of life, as a gift and favour of the Lord, a gift and favour which had to be purchased by Jesus Christ on the cross. There Christ was forsaken of God and man. This latter reference is crucial. Sinful man is in need of redemption. Redemption involves suffering--the substitutionary suffering of Jesus Christ.

This Christological line that Scripture spells out throughout its pages is of crucial significance. Suicide is not to be considered an option simply because of the sanctity of life which flows from Scripture's teaching of God as Sovereign Creator and man made in His image. After all, in God's eyes every man, on account of his sin, is worthy of death. Nevertheless, "God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:17). Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and He suffered and died. He is "the Lamb of God Who bears [away] the sin of the world" (John 1:29) and also the consequences of sin. In body and soul He bore the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.6 He tasted death "for every man" (Hebrews 2:9).7 The implication from this, for one thing, is that suicide is not only sin against God the Creator, but also sin against God the Redeemer.

b. The Comfort of the Holy Spirit
Scripture refers to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter of Christians. The Holy Spirit "assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready" to live for Christ.8 He does this also in times of suffering and death. To be sure, suffering is not the only means the Holy Spirit as Sanctifier uses in God's process of sanctification. Nevertheless, "suffering is an essential" mechanism in His hands. Amundsen puts it like this: God "works through suffering when the believer is left in his affliction without healing or comfort, is tried and tested by it, and is strengthened by the Holy Spirit in and through this refining process."9 When we become ill unto death and no longer have what we and others consider to be a significant role in society, the Holy Spirit brings to mind the Word of the Lord that He considers our life here as His gift and favour, even when it seems there is no more significance to our life. As human beings we are more important than our work, more important than any contribution we can make to society. It may well be that I do not understand my extreme way of suffering, but "Jesus is my Sovereign. He has bought me with His blood. I have been called into a fellowship of suffering with Him." From Psalm 116:15 we know that the death of God's people touches Him deeply: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones." It may be that in my dying "my comprehension of His marvelously condescending love will be enriched when ... the Holy Spirit will be my Comforter and Jesus my Comfort." 10

Reference needs to be made to the role of faith.11 The Holy Spirit works faith in the heart. The Bible points out various aspects of faith. By faith we become partakers of Christ and all His benefits.12 Moreover, the comfort which is to be obtained by the knowledge of God's providence is a comfort which is obtained only by faith. It is by faith that we can also live and overcome the world.13 It is by faith that we can fulfill whatever God's purposes are for us--subdue kingdoms, work righteousness.14 But it is also by faith that we can suffer and endure the things that come upon us. The grace of faith is just as powerful and victorious if we have to suffer. We will be sustained. 15

This view, that emphasizes that often the stronger faith is evident in the one who endures sickness of a chronic and terminal kind, and is not healed, is quite contrary to the view of those who equate strong faith with recovery from illness.

It is important to see why, in view of Jesus Christ's vicarious suffering and death, those who believe in Him still must suffer and die. Although resurrection "hope shines into the night ... on this side of death the darkness lingers."16 To be sure, the suffering of those who believe in Him is no payment for our sin, but an abolishing of sin.17 It is because Christ has borne the wrath of God that suffering is not without perspective. Paul's' account in 2 Corinthians 12 with reference to the thorn in his flesh (verse 7) may serve as illustration. On three occasions he besought the Lord to free him from these satanic assaults. But when the Lord responded by saying that He would not free him and added, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness" (verse 9), then Paul said: "...I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake..." (verse 10).

Scripture also says that "Jesus Christ ... has abolished death" (2 Timothy 1:10). We still die, but Jesus Christ has broken the power of death by destroying its finality. Death is a painful experience; but that pain is bearable for those who remember that in Christ the penalty has been paid, and the sting has been removed (1 Corinthians 15:55f.). Through Jesus' death for all who believe in Him, death is "not a satisfaction for ... [their] sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life."18 When believers fall asleep in their Saviour, the Lord of life, they are delivered once and for all from sin's grasp, Satan's power, and death's claim. Thus they face it not in fear but in faith, for "we are more than conquerors" in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:37).

When we suffer, "for Christ's sake" we may face it with the perspective that one day we shall be delivered from the body of this death, to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23), the Lamb that was slain, Whom we shall adore, and even one day in our flesh we shall see God (Job 19:26).

c. Scripture and Suicide
There are people who say that there are passages in Scripture that only report reality and do not contain morality, that is, moral judgment.19 First of all, it must be said that so-called 'biblical silence' at this point does not mean that Scripture approves of suicide or is indifferent to it.20 Secondly, whereas Samson's death may be "an example of self-sacrifice out of fidelity to God," the deaths of Saul and his armour-bearer, Ahithophel, and Judas are clearly cases of self-murder.21 Thirdly, it is striking that in several cases they are "the consequence of extremely grave sin, for example, in the case of the traitors Ahithophel and Judas."22 Ahithophel refused to acknowledge David as God's anointed king. He took offence at God for giving David a place on the throne. Judas stumbled over the same stone of God's good pleasure. He rejected the Lord Jesus and despised the grace of God in Him. Similarly, King Saul's self-murder was the culmination of a life in which he took issue with the sovereignty of God. 23

Scripture does not suggest anywhere that suffering might justify the taking of human life.24 Job, in his suffering, did long for death, but he expressed it to God. He did not think of taking his own life (Job 3, 6,7,14). In 2 Corinthians 1:4 Paul blesses God for comforting "us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God." He goes on to write about "the sufferings of Christ" abounding in us, "that our consolation also abounds by Christ" (verse 5). In these passages "the Bible seems to define a way of life in suffering." Secular standards of love and mercy place value on medicine, not only to fight suffering, but also to help to die without suffering by suicide. Scripture, indeed, teaches that God gives us medicine to combat suffering, but prohibits taking one's life. According to Scripture, "we may never take our lives, even at death's door,"25 but we must learn to come to terms with this encounter by suffering in a Christian way. Christ never taught His disciples to escape suffering by death, but rather taught them to take up their cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23).

In view of the fact that Christians belong to Jesus (Romans 14:8-9; John 10:27-30), "they should not fear physical death."26 "The sting of death has been removed; the fear of death has been vitiated." Paul's "supreme ambition was that 'Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death'" (Philippians 1:20). 27

There is the comfort of the Lord's abiding presence, as Psalm 23 describes it. We enter into the dark valley of pain and trial, remembering God's gracious promise, "I will not leave you nor forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). The words, "Thou art with me" (Psalm 23:4), express not only divine companionship but also divine compassion. The Good Shepherd loves and cares for me who am His sheep. "Death is both our enemy and friend. This paradox of death, like the paradox of suffering, no Christian can escape. Nor should we want to."28 Those who believe in Jesus know that one day their "broken mortal bodies shall be raised up like [Christ's] glorious body." 29

To commit suicide is disobedience to the Lord, "a failure of love and a breach of trust."30

1 Suicide has reached alarming proportions in many countries. Cf. "Statistics Canada, Health Statistics Division, 1994." I found in my files a booklet published in 1979 which states that about 30,000 deaths were attributed to suicide each year in the USA. Seven years later statistics showed that suicide was the second leading cause of death for Americans between ages fifteen and nineteen. Surveys indicate that an alarming number of young people consider suicide a viable solution to life's problems. When I was pastor in Ermelo, The Netherlands, in a 780-bed psychiatric hospital in this town there were several cases of suicide and attempts at suicide every year [in 1983 there were 11 cases of suicide and 44 attempts to suicide].
2 Cf. H. Bout, "Overwegingen rondom Suicide," Theologia Reformata XXI:4, (December 1978), 287.
3 Margaret Pabst Battin, "Suicide," in Lawrence C. Becker, ed. Encyclopedia of Ethics II (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992), 1215.
4 Cf. B. Harris, "Suicide," in David J. Atkinson and David H. Field, eds. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 825. Cf. Francis Beckwith and Norman L. Geisler, Matters of Life and Death (Grand rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1991), 155f. Cf. J. Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing), 223f.
5 Cf. Paul D. Meier, Frank B. Minirth, Frank Wichern, eds. Introduction to Psychology & Counseling: Christian Perspectives and Applications (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1990), 259. Cf. Various materials made available to local crisis centres.
6 Cf. the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's day 15, Answer 37. The Heidelberg catechism does not mean that He died for all men, that all men will be saved. The Heidelberg Catechism does not speak here for whom Christ suffered, but rather that He suffered: the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. According to Romans 1:16 the Gospel of Christ "is a power of God to salvation to every one who believes." According to John 3:36, "he who believes not the Son...the wrath of God abides on him."
7 trust that from footnote 6 it is clear that Christ did not make universal atonement, on the basis of which he can be considered the Redeemer of every individual.
8 Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's day 1, Answer 1.
9 Darrel W. Amundsen, "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: One Evangelical's Perspective on Doctor-Assisted Suicide," Christian Bioethics, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 3, 292.
10 Darrel W. Amundsen, "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: One Evangelical's Perspective on Doctor-Assisted Suicide," Christian Bioethics, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 3, 305.
11 Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Eberhard Bethge ed. Trans. by Neville Horton Smith (New York: MacMillan Company, 1965): "It is because there is a living God that suicide is wrongful as a sin of lack of faith... [which] takes no account of God," 168.
12 Cf. John 1: 12, 13; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 7, Answer 20.
13 Cf. 1 John 5:4.
14 Cf. the first part of Hebrews 11.
15 Cf. Hebrews 11:32-38.
16 Cameron, "Living Wills" 1992), 22-23.
17 This is how the Heidelberg catechism speaks about the death of Christians in Lord's day 16, Answer 42. It can also be said with reference to our suffering.
18 Heidelberg Catechism," Lord's Day 16, Answer 42.
19 Cf. H. Kuitert, Su•cide: wat is er tegen? Zelfdoding in moreel perspektief ( Baarn: Ten Have, 1994), 139f; A. Alvarez, "The Historical Background," in Suicide: The Philosophical Issues, ed. M. P. Battin and D. J. May (New York: St. Martin's, 1980), 25; M. P. Battin, Ethical Issues in Suicide (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1982), 29, 72-73.
20 Cf. Robert N. Wennberg, Terminal Choices: Euthanasia, Suicide, and the Right to Die, 46. K. Exalto, who states that these Scripture passages do not add 'as a moral to the story' an explicit condemnation of suicide, states that Scripture does implicitly condemn it. Death is always the wages of sin, particularly so in the case of suicide, Geen hand aan uzelf. Gedachten over zelfmoord (reformatie reeks 6) (Kampen: Kok, 1982), chapter 1.
21 Cf. Donald G. Bloesch, Freedom for Obedience: Evangelical Ethics for Contemporary Times, 22., note 30.
22 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 169; Cf. Robert N. Wennberg, Terminal Choices: Euthanasia, Suicide, and the Right to Die, 47.
23 Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3: The Doctrine of Creation, Pt. 4, 409; Robert N. Wennberg, Terminal Choices: Euthanasia, Suicide, and the Right to Die, 47,48.
24 Dewey J. Hoitenga, Jr., "Death's Door, The Banner, 25 January, 1993, 10.
25 Ibid., 11. Dewey J. Hoitenga, Jr. does not use this phrase, "According to Scripture" but rather: "God seems to tell us clearly..." Hoitenga rejects 'active euthanasia.'
26 Darrel W. Amundsen, "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: One Evangelical's Perspective on Doctor-Assisted Suicide," Christian Bioethics, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 3, 290.
27 Darrel W. Amundsen, "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: One Evangelical's Perspective on Doctor-Assisted Suicide," Christian Bioethics, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 3, 291.
28 Hoitenga, "Death's Door" (1993), 11.
29 Cameron, The New Medicine (1991), 37.
30 Darrel W. Amundsen, "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: One Evangelical's Perspective on Doctor-Assisted Suicide," Christian Bioethics, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 3, 305.

Dr. L.W. Bilkes is an emeritus pastor in the Free Reformed Church. This article was previously printed in the December 1998 issue of the FRC Messenger and has been republished here with permission.