Is Suicide the Unpardonable Sin?
In view of the recent tragic death of Rick Warren’s 27-year-old son, Matthew, perhaps we should give some deep consideration to the nature of suicide and the oft-asked question: Is suicide the unpardonable sin? But before diving into the deep end of this devastating topic, please pause and pray for the Warren family, as well as for others who have lost a friend or family member in a similar fashion.
Statistics can often deceive and be used to prove just about anything. But these don’t lie. They are sobering and serious (from the Associated Press, Public Health Service).
There are four male suicides for every one female; however, at least twice as many females as males attempt suicide.
Sixty percent of all people who commit suicide kill themselves with guns.
Guns are now used in more suicides than homicides.
Women are more likely to use drugs or poison than violent means; men are more inclined to use a quick, violent means of suicide such as a gun or hanging.
500,000 Americans survive suicide attempts each year.
Of those who commit suicide, only 25% are determined to have been mentally ill.
Of those who commit suicide, 80% warned someone that they were contemplating doing so.
The highest suicide rates are among people ages 35-49 and people 65 and over.
The suicide rate on American Indian reservations is 5x the national average.
The Bible doesn’t say much about suicide, other than to record the occurrence of six incidents where a person takes his life. In none of these is an explicit moral evaluation or judgment rendered: the case of Abimelech in Judges 9:50-57; the case of Samson in Judges 16:28-30 (although some are not convinced this is suicide in the strict sense of the term); Saul and his armor-bearer in 1 Samuel 31:1-6 (2 Samuel 1:1-15; 1 Chron. 10:1-13); Ahithophel in 2 Samuel 17:23; Zimri in1 Kings 16:18-19; and Judas Iscariot in Matthew 27:5. It is worth noting that in each of these cases the suicide is the end to a life that did not (at least in its latter stages) meet with God's approval. Is there any significance in the fact that the only recorded instances of suicide in the Bible are of those in moral and spiritual rebellion against God?
Let’s approach this issue by asking three questions. First, what is suicide? In order for an act to be suicide, one need not die directly by one's own hand. A person might persuade another to do the killing, but this would still be suicide. I have in mind a person who wishes to die but wants to preserve life-insurance benefits for his family (which are forfeited if he dies by his "own hand"). Thus it would seem that just as one can commit murder through the agency of another, so also one can commit suicide through the agency of another.
It is also possible to distinguish between passive and active suicide. Consider this case, described by Robert Wennberg in Terminal Choices: Euthanasia, Suicide, and the Right to Die (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 20.
"A woman who is in a state of depression is accidentally given a drink containing a lethal dose of poison. Unaware of its contents, she consumes the drink. Upon being informed of what has happened, she is provided with a safe and effective antidote – but she refuses to take the antidote and subsequently dies. If we assume that she refused the antidote because she wanted to die, I think we would conclude that she committed suicide. Thus we seem justified in concluding that suicide can be carried out passively as well as actively.”
Most people think that a death by "natural causes" cannot be a suicide. But what about the diabetic in despair who, although in otherwise good health, stops taking his insulin in order to end his life? He soon lapses into a diabetic coma and dies before being discovered. Clearly, he died of natural causes, yet just as clearly he committed suicide.
The most basic definition of a suicide is someone who intends to die, or more specifically, a person who commits suicide is one who acts on the desire to die. This person pursues a course of action for the express purpose of ending his/her life. Thus, for example, the soldier who charges the enemy in a time of war, knowing that he most likely will die, is not guilty of committing suicide. In charging the enemy, he is not acting out of a desire to die. He is not choosing this act as a means to his death "but rather is accepting a foreseen yet unwelcome consequence of what he is doing” (23). In a sense, then, the soldier is engaging in a suicidal act but is not committing suicide because he is not undertaking his mission for the express purpose of ending his life (the latter being a necessary condition for a suicide to occur).
Our second question is this: Does suicide fall under the prohibition against murder? It would appear the answer is Yes. Although we don’t instinctively think of murder in this way, to unlawfully take one’s own life would not differ morally from the taking of another’s life.
Third, is suicide the unpardonable sin? People have often 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 the eternal forgiveness of the guilt of sin that is ours the moment we embrace Jesus in faith, and that temporal forgiveness of sin we receive on a daily basis that enables us to experience the happiness of intimacy with the Father.
Finally, numerous instances of sudden death may bring a Christian into eternity before he/she had opportunity to confess and repent. "What about the heart-attack victim who dies while brutalizing his wife or in the midst of an adulterous liaison? Does his failure to repent in this life forever remove the possibility of forgiveness in the next? And must we never pass from this life with unconfessed and unrepented sin lest we never find forgiveness and reconciliation with God in the next?” (55). Common sense reveals that many, if not most, of us will die with sins of which we have not repented.
Is suicide ever morally permissible? When asked that question, several others immediately come to mind. For example, what moral judgment do we make in the case of the soldier who falls on a live grenade to save the life of his friend? Or what moral judgment do we make in the case of the destitute mother who stops eating what little food remains in order that her child may live? Then consider the case of a terminally ill man whose condition is draining what little financial resources he has and will eventually leave his invalid wife destitute with no other means of support. He ends his life by shooting himself in the head, thereby protecting his wife's future security (or at least intending to do so). His motive is noble and seemingly altruistic. He did not end his life because of his own pain or because of depression but because of love for another. He clearly committed suicide, but was it morally wrong for him to have done so?
What moral judgment do we make in the case of the POW who swallows a cyanide capsule, knowing that otherwise he will be brainwashed and tortured into divulging crucial information that will be used to the detriment and perhaps death of his countrymen?
What moral judgment do we make in the case of the husband with a lengthy terminal illness who takes his own life lest his medical expenses drain the meager financial resources on which his aged wife must depend for her future welfare?
What moral judgment do we make in the case of the Branch Davidians who shot themselves, knowing that otherwise they would have suffered an even more painful death in the fiery inferno in which they were trapped? This is commonly known as Surcease suicide, that is, suicide committed for the purpose of avoiding grave personal harm. A somewhat similar example (extreme though it be) is that of a soldier trapped in a burning tank from which there is no hope of escape. Is it morally permissible for him to end his life with a gunshot to the head rather than to die in agony in that fiery inferno? Does the fact that the former group found themselves in their condition as a result of a voluntary criminal (immoral) decision, whereas the soldier is in his condition through an act of meritorious bravery affect our decision on the moral status of their deaths?
What about the Christian in the third century who is given a choice: either deny Jesus or be thrown to the lions? By refusing to deny Jesus, the believer chooses a course of action that she knows will result in her death. Surely this would not be a suicide "because her decision to affirm her faith in such difficult circumstances was not one she made in order to bring about her death, . . . In other words, although she expected her death, she did not intend it” (24). But what if this same lady killed herself in order to avoid rape or slavery (not an uncommon occurrence in the early church). It seems then she would be guilty of suicide because her death would have been the intended means of avoiding the pain and humiliation of slavery and/or rape.
Let's complicate this case a bit further. Does the fact that this lady desires death rather than life transform her decision not to deny Jesus into a suicide? In other words, she, like the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:19ff., prefers death to life because it would usher her into the presence of Christ. But "that still would not render her death a suicide so long as the death she desired was merely an unintended side effect of her refusal to renounce her faith – that is, so long as she did not act on her desire to die, did not confess her faith in order to bring about her death” (28).
A similar case would be a person with a terminal illness who chooses to take large doses of morphine necessary to control the pain. However, such morphine also accelerates the process of dying, something the patient welcomes. But if such treatment is chosen to diminish pain and not to accelerate death, the latter is an unintended side effect even though it is a desired side effect. This person would not be guilty of committing suicide. Or would he/she?
What about the Jehovah's Witness who is accidentally shot by a robber and, because of religious convictions, refuses the blood transfusion necessary to save her life? She dies because of a deliberate choice on her part. Most argue that this would not be a suicide because she did not intend her death. That is to say, "she refused the transfusions not to cause her death but to honor what she sincerely believed to be a divine prohibition against 'partaking' of human blood [Leviticus 3:17; 7:26,27; 17:14; Deut. 12:16,23; 15:23]. Had she survived without the blood transfusions, that would not have frustrated her ends. And it's not solely a matter of dying for religious principle; it's a matter of intention. Had this woman deliberately shot and killed herself with a pistol in order to avoid having blood transfusions forced upon her, she would have been a suicide despite her religious motivation, because in that case she would have shot herself for the express purpose of causing her death” (25).
There are still other examples we should consider. “Jane Doe” is at the end of a long and costly terminal illness. She is offered the option of a new treatment which will prolong her life by a few months (at most) but will entail painful surgery and burdensome post-operative effects. She chooses not to avail herself of the treatment, even though by doing so she shortens her life by several months. Has she committed suicide? Probably not. Her decision was not motivated by the desire to die sooner but by her desire to die less painfully.
But what about “Julie Smith” who is in the hospital room next to “Jane Doe”. Julie is also at the end of a long and costly terminal illness. She, too, is offered a treatment that will extend her life by a few months, but unlike “Jane Doe” her treatment is painless and free. However, it will extend an already agonizing dying. Not wishing to prolong her dying, “Julie Smith” declines the treatment.
In the case of “Julie Smith”, treatment is declined precisely because it is life-prolonging. In the case of “Jane Doe”, treatment was declined because it was painful. “Julie Smith” rejects treatment not because it makes her dying worse but because it makes her dying longer. Note this difference: Smith refuses treatment in order to shorten her life and thereby reduce her pain. Doe, on the other hand, rejects treatment because it directly causes pain, not because it is life-prolonging. Smith, then, refuses treatment for the express purpose of dying sooner rather than later. Doe refuses treatment for the express purpose of dying better rather than worse.
Is Smith guilty of suicide while Doe is not? Remember: Smith is going to die anyway. She will be dead shortly no matter what she does, and she simply acquiesces to an irreversible outcome not of her own making. The question seems to be this: "Is it suicide when one seeks to shorten one's life merely by refusing to retard the progress of an inescapable dying condition?"
These are obviously difficult and challenging questions that the Bible simply does not directly address. But this one thing is certain: Although suicide is most assuredly a serious sin that violates God’s expressed will concerning the sanctity of life, there is no evidence to conclude that it is a sin beyond the reach of the forgiveness that was obtained for us at the cross of Christ. In other words, No, suicide is not the unpardonable sin.