Attitudes to suicide

One of the hardest things to deal with when someone is suicidal or has died from suicide is that there are so many negative attitudes about the subject. It even used to be illegal until recently - though how you charged the person who had died remains a mystery to me.

This article aims to briefly summarise the history of modern attitudes to suicide, to look at Biblical attitudes - which are quite different - and to suggest some other ways we could think about the subject: and of course those who are suffering, because this isn't a dry and dusty academic topic but something that changes peoples' lives forever.

Ancient History

The further back you go, the less it seems to be a taboo and the more it was revered. The ancient Egyptians encouraged surviving spouse to choose suicide to be with their lovers in the afterlife. Martyrdom was also acceptable when faced with civil or religious persecution.

Negative attitudes began with Socrates in 400BC who said that because we didn't create life, we should not take it away - yep, this wasn't originally a Christian idea. However, the Romans had an active system of voluntary euthanasia for those who wanted to end their life for medical reasons. There was no judgement attached to such a death.

In the Bible

There are a number of suicides recorded in the pages of the Bible, as well as some things that look very like depressive or suicidal thinking. the Bible records seven clear suicides:

  • Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54) - Abimelech had an identity crisis
  • Samson (Judges 16:25-30) - Samson died for a cause he believed in and for revenge.
  • Saul (1 Samuel 31:4) - Stressed out, unable to live up to certain expectations; felt rejected and a failure
  • Saul's armour-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5) - Impulse, he wanted to die with his boss.
  • Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23) - Ahithophel was bitter because his advice was not followed
  • Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20) - Rebellion; Zimri had a problem with authority
  • Judas (Matthew 27:3-5) - Depressed, Judas felt trapped by materialism and guilt

Most people assume that these people are now in hell, however the Bible never says that. Also, many of the great men and women of the Bible came pretty close to suicide.They faced overwhelming depression and sometimes wrote that they wished they had never even been born. King David, (Psalm 13:2-4), the prophet Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 20:14-18), and Job, (Job 7:15-16) among others, all reached low points where they despaired of their very lives. Job says, "So that my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life. I loathe it; I would not live alway: let me alone; for my days are vanity" (Job 7:15-16).

In researching this section, I found lots of material on the internet that emphasised that suicide is a sin and that it is very wicked. While I do not believe it to be part of God's plan for any of our lives, I do not believe He looks that sternly on those who chose this route. They, in their lives, will have needed to have been far braver than I have ever been.

In Christianity

The early believers were often killed for their faith and for refusing to 'recant' [give up their faith and beliefs] and this could be seen as a deliberate choice of death over life. Revelation 2v3 describes the martyrdom of 'faithful' Antipas. However, excessive piety and huge numbers of martyrs in the 2nd century led to the banning of masses and public mourning to try and discourage the practice. Later the authorities refuse to allow suicide victims to be buried in consecrated ground - ie, most graveyards. There was also 'guilt by association' since Judas, who betrayed Jesus, killed himself by hanging. [By the way, have you noticed that in the film the Passion of the Christ, this suicide seems to be under the influence of psychosis or demon possession which is not how the Bible reads...]

In the 4th Century, St Augustine publically condemned suicide and in 305 AD, the Council of Guadix purged from the list of all martyrs who had died by their own hand. Using the pretext of piety, the 348AD Council of Carthage condemned those who had chosen self death for personal reasons and the 363AD Council of Braga condemned and denied proper burial rites for all known suicides. Augustine, a pragmatist, was trying to quell over-zealous young martyrs, but later in the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas gave theological reasons for outlawing suicide and denounced it as a mortal sin from which you could not repent - and hence condemned the deceased to hell and hence no Christian burial. In the middle ages, it was not uncommon for the body to be disgraced by being dragged through the streets and property was confiscated.

During the Renaissance & Reformation, there was more understanding. Several of Shakespeare's characters died by suicide - often in honourable and understandable ways. The new Anglican church was less strong on mortal sin, but still remained opposed to Christian Burial for suicide victims. The first major defence of suicide in over a thousand years was written in 1608 by the English poet, John Donne, during a time of personal crisis. Donne used the laws of Nature, Reason and God, as well as biblical text, to defend Christians' rights to choose death. Suicide was once again a topic of philosophical debate. The French philosophers, Montesquieu and Voltaire, both argued in defence of an individual's right to choose suicide. Also, the Reverend Charles Moore championed the concept of acceptance for suicide in certain circumstances. The main opponents of this 'accepting' view of suicide were the Englishmen John McManners and John Wesley, who still supported the most severe punishment for suicidal behaviour, regardless of social class.

Eventually, in the 19th and 20th centuries, proper epidemiological studies and case studies of suicide unearthed the fact that it was often not the person's fault and was not a deliberate sin. Suicide was de-criminalised in the 1960s and, in 1983, the Roman Catholic Church reversed the canon law that prohibited proper funeral rites and burial in church cemeteries for those who had died by their own hand. All of these developments have been instrumental in shifting attitudes about suicide in modern society.

The Present Day

Statistics about suicide today suggest that it is more common than in the past. Especially among young men there has been a major increase such that it is now the cause of death for 22% in this age group - though there have been some very recent improvements. All deaths by suicide or 'open verdict' [which means the Coroner can't be sure] and recorded in a National Confidential Enquiry that you can view online.

Though death from suicide is rarely seen as a sin today, it is usually seen as weak, as avoidable and, as with many mental illnesses, the person pitied. The reality, however, is that the person who dies from suicide will have been through some awful choices - often on their own - and have to come to some awful conclusions. I do believe that on a national scale we can do things to prevent suicide, however, I think it is almost always wrong to look at any one person and say "they could have done better".

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done so well in their shoes.

Rob Waller, 02/10/2019
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