Probably one of the worst ways to lose a loved one is by suicide, when someone takes their own life. There have been a couple of high-profile suicides lately of celebrities, which has brought the issue of suicide into the limelight.
On average, over 125 people per day commit suicide in the United States, and it is a growing problem. Over the 50 year period from 1950 to 1999, the suicide rate remained fairly constant in this country, but since the year 2000, the suicide rate has increased by about 25 to 30 percent. Men aged 40 to 44 have the highest suicide rate of any group, followed by men aged 45-49, which means that men in their 40’s have the highest suicide rate of any group. But some trends are even more alarming. The suicide rate among young white men aged 15-24 has tripled since 1950, tripled.
Overall, men account for 84% of suicides; women account for 16%. As you can see, the suicide rate among women is much lower than among men, but the suicide rate among women is increasing.
Among occupational groups, farmers comprise the occupation with the highest suicide rate. Farmers have a higher suicide rate than even veterans, a group often afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But suicide is a problem among all sectors of society—among all races, all educational levels, all income levels, and in all parts of the country. And, although suicide rates among Christians are hard to come by because of the difficulty in defining exactly who is a Christian, it appears, from what I’ve been able to find out, that the suicide rate among Christians is essentially the same as the suicide rate among non-Christians.
From a Christian standpoint, it is surprises many people to learn that the Bible does not comment on suicide. There are a handful of suicides mentioned in the Bible, but they are not commented on. There’s just a few, and they’re mentioned only in passing. The Bible just tells us that so-and-so killed himself but doesn’t comment on it. The Bible does not, anywhere, expressly condemn suicide.
Christianity, though, has always officially maintained that suicide is wrong. As I said, the Bible does not expressly condemn it, but Christianity has traditionally seen suicide as violating the commandment against murder. Suicide has traditionally been seen in Christianity as “self-murder.” In fact, in the German language, that’s what suicide is called. The German word for suicide is literally “self-murder.”
In the past, many Christians believed that if you commit suicide, you go straight to hell. The idea behind that was the belief that you can’t go to heaven unless all of your sins are forgiven. And some reasoned that in order to get your sins forgiven, you have to ask forgiveness before you die. But if you kill yourself, you’re dead, and it’s too late to ask forgiveness. And so there you are, thrust into the presence of God to face eternity with a sin you haven’t asked forgiveness for, and so you go straight to hell.
In general, though, today, for various reasons, most Christians no longer hold the view that suicide automatically sends you to hell. But I know from various suicides I’ve been involved with over the past few years that some Christians still do believe that. Some, but they’re in the minority.
So, I would say that Christians believe suicide is wrong, but most do not believe committing suicide will automatically send you to hell.
Is suicide wrong from a Christian perspective? We could say that hinges on whether we define suicide as murder. Murder, from a Christian perspective, is of course wrong. But what is murder? Technically, murder is defined as “the unlawful killing of another human being.” The word “another” is in that definition to specifically exclude suicide. So, technically, from a legal point of view, suicide is not murder, since it’s not the unlawful killing of “another” human being. But what about morally? Is suicide morally wrong because of the Christian injunction against murder?
Well, let’s keep looking at the legal definition of murder. It poses another problem if we want to think about suicide as murder. From a legal standpoint, killing is only murder if it’s against the law.
So what makes a killing against the law? For a killing to be considered against the law, it must be “unjustified,” “without excuse,” and most of all, it must be done “with malice aforethought. So let’s look at those.
Let’s look at “unjustified” first. To be considered “justified,” a killing must advance some social cause or be the exercise of some right. For instance, if you walk into a McDonalds, and someone is in there shooting customers, you are advancing the social cause of protecting people if you pull out a gun and shoot the shooter. You are protecting the right of people to go into a public place and not be shot. It is a generally recognized right in society as a whole that someone should be able to go into a public place and not be shot, and society believes that to such an extent that you are justified in killing to stop a shooting. You are protecting a recognized right. That’s a “justified” killing, not murder.
Now let’s look at the requirement that a killing be without excuse for it to be considered murder. An “excuse” would be something like mental incapacity. If you kill someone, and you are judged to not have the mental capacity to realize the import of what you are doing; that is, if you are mentally incompetent, then it is not murder.
So, a killing is not murder if it is justified or with excuse.
The thing about “with malice aforethought” is more tricky. “With malice aforethought” used to mean premeditation; that is, you decided to kill someone, made plans to do it, got your gun, drove over to their house, went in, and shot them. You decided to do it, made preparations for it, plans for it, and then carried out your plan. That’s what “with malice aforethought” used to mean, and it was generally a condition for calling something murder, especially first-degree murder.
Today however, “with malice aforethought” does not refer so much to premeditation as it does to disregard for the value of human life.
Now remember, when we outlined the three provisions for something to be murder—remember they are that it must be unjustified, it must be without excuse, and it must be with malice aforethought—we said that the one about with malice aforethought is the most important. That’s what will really determine whether, in the eyes of the law, a killing is murder.
Let’s take an example. Suppose a noise wakes you up in the middle of the night, and you realize there’s an intruder in the hallway outside your bedroom. You have a gun in your bedside table, so you get your gun, quietly slip around the corner, and shoot the intruder. That, technically, should not be murder. It should be a justified killing under the right of self-defense. However, in this day and time, if you shoot an intruder in your home in the middle of the night, you may very well find yourself charged with murder. You wouldn’t be charged with murder for that in the county where I live, but depending on where you lived, you might.
Why? Because they might say you disregarded the value of the human life of the intruder, which would mean you acted “with malice aforethought,” which means you committed murder.
Back several months ago, my wife and I attended a church security seminar put on by the local sheriff’s department. That was shortly after the big church shooting in Texas. The issue was discussed of having armed security personnel in churches. That is done to hopefully stop someone from going into the church and shooting people, like happened in Texas. There are a number of churches in this area that have armed security, not uniformed security guards, but organized teams of members with concealed guns. The sheriff’s department advises extreme caution with that because they said if someone bursts into your church and starts shooting people in the congregation, and then someone in the congregation pulls a gun and shoots the shooter, it is very likely that the person who shoots the shooter will be sued and possibly charged with a crime.
It seems unreal today to think that if a person burst in here and started shooting people and I shot the shooter to stop it that I would be sued and maybe even charged with murder, but that’s the world we live in. The way they put it is that the family will say, “Little Johnny was just about to get his life together, and you didn’t have to kill him. You could have just grazed him in the arm; you didn’t have to kill him. You acted with disregard for the value of his life.” So, bottom line is that whether or not something is murder, from a legal perspective, depends to a large extent on who you kill, not just the circumstances under which you kill them. It’s a tremendous change in law, but it simply reflects a tremendous change that had already happened in society.
I hope what I have gone through so far illustrates some of the problems we run into from a moral and Christian standpoint if we want to say suicide is wrong based on the prohibition of murder in Christianity. We run into the problem of deciding what exactly constitutes murder. From a legal standpoint, we saw that the definition of murder is murky, subject to interpretation, and is changing. There is no ironclad legal definition of murder.
It’s the same in Christianity. There is no ironclad Christian definition of murder. There never has been. There are and have been a myriad of different Christian definitions of murder, and as you might imagine, they don’t all agree. There is no agreement within Christianity as to what constitutes murder.
So from a Christian standpoint, what justifies killing? There’s no agreement in Christianity on this. My wife and I have had discussions over whether it would be justified to shoot someone who broke into our house. It’s a complicated question. But there’s no way I’d stand there and watch someone rape and kill my wife. And neither would I stand there and let someone kill me. I’d shoot and worry about the justification later. And I imagine most of you would, too.
So whatever different bounds different versions of Christianity might place on justified killing, the point is that 99% of Christianity has always been of the opinion that all killing is not murder, that some killings, in some circumstances, can be justified. Of course, it’s ranged from some Christians who thought that practically anyone they wanted to kill was justified to other Christians who wouldn’t kill except under the most extreme circumstances, but still, 99% of Christians have always seen some killings as justified.
So, since practically all Christians believe that some killings are justified, can we apply that to suicide and say that some suicides are justified? Suicide near the end of life is one example. I knew a man a long time ago who went to the doctor and was told he had cancer. With or without treatments, the prognosis was bad, and he would get in horrible shape before he died. He left the doctor’s office, went home, and shot himself. Was that justified? He was going to be dead in six months anyway, and it saved him a lot of suffering.
I read an article not long ago that said the American Medical Association, which has been against doctor-assisted suicide, is thinking about changing its position under some circumstances.
Suicide under circumstances like that is a hard question, a question for which there are no easy answers.
But, most suicides don’t happen when people find out they have cancer or some other fatal disease. Frankly, no one has ever figured out why most people commit suicide. People have posited that some of it is due to economic hardship, some is due to depression, some to loneliness, some to various other life hardships, but there is no clear reason that stands out for most suicides. There are various opinions on it.
Today, suicide is seen mainly as a mental health issue, and the idea is that if people could just get help, if help were more available and if more people took advantage of help, suicides could be prevented.
It’s sort of like the opiod crisis. If we could just get people into treatment, so the conventional wisdom goes, we could solve the opiod crisis. But actually, “treatment” is woefully ineffective. A doctor friend of mine used to say that the judgment of whether or not you need treatment and whether or not you can benefit from treatment depends most of all on whether your insurance will pay for it. That may seem like a skeptical attitude, but I think the point this guy was really trying to make is that “treatment” is largely ineffective.
As an illustration of that, someone who is active in Alcoholics Anonymous told me that somewhere around 10% of alcoholics succeed in remaining sober. AA is one of the most respected and recognized forms of treatment available, yet it is only about 10% effective.
So, mental health “treatment” is not the answer to suicide.
We live in a society where more and more people are deciding to commit suicide, and the groups that have the highest suicide rates are people who should have at least half a lifetime ahead of them. Some suicides, like those near the end of life, may be understandable, but most are not. Most represent the tragic ending of a life that didn’t have to end.
From a Christian standpoint, it’s hard to know what to say because the Bible does not address the issue of suicide. The Bible is basically silent on the issue of suicide. Scaring people by telling them they’ll go straight to hell if they commit suicide obviously won’t work. Telling them suicide is a sin won’t work. Getting people into mental health “treatment” won’t work, either.
What is leading increasing numbers of Americans to commit suicide? Is there anything Christians can do about it? Next week, we’ll discuss this further.