Standing on a bridge spanning the Delaware River in December of 2014, I wanted to end it all. I had one foot on the bridge, another hanging over the abyss. All I had to do was take that one final step and it would all be over. The four years preceding that night were a very painful part of my life, and I wanted it all to just go away. Perhaps God would forgive me for doing this, but honestly, I didn’t care. Anything other than this place was good enough for me.
Almost two years later, I am still here. I moved to Philly in May, I’m working a good job, and I’m trying to work my way back to grad school for a M.Div. To say that I am in a better place than I was then is an understatement. But that doesn’t mean my depressed thoughts still linger, doesn’t mean I have very dark and lonely nights. Depression is an illness that I constantly battle; it very well may be one I will fight for the rest of my life. But at the very least, I still have that one light burning in a gloomy soul. That light, my Lord, is why I am still here.
What is more amazing, however, is the amount of people I run into that also battle depression. Behind the facades of happiness and contentment are really tortured and life-battered believers who find it hard to reconcile the promises of God and the reality of life. But why are so many of my Christian brothers and sisters shy away from the subject?
Depression and Society
Even in our world where mental illness awareness is on the rise, most people just don’t want to talk about it. To be fair, it’s not a very fun thing to talk about. When you’re out with your friends or at a social gathering, chances are that the topic of discussion on a night out is how dark people’s thoughts are. At the same time, like other social issues, depression and suicide cannot simply be swept under the rug, especially at a time when suicide rates keep climbing at a staggering rate.
For instance, in an April article by the New York Times, the suicide rate has not only increase in every American age demographic (with the exception of older adults), but has also plateaued at a 30-year high. That’s right; a 30 year high! This also includes increases in suicide rates irregardless of sex or (except black men) race. Despite increased awareness in recent years, the suicide rates have not gotten any better; they’ve only gotten even worse.
Why is that?
Dramatic Societal Shifts
2016 has been a chaotic and transformative year in the United States, but the ever-evolving society has seen huge changes in not only our institutions but also in our culture. Divorce rates have risen while the marriage rate decreases, leaving more and more people isolated and alone. Suicide rates among transgendered persons are very high, fueled not only by societal expectations but also the agony of gender confusion. While men’s suicide rates are more than 3x that of women, rates for women are spiking. Notoriously high rates among Native Americans are only getting higher, exasperated by issues of poverty and alcoholism. We can go on and on, but you can see the point.
As much as statistics can help us understand what’s happening here, they’re just that: numbers. They can only tell us so much. What’s really going on here is deeper and more widespread than stats can produce.
A Jar’s Need for Filling
Human beings can best be described as jars. That is, we are creatures that need filling. None of us are made whole; if we were we would have no needs. Meaning and purpose to our lives is paramount to our survival, but we quickly realize that because we are not whole, it is impossible to find meaningfulness within ourselves. Something outside of ourselves needs to fulfill our purpose.
We look everywhere to fill the chasm, whether that be family, romance, friends, hobbies, or money. But even then these things can not fill us wholly. Even the most successful people find it hard to get by despite everything they have. In fact, suicide rates are increasing dramatically among white, middle-aged men, the least likely group you think would be wanting to end their own lives. This demographic, one who often have good jobs, plenty of friends, a wife and children, and a busy schedule are finding out that all of these material things are not fulfilling them like they should. When these sectors of their lives fall apart, that makes their situation even more dire.
When we realize that nothing on this Earth can be fully satisfying, we naturally look to something even higher than we are to find satisfaction. Religion has been the traditional answer to people’s quest for meaning and purpose, and understandably so. Now, when I call something “religion”, I do not necessarily mean the belief in a deity. Personally, I define religion as anything beyond ourselves that we ascribe to for self-worth. If it cannot be in God, then we worship something else, whether that be the sciences or nature. By this definition, even ardent atheists who are classically irreligious are by human nature deeply religious in their convictions.
The Need for God
With that in mind, now let’s turn to religion as most people understand it: the belief in God. There are many benefits to Godly convictions. After all, the belief in a god (or gods) that created human beings, that is accessible to us for intervention in our lives and who (potentially) promises us an even better existence than the one we are in all appeal to the soul’s longings. For many in our world, the God of the Bible has been their solution.
You would think, then, that depression and suicide rates would be lower among Christians. Well, that’s not entirely true either. In fact, Christians die by suicide at almost the same rates as anybody else, religious or non-religious. That alone raises the puzzling question: why?
The Universal Condition of Suicide
As mentioned above, human beings all have a desire for purpose, a longing for meaning, something that we need fulfilled. This goes across the board, whether you are an atheist or a fundamentalist, black or white, male or female. This fullness and totality of being is found in the God who made everything and everyone. But because of the universal human nature, we are born apart from God, and therefore are missing God’s fullness, bringing about a spiritual death to all mankind (Rom 5:12). As long as we remain in our human flesh, the fullness of being will never be there.
The same even goes for the Christian. Although in Christ all are made alive (1 Cor 15:22), the sanctification of our souls is an ongoing process that continues throughout our whole lives and is not fully brought to completion until the passing from this life into the next. Even the psalmists cry out to God for Him (Psalm 42:1-4). Christians will still have dark and depressing days where they get angry, frustrated, and even shed tears as to their own circumstances. Sadly, even some find no other alternative to their woes.
The Church’s Lack of Emphasis
Another aspect to consider is the church’s response to the problem, which frankly has not been ideal. Like the three friends of Job, many church leaders and congregants give us answers that simply are inadequate, insensitive, and sometimes even wrong. To avoid potentially giving a wrong answer, some shy away from the matter altogether. This is not to say that all the blame must be placed on the Church. Depression and suicide are far from easy issues to tackle. Nonetheless, the response from our brothers and sisters simply remains too cold.
But what has the church historically taught on the issue of suicide? Are they saved? Do people who commit suicide go to hell? Is it a mortal sin? Firstly, I want to take a brief study of the Church’s long-standing views on the act of suicide, then maneuver to a look at the biblical instances of suicide.
The Ancient Church’s Teaching on Suicide
Whether you study the Church Fathers or read modern theologians, the Church has universally frowned upon the act of suicide. Augustine of Hippo called the act self-murder, writing in City of God,
“…certainly he who kills himself is a homicide, and so much guiltier of his own death, as he was more innocent of that offence for which he doomed himself to die”
The view of suicide as a crime against oneself has prevailed throughout. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, discusses suicide in his writing pertaining to murder (ST II-II.64.5), going so far as to state that no repentance for such a crime is possible. John Calvin’s sermon on Job gave several comments on suicide, including the fact that, “…it is not lawful for the faithful to dislike their own life, and to wish so for death”.
In the medieval period, suicide (or the attempting thereof) was a criminal offense. The bodies of the dead were refused Christian burial, and those who did survive their attempts faced excommunication from the Church, a severe penalty in its time. Because suicide was a mortal sin (I.e. Aquinas), the believer had shown no repentance, could no longer show repentance, and, unless someone prayed to God on their behalf, the person was cast into hell.
There have been, of course, several exceptions given throughout the history of the Church. Certain circumstances allowed for a person to take their own life for a righteous cause. One notable instance was from John Chrysostom, who defended the suicide of Pelagia because she had done so to protect her own chastity, thereby becoming a martyr in the process (PG 50:579). Those who commit suicide in the pursuit of martyrdom, then, were in the right because they sacrificed themselves for a more righteous cause. This is in contrast to the Donatists, early heretics whose “church of saints” included many who actively sought for martyrdom.
Willful suicide otherwise, however, is still held in low esteem. The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes suicide as a conscious violation of the fifth commandment not to murder (2325). The Protestant theologian John Macarthur likewise calls suicide an act of self-murder (“Can one who commits suicide be saved?”), as did Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who refused to conduct funeral masses for those who took their own lives (The Ten Commandments, III). The debate on whether willful suicide is sinful is hardly even a debate.
The real question that theologians have wrestled with is this: is suicide an unforgivable sin? Some like Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata 4.4) and Aquinas have argued as such. But many theologians, particularly modern theologians, take a different view of suicide. Martin Luther erred on the side of caution when he wrote that those who commit suicide are not necessarily damned (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 54, p. 29). The Catholic Church is ambivalent on their fate, not placing blame on those who are mentally ill and leaving it more into the hands of God to determine their destiny, allowing the living to pray for the souls of the departed (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2283). But more on that later…
There are several instances of persons throughout Scripture who had taken their own lives. The first of these was Abimelech’s, the son of the judge Gideon, who had his armor bearer kill him rather than have it be said that a woman killed him in battle (Judges 9:54). In an act of taking vengeance upon the Philistines, Samson is given the strength to collapse the pillars holding him up, killing him in the process (16:30). To avoid humiliation at the hands of his enemies, Saul falls on his own sword and dies (1 Sam 31:4).
Among those who have committed the act, there have been biblical figures who have themselves been subject to suicidal feelings of their own. Job, deep in the wallows of depression and suffering, declares how he hates his own life and wishes for its end (Job 7:15-16). Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah goes as far as to curse the day of his own birth (Jer 20:14-18). Neither of these two men went through with the act, but their woeful cries signaled the deep and dark sorrow of their own souls.
But perhaps the most infamous of suicides in the Bible, and the one most worth of note here, is that of Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Jesus who betrayed him. The fate of the treacherous disciple is recorded in the books of Matthew and Acts:
Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
– Matthew 27:3-10
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
– Acts 1:15-19
Issues of consistency aside (hanging vs. falling), the motivation of Judas’s suicide comes into full view in the Gospels. A man who was a seedy character (John 12:6), one who had Satan enter into him to accomplish the betrayal (Luke 22:3) had now seen the reality of his actions and now faced overwhelming regret. The guilt of his sin, the betrayal of his own Lord, is too much for him to overcome. But is guilt a viable reason to defy God and decide their own fate?
The Example of Peter: Staying Alive
Here, it would be helpful to compare Judas to another disciple: Simon Peter. Earlier in Jesus’s ministry, Simon proclaimed Jesus the son of the living God (Matt 16:16), and was one of the more prominent disciples. On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter denied Him three times as He had foretold (26:69-75). Just as Judas had betrayed his master in the eyes of men, so had Peter denied Jesus in that matter also. Due to this action, Peter also became wrought with grief over the denial of his Lord.
The major contrast between Judas and Peter, however, was in their response. In contrast to Judas, who in his guilt took his own life, Peter persevered. While Judas ran away from his sin, Peter would later use his experience to strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32). In the midst of his own despair, Peter would go on to be redeemed back, and become the most prominent of all the apostles, always named first among the list of their members (Acts 1:13). In other words, he is the anti-Judas.
I bring this up to signal the proper mode of response to depression: the mode to persevere. The guilt Peter was so great that he went away and bitterly wept over the open betrayal of Jesus. It would have been no surprise, then, if Peter decided to share the same fate as his fallen counterpart. But the Lord had prayed for him to endure, supplying him with the strength he needed through the tortuous three days between the denial and the resurrection. And because he endured, he would become a catalyst God would use for changing the lives of millions. If God preserved Peter, although he denied His son, how much more will He preserve us?
Final Thoughts on Suicide
The testimonies of Judas and Simon Peter are worthy of note for us who struggle with depression and suicide. It paints for us a picture as to who we should be when troubles come (Peter) and how not to be (Judas). The call to be strong is a universal exhortation throughout Scripture (Josh 1:9, 1 Peter 4:11), a call to not run away from the problems and pressures of the world but to confront them, a call not to wallow in ourselves but be a light and an example for each other. As hard as it may get, we can never lose sight of the future blessings and glory that await us (Rom 8:18).
As to my own personal opinions on the matter, I shall remain brief. Firstly, in agreement with the teachings of Scripture and the theologians of the church, I am convinced that suicide is contrary to the law of God. The taking of one’s own life stands in direct contrast to the created order and is contrary to the life-giving character of God, who finds such actions repugnant to his good and righteous will. Suicide is a tragic and devastating consequence of the fall of man that is never to be condoned or practiced.
As to the salvation of Christian souls who commit suicide, I personally cannot say. But I can say this with confidence: if the souls of suicidal Christians are spared from eternal punishment, they will still miss out on many things. They will miss out on gifts in the present life and in the life to come (Matt 6:20). They will miss out on the blessings they would have received in this life, any new lessons and opportunities, any new friendships or relationships. But even more than that, the action of suicide leaves chaos and sorrow in its wake for the loved ones who are left behind. The negative act leaves indelibly negative consequences for the living. For those of you who think that no one will care if you die: you are dead wrong.
To close, I’ll leave you with advice. I do not know what your life situation is at this moment or what it may be down the road, but I can tell you this: every life is precious in the eyes of the Lord, including yours. You are made in the image of our God, who took so much care and attention to detail to create who you are. So precious was your life, in fact, that the Son of God humbled and humiliated Himself to make you His own. Your life is blood-bought, and that fact alone makes your life infinitely worth preserving. If you are facing despair and feel that you have nowhere else to turn, turn to our loving and gracious Lord. It is in Him that He will provide you with all your needs (Phil 4:19), the one who will equip you with the strength, wisdom, and joy to live the blessed life, regardless of what will happen. Press on when you feel like you cannot anymore; a future glory awaits.
Soli Deo Gloria, forever and ever!