for release Friday July 23, 2004
by Melodie Davis
Suicide and Religious Beliefs
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series looking at depression, mental illness, religion and suicide, rising out of an upcoming documentary, Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide, on Hallmark Channel, Aug. 22.
What do you think happens to the soul or spirit of a person who has died by suicide? Traditionally, many religions have considered suicide a sin from which there is no time or opportunity to repent or ask God’s forgiveness. And so the assumption was that a person who has died miserably also spends the next life, or eternity, apart from God—in hell if you want to call it that. Some traditions reflected that “apartness” by not allowing persons who died by suicide to have a church funeral or to be buried in the regular cemetery.
This has been a difficult, double or triple grief for religious families to cope with. In addition to normal grieving, there is shame, stigma, silence—and extreme sorrow regarding the future of the loved one’s spirit. Where is God’s love and mercy in all of this? How can religions uphold the value of God-given life, while also relating compassionately to families of those who die by suicide?
The idea that I would end up in hell if I killed myself has served as a preventive for many persons, so in that sense it is good. But for the truly depressed person, this kind of thinking doesn’t stop them, for logical, rational thinking is frequently not possible when the mind is ill. They reason illogically that they are so awful and such failures that they would deserve it anyway.
Thankfully, religious scholars have re-examined the biblical record and also theological teachings down through the years and relate some interesting facts and interpretations. One of these is Dr. Lloyd Carr, professor emeritus of Bible at Gordon College (Mass.) who lost a daughter-in-law to suicide. He and his wife, Gwen, have written a book, Fierce Goodbye (Herald Press, 2003) which includes poetry by Gwen, along with Lloyd’s reflections on their journey through pain as well as a thorough look at suicide in the Bible and through Christian history. He makes the observation that even though Judas’ suicide is mentioned at two places in the New Testament of the Bible, Judas is never condemned for the suicide, but for betraying Jesus.
In the Old Testament, the judge, Samson, pulled the temple down on himself and on the Philistines, taking his own life. King Saul and his armor bearer died by suicide on the battlefield. Abimalech, in the book of Judges, ended his life after a battle when he was seriously injured. “In most of the Old Testament cases, the suicide is the result of either a military defeat or a serious injury where someone will die in a matter of hours or at the most days, either at the hands of enemies or just by dying from the wound,” notes Dr. Carr.
Dr. Carr goes on, “In the biblical record there is no condemnation of suicide, and in fact, in two or three cases there is an indication that there was a burial for Samson and Saul.” In a Bible passage in Hebrews 11, Samson is listed among those who have found God’s favor. “So you've got this rather ambivalent attitude,” notes Carr.
Interestingly, in the period of the early Christian church, after 100 AD, the people developed a theology regarding martyrdom that reflected a total disdain for physical life, according to Carr. Some believers became perhaps swept up in a religious fervor that they felt they were the most faithful if they died a martyr’s death, almost committing acts that were sure to get them martyred, which could be regarded as suicide. Eventually, to stop this recklessness, St. Augustine (born about 354) said the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” included killing oneself. Augustine’s interpretation of this commandment was a radically new departure in both Judaism and Christianity, according to Carr.
“There is no biblical evidence for the church’s condemnation of suicide as an unforgivable sin,” says Carr. “It is an act which we do not want to condone or encourage, yet there is no evidence that it brings eternal damnation.”
When a person is so depressed and mentally ill that they reach the point of taking their life, they cannot be held responsible for their action. As Roger Steffy, a pastor in the TV documentary says, “While the act of taking one’s own life would clearly, in my view, be defined as sin, it’s not a different sort of sin than something else. Our relationship with God is not based on whether we confess and repent from each individual sin we commit but is rather based on the way that we’ve lived our life in terms of a faith relationship with God.”
Next time we’ll look at stories of hope from family survivors of suicide.
For more on religious views about suicide, go to http://www.fiercegoodbye.com/?P=67
Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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