JOSEPH IN MARYLAND ASKS:
According to Christianity, is suicide a sin?
THE GUY ANSWERS:
The answer from Christian tradition is clearly yes. However, as with many topics these days the full answer is yes, but.
Historic Christianity strongly opposes murder and, by extension, self-murder, “mercy killing,” and assisting others to kill themselves. All are regarded as basic violations of the Ten Commandments’ “thou shalt not kill,” and defiance against God’s sovereignty over life and death. Founders of Protestantism (Luther, Calvin) preserved this ancient ethical stand of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and so have key modern Protestant thinkers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather than questioning the sinfulness of suicide, Christian theologians have deliberated over whether pain or depression mitigate guilt, or whether suicide is justified to protect chastity, or whether to permit Christian funerals and burials in church cemeteries despite abhorrence of the deed, or pastoral care for those who attempt suicide or to families devastated by such deaths.
In a standard formulation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that suicide “is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies” and “is contrary to love for the living God.” The catechism adds two important points: 1) “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” 2) “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.” Catholicism’s canon law code does not specify suicide as a barrier to receiving funeral rites or Christian burial.
Examining the history, a 2007 joint letter from the bishops of U.S. Eastern Orthodox churches declared that suicide was opposed “from the outset” of Christianity’s founding, in contrast with the surrounding Greek and Roman paganism. Factions that disagreed were deemed heretical. Some confusion has stemmed from the willingness of early Christians to die for their faith, which is not suicide. The Orthodox bishops stated that the early church taught that martyrdom should never be sought, although it might need to be accepted. Disputing some modern claims, a major study by Darrel Amundsen said St. Augustine did not originate the teaching against suicide in the early 5th century, but only clarified and systematized prior accepted teaching.
There’s a bit of Protestant debate about the Bible. The Old Testament records six suicides and a liberal evangelical, Lewis Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary, said these indicate that “the Bible does not seem to condemn suicide.” (The death of Samson is a particularly complex example.) However, the Bible often and remarkably omits explicit moral condemnation of sordid events it depicts, even with the suicide of Judas in Matthew 27:5. The main body of evangelicals would agree with Vernon Grounds of Denver Seminary that the Bible “inferentially” condemns these suicides. Moderate and conservative Protestants insist that suicide violates major teachings of the Bible: God alone has authority over life and death, the unjust taking of life is evil, and that within proper bounds God desires love of the self.
In recent times, certain liberal and “mainline” Protestants have departed from this heritage. A singular case was the 1975 joint suicide of Henry Pitney Van Dusen, retired president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary who had suffered a severe stroke, and his wife Elizabeth, whose arthritis was worsening. Reflecting on this and other instances a decade later, philosopher William Phipps wrote in the Christian Century magazine that “there may well be situations in which suicide can be a conscientious act resulting from a careful weighing of alternatives.” In the years since, cultural and political pressure to accept — or even welcome — suicide and euthanasia has obviously increased in Western nations.