Dr. Phipps is professor of religion and philosophy at Davis and Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia.
His forthcoming book Before and After Death (John Knox) contains a chapter on suicide. This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 30, 1985, pp. 970-972. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
A person with a progressive terminal disease faces a unique situation — one which calls for a new look at traditional assumptions about the motivation for choosing suicide. There is no explicit prohibition of suicide anywhere in the canonical texts of Christianity. This choice might be found to be reasoned, appropriate, altruistic, sacrificial, and loving.
Suicide remains a taboo subject, even though there are about as many suicides in the nation each year as there were American deaths in the entire Vietnam war. Of the 50,000 annual suicide deaths, about half are not reported as such. Even though suicide occurs with frequency and in virtually every community, I have never heard or read a sermon on the subject. No mention is made of suicide in several books I possess that deal with Christian morality. James Clemons, in his article "Suicide and Christian Moral Judgment," rightly indicts biblical scholars, Christian ethicists and contemporary pastors for neglecting to think through suicide-related issues in a responsible manner (The Christian Century. May 8, 1985).
The Bible tells of six self-killings. The best known is that of the betrayer Judas as recorded in Matthew. A thousand years earlier, King Saul fell on his sword rather than become a captive of the Philistines who had defeated his army. Another notable suicide is recorded in the Book of Judges. Samson desired to take revenge on the Philistines who had tortured him, and so he prayed: "Please God, give me back my strength just this one time more, so that I can get even with the Philistines for making me blind." He then pushed against the pillars supporting the temple of the god Dagon and shouted. "Let me die with the Philistines!" When the building fell, Samson perished, along with many of his enemies. The biblical writers neither condemn nor commend those whom they record as having taken their own lives. Perhaps the narrators thought it was fitting for Samson, Saul and Judas to respond to their varied situations by committing suicide. (The other three biblical suicides were minor Old Testament figures.)
In early Christianity, suicide was sometimes regarded as a virtuous act. Eusebius, in his account of martyrs at Antioch (Ecclesiastical History, Book 8, chapter 12), tells of a mother who taught her two beautiful unmarried daughters to regard rape as the most dreadful thing that could happen to them. Eventually the mother and daughters were captured by a band of lustful soldiers. On realizing their plight, they modestly requested to be excused for a minute. They then threw themselves into a nearby river and drowned.
In the fourth century Bishop Augustine discussed suicide at length. Recognizing that certain Christian women had committed suicide rather than permit their bodies to be ravaged, Augustine granted that they may have done what was right in the sight of God, but in his view the women should not have assumed that rape would necessarily have deprived them of their purity. Purity is a state of mind, he affirmed, so bodily violence cannot damage it. Job kept his moral integrity amid terrible suffering and did not take his life, Augustine noted. He found it significant that at no point does the Bible make it lawful to take one’s life. The command "Thou shalt not kill" implies, he argued, that one’s own life as well as the lives of others should be preserved. Samson’s suicide was a rare exception to this rule, for he received special divine permission. Concluded Augustine: "He who knows it is unlawful to kill himself may nevertheless do so if he is ordered by God" (City of God, Book I, Sections 18-26).
Augustine’s viewpoint on suicide has heavily influenced both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Thomas Aquinas, the most outstanding of Catholic theologians, gave three succinct arguments why suicide is a sin against self, neighbor and God. First, suicide is contrary to nature: every living organism naturally desires to preserve its life. Second, it is contrary to our social obligations: the whole human community is injured by self-killing. Third, suicide is contrary to our religious rights: God alone should decide when a person will live or die. Aquinas reasoned: "To bring death upon oneself in order to escape the other afflictions of this life is to adopt a greater evil in order to avoid a lesser. . . . Suicide is the most fatal of sins because it cannot be repented of" (Summa Theologica 2-2, q. 64,5). The poet Dante, following Aquinas’s theology, placed those who take their own lives on the seventh level of hell, below the greedy and the murderous (Inferno 13). For centuries those who committed the unconfessed and therefore unforgivable sin of suicide were not buried in cemeteries that Catholic priests had consecrated.
The 17th-century Westminster Shorter Catechism, which remains authoritative for Calvinists, follows Augustine in relating one of the Ten Commandments to suicide. The Catechism asserts: "The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto."
Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer also showed his indebtedness to Augustine when he wrote: "God has reserved to himself the right to determine the end of life, because he alone knows the goal to which it is his will to lead it." When that leader of the German resistance to Hitler was being persecuted -- prior to his imprisonment and execution -- he affirmed: "Even if a person’s earthly life has become a torment for him, he must commit it intact to God’s hand, from which it came" (Ethics [Macmillan, 1955], pp. 124-5).
An examination of our biblical and church heritage discloses different degrees of tolerance toward suicide. For some it is always absolutely wrong; for others it may be an appropriate response in exceptional situations. The historical discussion provides some guidance for facing current dilemmas. Modern medicine occasionally extends artificially the time of death -- a fact that has generated fresh inquiry into situations in which suicide might be acceptable. Let us consider three cases involving elderly persons.
After a 78-year-old man was admitted to a hospital, an examination revealed an erratic heart beat, an enlarged prostate, a bowel obstruction and arthritic joints. When the patient learned that surgery was being planned, he pleaded: "Listen, doctor, I don’t want to die with tubes sticking out all over me. I don’t want my children to remember their father that way. I’m old and tired and have seen enough of life, believe me. But still I want to be a man, not a vegetable that someone comes and waters every day. You see, the engine is broken down; it is time for the engineer to abandon it." Despite this eloquent request, a tube for feeding was placed down the old man’s nose into his stomach. Intravenous injections were made four times a day. Later the man was hooked up to a respirator to increase his oxygen intake. One night he reached over and switched off his respirator. For several hours the hospital staff did not realize what had happened. On the bedside table they found this suicide note: "Death is not the enemy, doctor. Inhumanity is."
Another pathetic case concerns an 80-year-old blind widow who had lived for years in a nursing home. Having endured uninterrupted pain from her cancer, she saved up morphine tablets to swallow all at once in the hope of dying. She sank into a coma, but an attendant discovered the suicide attempt. The woman’s consciousness revived after she was rushed to a hospital emergency room and injected with an antimorphine drug. She was later returned to the nursing home, where she had to suffer much longer. Had she the right to take the deadly dosage of the drug and to die undisturbed after doing so?
The third case is the much-publicized one of Elizabeth and Henry Pitney Van Dusen. Dr. Van
Dusen, age 77, was the former president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary and a distinguished Presbyterian minister. He and his wife, Elizabeth, age 80, discussed suicide with their friends and then signed a pact before taking an overdose of sleeping pills. She wrote:
We have both had very full and satisfying lives. . . . But since Pitney had his stroke five years ago, we have not been able to do any of the things we want to do . . . and my arthritis is much worse. There are also many helpless old people who without modern medicinal care would have died, and we feel God would have allowed them to die when their time had come. Nowadays it is difficult to die. We feel that this way we are taking will become more usual and acceptable as the years pass. We are both increasingly weak and unwell, and who would want to die in a nursing home? . . . "O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace."
The Van Dusens realized that some nursing homes are virtual tombs where the elderly are buried alive. They asked for God’s forgiveness in advance for any wrong they might be committing by their decision to leave this life before they needlessly suffered even more. Although they did not say so, they were probably also disturbed by the thought of the loneliness that would follow if one survived the other.
In 1980, the New York-based organization Concern for Dying convened a group of psychiatrists, philosophers and theologians who prepared a statement on suicide for the terminally ill which is relevant to the cases I have cited:
Historically, suicide has been judged as "sinful" by organized religion. . . . We do not dispute the contention that the majority of suicides represent a rejection of the "gift of life" and, as such, are evidence of severe emotional distress. We believe, however, that a person with a progressive terminal disease faces a unique situation -- one which calls for a new look at traditional assumptions about the motivation for choosing suicide. In our view, this choice might be found to be reasoned, appropriate, altruistic, sacrificial, and loving. We can imagine that an individual faced with debilitating, irreversible illness, who would have to endure intractable pain, mutilating surgery, or demeaning treatments -- with added concern for the burden being placed on family and friends -- might conclude that suicide was a reasonable, even generous, resolution to a process already moving inexorably toward death.
The Concern for Dying group that made this declaration also urges that suicide decisions of the terminally ill not be made in secret. Consultation should be encouraged with family, friends and/or trusted health-care professionals who have an intimate knowledge of the patient. Impulsive acts could thereby be curtailed; on the other hand, assistance could be given in implementing thoughtful decisions. Also, bungled suicide attempts which leave a person in a worse state of health might be avoided.
At a 1981 Concern for Dying conference, Margaret Battin, who has written texts on ethical issues in suicide, envisioned a time in the distant future when Christians would come to treat suicide as a kind of sacrament involving a serious grappling with ultimate questions. She thinks that because of their impact on the immediate family and the larger community, suicide decisions should not be treated as exclusively private matters. Families who are uninvolved can suffer debilitating guilt.
Although Battin’s hopes for a new sacrament may be unrealistic, most Christians and non-Christians will probably agree that Aquinas’s condemnation of all suicides is too harsh. Certainly there is no basis in biblical or patristic teachings for regarding suicide as the most deadly sin. As we have seen, there is no explicit prohibition of suicide anywhere in the canonical texts of Christianity. In his essay "On Suicide," philosopher David Hume comes closer than Augustine in giving a correct contextual interpretation of a law of Moses. "Resignation to Providence is indeed recommended in Scripture," he stated, "but that implies only submission to ills that are unavoidable, not to such as may be remedied by prudence or courage. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is evidently meant to exclude only the killing of others over whose life we have no authority."
Besides eschewing the traditional condemnatory stance toward all suicides, Christians need to be correctly informed about people who contemplate, attempt or carry out suicide. It is frequently asserted, for example, that suicide is the product of a diseased mind. The fact is that while psychotics are higher suicide rises than the rest of the population, most of those who commit suicide have no history of severe mental illness. Another half-truth is that suicide runs in families. The fact is that there is no evidence that genetic inheritance predisposes some people to self-destruction. It is also misleading to say that it is only depressed people who commit suicide. Not all suicidal persons have suffered from depression, and those who are in a despondent mood may lack the energy to fulfill their resolve. Many suicides occur after individuals come out of depression and are presumed by their friends to have regained mental health. It is also unsupported folk wisdom that suicide tends to be seasonal, with more suicides taking place during bad weather or at Christmastime when some people are most lonely. Some people distance themselves from those who talk about suicide, believing that there is no stopping those who have decided on that course of action. Actually, most who seem intent on suicide are ambivalent and never carry out their decision. Related to this is another half-truth: the suicide-prone are so deeply disturbed that only a professional psychotherapist should deal with them. Sensitive listening by laypersons has often reduced stress and preserved life.
Christians need to learn to be especially understanding of families that have sustained suicides. It is appalling to a family when one of its members decides that he or she would rather be dead than continue to share their company. Since no illness or accident is to blame for the killing, they are consumed with guilt. A father of a son who committed suicide said: "Everyone has a skeleton in the closet. But the person who kills himself leaves his skeleton in another’s closet." Family members tend to think: if only they had avoided those quarrels, it would not have happened. Sometimes they are so ashamed that they dread facing their acquaintances in the community. Not only do they feel socially isolated, but they may also feel spiritually alienated. Such alienation may be expressed in resentment toward God for allowing such an injustice to happen to them. Or they may feel self-hatred for having contributed to the nurture of someone who, as they see it, arrogantly took his or her life -- a prerogative of God alone: A survivor’s grief may be so severe that it can become a cause of self-execution on the part of the bereaved.
Having reflected on the usual tragedy of suicide and its horrendous impact on survivors, we must ask: Are there any situations in which it is morally right? Donne’s position is a helpful guide for facing the broad range of circumstances confronting the Christian. There may well be situations in which suicide can be a conscientious act resulting from a careful weighing of alternatives. The Van Dusens’s suicide note, for example, displays serious and rational decision-making by Christians. After the couple died, a committee of the Presbytery of New York City wisely concluded that for some Christians, as a last resort in the gravest of situations, suicide may be an act of their Christian conscience."