The Biblical Perspective on Assisted Suicide—Part I

October 20, 2014

Washington, the state of my upbringing, passed an assisted-suicide law in 2008. The debate was vigorous—I heard about it from my Fuller students at the time—and ultimately the referendum passed. Most arguments in the public square were based on basic logic and emotion. An excellent set of arguments against physician-assisted suicide was presented by author Jane St. Clair in a series of thirty newspaper ads you can find here.

Unmentioned in this list are the many spiritual reasons against assisted suicide. Since my blog’s theme is Bringing the Word to Life, what does the Word have to say about “death with dignity” or assisted suicide? I am limiting my discussion to life-taking that involves the aid of another person. In preparation for that discussion (sorry for dragging this out), today I’d like to list the relevant biblical data that will help us sort out the issue:

God’s basic law: In the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), murder is forbidden, with or without premeditation (the word in Hebrew can be used in either context).

Only one example of assisted suicide:

Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54), assisted by his armor-bearer

52Abimelech came to the tower, and fought against it, and came near to the entrance of the tower to burn it with fire. 53But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, and crushed his skull. 54Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armor and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’” So the young man thrust him through, and he died.

In the case of King Saul, when he was wounded and surrounded by the Philistine army, he wanted his armor-bearer to take his life, but the aide refused:

3The battle pressed hard upon Saul; the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by them. 4Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.” But his armor-bearer was unwilling; for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. 5When his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. (1 Samuel 31:3-5)

There are six recorded suicides in the Scriptures:

King Saul (1 Samuel 31:3-5—see above)

Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5)—an example of the collateral damage of a suicide

Samson (Judges 16:25-30)—a heroic act primarily intent on killing the Philistines, but welcoming death as a sacrifice to that end

Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23)—the King’s counselor, shamed and defeated

Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20)—after murdering his predecessor, within a week an uprising took over his city.

“He burned down the king’s house over himself with fire, and died—because of the sins that he committed, doing evil in the sight of the Lord, . . .”

Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:3-5)—the disciple who betrayed Jesus was overtaken by remorse and loathing. His hanging seems to be self-punishment.

People who wanted to die, but didn’t commit suicide:

Elijah (1 Kings 19:4ff), King David (Psalm 13:2-4), the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18), Job (Job 7:11-16), the Philippian jailer who was stopped by Paul (Acts 16:27)

Biblical concepts worth pursuing in this context:

Our lives are in God’s hands (Job 1:21)

Our times are in God’s hand (Psalm 31:14f)

All our days are known to God (Psalm 139:13-15)

Choose life! (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Taking care of “the least of these” is rewarded (Matthew 25:34-40)

Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 16:19)

Paul’s submission: To live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1:20-24)

If I have missed an important data point, please let me know! These Scriptures and biblical ideas are my starting points for a spiritual and biblical argument regarding assisted suicide. I would recommend reading the accounts of the individuals listed, and I will post next on the teaching points with those stories as a background.

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2 Responses to “The Biblical Perspective on Assisted Suicide—Part I”

  1. Jodie Says:

    Mary,

    Don’t forget the greatest puzzle of them all, the death of Jesus as processed by his early followers and recorded in the Gospels. Peel back the centuries of post processing and read the Gospels as the early disciples wrote and read them. Did he choose to die? If so, did he choose to die in a passive sense or in an active sense? Or was he killed? Did he really know about the Resurrection on the Third Day before the fact, or after the fact? The disciples sure did not expect it. Should they have? Does that even matter, and why or why not?

    I ask this because as Christians we see death through the death (and Resurrection) of the Author of our Faith. No other perspective is nearly as significant. We hold as an assumption that Jesus somehow chose death. As his disciples we have the right to choose death in the same way (somehow). Jesus explicitly implies that following him means to pick up a cross and follow him. Over the centuries we have taken that to be at times metaphorical and at times to be literal, but either way, I think it assumes the right to choose to die. And I think that right is guaranteed because whether we live or whether we die, we live or die in Christ. It’s our covenant with God through Jesus Christ.

    It must have some bearing on this question.

    So I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

    Jodie

    • revmary Says:

      Yes, Jesus’ death has some bearing on the question, and I am saving him for last—the big finish! “Choosing to die” (your phrase) however, is a broader category than “(assisted) suicide,” so keep that in mind until I get to the topic.

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