Suicide and Religion
What does the Bible say about suicide and killing on request?
The Bible describes nine suicides (points 1 to 10 below) and one death on request (A), but does not pass any judgement on their sinfulness.
1) Judges 16:30 – Then Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines". He strained with all his might; and the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.
2) 1 Samuel 31:4 – Then Saul said to his armour-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 armour-bearer was unwilling; for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.
3) 1 Samuel 31:5 – When his armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him.
4) 2 Samuel 17:23 – When Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his donkey and went off home to his own city. He set his house in order, and hanged himself; he died and was buried in the tomb of his father.
5) 1 Kings 16:18 – When Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the king's house; he burned down the king's house over himself with fire, and died
6) 1 Chronicles 10:4 – Then Saul said to his armour-bearer, "Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and make sport of me." But his armour-bearer was unwilling, for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell on it.
7) (Apocrypha) 1 Maccabees 6:46 – He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and he died.
8) (Apocrypha) 2 Maccabees 10:12 – Ptolemy, who was called Macron, took the lead in showing justice to the Jews because of the wrong that had been done to them, and attempted to maintain peaceful relations with them.
9) (Apocrypha) 2 Maccabees 14:41 – When the troops were about to capture the tower and were forcing the door of the courtyard, they ordered that fire be brought and the doors burned. Being surrounded, Razis fell upon his own sword.
10) Matthew 27:5 – Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, [Judas] departed; and he went and hanged himself.
A) Judges 9:52-4 – Abimelech came to the tower, and fought against it, and came near to the entrance of the tower to burn it with fire. But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech's head, and crushed his skull. Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armour 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.
There are other places in the Bible where prophets express suicidal feelings:
Jonah 4:8 – When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live’.
Job 6:8-9 – ‘O that I might have my request, and that God would grant my desire; that it would please God to crush me, that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!
Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4 – But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors’.
St Paul in Philippians 1:21-24 – For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
The holy Thomas More
A code of practice for Catholic politicians issued by the Vatican says that one must do one’s utmost to protect life from conception until its natural end. Coincidentally this direction relies on the words of one of the most famous saints of the Catholic church: the holy Thomas More. Sir Thomas More was the Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII, who was executed for refusing to recognise Henry as the head of the Church in England and continuing to recognise the Pope as the head of the Church. On October 31st 2000, Pope John Paul II appointed him patron of all statesmen and politicians.
This move is a positive one regarding end-of-life and assisted dying issues: in his famous book “Utopia” – which outlined his view of an ideal society – Thomas More, described how the Utopians treat their sick fellows:
"I have already told you with what care they look after their sick, so that nothing is left undone that can contribute either to their ease or health: and for those who are taken with fixed and incurable diseases, they use all possible ways to cherish them, and to make their lives as comfortable as possible. They visit them often, and take great pains to make their time pass off easily: but when any is taken with a torturing and lingering pain, so that there is no hope, either of recovery or ease, the priests and magistrates come and exhort them, that since they are now unable to go on with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and to all about them, and they have really outlived themselves, they should no longer nourish such a rooted distemper, but choose rather to die, since they cannot live but in much misery: being assured, that if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or are willing that others should do it, they shall be happy after death. Since by their acting thus, they lose none of the pleasures but only the troubles of life, they think they behave not only reasonably, but in a manner consistent with religion and piety; because they follow the advice given them by their priests, who are the expounders of the will of God. Such as are wrought on by these persuasions, either starve themselves of their own accord, or take opium, and by that means die without pain. But no man is forced on this way of ending his life; and if they cannot be persuaded to it, this does not induce them to fail in their attendance and care of them; but as they believe that a voluntary death, when it is chosen upon such an authority, is very honourable."
The 6th Commandment
In the Hebrew Torah, the verb "ratsah" is used, which translates as murder and refers to the criminal act of killing a human being.
However, St Augustine of Hippo in chapter 20 of Book I of City of God interpreted the 6th commandment as a blanket prohibition on suicide, where the commandment was translated as "Thou shalt not kill". St Thomas Aquinas followed St Augustine's argument and gave three reasons why the prohibition was justified: suicide was contrary to "natural self-love", it injures the community of which we are a part, and violates our duty to God, who gave us life in the first place by taking away his "right" to decide when we shall die. Aquinas' reasons served throughout the Middle Ages until relatively recently to criminalise suicide; laws were enacted on this basis to allow desecration of a suicidal corpse, and confiscation to the State of all the suicidal corpse's property and denial of a dignified burial.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 2280-2283, gives the position of the Catholic Church to suicide (and, in paragraphs 2276-2279, to euthanasia). Unsurprisingly, it follows St Augustine of Hippo’s reasoning and reads the 6th commandment as “You shall not kill”. As a result, the Catholic Church asserts that God is the giver and taker of human life, and we must accept our lot however our life turns out; our bodies are not ours to dispose of, but God’s property to house the soul. It continues by saying that suicide is contrary to human nature to “preserve and perpetuate” our lives. It breaches our duty to our neighbours because it “unjustly” ends our ties with our family, our nation and our society “to which we continue to have obligations”; on this view, the Church seems to demand humans live physically or mentally painful lives because we have duties and so, in the end, our lives are not really our own
Yet, the neutral verb for "to kill" in Hebrew is "harag".
Therefore, the 6th commandment is properly translated, as in the New Revised Standard Version, as "You shall not murder".
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