There has been much discussion surrounding suicide since a study was released a few months ago showing that the suicide rate has increased nearly 28% in the past sixteen years in the United States. This has resulted in increasingly more lives lost and is, of course, a tragedy. Naturally, this sparked an ongoing conversation about suicide prevention and what can be done to help the depressed and suicidal. I am not here to give my opinions on suicide prevention, as I am both uninformed and unqualified to speak on the topic.
I do, however, believe there has been a lackluster response among modern Christians as to why suicide has remained immoral to the countless theologians of twenty centuries of Christian thought and practice. The argument I have heard normally goes along the following lines: life is a gift from God. It has been given to you and is inherently good, and therefore to throw it away is immoral. This argument, though logically sound, helps precisely no one who has had suicidal thoughts. I propose a different way for Christians to think about suicide.
When talking with Jews in a synagogue after feeding the five thousand, Jesus makes the following intriguing statement in the Gospel of John:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever: and the bread which I shill give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (6:51)
What exactly does this mean? Interpretations about Holy Communion aside, Jesus is saying that His death on the cross is meant to be for the life of the world– that is, for everyone and everything in existence. He says this again later in the gospel using a metaphor:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep… the thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:11, 10:10)
Furthermore, He does this voluntarily: no one takes His life from Him. He “gives” His life freely. Jesus makes this point more explicitly later in the gospel:
“…I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself…” (John 10:17-18)
In other words, Jesus was not forced to die. No one made Him be crucified: there was no compulsion. Rather, it was out of love:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17)
Exactly what kind of life does Christ give to the world through His death? This is a harder question to answer. We get glimpses of that answer in the Apostle Paul’s writings:
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
That is, Jesus died to free humanity from death – literal, physical death. Through His death, He destroyed death itself. This is to be taken mystically in the sense that Christ has destroyed shame, pain, sadness, and isolation by experiencing them on the cross, but is also meant to be taken literally. Christ’s death and resurrection means all of the dead will be raised at His second coming at the end of time.
Christ’s death and resurrection have other consequences as well. Through death, He descended into Sheol (the Hebrew word for the place of the dead) and set free those who had died before Him:
“Therefore He says: ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.’ Now this, ‘He ascended’- what does it mean but that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.” (Ephesians 4:8-10)
The Apostle Peter likewise talks of Christ freeing the dead:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient…” (1 Peter 3:18-19)
By His death and resurrection, Christ has granted life (both literally and metaphorically) to both the dead and the living. And He did this by sacrificing Himself voluntarily, without compulsion.
Suicide is, in many ways, the opposite of this. Suicide is the laying down of a life for the purpose of saving oneself from suffering. There is hardly anything voluntary about it – no one who thinks such things does so through their own choosing. It is a sacrifice for the sake of oneself instead of for others. Those who do this negate the meaning of the death of Christ and, in a very literal way, become an anti-Christ.*
But this is not the life Christ has given to the world. Christ gives life so that it may be abundant and overflowing. He gives us His flesh and blood to partake of. He gives us the fullness of Himself:
“You so loved Your world that You gave Your only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in You may not perish but have eternal life. He came and fulfilled the divine plan for us, and on the night when He was delivered up, or rather when He gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy, pure, blameless hands, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: ‘Take, eat, this is My body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.’” (Priest’s prayer, Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)
The life Christ gives is one that chooses death so that life may come out on the other side and be given to others, full of joy and love. Perhaps we should choose that life as well.
*I am using the term anti-Christ in a literal way; that is, I mean one who accomplishes a mission that is opposite of Christ’s mission. This is not meant as a condemnation of those who commit suicide; I do not think all who commit suicide are condemned. God is far more merciful than we can imagine.