Suicide: a sin or an illness?

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While most people who have a mental illness are not suicidal, studies have shown that as high as 90 per cent of those who died by suicide suffered from one or more mental illnesses at the time of their death.

“Is suicide a sin, and if so, is it pardonable?” – this is a question posed to me in my work, and which is very difficult to address. Even more so when it comes from the grieving loved ones of a Christian who had died by suicide.

Christians have in fact, throughout the history of the church, grappled with this question.

The teaching of suicide as a sin can be traced to Augustine of Hippo (354–430) who interpreted the commandment “Thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13, KJV) to include the killing of oneself. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) went a step further by declaring that suicide is an act against God since life is from God, and therefore only God has the right to determine when a person should die (Job 14:5). He argues that “… 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. Furthermore the ‘great sin of suicide’ cannot be forgiven because the deceased person deprives himself of ‘the time needful for repentance’. ”

Others have joined the great suicide debate with a counterview, notably John Donne (1572–1631) who argues that suicide is not necessarily sinful since there is no biblical condemnation of it, and that the Bible teaches that killing is acceptable in certain circumstances such as war, capital punishment and martyrdom.

Today, our perception and understanding of suicide have changed. Suicide which began as a sin and branded a crime in most societies is now viewed by many as a manifestation of mental illness. While most people who have a mental illness are not suicidal, studies have shown that as high as 90 per cent of those who died by suicide suffered from one or more mental illnesses at the time of their death. By associating suicide with mental illness, the stigma of suicide is diminished and the suicidal person is absolved from the responsibility of his action.

So is suicide a sin or an illness?
My personal view is that the taking of one’s life is morally wrong given the sacrosanct nature of human life (Genesis 1:26; 2:7) and God’s sovereignty over life and death (Psalm 139:16; Acts 17:25, 26).

However, given the strong correlation between mental illness and suicide, the degree of volitional responsibility may not be clear. What is clear, however, is that suicide is not the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:31-32) and neither can it invalidate the saving grace of Jesus (Romans 10:13; John 10:27–30).

Any discussion on suicide would be incomplete without an affirmation that it is our moral duty as a Church to create a caring and supportive environment to help those suffering from mental health and other problems, in particular those at risk of suicide, and families who suffered from the loss of a loved one through suicide.

In my work with people in bereavement, I find the grieving process for survivors of a suicide to be the most intense and complicated. Death due to illness or even accident is often easier to accept than death due to suicide. The pain that drives one to suicide becomes the pain of those who are left behind. In addition, survivors have to agonise over the perceived stigma and a gamut of overwhelming feelings such as shame, guilt, betrayal and abandonment. But, of all these, the lingering concern about the salvation of their departed one remains the most distressing.

The passage that I often use to help suicide survivors in their journey through grief find comfort and hope is Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And if I may add, not even death by suicide!

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Tony Ting is a counselling psychologist at Wesley Methodist Church. He is married to Camay Lau, and they worship at Wesley Methodist Church