Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life

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If – as the Bible teaches – when a believer dies, their soul goes to be with God, where there is no longer any suffering, pain or sickness, then why would we not want to speed up the process a little bit? After all, as Paul the Apostle wrote to the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Why not take up smoking, stop using sunscreen, and give up wearing seatbelts? Or, to take it even further, why not just go all the way and end your life now, so you can leave this harsh world behind and go to Heaven?

If that sounds preposterous, keep in mind that this was something that actually happened in early Christian history: there was a time when committing suicide became fashionable among Christians, and the church had to respond and try to end this tragic fad.

When Christians Were Killing Themselves

Until the Edict of Milan, AKA the Edict of Tolleration was issued in 313 AD, Christianity’s status in the Roman Empire was that of religio illicita, an “illicit” or illegal religion (as opposed to Judaism, which held the status of religio licita)During this time, Christians throughout the Roman Empire experienced waves of persecution, usually dependent on the attitudes of local authorities, although there were times when persecution was the official policy of the entire empire – such as during the reigns of Nero and Diocletian. Christians also faced persecution outside the Roman Empire.

During this period, many Christians were martyred, and martyrs were highly regarded and respected as those who had been willing to pay the ultimate price for their faith. In fact, martyrdom was so highly regarded, that people began to seek it out and desire it, as a way of expressing their devotion to Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, wrote about his desire to die as a martyr.

But some people took it even further. Jerome writes about a young woman named Belsilla who flagellated herself so much that she died from her self-imposed injuries. Another woman, Agathonike, upon witnessing the execution of a bishop by burning, also threw herself onto the fire, declaring “this is the meal that has been prepared for me.” She died in the flames, even though she had not been arrested nor charged. There are other accounts of Christians volunteering to be martyred even though they were not even being sought by the authorities. [1]

The Donatists, who considered themselves particularly hard core and dedicated, greatly desired to show their devotion by being martyred, some even going to the point of simply killing themselves to show how spiritual they were, i.e. how much they were not attached to this life and how much they desired to depart this world and be with Christ.

The Response of the Church

Seeking martyrdom and committing suicide became such a big issue with the Donatists in particular that it threatened the credibility, and even the existence of the church in their area of North Africa.

Judaism had always considered suicide to be sinful, whereas in pagan Roman culture it was considered an acceptable way to exit this life, and was practiced mostly by the wealthy, in part because slaves were not allowed to commit suicide since their lives did not belong to them, but rather to their masters.

It was Augustine of Hippo, a native of North Africa himself, who took up the challenge of addressing this issue and clarifying Christian thinking on this subject. In his book ‘The City of God’, Augustine considered what the Bible has to say about suicide and weighed various arguments for and against suicide. His conclusion was that suicide is always wrong as it is a violation of the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not murder”), and is never justified even in extreme circumstances. This became the official position of the church. [2]

The Meaning of Life

This whole issue touches on something which is core to Christian belief, and which sets Christianity apart from other worldviews and religions.

Many world religions view the world negatively, as a place of chaos, pain, and suffering – where the goal is to escape. This is the goal of transcendence and Nirvana in Eastern philosophies and religions, for example.

Christianity on the other hand, views this world positively. Rather than seeing the origin of the world as having come about through conflict or chaos, it is described as the thoughtful and good creation of a loving God. It is described as a garden paradise, given to us as a gift by our loving creator.

Although this good creation has been corrupted by sin and world currently “lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the world still retains its fundamental goodness, and God has promised that one day He will redeem His creation.

The purpose of our lives, according to the Bible, is not to escape this world, but to steward this world (Genesis 1:28), as well as our lives and everything we’ve been given, to the glory of God and for the benefit and salvation of others. In other words: the people of God have been given a mission which can only be carried out in this life, and therefore this life matters greatly. Rather than escaping this world, His desire for us is to be about His business as long as we live.

It is an unbiblical an anemic theology of life and the world which leads to the attitude that the most spiritual thing to do is to bide your time as you wait to get out of this world to be with God. True spirituality is rather to value this life and the unique opportunities it affords to do the work of God, and be involved in his saving and redeeming work.

As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

Between now and the end of our lives, there is a whole space that is significant. How you live it matters greatly to God. There are things he wants you to do with that time (cf. Ephesians 2:10). The Christian life, in other words, is not simply waiting to die so you can go to Heaven. God has given you this life for a purpose and He wants to use you to advance His Kingdom and to touch lives. He values our lives, and so should we!

 

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