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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Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Benefits of Studying Church History

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In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones discusses the following benefits of studying church history:

Church History Guards Us Against Error

Most of the theological discussions that people have today, as well as most heresies that exist today, were already discussed, debated and settled within the first 500 years of Christian history. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are basically neo-arians, and their view of Jesus is the same one which led to the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed. The modern heresies of today are really just rebranding and recycling older ideas which the church has already spent a lot of time addressing.

For more on Arius and Arianism, check out: Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God? 

Lloyd-Jones says this:

The way to safeguard yourself…is to learn something about heresies—how they arose in the past generally through very good and conscientious men. History shows how subtle it all is, and how many a man lacking balance, or by failing to maintain the proportion of faith, and the interrelationship of the various parts of the whole message, has been pressed by the devil to put too much emphasis on one particular aspect, and eventually pressed so far as to be in a position in which he is really contradicting the Truth and has become a heretic. So Church history is invaluable… It is not the preserve of the academics. I would say that Church history is one of the most essential studies for the [believer] were it merely to show him this terrible danger of slipping into heresy, or into error, without realising that anything has happened to him.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (pp. 128-129).

Church History is a Source of Encouragement

Some people think about studying church history as being kind of like a visit to a sausage factory: the finished product might be great, but the way it was made wasn’t pretty. On the contrary, I would say that church history should cause us to be filled with wonder and amazement that in spite of human folly, errors, and mistakes, God has providentially guided and protected His Bride, because He loves her and is devoted to her.

Lloyd-Jones says this:

I know of nothing, in my own experience, that has been more exhilarating and helpful, and that has acted more frequently as a tonic to me, than the history of Revivals.

Take the time we are living in. What discouraging days they are, so discouraging that even a man with an open Bible which he believes, and with the Spirit in him, may at times be discouraged and cast down almost to the depths of despair. There is no better tonic in such a condition than to familiarise yourselves with previous eras in the history of the Church which have been similar, and how God has dealt with them.

The French novelist Anatole France used to say, whenever he felt tired and jaded with a tendency to be depressed and downcast, ‘I never go into the country for a change of air and a holiday, I always go instead into the eighteenth century.’ I have often said exactly the same thing, but not in the same sense in which he meant it, of course. When I get discouraged and over-tired and weary I also invariably go to the eighteenth century. I have never found George Whitefield to fail me. Go to the eighteenth century! In other words read the stories of the great tides and movements of the Spirit experienced in that century. It is the most exhilarating experience, the finest tonic you will ever know.

For a preacher it is absolutely invaluable; there is nothing to compare with it. The more he learns in this way about the history of the Church the better preacher he will be. At the same time let him, of course, during this training become familiar with the stories of the great men of the past, the great saints and preachers. It will not only act as a wonderful tonic to him in times of depression, it will keep him humble when tempted to pride and a spirit of elation.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (p. 129).

Where to Begin?

There are a lot of really great books on church history. If you know a good one, please feel free to post it in the comments section.

I think a great place to start, with a book that is accessible, substantial, and enjoyable to read, is From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker.

Also check out this great free online lecture series on church history from David Guzik at Enduring Word.

Another great resource is Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath, which doesn’t sound like a church history book by the title, but approaches theology by looking at it through the development of Christian beliefs over the course of history.

We also offer a class at White Fields on church history. Check out our School of Ministry page, and if you’re interested in the class, shoot us an email at the address listed on that page, and we’ll keep you posted on when we will be hosting that class again.