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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Chinese Conviction & American Apathy

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In 2018, the Chinese government acted to crack down on unregistered Christian churches. These churches are sometimes called “house churches,” which is a misleading term, since many of these churches have hundreds, even thousands of members and own their own buildings.

Chinese law requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned organization which manages churches. Millions of Chinese Christians meet in unregistered churches which defy these government regulations, seeing them as compromising the church, especially considering the Communist government’s atheistic agenda.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has stepped up their persecution of Christians by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religious materials and closing churches, even demolishing their buildings, as can be seen in this video:

In December 2018, more than 100 Christians who attend a Reformed church in Chengdu were arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chinese Conviction

The pastor of that church, Wang Yi, a former human-rights lawyer and law professor, who has been an influential intellectual in China, issued a statement along with other Chinese Christian leaders titled: “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” in which they stated that they would not cease gathering together for worship and studying the Bible.

Additionally, around 500 Chinese Christian leaders have signed a document called “A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” in which they stated that they were prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of their freedom and their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

For Chinese Christians, gathering together for worship and Bible study is an act of resistance and social disobedience. It brings with it the possibility of arrest, punishment and persecution. And yet – believers are resolute: they will not stop gathering for public worship services, no matter what the cost.

American Apathy

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the American church is seeing a rising wave of apathy.

Some of the reports of the decline of Christianity in the United States are misleading, as I’ve written about here: Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1 & Part 2.

However, other reports show that while reports of the decline of Christianity in the US may be overstated, there is a growing sense of apathy in regard to church attendance.

Christianity Today recently published these infographics based on data from Pew Research Center:

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Read the full report here: Pew: Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home

Two significant things that these infographics reveal: 1) Americans view Christianity as being important for the purpose of moral formation, 2) Americans tend to think that church is superfluous when it comes to Christian faith.

The Irony

Comparing the Chinese situation with the American one, what we see is that the people who stand to lose the most from going to church (the Chinese) are the most resolute in doing so, even though doing so will likely hurt them financially, socially, and even physically. Conversely, those who have the most freedom and stand to lose nothing are the most apathetic about public worship.

Whereas many Chinese Christians see gathered worship as central to their faith, something they absolutely cannot give up or do without, and an act of resistance – many American Christians see it as extraneous.

Who is Right?

I believe that we in the West can afford to learn something from our brothers and sisters in the East.

Christianity was formed and grew in the crucible of persecution, and perhaps the worst thing for Christians is to experience such ease and comfort that we lose the understanding that following Jesus is a radical and subversive thing in this world.

Perhaps the greatest danger our faith can face is not direct persecution, but patronizing “pats on the head” and people thinking that Christianity is “nice”.

Sinclair Ferguson has put it this way:

“We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

Recently I read an article by Simon Chan from the theological journal Pneuma, in which he very astutely wrote this:

[Western Christians] have a very weak sociological concept of the church. This has two negative consequences. First, the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church. But when individuals are seen as existing for the church, the focus shifts from the individual needs to our common life in Christ: how we as the one people of God fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for the universe, namely, to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Chan is challenging us to ask the question: Contrary to our consumeristic mentality, isn’t it actually true that the church does not exist for us as much as we exist for the church, and the church exists for God?

I believe that we in the West can afford to look to the East and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in China about the importance of gathered worship.

Keeping Your Faith a Secret

Yesterday I taught on the famous sayings of Jesus to his disciples, that they are the salt of the Earth and the light of the world. (You can listen to that message here).

Jesus makes his point there, that no one lights a lamp and then hides it under a basket, but they put it on a lamp stand, so it can be seen by all.  Just as a city on a hill can not be hidden, Jesus’ disciples are not meant to keep their faith a secret.

Yesterday in Pakistan, 10 more Christians were killed in the bombing of a Christian church. This makes for 25 total deaths of Christians in targeted attacks over the past few days. ISIS is going around systematically targeting and murdering Christians in the Middle East. Christians in the West have little concept of the implications of Jesus’ words for these Christians!

In the West, the greatest persecution we face for not hiding our Christianity, is that people will think we are religious fanatics. But for the most part, being a Christian is still a perfectly acceptable thing to be in our society. There is honestly not a great temptation, unless you are an extremely insecure person, to hide the fact that you are a Christian.

However, if being a Christian, and not hiding it, means that ISIS is going to come for you and your family, if not hiding the fact that you a Christian means that you might face fatal attacks at any moment, then the temptation is HUGE to want to hide your light under a basket – because if you put it on a lamp stand, then you become a target.

In the Beatitudes Jesus describes the kind of people who will be his disciples: they will be meek, they will hunger and thirst after righteousness, they will be peacemakers, they will be pure of heart. When you read those characteristics, you might thing: Wow, those sound like the greatest people in the world! That’s the kind of person I’d like to have as my best friend! But, surprisingly, Jesus then says   that these kinds of people will be persecuted by the world. (Matthew 5:11-12) You might wonder: Who would want to hurt these kinds of wonderful people?   But you have to look no further than Jesus. He embodied all of those wonderful characteristics, and people beat him and nailed him to a cross.

The situation with Christians around the world facing increased persecution, especially in Muslim-majority countries, should be a wake-up call to Western Christians – and should teach us something about the nature of what it means to be a Christian.

Western Christianity, in my opinion, faces a more insidious form of attack than the physical attack facing those in other parts of the world.  Here, our culture pressures us to make Christianity a private thing, that we are free to do, but only behind closed doors. As a result, we have ended up with a form of Christianity that is very introspective and less mission-focused.

In other words, Western society has sought to domesticate Christians, remove their claws and potty train them. They are not trying to scare us into hiding our light under a basket, like ISIS and other radical Islamists do, but rather to coax us into putting a basket over our light, so as not to disturb others with it.

We must remember the words of Jesus: that to hide our light is to betray our very design and purpose as Disciples of Jesus in the world.