Each year in the United States alone, tens of thousands of individuals take their own lives, and a million more attempt suicide.1 Beyond these who actively seek death, millions of Americans have suicidal thoughts resulting from a variety of difficult life issues. What help and hope can we offer to our family members and friends? Why and how must we promote life to those who seek death? We turn to the Bible for answers.
Life and the Living God
God is a God of life, and he wants life for his creatures. The living God gives life to all his creation, as Job said, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). Life is a gift from God and a stewardship entrusted to us for a time. Therefore we have a moral obligation to live and to promote life in others. While righteous people care for the lives of animals (Proverbs 12:10), how much more so must we care for human life, which God created in his image (Genesis 1:26–27). Life is not a cosmic accident that came about by chance, random processes; it is the supernatural work of God. Each human therefore has inherent value and dignity.
Matters of life and death are areas of his special sovereignty which are not to be shared with any other.2 The psalmist David rests in the knowledge that “my times are in your hand” (Psalm 31:15). And Jesus comforted those who are worried about life when he asked, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). The Lord Jesus also said, “I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18), indicating his authority both in death and eternal judgment.
Unlike the animals God created, humans can have the fellowship with him that he desires. Men and women, boys and girls exist to bring glory to the Creator God.
Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed. (Revelation 15:3–4)
Suicide and the Bible
Despite this sanctity of human life, some people—even children—choose suicide.3 The word suicide comes from the Latin sui (“of oneself”) and caedere (“to kill”). Thus the term refers to “the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally.”4 One who dies in this way does so because he has willfully decided to die, contrives the means by which his death comes, and then carries out the fatal deed.
The Bible records just a few examples of those who either took their own lives or who were killed at their own request.5
- Abimelech was a son of Gideon, a judge of Israel (Judges 8:31). After the death of his father, Abimelech ascended to political power in part by killing all but one of his 70 half-brothers (9:5). While engaged in a military campaign, he was severely wounded by a woman who dropped a heavy millstone on his head (verse 53). Abimelech asked his armor-bearer to kill him, “Lest they say of me, ‘A woman killed him.’” (verse 54). So the young man killed him with his sword, and Abimelech died as a judgment from God because of the murders of his brothers (verse 56).
- Saul served as the first king of Israel and Judah, but he disobeyed God in several ways and forfeited the kingdom. In his final battle with the Philistines, Saul was severely wounded and asked his armor-bearer to kill him, saying, “Lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me” (1 Samuel 31:3–4). When his assistant refused, Saul fell upon his own sword and died, followed by his armor-bearer (verse 5; 1 Chronicles 10:4–5).6 Though the Philistines were the means by which Saul met his death (2 Samuel 21:12), it was the Lord’s judgment that Saul would die and David would rule in his place (1 Chronicles 10:14; cf. 1 Samuel 28:16–19).
- Ahithophel served David as the king’s counselor (1 Chronicles 27:33), and his son Eliam was one of his 30 mighty men (2 Samuel 23:34). But when David’s son Absalom conspired to overthrow his father, Ahithophel joined Absalom’s coup (2 Samuel 15:12, 31). Ahithophel gave Absalom shrewd counsel which the new king initially followed. But when his recommendation about killing David urgently was not followed, he went home, set his house in order, and hanged himself (17:23), “for the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom” (verse 14). Perhaps Ahithophel expected that David would return as king and condemn him for his treachery (cf. 1 Kings 2:5–6, 8–9; Psalm 41:9–10).
- Zimri served Baasha, king of Israel, as a chariot commander, but he killed the king and his family and then ruled in his place (1 Kings 16:9–11). His reign lasted only a week before the people of Israel appointed Omri as king (verse 16), who consequently laid siege to the city in which Zimri had taken refuge (verse 17). Seeing his imminent defeat, Zimri “went into the citadel of the king’s house and burned the king’s house over him with fire and died” (verse 18). So Zimri died as a judgment from God “because of his sins that he committed, doing evil in the sight of the Lord, walking in the way of Jeroboam, and for his sin which he committed, making Israel to sin” (verse 19).
- Judas Iscariot was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, though he betrayed Jesus to death (Matthew 26:14–16, 20–25, 47–50). Realizing what he had done, Judas lamented, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (27:4). He then went out and hanged himself (verse 5; cf. Acts 1:15–20). Judas had been a known thief (John 12:4–6), a murderous hypocrite (Luke 22:2–6, 48; cf. 2 Samuel 20:9–10), and was empowered by Satan himself (John 13:2, 10–11, 21–30).
These men do not exemplify a godly attitude toward life and death issues.
These men do not exemplify a godly attitude toward life and death issues. None of these deaths are presented in a laudatory manner, and each man’s death followed his transgression against God or his fellow man. Three of the men (Abimelech, Saul, and Zimri) died as a direct punishment from God because of their wickedness. All the deaths (except Judas Iscariot’s) occur given the expectation of imminent death by military defeat.
Wishing for Death but Receiving a Blessing Instead
The Bible also records several men who wished for death but were not granted their momentary yearning. In each case the Lord provided help and a greater mercy for them to continue living.
- Job lamented his birth (Job 3:11) and asked “Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures, who rejoice exceedingly and are glad when they find the grave?” (3:20–22). But God challenged Job, saying, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (40:2). At the end of Job’s trial, God blessed him with a better view of God, long life, many descendants, and much wealth (42:12–17).
- Moses asked the Lord for death because of his own inadequacy in caring for the immense burden of the people of Israel, saying, “If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness” (Numbers 11:15). God did not kill him, but instead arranged for 70 assistants to help Moses lead and care for the people (verses 16–17, 24–25).
- Elijah despaired of life after Jezebel threatened to kill him (1 Kings 19:4). But the Lord provided him with food and rest, and spoke comforting words to him (verses 5–18). God eventually took Elijah alive directly to heaven (2 Kings 2:11).
- Jonah sacrificed himself to save his shipmates from the storm (Jonah 1:12), and the Lord delivered him from death (verse 17, 2:10).7 But Jonah later asked the Lord to kill him since he had spared the penitent Ninevites (4:1–3). Though Jonah was “angry enough to die” because God gave and then took away his shade plant (verses 8–9), God exposed Jonah’s rotten and pitiless attitude while highlighting his own compassion (verses 10–11).
- The jailer of Philippi was about to kill himself when he assumed that his prisoners had escaped (Acts 16:27–28). But Paul stopped him, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (verse 28). Instead of death, the Lord brought salvation to the jailer and his household (verses 30–34).
In each case the Lord provided help and a greater mercy for them to continue living.
In each case God demonstrated his care for people, his compassion, his abundant blessing, and his salvation. These men found God to be their “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). From these examples we see that God not only creates life but also sustains life. He heaps blessings upon us by giving us food, clothing, and shelter. He confronts wrong thinking. He shows himself to be a God who gives life, as Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Love God and Love Others
God commanded us to respect life and not to murder (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Our Lord summarized the whole law in simple terms: “as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). While we must protect physical life, Jesus commanded that we also show love and seek peace with others (John 13:34–35; Matthew 5:21–22). These loving human relationships help us to appreciate and enjoy life, serving and meeting needs as we are able.
God meant for our lives to proceed primarily from our relationship with him. While we might seek to center our lives on people, things, or events, God alone is the source of true life, as again David says,
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)
We should live in gratitude and wonder that the infinite God would desire to have a relationship with finite humanity. As the psalmist David says,
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4)
The faithful God appealed to his chosen people Israel to “choose life” by “loving the Lord your God:”
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. (Deuteronomy 30:19–20)
God invites all people—especially those in desperate circumstances—to love, obey, and hold fast to him and thereby find life, for “the Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Every person can become a child of Abraham by believing God’s Word (Galatians 3:6–9)—particularly the gospel of Jesus Christ. Death came into the world as a punishment for Adam’s sin of disobedience (Genesis 2:16–17; Romans 5:12), and the appropriate penalty of sin against God is death (Romans 6:23). But Jesus, the perfect Son of God, died in the place of sinners and rose again to prove that he had conquered death for all who believe in him (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:14–15). We are saved not by what we do or don’t do, but by what Jesus Christ has done for us. Those who have trusted Christ have new reason to live in the present age and in eternity, as David said,
For you have delivered my soul from death,
yes, my feet from falling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life. (Psalm 56:13)
We should not conclude that a true Christian could never commit suicide, or that someone who committed suicide could never have been a believer. Despairing of life is a general human problem, and each of us must draw near to God in faith and hope that he will help us through the difficulties of life. Our God is faithful. Let us trust him and live for his glory not only in the present age but also in the age to come.