Suicide in the Bible: The Ethical Dilemma over the Lack of a Legal Prohibition

This study analyzes the topic of suicide in the Old and New Testaments from an ethical perspective. This paper seeks to answer the question: Does the Bible affirm a clear moral stance on the rightness or wrongness of an individual taking his own life? First, I will argue that ethical instruction in the Bible does not always require an explicit legal commandment or prohibition. Pro-suicide theologians commonly remark that the Bible does not ever expressly denounce the act of suicide with a legal precept, and thus, what is not forbidden must be permitted (Battin; Clemons; Droge and Tabor). However, the Bible uses a variety of biblical genres to convey moral instruction. The five incidents of suicide in the Bible all appear in historical narratives—that of Saul (1 Sam 31:3–5), Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Sam 31:3–5), Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23), Zimri (1 Kgs 16:18–19), and Judas (Matt 27:3–5)—and the authors of Scripture often employ the subgenre of tragedy (or tragic narrative) to characterize individuals as negative moral examples. Second, I will argue that most pro-suicide scholars fail to interact with Acts 16:27–28, a passage which contains an overt apostolic command against suicide in the form of spoken dialogue. The Philippian jailer, thinking his inmates have escaped, draws his sword and is about to kill himself. The apostle Paul explicitly categorizes suicide as an “evil” deed before giving the jailer a verbal prohibition against such an act. Suicide, in its attempt to snuff out the physical life of one created in the image of God, fails to honor God’s design for the preservation of human life. There are no circumstances which permit suicide since God uses even suffering for man’s good and his glory as best exemplified in the suffering servant, Jesus Christ.

5 thoughts on “Suicide in the Bible: The Ethical Dilemma over the Lack of a Legal Prohibition”

  1. Pro-suicide theologians?
    This paper is worth having in the program. It does seem fairly basic, but it offers helpful categories for consideration. I don’t think I’d characterize those who “defend” suicide – or who don’t condemn suicide – as “pro-suicide”! It would be interesting to bring in Physician-assisted Suicide.

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