JULY 2018



When I read the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, I audibly gasped. I had always enjoyed Bourdain’s show. I especially treasured the times he went into places that most food connoisseurs would look down upon—such as Sizzler (which he kind of liked, as I recall) or the Waffle House (which he kind of didn’t like). And, of course, his travels to far-off lands helped us better understand other cultures through exploration of their food. Bourdain’s tragic demise is the latest in a string of celebrity suicides, which also includes Robin Williams and Kate Spade. Among ordinary folks, too, suicide has skyrocketed. It’s now the tenth leading cause of death in our country. Surprisingly, the suicide rate has increased dramatically even among farmers.

Depression is, of course, a leading cause of suicide. In our culture, depression is usually treated with medication—because it often is a physical issue. And I would never downplay the importance of the medical treatment of such issues. Saying, “You wouldn’t need pills for depression if you really believed in God” is as wrongheaded as saying, “You wouldn’t need chemotherapy for cancer if you really believed in God.” Still, I think it’s also appropriate to reflect spiritually on the matter of suicide.

There actually is almost nothing in the Bible on suicide. The Bible narrates a couple of suicides—King Saul and Judas Iscariot most prominently. St. Paul actually prevented a suicide once—when he and Barnabas were in jail in Philippi, the door of their cell was sprung open by an earthquake (Acts 16:25-31). The jailer assumed that they had escaped, and that he would be in serious trouble. So he made ready to kill himself. But then Paul cried out that he and Barnabas were still in the cell. The jailer implored them: “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your whole household.” Paul saved the man from suicide by communicating the hope that we have in Jesus.

The great Christian preacher and poet John Donne in one of his early works declared that Jesus Himself had committed suicide—by going willingly to death on the cross. However, Christ’s sacrifice is akin to that of a soldier who jumps on a hand grenade, or a mother who pushes her child out of the way of a car and allows the car to crush her instead. The purpose of such acts is not the ending of a life—rather, the saving of life is the purpose. Jesus surrenders his life not because he is depressed or in despair—rather He does it to save us. So Donne was wrong to suggest that Christ was a suicide.

Actually, someone questioning the value of their life would do well to think about Christ on the cross. By dying for us, He shows how precious we are to God, how our lives have infinite value in His eyes.

One thing the Bible does not do is tell us what happens to suicides beyond this life. Obviously, suicide is a sin against the Fifth Commandment—it is taking a life. And sometimes we reason that suicide is unforgivable, since it’s the one sin we can’t repent of. But our beliefs must be based on Scripture, not human reason. Since there is no verse that says, “Suicide is unforgivable,” we should hesitate to draw such a conclusion. (Interestingly, the wife of Robin Williams’ character in “What Dreams May Come” is sent to hell because she commits suicide. Christ-like, Robin Williams descends into hell to rescue her). How do we know what happens in the last split second of a suicide’s life? Couldn’t there be repentance in that last second? Couldn’t God’s loving mercy be there?

In the 2003 film “Luther,” there is a scene where Blessed Martin Luther personally buries a lad who hanged himself, since the church denied the boy burial. This incident is fictional—but the sentiments were something Blessed Luther actually said. "I don't have the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil." For Luther, then, suicide is a kind of murder—the Evil One drives people to despair, causing them to take their lives.

The idea that suicide excludes one from heaven can have a certain value as a preventive. Often people who are tempted to suicide are stopped by the fear of losing eternal joy. But even as we recognize the preventive value of “suicides are not allowed into heaven,” we don’t want to judge the souls of those who have tragically succumbed to this temptation.

Ultimately, suicide results from a lack of hope. Depression, despair, loss of people and things we value—all can be factors. If you know someone going through such feelings, it would be a Godly thing to offer whatever support and encouragement you can. If you are going through such things, please seek support and encouragement. Hope is always there—through Christ, through people who care for you. Indeed, depression is often chemical, not just spiritual. But certainly, having God on our side…knowing the hope that Jesus brings…can help lift us out of despair.

In 1967, country singer Johnny Cash decided to end his life. He was plagued by addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates. He was in and out of jail and hospitals, and his ability to perform was severely compromised. So he decided to end it all in Nickajack Cave north of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Nickajack had claimed the lives of numerous people who had gotten lost in its complex tunnels and never found a way out. Cash planned to get deliberately lost and die in the cave. For three hours he crawled into it, until his flashlight gave out. Then he lay down to wait for death. But suddenly he realized: “Even though I had left God, God had not left me.” A sense of peace, serenity, and sobriety settled upon him. He knew that his destiny was in God’s hands. And he wanted to live! So he began crawling, crawling, crawling through the cave, seeking an exit. And then a soft breeze touched his cheek, and he knew that a way out of the cave was near. He followed the breeze until he saw light…and emerged from the cave a changed man.

Alas, not all suicide stories end as triumphantly as that of Johnny Cash. But let’s always stay focused on the love of God in Christ, and the hope that He brings. May all those who are tempted to commit suicide find strength in that hope. I have always valued Dorothy Parker’s little poem about suicide methods:

    Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful. Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.

You might as well live indeed. You might as well live, not just because of the drawbacks of suicide methods, but supremely because you are loved in Christ with an incredible love! He loves you so much that He gave His life for you! Not a “suicide,” but a sweet sacrifice of love!

            God loves you and so do I!