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What Does the Bible Teach about Suicide?

This week's question comes from Steve Shelnutt of Monroe. He asks, "Did Judas go to heaven or hell?" For those not familiar with Judas, he was the disciple who betrayed Jesus into the hands of the Romans.

In order to answer this question we must work from two assumptions. First we will assume that Judas was a follower of Christ (Luke 6:16, John 10:29); and second that Judas was remorseful for his betrayal (Matthew 27:3).

These two assumptions beg the questions: If Judas was damned, was he condemned because of his betrayal? Or was he condemned because of his suicide? We'll examine these questions one at a time, this week looking at the matter of Judas' suicide.

First, what does the Bible say about those who commit suicide? Our first thought may be to quote the ten commandments and say, "Thou shall not commit murder" (Ex. 20:13). This commandment is properly applied to all who take a life indiscriminately or with malice (and is even applied to the indiscriminate killing of animals in Genesis (9:3-5)) and traditionally includes suicide. However, when we examine the cases of those who commit suicide in scripture we are left with a somewhat different impression than this traditional response.

The first act of suicide in the Bible is Samson, judge of Israel (Judges 16:29-31). Samson was taken prisoner by the Philistines and was taken to a festival to be the entertainment through mocking and derision. The room housing the feast had a roof supported by two pillars and during the gala Samson was able to dislodge them, pulling the roof down on top of the 3,000 Philistian guests and upon himself, effectively committing suicide. However, this act of suicide is scorned neither in scripture nor tradition. In fact, both view his act as a mighty deed and a fitting end. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian writes, "this man deserved to be admired for his . . . magnanimity at his death" (Antiquities. Book 5, 8.12).

The next suicide in scripture is of King Saul of Israel (1 Samuel 31:4-5). Israel was at war and Saul's sons had been killed and he himself was wounded. The battle was lost and the enemy was advancing. Rather than being taken captive, he chose to kill himself. Saul asked his armor bearer to do the deed, but when he refused Saul fell on his own sword. And how was this deed viewed? David, the new king, sings of Saul and his family in 2 Samuel 1:19-27 singing, "How the mighty have fallen . . . Saul and Jonathan, beloved in life, in their death they were not parted; they were swifter than eagles." Again, nowhere is there a word written to condemn the manner of death.

On another occasion, Absalom, son of King David, attempted to overthrow his father from the throne. Ahithophel was an advisor to Absalom during the rebellion and when his advice was disregarded, Ahithophel went home, put his house in order, and hanged himself (2 Samuel 17). Nowhere is he condemned for his act, and again Josephus shares the tradition that this death was a noble end (Ibid. Book 7, 9.8).

There are only two other cases of blatant suicide in scripture, that of Zimri (1 Kings 16:18-19) and Judas (Matthew 27:5). Ill words are spoken of both men, but not for their manner of death, but for their acts in life.

So, in light of the biblical evidence, how should we view Judas' suicide? That Judas was remorseful for his betrayal of Jesus is evident by scripture and by his final act. In other circumstances his death might have been viewed as noble, as was Ahithophel's death. Certainly, there would have been no condemnatory words written regarding this final act.

In reality, only God knows the fate of each soul who comes before God--we have only scripture, tradition, and reason, to guide us. The overwhelming testimony of scripture and tradition in this case supports the dignity of death, even by one's own hand. Thus, it doesn't seem Judas would have been condemned for his suicide.

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