What religions really say about suicide

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It has been a bad month for celebrity news, with several high-profile suicides bringing the difficult topic to the forefront of people's minds, reawakening painful memories for those who have lost a friend or family member in similar circumstances.

Anthony BourdainOn 5 June, Kate Spade, an American fashion designer, was found by her housekeeper in her Manhattan home. Her husband Andy subsequently released a statement describing her struggle with anxiety and depression, something she'd apparently worried would harm her business reputation.

Just a few days later, hotel reception was called to enter the room of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain (pictured) in Kaysersberg, France, after a worried friend noted Bourdain had missed both dinner and breakfast.

Amid the outpouring of shock and grief in the wake of the latter's passing, one blue-tick Twitterer attempted to capture five minutes of shameful fame, surfing the waves of media interest in the celebrity chef's demise. Quipping a last-word barb at Bourdain, he declared that religious people believe hell or purgatory is his afterworld destination — divine punishment for those who commit suicide.

Many people immediately objected to such a simplistic summary of religious beliefs about suicide, including Jesuit priest Fr James Martin, who replied that it 'is usually the result of depression, which is an illness. And God does not condemn the ill', citing John chapter 9 verse 3. Misrepresenting complex religious doctrine is, unfortunately, ubiquitous in our modern world; religious illiteracy is rife, particularly among journalists and public commentators.

However, while we can scoff at ignorant tweets, the loved-ones left behind by those who commit suicide can be haunted by the dark thought that hell is where their friend or family member now suffers in torment.

It was the theme of Robin Williams' 1998 movie What Dreams May Come. Based on the book by Richard Matheson, the main character arrives in heaven, after which he discovers his wife has committed suicide due to a mental breakdown caused by the loss of her children and then of her husband in separate car crashes. He is determined to undertake the impossible and rescue her from the hell in which she is keeping herself.

 

"What all the great religious traditions have in common is the acknowledgement that hardship and suffering are hard-wired into this mortal existence, but there is also help, love, forgiveness and strength to sustain us."

 

Williams himself sadly committed suicide in 2014; he had been struggling with mental and physical ill-health including depression, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia and the early stages of Parkinson's disease.

It is perhaps the suffering that suicide inflicts on those left behind and the forever unanswerable questions — Why? What could we have done to help? Didn't they realise that 'this too shall pass'? — that makes suicide more than simply an individual's choice to no longer bear the pain of existence. But it is simplistic to declare that God sends all such souls to eternal damnation.

While all the great religious traditions generally proscribe suicide, they also contain nuanced views of the suicide's fate. In the Eastern reincarnation-based traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, selfish suicide violates the code of ahimsa 'non-violence'. All life is sacred and suicide is a type of self-murder, which can negatively affect the soul's rebirth. However, in some cases suicide as a result of extreme asceticism or where death is immanent is understood differently.

In Judaism, suicide is considered a sin that means a person would be buried in a separate section of the cemetery without receiving mourning rites. Yet rabbis can exercise discretion and lift the ruling for those considered mentally unwell or where it was possible that such a person could have repented for their act immediately before death occurring.

The most famous Christian suicide was Judas Iscariot, who hanged himself presumably in great remorse for having betrayed Jesus (Matthew chapter 27 verses 1–10). Although suicide is not explicitly condemned in the New Testament, early Christian theologians declared it a mortal sin based on the fifth commandment 'thou shalt not kill' (Exodus chapter 20 verse 13).

But as with Judaism, and also Islam, the official Catholic catechism holds that those who are mentally unwell are not fully culpable: 'Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.' Other Christian churches often take a similar position.

Likewise, although the Qur'an forbids suicide as a grave sin, saying: 'Do not kill yourselves, surely God is most merciful to you' (Qur'an 4:29), if someone lacks the capacity to make rational decisions, in either permanent or temporary insanity, the ordinary rulings about sin no longer apply to them. Their fate is left to the mercy of God.

What all the great traditions have in common is the acknowledgement that hardship and suffering are hard-wired into this mortal existence, but there is also help, love, forgiveness and strength to sustain us. It is our secular modern world that sells the mirage that easy happiness can be had if you are beautiful or rich enough — a lie with tragic consequences for those who feel life has failed them, or they have failed life. 

 

Rachel WoodlockDr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.

Topic tags: Rachel Woodlock, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, suicide

 

 

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Your last sentence, Dr Woodlock, says it all. There now exists, as you are probably aware, a large and growing body of research and evidence that shows that religious belief and practice have a positive effect on human health and wellbeing and reduce the incidences of suicide, self harm, domestic violence and psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression. Human secular society eschews religious belief and practice and constantly searches for healing band aids for its psychiatric illnesses. All that society really needs in its search for Utopia is belief and trust in an enduring God rather than in a secular God who changes with changes in fashion and is then discarded like an old dress.
john frawley | 15 June 2018


I guess that I'm sceptical about those claims John because I know some pretty dysfunctional religious families and some decidedly unhealthy religious sects. I wonder if the benefits of which you speak flow from the community of believers rather than the belief itself but I'm willing to learn and to be persuaded. Can you point me toward some of the research please?
Ginger Meggs | 18 June 2018


You are quite right, Ginger. There are indeed some religious families and particularly sects within which the psychiatric disorders I mentioned are rife. There is no doubt, also recognised in medical and psychological literature, that extreme religious belief also generates psychological or psychiatric ill health ill including death (the bone-pointing of the Aboriginal medicine men is a good example, not now as common as it was 50 years ago with the urbanisation of the Aboriginal population). Re the beneficial effects of religious belief and practice the following is a good reference which you should be able to find on Google. "Spirituality, religion and health: evidence and research directions." Williams DR and Stemthal MJ. Med Jnl Aust, 2007: 186 (10 Suppl) S47. [55 references cited, 49 of these in the decade 1998 to 2007]
john frawley | 18 June 2018


Thanks John, I'll follow that up.
Ginger Meggs | 18 June 2018


Interesting that so many have been so quick to condemn suicide as a form of killing yet so silent on capital punishment and war. Killing does not solve problems it just amplifies them and passes them to others. At least in the case of suicide the 'killer' has an impered ability to make a decision through mental illness or despair.
Liz Munro | 19 June 2018


A sound piece on suicide, mental illness and the love of God. Thank you!
Patricia A Kane | 19 June 2018


Dr Woodlock's somewhat abbreviated and simplistic analysis does little to aid our understanding - as humans, regardless of our religious affiliation - of self-destruction. That the 5th commandment 'thou shalt not kill' is enough to populate hell with the souls of the miniscule volume of our unfortunate suicidal dead means there should be loads of room for vast millions of soldier-killers, and their cynical, power-lusting political puppet masters, since the dawn of time. Sometimes I despair of the rigidity of inhuman RC dogma such as Wooklock's cited canon law edict that represents the direct opposite of the compassion and mercy of the living Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr Philip O'Keeffe | 20 June 2018


It is indeed a no brainer that suicide caused by severe mental illness, such as you refer to Rachel, will not consign you to Hell. Most traditional Catholic theologians and Muslim ulema would concur. The relationship of religious belief to mental health is interesting. The evidence so far would seem to support the theory they are mutually reinforcing. Sadly, sometimes belief does not seem enough. I remember an old friend of mine, a former judge, who, despite being a convinced Anglican, committed suicide. He was, I believe, mentally ill. Sadly, none of the clergy he knew seem to have been of much assistance, but at least they were not the sort who would condemn him to eternal damnation. As an addendum I should state I know many Liberal Christians do not believe in Hell. Given the deeds of human 'monsters' such as Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin etc. I must say I do believe it exists. I remember the words of a wise and thoroughly estimable Muslim friend of mine that he felt he and most of us would rely on God's mercy rather than anything else to make it to Heaven. I agree.
Edward Fido | 23 June 2018


1 of 2..Many will remember Jacintha Saldanha (1966 – 7 December 2012) was an Indian nurse who worked at King Edward VII's Hospital in the City of Westminster, London. On 7 December 2012, she was found dead by suicide, three days after falling for a prank phone call as part of a radio stunt… A post I wrote at the time on another site… “When I first heard on the news, the actions of Nurse Jacintha, my first thought was she must have been very naïve, to be taken in by such a ruse. But as the story unfolded, realising that she was a Catholic, I thought that a more appropriate way to describe her action, is how very trusting she was, as I have encountered this unworldliness in many Catholics though out my working life. It did not occur to Jacintha that she was been duped, and this is reinforced when you consider the testimony given of her, by her superiors and others, as she was described as been a very considerate and caring person (Her qualifications were not mentioned) and this is probable why she was employed by this very prestigious hospital, one catering for the Royal Family, and other influential people, you would have to have exceptional qualities to work at such an establishment. Hers were probably compassion and empathy, no qualifications can give you these, but nevertheless would be highly valued by her superiors… Continue
Kevin Walters | 27 June 2018


2 of 2…It goes without saying client confidentiality would be paramount. In her innocence she was duped. I have read that Jacintha was living away from her family, in Hospital accommodation and I assume within close proximity to other members of hospital staff. Many employees would be very capable and ambitious; to work at such an establishment would confer prestige. Jacintha would have let the side down I am sure that the establishment of the hospital would not have been hard on her, as they would have realised that the structures in place were inadequate, to protect the privacy of their high profile patients, from the press. We can only speculate on how her more worldly colleagues treated her. If any member of her family should read this post (And now also anyone else who has lost a loved one through suicide) I hope that they will take some comfort from the fact that many Christians like myself, believe she was a victim of circumstance, because if she had been ‘surrounded’ by loving care this tragedy would not have happened” ... May she rest in peace, with all the other sensitive souls, who found the cruelty of this world too much to bear. kevin your brother In Christ
Kevin Walters | 27 June 2018


Kevin Walters is, in many ways, extremely perceptive. Many suicides would, indeed, feel they had 'let the side down'. This is often the case when, as with Jacintha Saldhana, they haven't. He is again spot on when he mentions isolation, or the feeling of it, as being a major contributing factor. Sometimes people of impeccably high standards are used to relying on themselves and are not taught to seek the support that is there. This I think helps explain the high number of suicides amongst ex-military personnel, who have been taught to be self-reliant in the most dangerous situations, so, often after being discharged with horrific injuries and PTSD, they quietly off themselves just ' not to let the side down'. Legalised suicide aka euthanasia may very well be on the menu in this country soon. I am sure that there is always a better way than suicide. It is significant to me that the Ancient Romans, who were an incredibly brutal people, often resorted to suicide when they felt there was nothing left they could do to preserve their 'honour'. The rise of Christianity rightly consigned this sort of thinking to the moral garbage bin where it belonged.
Edward Fido | 29 June 2018


2 of 2 But at the same time he is also aware of his state before God (Truth/ Goodness) the denial of which, is to lose one’s soul, and mankind though out the ages, in different cultures, has used the term Hell (Under different names) It could be said that, this ‘knowledge’ without true discernment (Wisdom) is a knowledge that separates the intellect from the heart and if deliberate/consensual with the ego, leads one to Hell. A place where “their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched”... undoubtedly remorse of conscience and keen self-reflection are this never-dying worm. (See the link below)… Whereas the right use of this knowledge/discernment/ Justice (Fear of God) will induce humility, as in, a perpetual contrite heart, one that dwells in spiritually ‘uplifting’ meekness, while constantly receiving His redeeming grace. “Learn from me I am meek and humble of heart” … And as you quoted Edward, “rely on God's mercy rather than anything else to make it to Heaven” I also agree with this statement. Please consider continuing via the link; kevin your brother In Christ http://www.catholicethos.net/god-old-testament-hateful-wrathful/#comment-205
Kevin Walters | 29 June 2018


You are, once again, pretty much on the money, Kevin. Traditional Church teaching on suicide is patently clear. I think there are a few things which need to be said here. One is the Church has always been aware that there are mitigating circumstances to a suicide, such a serious mental illness, which would absolve the suicide of guilt. Another factor is that it is always possible to repent, even at one's last moment. Human life is not a simple journey from A to Z. Most of us stray off the path in major or minor ways. The key Christian message is that repentance and return through forgiveness are always possible. I am not sure what Jacinta Saldanha or my friend's final state was. Muslim muftis, when asked to give a fatwa, often end their opinion with 'And only God knows'. The other thing that must be said is that anyone who deliberately contributes towards another person committing suicide is guilty of a terrible sin. I am unsure what was in the minds of the hoaxers in the Saldhana situation but the consequences of their stupid, inconsiderate action were dire. All the very best to you, Edward.
Edward Fido | 01 July 2018