by Fr. John A. Peck
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
The following is an excerpt of a talk on Suicide in Christian History given at the 3rd Annual Orthodox Bioethics Conference held in Daly City, CA and sponsored by the Vicariate for Palestinian/Jordanian Orthodox Christian Communities in the US.
The Orthodox Church has held fast to its canonical position that suicide is unacceptable under any circumstance, indeed even for sufferers of mental illness. This position has never been negotiable and has remained unchanged since the formation of the Church.
We will go through a short history of the Church’s response to suicide, starting with the Holy Scriptures.
Suicides in the Bible
Holy Scripture records eight unambiguous suicides. In the Old Testament, we have the examples of
- Abimelek (Judges 9:54),
- Saul (1 Samuel 31:4),
- Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5),
- Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23),
- Zimri (1 Kings 16:18),
- Ptolemy Macron (II Maccabees 10:13)
- Razis (II Maccabees 14:43-6)
and in the New Testament,
- Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:5).
Almost all of them were wicked men.
Samson (Judges 16:30), is considered a special case, as the purpose of his sacrificial death was to destroy the enemies of God’s people, and is not classed as a suicide, and in this he exists as a type of Christ, who offered Himself in a sacrificial death.
While we do not see a pronounced moral condemnation of the acts of the deceased by at least the narrators of these suicide events in Holy Scripture (which is in line with how such events are usually recorded in the Bible), we can at least deduce in the case of Judas Iscariot that the taking of his own life by hanging, was out of a deep sense of despair for how he had betrayed our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Judas, we are told in Matthew 27:3-4,
“repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood’.”
There is a noted silence on the suicide of Judas by New Testament writes, as the idea seems to be that he experienced the natural result of his actions. In Acts 1:25, Peter spoke of Judas who left his apostolic ministry
“to go where he belongs.”
Literally, the verse reads
“to go to his own place.”
“His own place” is hell. If that seems harsh, consider the words of Jesus in John 6:70-71 when he said,
“Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)
He did not literally mean that Judas was a demon, but that Judas was even then (about a year before the crucifixion) acting under Satan’s influence.
This should fill us with a healthy fear and Jesus also tells his disciples, and through them, us,
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)
We who are evil!
Other people in Scripture felt deep despair in life.
- Solomon, in his pursuit of pleasure, reached the point where he “hated life” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).
- Elijah was so fearful and depressed that he yearned for death (1 Kings 19:4).
- Jonah was so angry at God that he wished to die (Jonah 4:8).
- Even the apostle Paul and his missionary companions at one point
“were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8).
So much for the worthless platitude that “God only gives you what you can handle” – well, not according to the Bible!
However, none of these men committed suicide.
- Solomon learned to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
- Elijah was comforted by an angel, allowed to rest, and given a new commission.
- Jonah received admonition and rebuke from God.
- Paul learned that, although the pressure he faced was beyond his ability to endure, the Lord can bear all things:
“This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
We can also reflect on the martyrs, who willingly gave their life for Christ. Were these accounted as suicides? No, they were not. The Synaxarion (1998) includes saints whose lives came to an abrupt end when they refused to give up their Christian beliefs. For example, female Orthodox Saints of the first four centuries willingly:
- walked into fires on seeing their brethren thrown into flames (e.g. St Agathonike according to Eusebius’s account, and separately St. Apollonia who endured terrible sufferings to the point of having her teeth extracted);
- threw themselves from rooftops at the risk of rape (e.g. St Pelagia of Antioch); and
- threw themselves into rivers to drown, fearing impending rape by drunken soldiers (e.g. St. Domnina and her two daughters Berenice and Prosdoce).
Yet, the intent of the female martyrs had nothing to do with suicide.
These were men and women of faith who when faced with an imminent threat to their lives, acted to glorify God. They did not go out actively seeking to end their misery.
The Church Fathers on Suicide
We have much to gain also in the distinction of the voluntary and involuntary murder as legislated in the canons 22 and 23 in the Synod of Ancyra in 314. Independent of whether a murder was voluntary or involuntary, a period of repentance had to be fulfilled before the one who had committed the crime could partake in sacraments again.
But the difference with a suicide was that no repentance for the act of self-murder could take place because the one who takes their life is instantaneously cut off from the ability to request forgiveness of their sins.
One reason the Church Fathers applied such strict definitions around suicide from the outset of the Church’s formation was because the Greco-Roman world tended both to disparage the body and to endorse suicide in circumstances of severe hardship. The Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Gnostics, for example, all endorsed voluntary death for reasons consistent with each group’s broader ethical vision”.
The Church Fathers, in particular St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine of Hippo, are often juxtaposed by western commentators as having diametrically opposing thoughts on the subject of premature death – which is incorrect.
St. John Chrysostom gave full support to female saints who leapt to their deaths instead of allowing themselves to be raped and being defiled.
St. Ambrose of Milan also showed sensitivity toward these exceptional cases (e.g. recounting the death of 12 year old St. Agnes, Concerning Virginity I.2.5-9), as did Saint Jerome (e.g. writing to St. Paula about the martyrdom of Saint Blæsilla in Letters 39.3).
While on the other hand, St. Augustine was adamant that no one should kill themselves, no matter the magnitude of their desperation, but was circumspect in the context of martyrdom. It is worth quoting him in full:
“But, they say, during the time of persecution certain holy women plunged into the water with the intention of being swept away by the waves and drowned, and thus preserve their threatened chastity. Although they quitted life in this way, nevertheless they receive high honor as martyrs in the Church and their feasts are observed with great ceremony. This is a matter on which I dare not pass judgment lightly. For I know not but that the Church was divinely authorized through trustworthy revelations to honor thus the memory of these Christians” (City of God 1.26).
St. Augustine sharply condemns the practice of suicide, emphasizing,
“that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death” (City of God 1.27).
Likewise, St. John Chrysostom also condemns suicide:
“Whereas God punished such men [those who commit suicide] more than murderers, and we all regard them with horror, and justly; for if it is base to destroy others, much more is it to destroy one’s self” (Commentary of St. John Chrysostom on Galatians 1.4).
To theses we can add the author of The Shepherd of Hermes (written between AD 90-150), Saint Justin Martyr (AD ca. 100-ca 160), Saint Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-220), and Lactantius (AD ca. 260-330).
For instance, St. Clement of Alexandria writes,
“He who presents himself before the judgment-seat becomes guilty of his own death. And such is also the case with him who does not avoid persecution, but out of daring presents himself for capture. Such a person…becomes an accomplice in the crime of the persecutor” (The Stromata, or Miscellanies IV.10).
And Lactantius (The Divine Institutes III.18) writes:
“If homicide is wicked because it is the destroyer of a man, he who kills himself is fettered by the same guilt because he kills a man.”
The Fathers used very strong language to describe their beliefs about suicide for good reason (i.e. the highly public and influential deaths of philosophers by suicide was seen as acceptable in the Roman and Greek pagan worlds, but NOT by the Christian fathers!).
He stresses that outside this context of insanity, all that we have historically concerning the church’s life is incompatible with the praxis of suicide.
Thus, we know by the Orthodox Church’s canon law that
1) a person who willingly commits suicide and is not insane has sinned and should not receive a funeral rite (1 John 3.15), and
2) one who commits suicide in the condition of insanity, is able, through economia under the Bishop’s authority, to receive a funeral rite.
In Alaska, for example, where suicides have been not uncommon, during the late 90’s, it became known to Bishop Innocent Gula of blessed memory that any death which could not be easily explained otherwise, was being ruled by default a suicide by law enforcement. BY DEFAULT. When he heard this, he instituted a rule of only withholding funeral rites and memorial services from those deaths which could be proven to be genuine suicides. Not surprisingly, the number of such declared suicide cases plummeted.
Today the role of the priest is expected to be limited to caressing human passions instead of the aim of treating or extinguishing passions. By banning a religious funeral the Holy Fathers, full of love for mankind, ensure the following key matters:
A. They shout out to all Christians with a blatant voice that whoever kills himself has committed a serious sin, and SIN IS SERIOUS. In this way they are mentally supporting someone who is suicidal in a wise, clear and unambiguous manner to repel any such thought, even in cases of serious human difficulties. Have the supposed “philanthropists” of today never contemplated that they justify suicides with intense emotional arguments, becoming unintentional instigators of many future suicides?
B. There is another, more spiritual reason why there should be no funeral service for a suicide. The social contempt for the suicide is a silent prayer to God to have mercy on them. Every humiliation of man before God increases Divine Mercy. Even posthumous humiliations help the soul in its account before God. This is shown in numerous instances in the life of the Church.
We read in The Ladder of St. John Climacus, that in the chapter “On Repentance” the monks whom the author knew and had reached a virtual angelic state, humbly asked that after their death
“they would not even receive a memorial stone for them”,
but they requested their bodies be tossed without any postmortem honors.
St. Ephraim the Syrian asked that he not be buried with honors, and that they not light candles or incense for him, etc, so that God would take pity on him.
It is important to consider the deliberation given to confessors in a chapter entitled “Instruction to the Spiritual Father” in the book Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite. In his discussion of suicide the saint stated:
“Namely, for a person to kill himself, while having a sound intellect, being conquered by despair.”
The qualification, “while having a sound intellect” is critical in understanding the application of canonical penalties and the voluntary or involuntary aspect of the offense.This would also have the effect of easing God’s judgment of such an act. St. Isaac the Syrian, noted,
“Just because the terms ‘wrath,’ ‘anger,’ ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far remove from His true nature.”
Again, quoting the holiest of Syrian Saints,
“Among all God’s actions there is none which is not a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealing with us” (Brock, 1997).
The Holy Fathers on God’s Mercy
St. Ephraim the Syrian wrote,
“Only hope in the manifestation of Thy Grace, O man-befriending Master, consoles me and keeps me from despair. Whether Thou so desirest or not, save me, O all-good Lord, according to Thy great kindness.”
“God’s mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive.” (St. Isaac of Syria quoted by Brock, 1997).
God’s love according to St. Isaac is the driving force of all He has done, is doing. and will ever do. St. Isaac the Syrian noted:
“In love did He [God] bring the world into existence; In love is He going to bring it into that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.”
It is only in the context of understanding God and all His works as love that St. Isaac’s understanding of the end of time becomes comprehensible. St. Isaac wrote:
“Accordingly the kingdom and gehenna [hell] are matters belonging to mercy; they were conceived of in their essence by God as a result of His eternal goodness…That we should further say or think that the matter is not full of love and mingled with compassion would be an opinion laden with blasphemy and an insult to our Lord God.
By saying that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of sufferings, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the Divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational beings which He created through grace; the same is true if we say He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though he were avenging himself.”
With this in mind, St. Isaac’s reference of God being in hell, still trying to draw the demons and those there to love Him, is humanly fathomable. St. Isaac, based on his “mystical union of with the love of God”, would consider the final judgment, as described in the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25: 31-34): the separation of the sheep from the goats to be the state of the soul at death, but a state not final or irreversible. Both demons and sinners would still have the possibility to respond, by God’s eternally enduring, merciful, and loving grace, so
“they will gaze towards God with the desire of insatiable love…”
It is important to reflect on the words of St. James
“…yet mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13
In the Euchologian, which every priest today uses, there are the prayers for the parting of the soul. These are heartbreaking cries of holy ascetics who pray for their body to be despised in order for their soul to find mercy from God.
It is asked that the body of the sinner remain unburied for God to take pity on him. Therefore, it is by love and love alone that the Church does not give a funeral to suicides.
A blessed Athonite elder, Fr. Anthimos Agiannanites, when asked by relatives about a young suicide, if he should be commemorated during the Divine Liturgy (of course a funeral service was out of the question), responded:
“Do not commemorate him during the Liturgy. It is better for his soul. When the All-Merciful sees that we do not honor him, the Same will take pity on him, but when we honor him, He will not have mercy on him.”
There is in the Akathist for the Repose of Those Who Have Fallen Asleep a small prayer which is be prayed for those who have ended their own life.
” Forgive, O Lord, those who have died without repentance. Save those who have committed suicide in the darkness of their mind, that the flame of their sinfulness may be extinguished in the ocean of Thy grace.
Ikos 5 from the Akathist for the Repose of Those Who have Fallen Asleep.
St. Leonid of Optina advised a spiritual child of his grieving over his father’s suicidal death:
Entrust yourself and the fate of your father to the will of the Lord, which is all-wise and omnipotent. Take care through humble-mindedness to strengthen yourself within the bounds of moderate grief. Pray to the all-good Creator, thereby fulfilling the debt of love and filial duty-in the spirit of the virtuous and wise, thus:
Pray simply, without testing [God], placing your heart in the right hand of the Most High. It was not, of course, the will of God that your father come to such a bitter end, but now he is totally under the will of the Mighty One, and, soul and body, he is cast into the fiery furnace, which humbles and exalts, kills and gives life, brings down into hades and raises up [therefrom]. Furthermore, He is so kind, omnipotent and overflowing with love, that the good qualities of all mortals are nothing compared to His most exalted goodness.
For this reason, you must not grieve beyond measure. You say: ‘I love my father, which is why I am sorrowing inconsolably.’ But God, incomparably more than you do, loved and loves him. It is therefore necessary for you to leave the eternal fate of your father to the goodness and loving-kindness of God. And if He deigns to have mercy, who will gainsay Him?
Then St. Leonid advised him to pray this prayer:
“Seek out, O Lord, the perished soul of my father; if possible, have mercy! Thy judgments are unfathomable. Do not account this prayer of mine as a sin. May Thy holy will be done.”
St. Ambrose of Optina also recommended this prayer.
St. Theophan the Recluse also wrote about this:
“The Church does not command [us to pray for suicides]. How then dare its sons and daughters to (offer liturgical) pray(er) [for them]? What is evident here is an attempt to show that we are more merciful than the Church, than God Himself. It is better to limit ourselves to feeling pity for them, entrusting them to the immortal compassion of God, and praying for them in our private prayers, that He deal with them according to His loving-kindness and according to your faith in that loving-kindness.”
Finally, does not the Third Kneeling Prayer which we read recently on Pentecost Sunday pray to the Lord Almighty that he will release those who are held in the bondage of Hell?
“…who also on this all-perfect and saving feast, art graciously pleased to accept prayers for those who are imprisoned in Hell, promising unto us and unto those held in bondage great hope of release from the vileness that doth hinder us and hinder them… We who are living will bless thee, and will pray, and offer unto thee prayers and sacrifices for their souls.”
Again, is there some special mention there that we are excluding suicides from this prayer, or any reason we should believe it?
Private prayers, giving alms on behalf of the suicide, and other acts of love, with the hope that the Lord will have mercy on that poor soul, are not forbidden.
What is forbidden is the composing of liturgical prayers, and remembrances at liturgy for persons who commit suicide.
This is how our fathers respond. For this dead person to not be read over, as we have seen, is the greatest compassion we can offer him.Otherwise, the prayers of the Church prevent Divine Mercy because they are false, self-righteous, and hypocritical towards God.
For the Orthodox Church there is a fine line that cannot be crossed when making proclamations about suicide, before it opens the floodgates to the slippery slope. Yet, canonically, the Church has always known where it stands regarding suicide and the Fathers when consulted accurately have had one voice on the matter. What we are witnessing at present are significant pastoral responses that seek to communicate clearly that the Church is here for those who need it and that God will
“wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4),
no matter if one is struggling with mental illness, physical unwellness, very difficult life situations, or even atheism.
The Wisdom and Mercy of the Church Today
Following the example of the Holy Fathers, such as Ss. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, who integrated the scientific knowledge of their day in establishing monastery hospitals, in our day, the bishops of America, (SCOBA) in a Pastoral letter issued in 1977 took into account what science has learned about those suffering from suicidal thoughts. First they cite an early church canon:
Thus, Canon 14 of Timothy of Alexandria states that liturgical services should be offered,
“if a man having no control of himself lays violent hands on himself or hurls himself to destruction.”
And the patristic interpretation of this teaching states that services should be offered when a suicide victim
“is not of sound mind, whether it be as a result of a demon or of an ailment of some sort” (Question XIV of the 18 Canons of Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria. Pedalion, p. 898).
At end of the Letter they issued the following pastoral guidelines to be granted after appropriate investigation:
The general pastoral recommendation being that a church burial and memorial services could be granted unless there were an absence of significantly diminished capacities.