Suicide, Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Bible
The Bible contains descriptions of actions that fit the definitions of suicide and euthanasia.
The fact that something is mentioned or described in the Bible does not necessarily mean it is endorsed by biblical writers or in harmony with biblical principles. The Bible mentions acts that are good and God-honoring, as well as acts that are bad or sinful. Each act needs to be considered in the context of descriptions about the person’s character and tested against overarching biblical principles – the context of the Bible as a whole.
Two cases of Euthanasia are mentioned in the Bible
In both cases the person was seriously injured, suffering and dying (most likely within minutes or hours of death). In both cases the person asked another person to intentionally end their life with a sword. In only one case the other person performed the euthanasia. In both cases the person’s death was described as a reward for their disobedience to God.
Abimelech was the son of Gideon (Judges 6:29-32). After his father’s death he suggested to his mother’s clan that he should be their ruler. He hired reckless adventurers who became his followers and murdered his seventy brothers, the current rulers over Shechem. Only one brother, Jotham, escaped. He made war against his own subjects and burnt about a thousand men and women to death who took shelter in a tower.
He captured the town of Thebez and stormed the tower in which the people were hiding. A woman dropped a millstone on his head which cracked his skull. (2 Samuel 11:21) Abimelech asked his armour-bearer to kill him with his sword to spare him the indignity of being killed by a woman. His armour-bearer complied.
Abimelech’s death is described as a repayment for his wickedness in murdering his brothers:
55And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed, every man to his place. 56 Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father by killing his seventy brothers. Judges 9:55-56
Saul was critically wounded in battle against the Philistines. He asked his armour-bearer to kill him to spare him the indignity of being abused and then killed by his enemies. His armour-bearer was terrified and didn’t want to take Saul’s life, so Saul fell on his sword in order to kill himself. Saul’s death is described as as a reward for his disobedience (1 Samuel 28:16-18).
When the armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he killed himself also.
The writer confirms in verse 6 that this is the account of how Saul died. 1 Samuel 31:3-6
Later an Amalekite told David that he killed Saul. The account is not presented as fact, but only as an account of what the Amalekite said had happened. Maybe this Amalekite tried to please David and save his own life, since David had just returned from defeating the rest of the Amalekites. Maybe this Amalekite tried to receive a reward from David as Saul’s successor. Either way, his plan backfired.
It seems that the Amalekite’s report was the first David heard about the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, because only at that point did he tear his clothes. David had the Amalekite killed based on his own testimony of “killing the Lord’s anointed”. 2 Samuel 1:1-16
The interesting point for us to note is this: David did not regard Saul’s death any less of a crime because Saul was suffering at the time and already close to death, or because he requested to be killed. David considered it murder.
See here for a further discussion on what seems to be a contradiction.
Cases of Suicide in the Bible
Saul and his armour bearer
As described above, Saul fell on his sword to kill himself. When his armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he killed himself also. 1 Samuel 31:3-6
Saul is not held up as a role model for us to follow. He ordered the killing of the priests of the Lord and everyone living in Nob, the town of the priests (1 Samuel 22:17-19). Saul tried to kill David repeatedly (1 Samuel 23:7-9, 1 Samuel 26:2). Saul turned away from the Lord and disobeyed Him, after which the Lord rejected Saul as king (1 Samuel 15:10-11, 1 Samuel 15:23, 1 Samuel 16:1). Saul’s death is described as as a reward for his disobedience (1 Samuel 28:16-18).
Nothing is mentioned about the character of Saul’s armour-bearer. All we know is that he killed himself because of fear. He may have been afraid of being blamed for Saul’s death. Throughout the Bible fear is not portrayed as a good thing, apart from fearing (respecting and obeying) God.
Ahitophel advised Absalom to send twelve thousand men to attack David and his men. Hushai advised Absalom to attack David by himself. When Ahitophel realized that Absalom followed Hushai’s advice instead of his, Ahitophel “put his house in order and hanged himself”. 2 Samuel 17:1-23
Zimri had command of king Elah’s chariots. Zimri killed the king and his household, and was king of Israel for seven days. When the Israelites heard about Zimri’s treason, they proclaimed Omri, the commander of the army, king over Israel. Zimri killed himself by setting the palace on fire around him. His actions are described as “sin”, “evil” and “treason”. He is not portrayed as a role model to follow. 1 Kings 16:8-20
Judas Iscariot was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He went to the chief priests who were plotting to kill Jesus and agreed to betray Jesus for thirty silver coins (Matthew 26:14-16). He helped them to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:47-49).
After Jesus had been condemned to death, Judas was filled with remorse. He returned the coins to the priests and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-5).
Judas is not held up as a role model to follow. Jesus referred to him as “a devil” (John 6:70-71). John called him “a thief” (John 12:4-6) and Peter described his death as a reward for his wickedness (Acts 1:15-19).
People who Talked about their own Deaths
Job suffered so much that he wished that God would end his life (Job 6:8-9). He said he preferred death and that his “days are but a breath” (Job 7:15-16), i.e. his life had “no meaning” (NIV). His wife encouraged him to “curse God and die”, but he dismissed it as foolish and didn’t sin in what he said (Job 2:9-10).
Even though Job asked God to end his life, he is protrayed as a role model in how to respond to suffering. He “spoke of the Lord what is right” (Job 42:7). We can therefore conclude that it is permissible to ask God to end our lives in His time, but not permissible to end our lives ourselves.
King Ahab killed all the prophets and his wife, Jezebel, threatened to kill Elijah also. Elijah was afraid for his life and fled into the desert. He told God, “I’ve had enough. Take my life”. Elijah was not rebuked for saying this. Instead of God ending his life as he requested, an angel gave him food and drink that strengthened him to travel for forty days afterwards (1 Kings 19:1-8).
The Lord sent the prophet Jonah to the city of Nineveh to warn its inhabitants to turn from their evil ways, which they did (Jonah 3:1-10). Jonah thought it unfair that the city did not receive punishment for their evil deeds. He was “angry enough to die” and said it would be better for him to die than to live. God rebuked Jonah for his lack of compassion towards the people of Nineveh (Jonah 4:8-11). In his desire to die Jonah was not a role model for us to follow.
Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Philippi,
21For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far. 24 Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. ” Philippians 1:21-23
It is important to understand these words in context. At the time, Paul was imprisoned in Rome for preaching the gospel (Philippians 1:13-14). The Roman authorities were renowned for their cruelty and prisoners were often put to death.
In the preceeding verses Paul reassured the Philippians that he was not afraid of being killed by the Romans and wanted to bring glory to God regardless of what happens to him:
19 For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. Philippians 1:19-20
Paul wrote this letter to encourage the Phillippians. It is known as the “joy letter” because Paul repeatedly refers to joy and rejoicing. He encourages them to rejoice always – in every circumstance (Philippians 4:4).
Nowhere does he complain that he is suffering unbearably or that he fears future suffering. In fact, he wrote that he learnt to be content in all circumstances.
11 Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: 12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Philippians 4:11-13
There is no evidence that Paul was contemplating ending his own life – Paul’s words should not be used as an endorsement for ‘assisted dying’ (euthanasia or assisted suicide).
Deaths sometimes described as suicide
Samson’s death was not suicide, but an act of war, authorised by God. The Philistines brought Samson from prison into the temple of the fish god Dagon. Samson asked God to make him strong one last time to enable him to destroy the temple and the people in it, among them many Philistine rulers. His motivation was not to end his own life, but to kill as many Philistines as possible. He is acknowledged for killing more at his death than when he lived (Judges 16:23-31).
The Philistines were enemies of Israel and at least some of them were descendants of the gigantic and evil Nephilim, also called Rapha: half human and half fallen angel. In destroying them God was purifying the human race, as in the time of Noah’s flood. (Compare Genesis 6:4, Jude 1:6-7, 1 Samuel 17, 2 Samuel 21:15-22, 1 Chronicles 20:4-8). Read more about the Nephilim here.
He died by crucifixion and not by drinking poison as some have claimed. He was offered a vinegar mixture, but didn’t drink it (Matthew 27:34, Mark 15:23). The mixture contained myrrh, a painkiller, and gall, most likely containing opium, a sedative painkiller.
Jesus’ death was murder, not suicide. Knowing an event will happen is not the same as causing it to happen. Jesus foreknew his death, but others arrested, sentenced and crucified him. He knew the purpose of his death, but didn’t seek it (Luke 22:41-45). He also didn’t nail himself to the cross or ask others to do so.
Some advocates use Jesus’ death as a justification for human assisted suicide and euthanasia. It’s illogical to use Jesus’ death in this way, because His death is in a totally different category than any human death could ever be.
- Jesus was both human and God, having been conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35).
- As Creator and the Word of God made flesh (John 1:1-34), He had the authority to lay down His life.
- Jesus took up His life again by being resurrected from the dead. (John 10:17-18, Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21) Jesus’ resurrection is central to Christianity and can be established as a historical fact.
- Jesus lay down his life to enable mankind to have eternal life (John 3:16, John 10:11-18). He was the ultimate High Priest atoning for sin once for all, and so bringing an end to the sacrificial law (Hebrews 9:11 – 10:18), which was foretold by multiple prophesies. His Hebrew name, Yeshua, means “salvation”.
Yes, Christians are called to follow and imitate Christ, not in the literal sense of dying as He did – we can’t in any case – but in loving God and loving others, always in obedience and subjection to God the Father. Jesus died not because He wanted to, but in subjection to God the Father (Luke 22:42).
Suicide, assisted suicide and euthanasia are essentially desires of the flesh, not the Spirit. The desire to take one’s life or ask another person to end one’s life is motivated by pride (not wanting to be vulnerable and dependent on others), a desire to spare oneself future suffering, and an act of distrust in God the Father. Deciding that one has lived long enough is ‘playing God’ over one’s life, instead of having faith that God has a purpose for one’s remaining days.
Christian Martyrs through the Ages
Stephen is considered the first martyr (Acts 6:8 – 7:53). Many Christians have since died for their faith. These martyrs did not seek to die, but to be loyal to Christ. They refused to deny their faith, even when threatened with death.
Knowing that one is likely to die is not the same as actively causing one’s death. A martyr death is not a suicide, because a martyr does not take the final action that ends their life. By definition, a martyr is killed by someone else, which means that martyr deaths fall into the category of murder.