Is suicide a sin? Many people assume the Bible condemns taking one’s own life. However, even a careful reader will search in vain for any explicit prohibition of self-killing in the Bible. In fact, the biblical attitude toward suicide ranges from ambivalence to praise. There are seven unambiguous examples of suicide in the Bible: Abimelech, mortally wounded by a millstone, ordered his armor-bearer to dispatch him to avoid the suggestion he had been slain by the woman who had thrown the stone (Judg 9:52-54); the prophet Ahithophel hanged himself after betraying David (2Sam 17:23); Zimri burned down his house around himself after military defeat (1Kgs 16:18); and the more familiar stories of Saul and his armor-bearer (1Sam 1:1-6; 1Chr 10:1-6), Samson, (Judg 16:28), and, of course, Jesus’ disciple Judas—although it is only in Matthew’s Gospel where he kills himself (Matt 27:3-5; compare with Acts 1:18). There is nothing in any of these stories to suggest that the biblical narrators disapprove of the characters’ suicides.
Suicide in the ancient world did not carry the same negative connotations as it does today. For Greco-Roman philosophers, suicide in correct circumstances constituted a “noble death.” Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.) chose to drink hemlock rather than endure exile, a choice enthusiastically endorsed by most of the philosophical schools at the time. If carried out for country or friends, or in the face of intolerable pain, incurable disease, devastating misfortune or shame, or to avoid capture on the battlefield, suicide constituted a noble death. Each of the instances of suicide found in the Bible fits comfortably with noble-death ideals. Saul’s death, for example, finds a strikingly close parallel with that of the Greek general Publius, who, when similarly wounded on the battlefield ordered his armor-bearer to kill him (Plutarch, Crassus 25.11).
Two of the incidents of self-killing in the Bible exhibit a positive attitude toward suicide. Arguably, the author of the Gospel of Matthew intends the reader to interpret the disciple Judas’s hanging as an act of remorse. Judas repents (metamelētheis) and returns the blood money that he received for turning Jesus over to the authorities who executed him (Matt 27:3). Judas acknowledges that he has “sinned in betraying innocent blood” (Matt 27:4). His suicide may be interpreted as an act of atonement because he himself carries out the penalty laid down in the Hebrew Bible for taking a life: “no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it” (Num 35:33; see also Lev 24:17). There is no hint of condemnation of Judas’s self-killing in Matthew. If anything, it is a solution to his guilt rather than something that adds to it.
The Israelite leader Samson’s suicide is interpreted positively. The narrator lingers over the body count caused by Samson’s suicidal killing at a pagan temple; it is clear that God gave Samson the strength to carry out this massacre. Human and divine approval is sealed by the celebratory conclusion: “so those he killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life” (Judg 16:30; compare with Heb 11:32-36). While modern readers may be less inclined to share the narrator’s view that Samson’s suicide should be commended, there are parallel examples of heroic suicides in contemporary film, such as Spock in The Wrath of Khan, astronauts in Armageddon and Deep Impact, and especially the character of Russell in Independence Day.
The Judeo-Christian condemnation of suicide does not, therefore, begin in the Bible. Although the commandment against killing (Exod 20:13) is commonly believed to include killing oneself, there is simply no evidence in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament to sustain any moral condemnation of suicide.