Updated: Mar 1, 2020
By: Logan Cohen, Professional Therapist & Online Life Coach
I grew up in Atlanta, the largest metropolitan area in the South-East region of the United States. The city of Atlanta is seated in the state of Georgia - right next to Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Kentucky - otherwise known as the “Bible Belt”. As you are probably aware of by the name or otherwise, this region of the Country is especially known for promoting what many People would call very “traditional Christian Values”.
Since a more “conservative” interpretation of religious values is popular in this part of the country, as a Professional Therapist and Online Life Coach I tend to get the question, “Why is suicide a sin?”, fairly often. It seems as if clients are not liking the answer(s) they have been getting before coming in to see me as a Professional Therapist, or they have avoided approaching anyone else to ask in the first place out of fear or embarrassment at what the response might be.
I have spent countless hours in training specific to suicide prevention. In fact, I worked for a few years as a phone operator for a suicide prevention hotline while I was in graduate school in Portland, Oregon at Lewis and Clark College. While that is some of the most intensive direct work I have done with community members who are actively suicidal, I have worked the bulk of my career in community mental health with Families who have a member struggling with significant mental health issues.
Needless to say, when somebody in my Family, Friend group, or neighborhood goes into a mental health crisis, I am usually approached readily to coordinate an adequate response. At this point, it is the least I can do for my Loved Ones and I also know how to navigate the often complicated space of “professional versus personal boundaries” that occur after a mental health crisis as a result of my professional training - so it all works well enough.
Needless to say, I have been asked why suicide in a sin so many times that I figured it is time to write an article about this very question. My intention is not only to provide some context around how and why American culture perceives the act of suicide the way it does, but also help you as the reader answer this very important question for yourself - “Why is suicide a sin?”
First, I know the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale is really riveting these days and only further conjures up memories of The South as “The Old World” - but let’s be real - all the United States of America was founded on “Christian values” insofar that at first Puritan settlers, then other Christian settlers came from Britain and (at first) Western European settlers immigrated to the United States in droves. These were the People who established the foundation of American Culture.
In the end, many different denominations of Christianity came to the United States and tended to congregate in specific geographic areas until eventually forming distinct communities (Catholic - New England, Baptist - South, Midwest - Methodist). There are even a good bit of Jewish Folks and even Muslim followers who have come to the United States through the years in search of one common desire (as long as they were not sold into slavery) since the time of the Puritans - freedom from religious persecution in Europe.
While the United States holds a fairly large variety of Religious institutions and followers, they are virtually ALL of Judeo-Christian origin. Given this, many aspects of American Culture can be traced back to Judeo-Christian values. So let’s take a look at this question, “Why is suicide a sin?”
In order to answer the question of why suicide is a sin, let’s first define the question a bit more thoroughly. In these times, I like to consult how my old friend Webster and his voluminous dictionary series (he’s got jokes lol), defines “sin” as follows, “The voluntary departure of a moral agent from a known rule of rectitude or duty, prescribed by God…”
It appears that if any said acts are to be defined as “sin”, then those acts are to be defined by the Church of a particular religious institution, and that Church has sole authority for defining “sin” as per their own interpretation of God’s “word”. That is not too surprising to find, but I do want to make sure we are on the same page here so everything can be clear.
This is a situation where the body of authority - in this case a religious institution - is able to maintain executive control as to what specific acts define whether or not “sin” has taken place. It seems like there should be more checks and balances when it comes to the foundation of defining the reality informing why suicide is a sin? Guess not...
Given that the religious institutions seem to have all the influence in defining “sin”, it only makes sense to look at the question “why is suicide a sin?”, according to the most predominant religious institutions in the United States. The most dominant religious institutions in the United States are considered a collection of “Judeo-Christian Religions” - referred to as such for their similar foundations in the Old Testament with Judaism, then Christianity branched off with the New Testament, and then Islam branched off with the Koran.
Why Is Suicide a Sin? Definition By Predominant American Religion
Why Is Suicide a Sin? - The answer according to Christianity
Christian values around suicide are based on two themes of theological interpretation from Saint Augustine that culminated in his sixth century text, The City Of God, where he formerly condemned suicide as a sin.
The first is the interpretation of the Sixth Commandment (see the 10 Commandments for further context). The sixth commandment reads, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” as opposed to the following seventh commandment that reads, “Thou shall not bear false witness to thy neighbor.” The absence of the words, “to thy neighbor,” in the sixth commandment was interpreted by Saint Augustine to mean that not only is the act of murdering another person a sin, but also the act of murdering yourself must be a sin.
The second area of Saint Augustine’s interpretation of why is suicide a sin is actually in response to another personal interpretation of Saint Augustine’s – this time of the late and great philosopher Plato’s work Phaedo, which is one of the “meatiest” portions of his famed philosophical dialogue with Socrates.
In this dialogue, the dialogue unfolds to show Socrates’ belief that there is a separate entity of “the soul” (a more sacred/pure part of us) that is separate from “the body” – and that even when “the body” dies deliberately, like in cases of suicide – “the soul” will continue to live on. Socrates ascertained that since the soul is more sacred/pure and lives on, then it is only most righteous for us to do so as well when possible. From this position, Saint Augustine decided that the act of suicide should be formally recognized as a “sin” moving forward.
Why is Suicide a Sin? The answer according to Islam
In Islam, the Koran teaches that humans were created for the main reason of worshiping God, and that life and death issues should be controlled by God and not by self. Due to this the Koran has determined that the taking of one's own Life not be of an ideal or righteous path. With this being said, the act of taking one's own Life does not automatically remove someone from the Islamic faith. For example, someone who has taken their own Life will still have a burial ritual in a Islamic faith as a follower of Islam.
Why is Suicide a Sin? The answer according to Judaism
Traditional Jewish Law forbids the act of taking one’s own life for similar reasons as to what has been stated with the other Judeo-Christian religious institutions – “denial of God’s goodness in the World”. With this being said, there have been extreme circumstances through history where Jews have been known to commit suicide or even coordinate mass suicide in order to avoid death by torture – or even neutralize the risk of betrayal during war-time. So while there is a firm stance “on the books” with traditional Jewish Law, there is more grey area than one might expect, and especially with more progressive sects of Judaism, such as Reform.
As discussed above, the United States is a country founded by People who were all seeking religious freedom, however we can also see that some of them are known to take a really hard-nosed response to their answering the question of, “Why is suicide a sin?” I went through outlining all of this information into a collection of historical/religious context and anthropological understanding of how we see the question, “Why is suicide a sin?”, in American Culture as a fixture of traditional religious interpretations. And the answer to that question is…it is only a “sin” as defined by the only authority that gets to control the narrative…which means they get to say whatever – they – want.
Personally if you ask me if suicide is even a sin to begin with, I would tell you that as a Professional Therapist & Online Life Coach with a lot of experience in clinically therapeutic spaces with clients who are actively suicidal – it is really hard to imagine how a benevolent and loving God could “condemn a follower to eternal fire and damnation” for the sole act of taking their own Life. By the time Life feels so overwhelming that someone is considering suicide, they are in such pain and fear that sometimes, it’s not hard to imagine why they want to take their own Life in that moment.
I can tell you that in every case I have never had someone come to me after a thwarted suicide attempt and said, “Gosh, I wish I had just done it already.”
I can tell you that even though these moments might feel incredibly painful and scary RIGHT NOW, it will get better from here because well – it arithmetically has to at some point if you keep getting up and doing things right. I have never been able to whole-heartedly agree with someone who is bent on taking their own Life through all of the clinical and personal encounters with suicide through the years, but I have also never buried a Child or Spouse, battled severe psychiatric issues, or gone through times of War.
I do not get to judge People who are considering taking their own Lives and at the end of the day, this is one thing they need from their communities and support systems as well – an expectation of nonjudgment. Many people who are thinking about taking their own lives have considered speaking to their congregation members – some have even spoken to their religious leaders.
When religious institutions use their influence in People’s Lives to inflict control using fear or shame, this rarely does any good for the followers of this religious institution to begin with. If anything, it just adds LAYERS of external shame to an issue that the person is already feeling horribly about internally.
Unfortunately, most People who seek advice from a religious leader who they have grown to trust and respect that the act of taking one’s Life is a “sin”, therefore something they should be ashamed of and further, fear burning in Hell for eternity if they are to follow through with those ideas. This process of encouraging external narratives of fear and/or shame to bleed into the internal personal belief system that a Person has about themselves could be seen as an example of Religious Abuse (read more about Religious abuse specifically here), or otherwise using religiously imbued narratives to influence the behavior of followers against their will.
Religion and Spirituality can and should be a wonderful and beautiful thing. It’s purpose is to add health, order, and satisfaction to the Lives of People and communities at large. Even when we are scared out of our minds as we hear that our Brother, Sister, Neighbor, Co-Worker, or even child is considering suicide, we have to consider what People in this position need themselves.
Our hope that a reminder of religious disapproval will sway a Loved One from considering taking their own Life might be attractive, but is actually the last thing we should do in this particular situation.
Even if you do hold the personal belief that suicide is a sin, please understand that your desire to understand more about the answers to the question of, “Why is suicide a sin?”, will only reinforce this personal religious belief of yours. I do not get to argue with your religious beliefs and I would not want to, but I do want you to know what goes through the mind of someone who is in the throes of suicidal fantasies, plans, or intent. If you want to know how to respond to someone who is in a mental health crisis of suicidal intent in a way that can actually be part of the solution, then check out this blog for more information on that specifically.
In addition to the mission of the Balanced Man Plan to do our part in suicide prevention, we are also going to literally put our money where our mouth is. 20% of all proceeds from The Balanced Man Plan will be donated directly to the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention – so you’re investment in your own Health and Well-Being through Balance will continue to “pay it forward” for People who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and behavior, as well as with therapeutic services for the survivors left behind after suicide.
My name is Logan Cohen and I am a Professional Therapist & Life Coach with over 10 years in the field of Counseling Psychology. I am a Clinical Supervisor for the American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy, as well as the founder of New Leaf Counseling Group, LLC in Charlotte, NC. After spending tens of thousands of clinical hours with my own clients, starting a successful group practice, as well as a beautiful Family, I “picked my head up from the grindstone” to check in on childhood Friends & Loved Ones.
I painfully discovered that more than a few of my childhood Friends passed away at a young age from preventable health conditions and decided that as a Man, Husband, Father, and Friend, I could no longer stand by as People suffered in silence and self-destructed rather than ask for help. It doesn’t have to be like that and the holistic healing methods offered by the Balanced Man Plan is designed to help People “get unstuck” and break free from old patterns that are the barriers between Self & quality of Life.
The Balanced Man Plan is a therapeutic digital experience delivered through Self-Guided Coaching Plans created by a Male Therapist with the common barriers & strengths of Men in mind. The Balanced Man Plan has the goal of introducing a natural Balance back to Life so it is sustainable for the optimal Health & Well-Being of Self and Loved Ones - and ALL from the privacy and comfort of Home. If you have enjoyed what you see so far, check out our Self Guided Coaching Plans!