C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther on Suicide

February 14, 2017 — 6 Comments

shakespearean-suicideAre all who commit suicide damned? Some would claim this is true. I, however, agree with Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis that God’s mercy is capable of rescuing even these. Suicide invariably leaves in its wake more sorrow than it heals.

Even the irreligious Mark Twain recognized this. In 1889 he wrote to a friend: “I do see that there is an argument against suicide: the grief of the worshipers left behind, the awful famine in their hearts, these are too costly terms for the release.”

I share with Lewis and Luther the belief that suicide can be forgiven. Our position is based on our personal understanding of the counsel in God’s word, as viewed through the lens of the Incarnate Word himself. As a personal conviction, not based on clear biblical guidance yea or nay, it is not a concept that should be formally taught.

There a second reason why this interpretation should not be actively promoted. It may encourage the premature ending of human life. The fact is that many, perhaps most, people contemplate suicide at some point in their life. But nearly all choose instead to live—some because of their fear of damnation. Prevented from killing themselves due to this fear, the critical moment passes, and they learn suicidal impulses are a transitory curse. Some seek help from others, which is even better.

In other words, when people are especially vulnerable to such thoughts, the last thing they need to hear is that suicide offers a ticket from the trials of this life to the bliss of heaven. On the contrary, if they can be discouraged from choosing the irreversible course during these moments of deep confusion and suffering, they can survive to experience restoration and renewed hope.

Many potential suicides press on and end up living lives filled with joy, contentment and meaning.

Martin Luther put it this way.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.

They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.

However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc.

Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned.

However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

C.S. Lewis understood this dilemma as well. In a 1955 letter to Sheldon Vanauken, who had lost his wife and was drowning in grief, Lewis even appealed to the church’s traditional teaching on the subject to quash in advance any contemplation of suicide.

[Jean] was further on [more spiritually mature] than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on.

That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things.

In our world, which appears to value life less each day, Lewis proclaimed the mere Christian commitment to the value of every life. Historian Richard Weikart addresses this in “C.S. Lewis and the Death of Humanity, or Heeding C.S. Lewis’s Warnings against Dehumanizing Ideologies.”

Many Christians recognize that we are living in a “culture of death,” where—especially in intellectual circles—there is easy acceptance of abortion and increasing support for physician-assisted suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. While many Christians make cogent arguments against such practices—as they should—we seem to be losing ground.

This is because our society is embracing secular philosophies and ideologies, many of which deny that the cosmos has any purpose, meaning, or significance. Once the cosmos is stripped of value, humanity is not far behind, especially since most secularists have also rejected any objective morality.

When C.S. Lewis cautioned about the dangers of dehumanizing secular ideologies in The Abolition of Man and his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, many Christians took notice. But, on the whole, the intellectual world paid little heed, careening further down the fateful road against which Lewis warned. Lewis’s critique is still a powerful antidote to the degrading vision of humanity being foisted on us by intellectuals in many institutions of higher learning.

We Christians are not immune to the genuine power of some of these arguments. For example, as a military chaplain I determined many years ago to one day write an article about the complexity of “Euthanasia on the Battlefield.” We do not serve Christ well by ignoring complex subjects or dismissing the reasoning of our “adversaries” without giving their points genuine consideration.

The ultimate barrier comes in the fact that our worldviews ultimately collide. Secularism and other religious philosophies are irreconcilable with the teachings of the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis notes that suicide has been regarded in some philosophies as a virtuous path. Not so, in Christianity.

If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his—the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own:’ for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will.

Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it. . . . When we act from ourselves alone—that is, from God in ourselves—we are collaborators in, or live instruments of, creation: and that is why such an act undoes with ‘backward mutters of dissevering power’ the uncreative spell which Adam laid upon his species.

Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity.

This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God ‘forsakes’ it.

Whenever you encounter someone overshadowed by the dark cloud of despair and death, speak to them life. Dispel the lies of suicide. Confront the Enemy, so that Satan would not be “given an opportunity to cause slaughter.” As Luther also said in the context quoted above:

It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ’tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Graphic and true. I choose not to participate in Satan’s murderous purposes by promoting suicide, and I encourage you to join me.

_____

The photo above comes from one of the many renditions of Romeo and Juliet.

6 responses to C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther on Suicide

  1. 

    In depth essay on the matter. Who can know the inner turmoil of the person considering suicide ? It is reasonable to surmise that the consideration that one may be damned or forgiven is not part of the troubled person’s thinking. The reasons against may or may not have merit but the main reason I agree with you is is that suicide is the theft of a person from his loved ones. So in essence it is a selfish choice. People feel cheated out of your presence in their life, unless of course, you are an irredeemable scoundrel. But when we speak of the pain suffered by the terminally ill person it takes on a whole different dimension.

    • 

      Good insights. Euthanasia for the intensely suffering person is a distinct case. And, the death of a suicidal malignancy like Hitler is unmourned.

      In the case of most suicides, though, neither of these circumstances enter in. And, as to the complexity, and the certainty that possible “damnation” doesn’t enter into the thoughts of many… we’ll never know the number it involves, but if it can cause even one to pause long enough in the process to end up choosing life, that is a victory.

  2. 

    Hi Rob,

    I have always heard that given time the issue is suicide subsides. Yes, so much pressure especially with creative people and emotions. That is why we need the Lord. Good relevant topic because so many people.

    Thanks, Gary

    • 

      Sometimes problems become less acute with the passage of time. Even when they don’t, we can gain a new perspective that is not hopeless… Even a glimmer of hope is like an ember that can be fanned back into a life-affirming blaze.

      Helping rescue someone from the precipice at the most vulnerable moment when they are seriously contemplating suicide, is a great privilege. But it takes courage. Once the immediate threat passes, it’s vital that we continue to offer our assistance and encouragement.

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