Damned Suicide


suicide-pictureRecently in Bulgaria a man died.

His death is interesting because it was a political statement.  His death has achieved what the man set out to do when he set himself on fire.  He wanted to draw attention primarily to the plight of the Bulgarian masses that are suffering under corrupt and incompetent governance.

This act of self-immolation was an anti-government protest.

Interestingly, the government and the Orthodox church (though I cannot confirm this) have paid tribute to this man.  The state has even sanctioned a national day of mourning for the man.

He is a hero!

This event has led to a number of interesting discussions around the traps, some of which have demonstrated a lack of clarity on the issues by confusing the denunciation of such political maneuvers with the topic of suicide and its consequences. As communicators of biblical truth, pastors need to be careful with their influence.

Hell-maze-mapRegarding the topic of suicide, a number of pastors here in Bulgaria have told me that suicide is a sin that condemns one to hell.  I find this interesting for a number of reasons, not least because the Bible is obviously the source for their perspective.

However, when we look at the Bible regarding suicide we find that the Bible is conspicuously quiet on the subject.  Where then does this thinking come from?

It seems to me to be a response to dealing with murder, more specifically, self-murder.  But this does not explain how one can conclude that suicide is a sin that warrants eternal damnation.

Who committed suicide in the Bible.  There are a few, but let’s mention only 4:

1.  The most famous is probably Judas, who, after betraying Jesus for some silver coins went and hung himself.  Matthew 27:5 states:  ‘So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.’

2.  We might mention Sampson.  In judges 16:30 ‘Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it.’

999-2543. Then there was Saul and his armour-bearer.  1 Samuel 31:3-5 is pretty clear:  ‘Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”   But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him.’

4.  Have you heard of Abimelech.  In Judges 9:54 we read: ‘Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armor and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’” So the young man thrust him through, and he died.’

So there certainly is suicide in the Bible, but the question is this: how does the Bible view suicide?

quWell, we don’t know to be frank.  However, in each of these instances the suicide reflects the disgrace and defeat that they find themselves in, except Sampson’s, which might be construed as martyrdom rather than suicide (there is room for debate here!).

We can say that suicide is deemed as a sin and unfavourable because life is not for humanity to take (even if it is our own).  One pastor was keen to point out the clear commandment not to kill in Exodus 20:13.

With this pastor we must agree that suicide is sin.  But this is hardly ever the point of contention.

The question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Will they go to heaven?’

And to this question we respond as the Bible does.  Quietly!

There are no grounds to claim that suicide leads to eternal separation from God, unless ones believes that one is saved not by God’s mercy and grace but by virtue of one’s deeds.

The reasoning goes something like this.  If I commit suicide then my last act was rebellion against God; a total abandonment of God as saviour and healer; and a demonstration of my poverty of faith.  Suicide shows that I have no faith.

loveFor the protestant evangelical Christian this thinking is incongruous with our tradition (and the Bible of course).  One is saved not by virtue of one’s own deeds, whether good or bad, but by virtue of God’s love demonstrated in Christ’s deed – his obedient death.

To say that one is condemned on the basis of one’s final deed relegates salvation to a work of the flesh.  God help us all if this were the case.

No, we contend that we are saved by grace through faith, which is a gift from God, so that we have nothing to boast about.  Suicide as a sin does not fall beyond the scope of God’s love and mercy.

His death is enough.  This is the good news that gives us all hope.

0 Days to Christmas…


Budni_Vecher-620x465Tonight we had the boys from the Learning Center Borovtsi over for Christmas Eve.  In Bulgarian it is called Budni Vecher (Бъдни вечер).  This is the normally a big family occasion.

It’s been a full half day.

Before we began dinner we had a little time to talk about Christmas.  Of course we talked about Jesus’ birth, but we tried to move the discussion of the birth narrative to the Biblical meta-narrative, that is, how Jesus fits into the bigger picture.

This has been my theme for my ‘X Days to Christmas…’ blog posts.   Christmas is not just about the incarnation of Jesus.  It is about God acting decisively in history to save his people from their sins.

For this reason I created a video for the men to watch.  The theme that I try to capture is purpose in confusion.  This is a theme that they know well.

The video is called ‘Unnamed soundsculpture’ and it was created by Daniel Franke.  You can see the original and/or download it here at Vimeo.  I placed biblical text over the top of the film.

The text recounts the big picture that unfolds in the Bible: Creation, fall, redemption, re-creation.

The arrival of Jesus in history is momentous because in the Jesus God brings hope to the hopeless, purpose to the purposeless, and order to chaos.

Jesus is good news.  Merry Christmas!

9 Days to Christmas… A time to serve


ice bear fallThis morning we climbed down the steps from out first floor apartment to walk to church.

Katie’s first step outside the door nearly ended in tears (of pain for Katie and laughter for us) as she slipped and slid like a rookie roller-skater.

By the time we all got on the ice we were only able to walk (a generous description of what we were doing) 20 meters in about 15mins.  At that rate we would have missed the service, and the evening service if they had one.   So we turned around and slipped all the way home.

What to do?  Umm, hello, St. Matt’s uniChurch podcast… bring on Jeff Hunt on Mark.  If you haven’t been tuning in then give it a crack.  It’s been great.

st matsI’m up to the September sermon on Mark 9:30-10:31.  What did it have to do with Christmas?  Nothing, but much in many ways.

Jeff’s big idea was that to be great is actually to be small.

To be small is to not claim greatness as the disciples were doing in secret.  To be small is to not be like the rich young ruler who was characterised by his wealth and submission to it.   To be small is to not be like the disciples who turned the children away from Jesus in an attempt to de-clutter Jesus’ life with un-importants.

To be great is not about assumed titles of greatness, pockets full of money, position or age.

To be great is to be small, like a child, generous, submissive and humble.  To be the greatest is to be the servant of all, which Jeff pointed out is what we see in Jesus’ fatal yet not fatal cross-work.

At this time of the year we also understand Jesus’ servant nature in his incarnation.  The Apostle Paul points to this very fact in Philippians 2.  But what Paul does is fabulous.  He couches Jesus’ condescension within the scope of the purpose for his coming.

He became a servant to serve.

For this reason the Christmas story is about the cross.  Check out Paul here in Philippians 2:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Christmas is a time to share the great message that Jesus came to be the servant of all.

10 Days to Christmas… a killing


chrisyThis weekend we have been reminded that evil cares little for our festive season.

When we read that 20 odd children have been gunned down in cold blood we stop and wonder.  We wonder about many things, including what could have been.  This was Obama’s point.  These kids will not get to enjoy growing up and enjoying the best of life.  Their families will forever wonder about what could have been.

We also wonder how someone can be so evil and carry out such a heinous crime?

How can we not wonder how such a developed country can have such an undeveloped sense of duty to their own people?

rightsWhile their kids are being slain in their classrooms the world watches and shakes it head at a nation that is too proud to rewrite history.  It cannot bring itself to change its God-given right to carry arms; even for the sake of the most innocent and vulnerable people in their country – children.

Some might say that this is not the time for such a discussion but clearly it is.  Is there are a better time to deal with this issue than now?  We are supposed to be celebrating the time-honoured notion of peace on earth and goodwill to all men (people?), but instead it is being shot down around us.

Like last time, and the time before that, and the time before that, and, well, you get the picture, we pray for the families that are left to deal with the horror that has happened.

A merry christmas is not likely for many.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A Miracle: Jesus Survived Crucifixion


I watched a documentary last night about how the resurrection did not happen.

Whenever I watch these documentaries, I must admit, the content and presenters elicit a wide range of responses in me.  At some point I often doubt my own beliefs.  I often laugh at the stupidity of some of their hypotheses and accompanying statements.  I get angry when some things are deliberately twisted to secure a point.  And finally, I am encouraged as I come out the other end after I have dealt with the points that they have offered.

Last night they made two points that appear on the surface quite reasonable and even convincing.

Jesus the faker…

Firstly, they claimed that Jesus did not die on the cross.  One university professor cited events in chapter 15 in Mark’s Gospel to question the validity of the resurrection claim in chapter 16.  We read in 15:44 that, ‘Pilate was surprised to hear that he (Jesus) was already dead.’  After all it was only 3 hours after the crucifixion, which was half the time it normally took for someone to die by this ancient execution method, especially since he did not have his legs broken!

That Pilate was surprised that he was dead hints at the fact that Jesus was not in fact dead, but was alive.  This gives rise to a further defence.

For Jesus to get off the cross alive there needed to be some kind of collaboration between the disciples who knew that Jesus was still alive and the centurion in charge of the operation.  Indeed this is what we are told that we find.  In 15:43 we see that a wealthy man called Joseph of Arimathea who, at the request of the disciples one assumes, approaches Pilate.  Of course the disciples were mere fisherman, etc., who did not have the standing to carry out such a request.  After the request by Joseph for Jesus’ ‘dead’ body we read about Pilate’s surprise.  Pilate, in verse 44, then follows due process: ‘Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died’.  Is it a surprise to find out that the centurion in verse 45 takes the perspective of the disciples and Joseph by confirming that Jesus was indeed dead?

But how can we prove that the centurion was in cahoots with the disciples and therefore with Jesus?  It just so happens that this same centurion in 15:39 betrayed his allegiance when he proclaimed that ‘Surely this man (Jesus) was the Son of God!’

So there we have it.  The independent inquirer is Pilate who is surprised that Jesus is dead so soon.  We have the disciples who are working through a rich man to secure the not yet dead body of Jesus with the help of the converted centurion.

The film makers’ conclusion was that Jesus was taken down from the cross while he was unconscious but alive.

But why did the film makers not engage with the story that preceded Jesus’ crucifixion?  Why, even though they admit that the gospels are the greatest source of information about Jesus, do they not engage with the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ death?  Maybe because there is much information in those books that run contrary to their plotline?

Why does the fact that Jesus was brutally whipped and beaten (repeatedly on the head we read in Matthew) not come into play?

Why is the fact left out that the centurion was not alone but was with others who also agreed that he was dead?

They conveniently leave out John’s report that the legs of those crucified that day were due to be broken to speed up their deaths, but when they arrived at Jesus he was already dead.  His legs did not need to be broken.  The centurions (plural) do not leave it to chance, and so they speared Jesus’ side producing a flow of ‘water and blood’, which we are told is what happens after death.

They are happy to employ the Gospel of John to inform us that the legs of Jesus were not broken which supports their view that Jesus could not of had a quick death, but they are not so forthcoming with the surrounding information that speaks of the numerous centurions present to validate the that Jesus was dead, not to mention the spearing of Jesus’ side.

Why is much of this information left our of the picture?  Maybe, Jesus was dead on the cross.  Maybe the centurion did see Jesus die and the supernatural events that happened in that moment.  Maybe Joseph was rich and had Pilate’s ear.  Maybe they took the dead body away and put it in a tomb.  These maybes are not an elaborate scheme, but rather simple.  They don’t reek of a master plan, nor a covert operation.  That a man died is much more feasible.

Jesus did his job.  Pilate and the centurions did their job.  Jesus’ friends did their job.  That was how the first century worked.

Jesus on the run…

The fact that Jesus was alive presents a problem.  This was the basis for the second claim, that Jesus disappeared to either the south of France (not a bad idea if you ask me!) or the Central Asia.  They are right in saying that if Jesus did survive the crucifixion then he would have been a wanted man, after all, he was a traitor and blasphemer who had been sentenced to death.

The film makers betray their own ignorance and agenda in this argument.

As I said earlier, they admit that the vast amount of information that we know about Jesus is by virtue of the four gospel – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  If then we take these accounts as explaining why Jesus was in Jerusalem in the first place why would we think that Jesus would flee Jerusalem after he survives the crucifixion?

The Gospels are very clear that Jesus walked into Jerusalem knowing that his end was nigh.  Firstly, if he knew that his end was fast approaching and that the primary antagonists were in Jerusalem, why would he go to Jerusalem?  If  he wanted to avoid being killed then any sane person would have headed in the opposite direction, or even France!

Secondly, Jesus had an opportunity to say that he was not the king of the Jews and so maybe avoid death, but he chose to engage with what he believed to be the case.  To the question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Jesus answered,  ‘Yes, it is as you say.’  If Jesus was trying to get out of dying then he was doing a really bad job of it.

If Jesus did survive the crucifixion why would he run?  If he didn’t run the first time why would he run a second time?  He had been defying the religious authorities for three odd years.  He was clearly not phased by the idea of standing up to them and the consequences that that would bring.

If the gospels are our best source of information about Jesus then perhaps we should engage them in a more holistic fashion.

The film makers created an amazing plot worthy of, not a religion, but a movie:  Jesus did the impossible.

He survived a flogging and crucifixion and being speared his side, he fooled Pilate and the Roman executioners with a nifty blood and water trick, was retrieved off the cross with the help of the role playing rich man and centurions, was smuggled by friends out of the tomb where he lived for three days, before being rescued (again with help of the Roman guards) and fleeing to France and Central Asia.

Sometimes the Gospels don’t sound that wacky at all:)

Robert Antelme: Humanity’s face


At long last my copy of The Human Race by Robert Antelme arrived in my Bulgarian postal box.

I thought that I’d do a few reflective posts on the contents of the book because it’s a heavy hitter.  To give you a quick run down, the book recounts the horrors of one Frenchman’s experience of being in the hands of the Nazis during 1944/45. Antelme survived the ordeal and this book is the result.

As the title suggests the book portrays humanity.  This work, however, not only captures the (in)humanity of the Nazis, which one might reasonably expect, but also the humanity that was revealed in himself and his fellow travellers.

The book begins with Antelme in a labour camp at Buchenwald.  He’s been chosen along with his mates to be transported somewhere.

The passage I quote below is from page 17.

The men are about to make the short walk to the train that was waiting nearby, but first they were faced with saying goodbye to the other men in the camp.

It was too late – too late to get acquainted.  We ought to have talked sooner; they were clumsy, these strangers seeking in haste to become acquainted.  Too late.  Yet all this showed that we were capable of feeling; we weren’t dead.  On the contrary, the life in us had just been awakened  from the incipient  sleep of the camps.  We were still capable  of sadness upon leaving comrades, still fresh, human.  And that was reassuring.  We already needed reassurance – which is why some of us may have gone a little overboard.

I’m reminded of the overly sentimental goodbyes that we made to each other at the end of year 12.  Tears.  Talk of staying in touch and remaining friends forever.  Songs were written and sung.  Hugs.  Letters.  Heartfelt words.

In the moment is was so real.  We were serious.  We had a bond.  A year 12 leavers bond.  Nothing can break that!

And what did our parents think as they looked on?  Did they know that within a year or two all those friends bar one or two would not even be a memory?  Did they realise that our passion was momentary and fleeting?  They had been there and done that – they knew.  They knew.

Goodbyes do that.

Goodbyes are like the biblical love that covers over a multitude of sins.  Goodbyes bring out something that can rarely be mustered in the daily grind of life.  On the deathbed.  At the funeral.  We pluck up some courage to scrape together that bit of humanity that lies in the outskirts of our heart.  This is the realm of frankness, honest and grit.  The true story.  Not how it appeared, but how it was.  The brat is the kid that everybody loved.  The drunkard was a real mate.  The adulterer loved life.

Is it true?  Do goodbyes help us to see people for who they really are.  People.

Antelme picks up on the flip-side.  In such moments we come to understand ourselves truly.  We are reminded that we are, ‘still fresh, human’.  With the words that we manage to squeak out our humanity is formed – and so assured.

Hmmm… the pull is great, but a little too generous and a tad disingenuous.

I think Antelme is torn.  I don’t think he knows whether the goodbye brings out the best or the worst of the human.  He betrays himself in the last line, ‘…which is why some of us may have gone a little overboard.’

Yes, we do.

Surely it is one or the other.  Is it true that the brat was loved by everyone?  Was the drunk a real mate?  What was the adulterer a lover of?   Could this fresh humanity be confused with pillow fluffing?  That one’s humanity is non-existent throughout life only to surface at the goodbye smacks of, well, a human facade.

Is one’s real humanity revealed in times like this?

My cynical bent tells me no.

A Christ-Centred Death


I’ve never stared at death in the face.

How would I react if I did?

Would I run?  Would I be afraid?  Would I buy books on healing?  Would I seek out those who claim to be healers and pray that they really are what they claim?  Would I pray for healing?  Would I yell at God?  Would I turn my back on God for his lack of love?  Would I embrace death?  Would I run to it?

Hmmm…

A theology of death – not often talked about, never preached about, but surely discussed and pondered by those facing death itself.  It must be an important doctrine to have worked out in our minds because at some stage it will be the reality that not only consumes our bodies but also out minds and hearts.

As a believer how should I die?

Of course in right relationship with the creator, but I’m alluding to what might be construed as something un-spiritual, although I would argue it is not.  The world of ethics in the final years, months, days, hours of life.  It’s an uneasy location to dwell conceptually, but the value of having such things worked out must surely be worth the uneasiness that it brings.

Our deaths have ethical implications.

In this age I can engage with all manner of technology and medical innovation to prolong life, but at what expense?  There is of course the obvious(?) dollar value that we can place on staying alive.  At what stage do we measure that cost against the cost of prolonging other lives (plural)?  My life for many?  When (if it is right to do so) should one question whether the resources being used to keep one alive is selfish or not?

I can see that I could easily take a stand on the exorbitant use of resources for padding out my life in health, but in the face of death see the need to use exorbitant resources to maintain life.  Should I seek to be consistent in this instance?  This is just the tip of the ethical iceberg.

Hmmm…

Ethics and theology should mix.

I think it is here that one’s questioning has the potential to steer them away from a hitting part of the discussion.  I tend to default to the question, ‘What value do I give to life?,’ but I think this is only part of the questioning process.  The other part to ask is, ‘What value do I give to death?’  As believers how can we divorce the two questions?

Is this divorce shaped more by a love for earthly life and from being captured by an unbiblical concept of death, which the first picture above captures? Death is portrayed as dark, evil and final.  Death is understood in this way as a conqueror of life.  Life is no match for death.

And so we cling to life and resist death at all costs – time, financial, emotional, and relational.

Death will not win!

Snap!  We finally hit the nail on the head.  Death will not win!  Exactly!  This is the location where our ethic and theology collide.

Could it be the case that the time that we spend dwelling on the theological concepts of eternal rest, life in Christ, new creation, etc, prior to death’s calling, are given away at the time of their greatest relevance?  How should eternal rest shape the way that we die?  How should eternal life with the risen Christ impact the way that we spend money in our final days?  How should our expectation to be a part of the new creation shape the way that we live out our relationships in our final days?

I’m not sure how they should, but surely they should.  I’m not sure if I could, but surely I should.  Time will one day tell.

Furthermore, we are not left on our own to sort out this theological and ethical difficulty.  The Apostle Paul stared death in the face numerous times (2 Cor. 11:21-29), but he did not flinch – he stared it down.  For him death had lost its sting.  It was powerless.  It had no command over Paul.  In fact, Paul runs forward to death as though it is a goal.  He would prefer to be at home with the Lord and away from his body (2 Cor. 5:8).  What to do?  Hang around and serve God or depart to be with the Lord?  He’s torn.  What’s better?  To be with Christ is better by far he tells us (Phil. 1:22-23).

For Paul, death is not about darkness, finality and the evil grim-reaper, but something much more positive.  The moment and anticipation of death is for Paul saturated with joy not anguish, hope not sorrow, and life not death.  His life till the end can be uncompromisingly Christ-centered because he knows that death loses in his death because he is alive in Christ.

Our death in the face of life needs to be Christ-centred.

PS.  If you’ve had a close encounter with death I’d really appreciate your thoughts or feedback on this post:)