It is often cited that Luther had a liberal, modern attitude toward suicide. Luther’s oft-referenced thought is from the Table Talk, which is not the written words of Luther himself, but purport to be recorded from Luther’s informal conversations (around the table). The much-quoted passage reads:
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.
These words do not approve of suicide at all, nor does Luther make it an acceptable act for a Christian. He does not say all suicides must be treated as Christian and given a Christian burial (the 2003 Luther movie is inaccurate in depicting Luther as a innovator in suicide burial practice). He is really making a theological point that only faith saves, but we do not know the state of a man definitely from a past act. The real problem with suicide is that precious little time is left for repentance and hearing the Word, if successful.
If a suicide is not “certainly to be damned,” he does still allow for the probability that most are damned that commit the sin of self-murder. The only exception Luther gives is for the person who is not thinking clearly and is not in control of his body—instead, Satan is. The underlying principle is that faith and the Holy Spirit living in a believer are not compatible with the complete rule of hopeless, self-harming thoughts in the mind. Luther basically says that only a person out of their mind can do such a thing as take his own life. For the person acting consciously and in clear control of his faculties, Luther does give any hope at all. There is always hope with Christ, but not in the acts of sinners. Murder of the self is to be accepted no less, or treated more gently, than murder of another person.
If social custom and legal justice do not condemn suicide (murder of oneself), then certainly Christian thinking must still be formed by the 5th commandment: “You shall not murder.” It is an evil, hopeless act. It can never be a Christian confession or good in itself. And not being God, who sees the heart and faith, we can only judge another sinner based on one’s public confession.
Luther did not crusade to treat suicides differently in church settings. He upheld the medieval tradition that the body of a suicide should not even pass through the door—it must go through a window or exit the house some other way, as was the custom. This seems harsh and uncomfortable—but choosing death is not pretty or good—it is of Satan. By softening the stance on suicide, the world has only encouraged and glorified it.
But the fact that a person’s body is not honored with a Christian funeral or committal is not a problem for God—who will judge the living and the dead. But pastors can only go by someone’s public confession—they cannot judge one’s faith. To blithely accept every successful suicide and treat them as Christian is to bless and advertise murder as faithful and loving.
Pastors and churches do not judge one’s heart, but if one’s last act is murder, there is not much positive to provide as evidence of faith. Pre-murder actions, even going to church, do not cancel out self-murder. Complete despair, the willingness to no longer live as God calls and wills, and utter hopeless are the opposite of hope and trust in God’s goodness. We have no authority to take our own lives. It is the ultimate rebellion against God. The sin itself must be condemned and warned against most strongly.
Murder, as a conscience decision and act of the will, is incompatible with belief in Christ through the Spirit, as are other public, on-going, active sins: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). But many are deceived, thinking decent, civil outward actions must mean that a person believes and will always have faith. But sadly many do fall away and give up all true hope.
Funerals are for the living, though they do give a loud confession of the dead person’s life. Luther did not intend to boost the reputation of suicide or excuse it in any way as Christian behavior: “However, this [possibility of salvation] 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 …” Luther did not say we should treat suicides different in practice, though he makes allowance that we are not God and can be wrong, because we not see the full picture of man’s heart.
Suicide is always satanic, as an act. Faith is not an act, but our acts can deny the Spirit, given in faith. The church on earth cannot judge faith in the heart. It must stick to acts and words. So judge the deeds and one’s confession and leave the soul to God. Luther’s words are not an excuse to baptize self-murder. To die by choice is not Christian, since the believer has true life in Christ, because He has already died to sin and the devil in baptism. The believer may not let Satan reign in the most despicable act possible: suicide. Amen. —ed.