The question this article will explore may appear disturbing at first sight, and for good reason. Since Augustine’s time, the church has condemned suicide as a sin—a sin beyond redemption, just like apostasy and adultery. How then could Paul, the premier apostle of early Christianity, even have contemplated suicide, much less gone through with it?
Three bits of evidence suggest this possibility.
The first is contextual; it concerns how suicide was viewed in Paul’s time.
I said that suicide has been condemned as a sin since Augustine’s time. He lived in the second half of the fourth century and the first third of the fifth century. In his confrontation with the Donatists, a powerful Christian sect in North Africa, Augustine sought to redefine the terms “martyrdom” and “suicide.” He argued that the Donatist “martyrs” were in fact merely “suicides”—that is to say, self-murderers.1 As is well known, Augustine’s case against suicide was based on Plato, not the Bible. Aside from his appeal to the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” Augustine took over the Pythagorean argument against suicide in Plato’s Phaedo: that to sever the bonds of body and soul prematurely was to usurp a privilege that belonged only to God.2