Does Belief in the Biblical Apocalypse Justify Violence or Suicide?
Several sociologists and historians of religion predicted that with the advent of the year 2000, manifestations of millennialism would increase. In the words of religious historian Catherine Wessinger, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Loyola University, in her paper presented to the October 1996 conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Nashville, “This was not a difficult prediction to make. The approach of the new millennium was bound to excite people’s imaginations and hopes, that the limitations of the human condition would be transcended finally.”
Events involving violence in the past decade of groups with a predisposition for suicide have served to draw the attention of the media, sociologists, and law enforcement officials to minority religions with apocalyptic beliefs. The underlying question has been whether such beliefs necessarily lead to or precipitate suicide or acts of violence by their members.
As a new religious movement with well-defined Biblical beliefs on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, we contend that the Bible does not allow for suicide, nor does belief in the Biblical Apocalypse encourage the followers of Christ to precipitate acts of violence. It is our understanding of the Scriptures that human life is sacred, and therefore we deplore acts of violence, especially those committed in the name of religion.
The Sanctity of Life
As a Bible-based Christian fellowship, the Family International [the Family] does not consider suicide acceptable in the eyes of God. In the words of our founder, David Brandt Berg (1919-1994), “We are in the business of saving lives!–Not destroying or taking them! We believe that suicide is selfish, and that anyone who commits suicide is robbing God of the life that He has given them to serve others! … God knows when and how you’re supposed to die, and you’d better wait for God to make the decision and have His way, whatever it is, and not die at your own hand” (“Victorious,” par. 12).
To consider that God would order His children to kill themselves would contradict all that He has said throughout the Bible. Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).1 It is our understanding and belief that suicide is unscriptural and cannot be an option for those who believe in God and His infinite love.
We are deeply saddened by the loss of life of the many people from different walks of life and religious or non-religious affiliations who in desperation and inability to cope with the difficulties of life have resorted to suicide. As Christians, we are very concerned by the fact that incidents of suicide are increasing in modern society. We believe the decline in faith in God is directly responsible for this trend, as well as for the hopelessness and despair that motivates such acts.
In former times, greater trust and faith in God were prevalent. Most people understood their lives were in God’s hands, and likewise, their deaths. This understanding and faith engendered peace of mind and heart. But in this day and age, because many people do not know or trust in God, they have lost their point of reference. Many have lost the security of absolutes in their lives and therefore have no peace. It is often this disheartening lack of peace and faith in God that saps people’s strength and causes them to take matters into their own hands, prematurely ending their lives.
“Assisted suicide” or “active euthanasia” has been the subject of heated discussion. This dispute has served to bring suicide and euthanasia into the forefront of moral debate, and thus has the potential of rendering it a more accepted concept. Our heartfelt sympathies are with those who are suffering and feel they cannot cope, such as some who are terminally ill. Notwithstanding, it is our belief that, as the psalmist David in the Old Testament exclaimed, “My times are in Thy hand” (Psalm 31:15), and therefore self-destruction is not God’s plan for humanity, regardless of one’s age or state of health.
The Broad Brush of the Opponents of Religious Freedom
In the aftermath of isolated tragic events of violence involving religious groups, anti-religious individuals and organizations have attempted to link incidents of violence and mass suicide to apocalyptic beliefs. Anti-religious organizations such as the AFF (American Family Foundation) in the U.S., ADFI (Association for the Defense of the Family and the Individual) and CIC (Cult Information Center) in Europe, and others have attempted to label and stigmatize many new religions as “destructive cults” capable of violent and antisocial acts. We believe such broad generalizations only serve to foster intolerance, bigotry, and hatred.
Organizations and individuals who oppose small minority religions make the most of these incidents in their attempts to substantiate their claims that nontraditional religion can be harmful. Such claims are based on the assertion that non-conventional religious groups indoctrinate their followers through “mind control” or “brainwashing” techniques (also known as psychological manipulation or coercive persuasion), thus rendering their converts incapable of making their own decisions or manifesting other forms of individuality. The argument follows that the hapless follower will then mindlessly obey commands to commit suicide or other horrendous acts.
However, most of the scientific community, including the American Psychological Association, has rejected such fanciful and mythical “robot” brainwashing theories.2 Sociologists David Bromley and Anson Shupe succinctly state:
The entire concept of brainwashing, as we have seen it, is a misnomer. It is repudiated by many sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists as a crude euphemism. Worse, it is a distortion of a real, understandable process of attitude change [religious conversion] that is neither mysterious nor unusual in American society (124).
Professor Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics also stated in a speech to the Russian Duma in February 1995:
One of the arguments that one sometimes hears is that new religions take away from others their right to think, their free choice. That they have been “brainwashed” is an argument. It’s said they have been subjected to the irresistible and irreversible process of mind control. There is absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever that this is the case. Scholars have found no techniques or processes that are not found in ordinary society.
We consider it to be of utmost importance that representatives of the media and law enforcement agencies consult accredited and unbiased academics who have extensively studied the wide spectrum of religious groups for many years, rather than rely on anti-religious interest groups or accounts by disgruntled ex-members. Unbiased professional research is documented in numerous books and papers published by reputable scientific journals and publishing houses. Their expertise places them in a much better position to inform the media, law enforcement, and the general public on these issues.
Does Belief in the Biblical Apocalypse Condone Suicide?
Hundreds of millions of Christians the world over have awaited the promised return of Christ since He first came to earth 2,000 years ago. This trend continues today. A recent Associated Press poll showed that 25% of all Christians in the United States–an estimated 26.5 million people–expect Jesus to return in their lifetimes. The mysterious prophecies recounted by the apostle John in the book of Revelation have intrigued many and been the subject of countless theories and doctrinal dissertations as well as the increasingly popular genre of Christian fiction. It would therefore seem that comparatively speaking, the small number of adherents who erroneously misinterpreted the book of Revelation to justify acts of violence or suicide is infinitesimal when compared to the many millions who believe in Jesus returning and therefore expect some form of the Apocalypse, yet would not be considered abnormal or suicidal. As sociologists Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony conclude in their book on Waco, in a chapter entitled “Sects and Violence”:
Consideration must also be given to the fact that apocalyptic beliefs are increasingly common, and only a tiny minority of groups and movements expressing such ideologies appear to have violent proclivities or to pose a threat to civil peace (242).
Nowhere in the book of Revelation is there to be found any indication of the Lord urging His followers to escape the great tribulations of the End Time by taking their own lives. To the contrary, multitudes of promises are made to the faithful of God’s protection through the time of tribulation, leading up to Jesus’ Second Coming (Revelation 9:4;11:1-6;12:6,14). Those who will die will do so largely as martyrs at the hands of the ungodly wicked forces that will be at work in the latter days: “And it was given unto him [the Antichrist] to make war with the saints and to overcome them … and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the Beast [Antichrist] should be killed” (Revelation 13:7,15).
As Maria David, David Berg’s wife and successor, explained:
Just because you believe firmly that something very bad is about to happen does not mean you are going to commit suicide! Most people bravely face [impending End Time hardship], including us. Even though we believe something bad is coming, we believe that something much better is soon to follow, praise the Lord! So we have even greater strength than most to courageously face future troubles. We have the power of the Lord and a conviction that we need to stay here on this earth to help others through the difficult times until the glorious appearing of Jesus, Who will make everything right, and wipe away all tears. (“Swiss,” par.14)
It is our prayer that God will restore the faith of those who have lost it, as without faith in God and His love, one can easily lack the strength and courage to face life’s challenges and difficulties. We believe that through accepting God’s love in Jesus and having faith in His timeless Word, the Bible, people will find solutions to all of the complex problems humankind faces today.
1 All Scripture quoted is from the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise specified.
2 A unanimously approved resolution passed by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in the U.S.A. at its council meeting on November 7, 1990, reaffirmed the lack of scientific foundation for mind-control theories, in the following official resolution: “This association considers that there is insufficient research to permit informed, responsible scholars to reach a consensus on the nature and effects of nonphysical coercion and control. It further asserts that one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control. In addition to critical review of existing knowledge, further appropriately designed research is necessary to enable scholarly consensus about this issue.”
Barker, Eileen. “Address to the Russian Duma.” Duma, Moscow. Feb. 14, 1995.
Berg, David. “Victorious Graduation!” Good News Dec. 1982.
Bromley, David, and Anson Shupe. Strange Gods, The Great American Cult Scare. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.
David, Maria. “The Swiss Sect Deaths!” Good News Oct. 1994.
Robbins, Thomas, and Dick Anthony. Armageddon in Waco. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. “Resolution, November 7, 1990.” SSSR Newsletter Dec. 1990.