Suicide and Atonement

The tragic death of Robin Williams in August briefly caught the public imagination in our country. A uniquely gifted man died before his time because he was unable to cope with the depression that haunted him. Well-meaning supporters opined that Mr. Williams was now free at last. Others speculated about what must be wrong with our society that would drive someone like Mr. Williams to despair. While Robin Williams’ suicide dominated the news, there was another high-profile suicide that went virtually unnoticed in our country. Just six days before Williams’ death, Dr. Yoshiki Sasai, a world famous stem cell researcher from Japan, was found hanging in a stair well in the building in which he worked.

Earlier this year one of Dr. Sasai’s research associates made a revolutionary discovery regarding the reprogramming of common cells into cells with the properties of embryonic stem cells. The process of transforming cells is ordinarily done by genetic manipulation of the cells. The new discovery purported to show that the cells could be reprogrammed by simply manipulating the environment in which they grew, thus eliminating the need for altering the genetic composition of the cells. This advance would have moved the use of reprogrammed cells for clinical applications dramatically forward. Unfortunately, the results could not be replicated by other labs and were eventually shown to be fraudulent. Two high-profile research papers on which Dr. Sasai was a coauthor had to be retracted.

Dr. Sasai was cleared of any direct involvement in the deception – he did not knowingly submit fraudulent papers. But since the researcher, who was guilty of committing the fraud, was under his supervision, Dr. Sasai was publicly criticized for failing to properly oversee the work being done in his lab. It seems that this is why Dr. Sasai took his own life. The Wall Street Journal published an article about Dr. Sasai’s suicide called, “Suicide Is Sometimes Means of Atonement in Japan” (8/5/2014). The article highlights a fascinating social dynamic in Japan. The way the leader of an organization shows that he takes responsibility for some failure in his organization is to commit suicide. Japan has a long history of “honor suicides” among its military, government, and business leaders.

One could almost wish that the leaders of organizations in our own country would take their responsibilities with that kind of seriousness. Scandals that rock government, business, and even church leaders may lead to a tearful apology, but, more often than not, every possible effort is made NOT to accept responsibility.

It is fascinating that in a culture that highly values honor, the Japanese understand the need to atone for mistakes. They seem to realize that atonement is not made by crying in public coupled with sensitivity training or promises to get it right next time. Rather, atonement requires something truly precious and only the life of the guilty will do. Suicide in these cases is not a way of escape as it was for Robin Williams but a way of paying a debt.

The irony and tragedy of this way of thinking is that, while it does take the matter of honor seriously, it does not take it seriously enough. Sin and dishonor do require a high price. They can only be properly atoned for by the sacrifice of life. But the life of the guilty is not sufficient. What is needed is the life of the truly innocent. This is true for all sinners – not just those whose sins make it into the news. The good news is that Jesus Christ offers his perfect life for all who would put their faith in him. Dr. Yoshiki Sasai and Robin Williams both could have found forgiveness and true peace in the atoning work of the only innocent man who ever lived. He is the man who took responsibility for the sins of all of his people and made atonement for them by enduring the punishment and dishonor those sins deserved and by giving his perfect life in our place.

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2, NIV)

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