The Suicide Question
A few months ago our church went through a ‘Family Matters’ series and the last Sunday of that series was dedicated to simply doing our best to answer questions related to family. It pained me to see a question about suicide in the box. The question was phrased this way, “Is a person who commits suicide ever able to enter into heaven?” The anonymous question probably came from someone who had lost a family member to suicide. This person was either taught or picked up along the way a theology that paints with a broad brush those who commit suicide.
As a youth group we are in a series that covers the main characters of the New Testament. A few weeks ago we covered the story of Judas. It surprises me that nearly every time the story of Judas comes up it stands side by side with the question of suicide. Students are struggling even more with this question of suicide. It is alarming to see research that concludes one in every six high school students have seriously considered suicide and one in every twelve have attempted suicide (CDC, June 2012). Students know students who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, who have attempted suicide, and it is no longer extreme to find teenagers who were friends with a student that committed suicide. The question isn’t going anywhere. The other night during our study of Judas, multiple small group leaders came back to me and reported that students had asked, “Do people who commit suicide go to hell?”
History of Sin
Looking back at the history of the church we see early on that sin was divided into two categories; venial sin and mortal sin. Mortal sin represents the type of sin that places a serious divide between someone and God. Best defined as a sin that deprives the soul of divine grace. It would seem that without repentance and confession mortal sins are not forgiven, and therefore if someone were to die, during that mortal sin state, they would be sent to hell. One of the sins that has historically made the list of mortal sins is suicide.
To fully answer the question of suicide we must start with the reality that sins are not split in the eyes of God as mortal and venial. I would argue that all sins are venial, venial meaning forgivable or pardonable. Jesus clearly said that looking at a woman lustfully was the same as committing adultery with her (Matthew 5:27-28). Yet, if I tell my wife that I had a lustful thought, the conversation would be very different than telling my wife that I acted on a lustful thought and committed adultery. The consequences of a lustful thought and adultery are clearly different on this side of eternity. But in the eyes of God, one who is far more interested in the state of our heart, lust is equal to adultery. James continues this logic when he says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). With the words of Jesus and James we could conclude that a suicidal thought is equal to suicide in Gods eyes, yet in our understanding the two carry very differing consequences and therefore we try to separate their severity. God can forgive all sins, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1).
So the conversation naturally gravitates to the question, “Was the person in Christ?” Were they a follower of Christ? If they were a follower of Christ, I think we stand on solid Biblical ground when saying we hope for their salvation. Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Suicide doesn’t separate a follower of Christ from the love of Christ. They are a new creation, that newness surely doesn’t end because of one choice (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Now, sin still existed. There choice to commit suicide was sin. Sin always leads to pain, sorrow, and sadness. But does the sin of suicide carry immediate consequence with our salvation? And if we answer yes, then does an unrepentant lie, done just before death, have the same consequence? The ultimate question is, “Are we judged in the eyes of God by our very last decisions in this life?”
The First Murderer
We also must remember the response of God to Cain. Cain murders Abel and this is how the story goes. God cursed Cain for his sin. God actually said that Abel’s blood was crying out from the ground. There is a profound heaviness to killing someone. There were clear and serious consequences for Cain. After being burdened with the reality that he was cursed, Cain said, “I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Cain was deeply concerned that someone was going to kill him. “Then the Lord responded, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him” (Genesis 4:13-15).
God didn’t have to put this mark on Cain. It is important that we see God shows grace to Cain, the one who just sinned, the one who is suffering from the curse of sin.
Nowhere does the Bible explicitly conclude that suicide is an unforgivable sin.
In the Bible there are six characters that commit suicide: Abimelech (Judges 9:54), Saul (1 Samuel 31:4), Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18), and Judas (Matthew 27:5) all commit suicide. While Scripture and tradition consider those above to be wicked in the eyes of God, we can surely conclude that none of these characters offer a clear platform to Gods view of suicide in conjunction with eternity.
The complicated story of Samson could be considered a suicide. He prays for God to give him strength to kill the Philistines (and God eventually does grant him the strength). During that process Samson says, seemingly to God, “Let me die with the Philistines!” There is suicide in the story, but the goal for Samson is to kill as many Philistines as possible, even if he has to sacrifice his life. This is a complex situation that could easily be described as a war time sacrifice, therefore we are given little clarity to Gods view of suicide through Samson’s story.
With the lack of explicit Biblical direction on the topic of suicide, I am inclined toward grace. The graciousness of God throughout the Scriptures is not consistent with the idea of sending people to hell, who are followers of Christ, only because of the decision of suicide.
We have to be careful to see God as a one size fits all type of solution maker. It is unhealthy to make or believe statements of assumption like, “God sends ALL people who commit suicide to hell.” In our modern day we see people who are not treated properly for depression, people who are suffering from the effects of concussions, and other people with unknowns that lead to suicide. It is destructive to paint with a broad brush when talking about the tragedy of suicide.
As we struggle to lead students and adults through the pain of suicide and the many questions that follow, we must remember that the grace of God is amazing. Also, we should be reminded that it is not our place to determine the eternal fate of anyone. That decision is for God only, so lets leave it to Him, and begin to focus on comforting and caring for those processing this pain.
I have decided the best thing I can do as a Pastor is to always error on the side of Gods amazing grace. I don’t think we can go wrong when we do that.