I’ve had two very close friends commit suicide.
The psychological effects to those left in the wake of suicide can be overwhelming. We ask, Could this have been prevented? Were there signs I missed? How could the victim have been so selfish? The questions are never-ending and can leave survivors emotionally weary, if not beaten and bleak.
One effect of suicide is the potential theological implications created by the act, namely, Where does the victim of suicide go when they die?
This was not a question I was prepared for.
Gary shot himself New Years Day 1991. He’d been a beloved member of our church. A humble, fragile guy with a history of depression and chronic low self-esteem. He was on medication and, when the church discovered he was expressing suicidal thoughts, took all the appropriate steps to help him. However, he outfoxed us all.
I officiated Gary’s funeral. One of the questions I was forced to publicly address was whether or not suicide was an unforgivable sin. This wasn’t a question I had anticipated, but arose from some well-meaning family members. They were Catholic and somewhere along the way had been taught, or came to believe, that the suicide victim’s soul was not salvageable. Gary’s own mother believed this and was so shamed by the act that she refused to attend his funeral. Forget about God — she could not forgive him. Anyway, it was rather awkward publicly speaking to the subject at the funeral, but it seemed necessary.
After learning about the tragic suicide of Rick Warren’s son last week, it forced me to reflect again on that painful season. Suicides are like that. Once you’re immediately affected by one, it leaves a wound that never goes away. Which is why reminding myself of what Scripture really says — or doesn’t say — about suicide is important.
Augustine was one of the first theologians to declare a distinction between martyrdom and suicide. The act of murdering oneself, he said, was a decision in direct opposition to God’s will. Along with adultery and apostasy, suicide came to be seen as unredeemable. Later, Thomas Aquinas classified suicide as a mortal sin that could not be forgiven. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church refused to conduct funerals for people who killed themselves, even burying those bodies outside the graveyard. The Catholic Church has since modified its view, permitting suicide victims to have a Catholic funeral. Nevertheless, the stigma and the condemnation of these views still echo through history.
As a result of Gary’s suicide, I searched the Scriptures for some answers. Interestingly enough, I learned the Bible nowhere directly condemns suicide. People are often surprised by this. There’s six or seven accounts of suicide in Scripture, the most notorious being those of King Saul (1 Samuel 31:2-5) and Judas (Matthew 27:3-5). Neither are explicitly condemned for taking his life. Of course, the opposite is true as well: the Bible nowhere condones suicide.
Yes, Jesus spoke of the “unforgivable sin” in Matt. 12:22-32. However, the context is one in which the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the devil. There’s varying opinions about what the unforgivable sin or “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” might be. However, Scripture does not describe suicide as the unforgivable sin.
So because there’s no explicit teaching on suicide, we must form an opinion based on inference and more clearly articulated theology.
In the simplest sense, suicide comes under the prohibition against murder.
“Thou shalt not kill” must also mean “Thou shalt not kill… THYSELF!”
The person who commits suicide is guilty of murder. Then ask, is murder an unpardonable sin? The answer, from Scripture, is an emphatic “no!” Some of the greatest figures in biblical history were murderers — Moses, King David, Saul (who later became the Apostle Paul). However, the problem suicide renders is its finality. In other words, murderers who have a chance to repent can be forgiven. But suicide prevents an individual from repenting. So does this mean, as some have taught, that suicide causes one to be permanently frozen in an unrepentant state?
This leads to the bigger, and perhaps most important, part of the discussion on suicide. What does it mean to be saved? In the simplest sense, salvation is not based upon what you do, but on what Christ has done. Trusting in Christ’s atonement changes your essential nature and eternal state. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a Christian will never sin, which includes having suicidal thoughts. It means that even though they sin, their destiny has been forever altered. A child of God does not stop being a child of God because they sin. This would include the sin of suicide.
So if I’m a Christian and suddenly die before I have a chance to repent of ANY sin — adultery, pride, greed, lust, selfishness, whatever — do you still go to heaven? How could you not? If unrepentant sin keeps us from going to heaven, then none of us would ever get there! Furthermore, it would make salvation contingent upon what we do, not on what Christ has done.
As the Apostle Paul proclaimed:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 8:38-39 NIV
It is not a stretch to assume that “anything else in all creation” includes the act of suicide. God’s love and power are so great that not even the terrible, violent, thoughtless act of suicide can keep someone from Him. Thus, the most important issue facing the soul contemplating suicide — as it is with all of us — is their relationship with God.
I miss Gary and think about him often. I baptized him in a swimming pool. I played basketball with him. I shared many meals with him. He publicly professed faith in Christ and strove to follow Him. Of course, Gary never thought he was a good Christian. But I have little doubt that he was one. Nothing could change that, not even his selfish, sinful act of suicide.