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Suicide is Not the Unforgivable Sin

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.

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{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Barb Riley April 15, 2013, 8:28 AM

    Yes, this:

    “In the simplest sense, salvation is not based upon what you do, but on what Christ has done.”

    I also love the verse you’ve quoted from Paul, because I agree that even death will not separate us.

    Sorry for the loss of your friend, Mike.

  • Jill April 15, 2013, 8:31 AM

    As a child, I was taught at church that suicide was an unpardonable sin because there was no chance to repent after a person had committed suicide. But I was also taught that if I sinned and then walked out outside and got hit by a bus, I would also die unpardoned. As an adult I realized the utter wrongness of this doctrine, of the belief that we save ourselves by our own acts of repentance. If we are covered by Jesus’ blood, we are covered by it. Period. Good post.

  • Morgan L. Busse April 15, 2013, 8:34 AM

    I wrote about my own personal experience with suicide. I agree: nothing, NOTHING can separate us from God. We cannot lose our salvation, even if we choose to commit suicide. However, there is a huge loss of opportunity.

    I came to the place where I knew my life was not my own. It was God’s to with as He pleased, and to take me home when He chose. I did not want to meet God and have Him show me everything He could have done with my life if I had lived as long as He had planned.

    But I also pointed out in my post that many of us are living our lives the way we want right now, and are missing out on everything God could be doing through us if we just gave Him free rein in our lives. It doesn’t take death to stop God’s work in our lives, just the pursuit of our own agendas, goals, and ambitions.

    • Dale July 17, 2014, 3:32 PM

      I am in constant pain that doctors are unable/unwilling to treat. I am 49 yrs old. Must I live another 30 to 40 years in pain?

  • Jessica Thomas April 15, 2013, 9:06 AM

    Depression is common in my extended family, but so is the fear of God. That is no doubt contributes to the fact that I have no family or friends who have committed suicide. Ironically, a fear of God that isn’t balanced by an understanding of God’s love and grace fuels the depression, I’ve found. I can see how that imbalance has played into my family’s struggles as I come from stubborn, stoic, and self-sufficient stock.

    I appreciate your analysis, especially the emphasis on grace, and I’m glad more Christians are speaking up about mental illness within the church.

    (btw: I absolutely cannot imagine not attending a child’s funeral, but perhaps it was just her way of coping at the time. What good does it do to “shun” someone at their own funeral though? Makes no sense.)

  • Katherine Coble April 15, 2013, 11:00 AM

    My brother in law committed suicide a year ago this month. He was a pastor suffering from medication-induced psychosis.

    I have always maintained, even before that horrible event, that suicide is a fatal outcome of an illness–psychosis, neurosis, depression–and dying from suicide is not unlike dying from another illness. People who die from cancer, for instance, die literally because the body is killing itself.

    We are redeemed outside of time. God knew back when my brother In law prayed the prayer for redemption as a child that his own hand then clasped in prayer would 45 years later pull the trigger on the shotgun. That sin and all his others were paid for 2000 years ago at Calvary.

    • Iola April 15, 2013, 2:49 PM

      The people I have known who committed suicide were were suffering from depression or other mental illness; one was a drug user. They were not in their right minds, and I don’t believe God will judge a Christian for what they do when they are not of sound mind. It’s sad, it’s wrong, but it’s not unforgivable, because Jesus paid the price.

  • D.M. Dutcher April 16, 2013, 3:55 AM

    I was going to link to the old “Fire by Nite” video of Rick Cua’s “Don’t say Suicide” for a bit of levity for us ex-fundamentalists, but as I watched it again I found it was a lot more serious a video than I remembered.

    I think a lot of evangelical attitudes about suicide were a reaction to a massive spike in it during and before the eighties. I don’t know if it was just perception or an actual rise in it, but I know many evangelical and fundamentalist churches dealt with what they saw as an epidemic of teen suicides, and I think a lot of theology grew up out of this, in the same way a lot of cultural resistance to the world and other concepts did. For suicide, they taught it was a sin out of fear and a desire to prevent it.

    I also have lost people to it. My maternal grandfather killed himself. I barely knew him, but he seemed to succumb to mental illness, and by all accounts even before it he was a piece of work. I was taught that you couldn’t presume an individual’s salvation status beyond the grave, as you didn’t know a person’s mindset or if they were able to repent in one way or the other.

  • Kat Heckenbach April 16, 2013, 5:49 AM

    I wanted to comment on this yesterday, but to be honest I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I realized that despite my views on suicide–that I agree wholeheartedly it’s not unforgivable–I wasn’t sure I was ready to admit that my grandfather, someone I know to be a strong Christian, committed suicide a few years ago.

    He and my grandmother had been together for over 60 years. They spent every moment together, and were like newlyweds after all those years! My grandmother became very ill–diabetes, dementia, fragile bones–and my grandfather spent four solid years as her primary caretaker. We thought that when she died he would feel the lifting of a burden–but what he felt was the loss of his bride. He made it six months and then shot himself.

    The autopsy showed something neither he nor his doctors knew–he had stage four pancreatic cancer. Had he not done what he did, he would likely have died a very painful, miserable death. Instead, I *know* he’s in heaven now, with his bride again.

    I also don’t see suicide as killing in the ten commandments kind of way. It can’t be a generalized statement about taking life. If soldiers kill in wartime is it breaking the ten commandments? I mean, think of all the wars God personally endorsed in the old testament. And obviously we’re not held accountable for accidentally killing someone. Murder comes from selfish, heartless reasons. Suicide is neither–it is a last resort.

    Suicide is, as Katherine said, most often a symptom of mental illness or being in a situation, like the one my grandfather was in, where you feel empty. I don’t think he was being selfish–his kids were all grown with lives/kids/grandkids of their own. He was missing his soul mate, and he knew the two things that meant more to him than anything else were in heaven–his wife and his Lord–and that’s where he wanted to be. I understand that, and I forgive him wholeheartedly even though I miss him. I can’t imagine that God wouldn’t forgive him.

  • Jon Mast April 16, 2013, 6:35 AM

    Thank you, Mike — it’s good to hear this from someone outside my own theological circles. Today, as I teach confirmation to three eighth graders, we’ll actually be discussing this, and I’ll ask them, “Agree or disagree: Someone who commits suicide goes to hell.”

    Every year, the initial answer from the class is always “yes.”

    I ask them, “Why?”

    “Because the person didn’t get the chance to repent!”

    “Oh?” I respond. “So we have to repent of every sin before we die? What if I’m driving down the street, see a sign with a scantily-clad woman on it, and think about her naked? I’m sinning! And what if I get into a car accident at that moment and die. Am I going to hell because I didn’t repent?”

    The class is clearly uncomfortable at this moment. “Well… no…”

    And I make the same point you just did: Jesus died for every sin. If someone goes to hell, it’s for the sin of unbelief, of rejecting what Jesus has done, not because they didn’t repent of one sin. Yes, suicide is a sin and we need to take it seriously, but it is not the unforgivable sin.

    I tell them about my bride’s friend. He was the son of a pastor and living at home at the age of twenty. One night, he slashed his wrists.

    As soon as he’d done that, he stumbled downstairs to his parents’ shock. They saw the blood. They called 911. And as they waited for the ambulance, that young man confessed what he had done was wrong. As his father cradled him in his arms, he assured his son of Jesus’s forgiveness.

    His son was dead by the time the ambulance arrived.

    That young man died from suicide, but is most definitely in heaven.

    When I finish telling the class that story, it’s usually very quiet. I hope they understand what you’ve said here, Mike: Suicide is serious. Yes. It is not unforgivable, though. Jesus died for every sin — for that sin, too.

  • Brandon April 16, 2013, 7:58 AM

    Mike, this was an excellent treatment of a sensitive subject. Thank you for this.

    I’m a family minister at a fairly large church, and we have had our share of suicides in our church. The question always asked after it happens – “Where is he now?”

    A verse I have often clung to in answering that question is Romans 5:1-2 – “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” We stand in grace, and as such, though we may sin, we stand in grace. A person who dies standing in grace – even if his death is brought on by his own sin – nevertheless reaps the benefits of God’s grace.

  • Linda Clare (@Lindasclare) April 16, 2013, 9:22 AM

    Best I’ve read from you, Mike. Shalom, Linda Clare

  • Wilson April 16, 2013, 10:02 AM

    Mike,
    One of your best posts yet!

    Thanks,

  • Lyn Perry April 16, 2013, 4:30 PM

    Please don’t refer to someone “committing suicide” – this implies that it is a crime (and, although some states outlaw it, this seems nonsensical to me). It’s preferable in support groups to refer to someone dying by suicide.

  • Matthew Sample II April 20, 2013, 7:12 AM

    A friend and a dear cousin both attempted suicide. Only one attempt worked. It’s very troubling when it happens. I miss my cousin.

    Due to witnessing the pain from those who witnessed both attempts, I made a conscious decision that no matter what happened in my own life, that suicide would never be an option.

    Been through a rough time in my masters degree since then, and I’m glad I made that decision. We are never better than any other man, and the time of our testing may come yet. May God grant us wisdom, care, and a concern for those closest to us, an overwhelming concern to love them and not pain them with some of the deepest pains that they will ever face.

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