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Christians sometimes live in a cloud of denial. This can be especially true if we are a member of a smaller church, where demographics may protect us from some of the worst pain the world experiences on a daily basis. Surely a real Christian wouldn’t commit suicide would they? Surely a real Christian can’t get depressed? Christians can get depressed, and they do sometimes commit suicide as well. Every pastor, and every concerned Christian should be ready to act in ways that can reduce the risk of suicide in members of our churches. But this post addresses the theological concern felt by many: what happens to those Christians who take their own lives? This post is part of an ongoing conversation about mental health here on Patheos. I will also be collating posts that interact with this article, or the question about suicide and religious faith that prompted it. Please link to your own posts in the comment section below and/or by linking back to this article.
For centuries the Christian faith, like most other world religions has discouraged suicide. There are only a few cultures in the world that celebrate suicide as an honorable act. In contrast, the Abrahamic religions all value life as inherently precious and given to us by God, and so see suicide as simply than self-murder. The commandment says “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13).
In times gone past this view of suicide as murder, led to such actions as declining Christian burial to those who had committed suicide. People would have been told that suicide was the quick exit straight to hell. It is easy to see why this fear of retribution would lead to a reduced incidence of suicide. But surely there is a better way?
Religious ethics are often fear based. But, the whole point of Christianity is not legalistic obedience. If we are relying only on the fear of hell to prevent suicide God help us! To the Christian, the lure of sin, any sin, is less when we realize God loves us! It is the love of God and the fellowship of fellow believers that should provide an environment that discourages suicide. People kill themselves because they have lost hope. Our churches should be grace-filled, hope-imparting communities of acceptance. Can our love reach out to the suicidal and those left behind in a more helpful way?
When it comes to other sins Churches have learnt to be gracious. Sexual sin when repented of will not usually lead these days to excommunication. Even abortion, which Christians also believe is murder does not prevent a penitent believer from being assured of the grace of forgiveness and the loving acceptance of the community of the Church.
The Bible is no stranger to the idea that the people of God can commit significant sins. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of this is one of the main heroes of the Bible, King David. He is held up as the King after God’s own heart. There are many chapters detailing his life as the leader of God’s people. And yet, a dirty sordid account is also reported. Oogling a woman bathing naked on the roof, led to an illicit sexual encounter for which Bathsheba’s ability to say “no” is at best questionable, a pregnancy out of wedlock, and then murder to attempt to cover it up. Surely if anyone deserved to be publicly shamed and consigned to a godless eternity it was King David. And yet, the prophet extends God’s grace to David. And David is able to accept God’s forgiveness. When the baby conceived as a result of this sin dies, David takes comfort from his faith that he will one day meet the boy again (see 2 Samuel 12).
Christian’s should never encourage others to commit sin. A true Christian will not find it easy to plan a sin, feeling secure in the advance knowledge that he will be forgiven. Jesus warns us that “by their fruit you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16). In other words, in general terms a Christian should not be comfortable in sinning. We all do sin. We all need God’s grace. But we do not presume upon that grace. Thus, it is quite appropriate for Christian pastor to discourage suicidal acts by explaining they are a sin, one that is of course terribly wasteful. Suicide destroys not just one life, but potentially those left behind who may be consumed by grief that has a particular edge to it when the person took their own life.
But, we can at the same time believe that God is gracious. None of us is saved by our own effort. We are all saved by the grace of God that cleanses us from all unrighteousness. It is a fundamental truth that at the moment of our salvation God forgives every sin we have ever or will ever commit. Such amazing grace should motivate us to want to live a godly life for him, not to recklessly commit sin.
Some will argue, but how can you repent of suicide? It is too late after you died. But this betrays an idea that each time you sin you temporarily lose your salvation before you go back to God and ask for his forgiveness. What if you sin and don’t realize it? What if you sin, and then have a sudden heart attack before you have a chance to say sorry? As important as ongoing repentance is to the Christian, we cannot make salvation dependent on it.
When we are thinking about the loss of a loved one to suicide, the act itself is not what determines whether the person is in heaven. The question is simply this: Did the person truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and had they made him their Lord to worship and follow? It is in the fruit of the whole life, not a single act that we can take comfort. (See What is a Christian?) Of course, we do not know the fate of anyone who has died for sure. God is the only just judge. But, it is not possible to lose your salvation.
Anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide and worries about their eternal state should take comfort in Romans 8, possibly the most robust place for us to go to rest when we are faced with the worst storms this world can throw at us. It begins “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Our confidence comes then not from our sinlessness, but from being IN CHRIST. What a security this gives us! What surety of our salvation, for if we are hidden “in Christ” nothing can snatch us away from him!
As Paul concludes,
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
. . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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.”
This passage is very clear, if we are truly in Christ, nothing, not even death itself can separate us from him. It doesn’t say, nothing, except suicide.
Of course, for a Christian to commit suicide is a sin. Nobody should feel they can plan such an act in the cold light of day and presume upon God’s grace. But most suicides don’t happen that way, in any case. As mental illness gets worse, and the torment increases, suicidal impulses are part of the illness itself. A Christian will resist such impulses more strongly than someone who believes death at your own hand is sometimes an honorable thing. But, the impulses to kill yourself can get so strong it is simply impossible to fight them.
Suicide should be understood as part of an illness that afflicts. There comes a point where the patient has diminished responsibility for their actions. Surely God understands that. We as the friends and family of such an afflicted individual must show them compassion, understanding, a safe place to speak about the battle they face. And, yes, we must at times be ready to act decisively to ensure that the person has the opportunity to recover from the illness that is seeking to destroy them. Suicide prevention necessitates treatment against people’s will when that will is compromised by sickness.
One of the tragedies for those left behind by suicide is that they will run through in their minds what could have been done differently that might have saved their loved one. The truth is, not every suicide can be prevented. But we do all share a responsibility to create a caring, accepting, environment in which suicidal thoughts are not the ultimate taboo, and suicide itself is not viewed as the unforgivable sin, and yet we must fight against suicide with all our might as the terrible waste of potential that it is.