Do people who take their own lives go to Hell?

Do people who take their own lives go to Hell? September 7, 2014

TOMMY ASKS:

Does someone go to Hell if they take their own life?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question was posted shortly before the shocking suicide of superstar comedian and actor Robin Williams during an apparent bout with depression. Following that tragedy, conservative Christian blogger and Williams fan Austin Thompson posted an item of  questionable taste, declaring “with great sadness” that “maybe Robin Williams is in Hell.”

The Guy usually sidesteps his personal opinions, but here would advise Christians never to speculate publicly about the eternal destiny of individuals by name. It seems improper, offensive, judgmental, and lacking in love. Also it’s a total waste of time since, as even Thompson correctly concluded, “only God knows.”

This sort of clergy malpractice occurred during the worst sermon The Guy has heard during decades as a religion reporter attending worship services. The preacher in question told of a troubled youth who had been disrespectful toward him and died soon afterward in a motorcycle accident. The sermon suggested that this lad’s defiance sent him to Hell for eternity, and seemed as upset about insulting the preacher himself as rejection of Almighty God. Moreover, this was a baptismal service, so think of the negative reaction of non-religious family members who were present!

Tommy should note that Thompson did NOT say Williams might be hellbound because he took his own life. Rather, this blogger’s theme was that Hell is a reality, Williams was a sinner like all the rest of us, and needed to follow Jesus as his savior. Thompson saw no evidence this was the case.

Williams joked around about religion, but he did this with everything. In 2007 he told Hong Kong’s “South China Morning Post” that “I’m Episcopalian, which is Catholic Lite — same religion, half the guilt.” But more seriously, the alcohol and cocaine abuser said “you get a real strong sense of God when you go through rehab” and that “having the idea of a really loving and forgiving God really helps if you’re an alcoholic.” He called his struggle with alcoholism “one of the coming attractions of Hell” and expressed warm appreciation for Christians’ therapy and charity work.

Church thinking about suicide has largely become much more sensitive due to modern psychology’s study of mental illness. The Guy’s colleague Peggy Fletcher Stack at the “Salt Lake Tribune” says the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon”) provides a good example. Its current policy handbook for congregational leaders states, “It is wrong to take a life, including one’s own. However, a person who commits suicide may not be responsible for his or her acts. Only God can judge such a matter.” The handbook allows church funerals and says the victim’s remains may be clad in the special “temple clothing.”

Similarly, the Catholic Church’s catechism teaches that suicide “is gravely contrary to the just love of self” and to the love of God and of neighbor. However, “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility.” Moreover, “we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.” Canon law does not bar church funerals or burials in suicide cases.

“Religion Q and A” for June 21, 2013, answered a previous question about Christian belief on suicide, including these points:

Christian tradition has strongly opposed murder and therefore self-murder, along with mercy killing and assisting others to kill themselves, all seen as violations of the Ten Commandments (“you shall not kill”) and of God’s sovereignty over life and death. Till recently most theologians have instead debated how much depression or pain mitigates guilt, whether to allow church funerals and burials despite abhorrence of the deed, and proper pastoral care for those who attempt suicide and for families facing such devastating losses of loved one.

Though it’s sometimes said St. Augustine originated Christian teaching against suicide in the 5th Century, historian Darrel Amundsen has shown that he merely systematized a belief that existed from early in church history.

Among U.S. Protestants, some recent “mainline” liberals have departed from this heritage. A singular case involved the joint 1975 suicide of Henry Pitney Van Dusen, retired president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary who had suffered a severe stroke, and his wife Elizabeth, who had advanced arthritis. Analyzing this case a decade later, a writer in the “Christian Century” magazine contended that “there may well be situations in which suicide can be a conscientious act resulting from a careful weighing of alternatives.” Since then, western nations and their churches have faced increasing pressure to tolerate or even welcome premeditated killings by suicide and euthanasia.

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