This is the fifth in a series addressing some of the questions people have that center around the topic of death, based on what I hear as a pastor. This week’s question has to do with suicide, and what to believe about someone who takes their own life.
I am often asked whether someone who commits suicide can still go to heaven, since it has been a traditional Christian teaching that one does not. However, the catechism of the Roman Catholic church says of suicide,
“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. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, l. 2283
However… it is far more complicated than to just answer, “yes.” The Roman Catechism also says this, before the last:
“Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, ll. 2280-2282
And Martin Luther said this of suicide:
I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber. However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc. Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned. However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.Table Talk, Martin Luther
So, there are a two truths at work here, and context matters a lot:
- Your life is not entirely your own. You were created by God, and you belong to Him. Your life is a gift, given to you by Him, and you are a steward (caretaker), not an owner of what you have been given – including your body, mind and abilities. Thus, you do not have the right or authority to decide when your own life ends*, the same as you have no right to decide when anyone else’s ends – which is why suicide falls under the fifth commandment, “You shall not commit murder.” In point of fact, since your life is not your own, one who takes his own life does, in fact, commit murder. Therefore, suicide is a sin. Although we may look forward to life with God after death, we do not have the right to jump there before our time here is finished.
- All sin (with one specific exception), is forgivable, and Jesus died for even those who take their own lives. Thus, we do not believe that suicide alone is enough to bar one from heaven. However! It is absolutely critical that we circle back to point number one, because suicide should never be viewed as a desirable option, nor should it be taught that suicide is without consequence. Because our lives are not our own, suicide has tremendous consequence, in that it is a form of playing God (by deciding when your life should end), and it leaves nothing but devastation, confusion and grief in its wake, among all who knew a loved one who chose to take his or her own life.
It must be noted that the Bible does not explicitly mention suicide, so we are only gleaning from what is said in Scripture to reach a conclusion. Under no circumstances should someone who may be contemplating suicide be counseled that suicide is forgivable – if perhaps even the fear that it may not be forgivable is enough for someone to fight through the temptation and find help, then we should absolutely not assure them otherwise. We must fight with all that is in us to extend love to those around us, especially with those who are struggling in grief – and sometimes love involves hard truths and difficult counsel. We do not always need to make someone’s life easier – and in trying to do so, we may actually end up making it more difficult. Sometimes, life is very, very hard – and it’s okay to acknowledge that, while also helping them as they struggle through. To be clear: I am not saying we should beat someone over the head with guilt; I am saying we should not do anything which might push them over the edge to suicide, when their life is priceless, no matter how hopeless things may seem to them to be. They need a guide through the darkness, not a false escape from it.
Suicide is a very serious matter, and so often a suicide is followed by the shock of family and friends who had no idea the person was so lost and desperate as to have considered taking his or her own life. Especially as our culture continues to urge everyone to follow their feelings without taking the time to explore them, we must all the more fight for the belief that life has purpose, that our relationships with others matter deeply, and that one is never without hope where Jesus Christ is risen and returning.
But where someone is grieving the loss of a loved one who took his or her own life, they should be counseled to trust in the mercies of almighty God, and reassured of the forgiveness of sins. Do not steal hope away from a grieving soul, or they too might turn in their grief away from the mercies of God. Pray with them, encourage them with the promises of God, and walk with them through their grief.
I want to close with words written more eloquently than I could manage on my own:
“Whenever you encounter someone overshadowed by the dark cloud of despair and death, speak to them life. Dispel the lies of suicide. Confront the Enemy, so that Satan would not be “given an opportunity to cause slaughter.” As Luther also said in the context quoted above: ‘It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ’tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.’ Graphic and true. I choose not to participate in Satan’s murderous purposes by promoting suicide, and I encourage you to join me.Mere Inkling, Robert C. Stroud, Military Chaplain
Amen and Amen.
How Should We View the End of Life and Questions of Euthanasia?
*I will talk more on the idea of life ending next week.