Note: Written before my own daughter's suicide attempt in June of 2011
Someone recently asked my opinion on what happens to those who commit suicide. Will they “go to hell?”
Before I give my take on this, I must start off by saying that no one but God has any business saying who goes to hell and who doesn’t. It’s not the church’s job, or any pastor or religious teacher’s job, to declare that any specific behavior puts someone on the fast track to hell. Show me a pastor or religious teacher (or institution) making declarations about who is going to hell, and I’ll show you a case of spiritual megalomania, since this assumes levels of knowledge no human being could possibly have.
Human beings (and most creatures) have a natural bent toward preservation of their lives. Any exception one could find to this would be just that — an exception — thereby proving that the rule is generally true. Certainly to commit suicide is to act against one of our most basic drives. But everyone understands this implicitly. The question is what is a proper attitude towards those who commit suicide, or attempt to?
I suggest that condemning these people to hell is not the proper attitude. I think the traditional church idea that suicide equals a trip straight to hell proceeds from three places. First is sincere but mistaken theology. The reasoning is that if murder is prohibited in scripture, and suicide is self-murder, then suicide is therefore prohibited. But do you think God would have to issue a command to get people to not kill themselves? Wouldn’t this be like issuing a command that people have to eat, or drink water? Who among us actually wants to take our own lives? Have you ever sat around thinking, “Man, I’m blue today. If suicide weren’t a sin, I’d off myself right now.” I don’t think we owe a lot of lives to the assumed prohibition on suicide. Besides, in order to arrive at this conclusion, one must begin with the idea that the purpose (or one of the purposes) of the Christian faith is to teach us which sets of behaviors we must avoid if we want to escape going to hell. I could not disagree more strongly with this notion than I do, so I think the theology behind this started in the wrong place to begin with.
The second place this idea comes from is fear. Theologians can be as motivated by fear as anyone else. With suicide being such a heinous thing, what if we don’t declare it a mortal sin? We don’t want to leave the impression that suicide is acceptable in any way, or else we’ll have people offing themselves around the water cooler, and blowing their brains out when the wrong person gets voted off Suvivor. It’ll become a party trick. One guy will pound a few beers. Another guy will ignite a few farts. And the next guy will off himself in some mind-bending way. We have to have some way to communicate how serious suicide is to keep people from doing it, or heck — pretty soon EVERYONE will be doing it! It’ll be the next big thing! I really think there’s a deep fear in the church that suicide (along with gayness), might be contagious. Having just finished a three-part series on fear, I don’t need to go into detail about fear, but it will suffice to say we do not usually make our best decisions while rooted in it.
The third place this comes from is a desire to control. If religion is guilty of anything throughout history, it’s trying to control people. I’m not anti-Catholic, but sorry folks, you guys have the market cornered on that one. Not because Catholics are any more controlling than anyone else, but simply because it’s the form of Christian religion that has been around the longest. (If Protestants had been around for 2000 years, we’d have you tied, I’m sure. Some groups of us are doing our level best to catch up to you, that’s for sure.) The Catholic church took a faith that had no churches, no buildings, no systems of any kind (Jesus never started a church or any specific religious system) and literally systematized the life out of it. They had answers for everything. They instituted the penance system, whereby you could know exactly how to atone for each particular type of sin, whether it be X-many “Hail Mary’s” or Y-many “Our Fathers,” etc. Talk about codifying and systematizing. That desire to control lies latent in every human being, and it frequently manages to get its digs into religion. Religion, in fact, is one of the most fertile soils in which it can grow, especially if we can play that desire to control over people’s natural fear of hell. Combine that desire to control with the actual ability to do so (granted by things like political power, religion, and other kinds of influence), and you have a dangerous cocktail. And so it is natural that in an environment that gave rise to such things as “The 7 Deadly Sins,” and penances, the church would come up with the idea that suicide leads straight to hell.
Chances are some people are already reading this and feeling extremely uncomfortable. After all, we don’t want to appear to take suicide too lightly. But do we have to threaten hell in order to be perceived as taking it seriously enough? Actually, I’m ambivalent about it. Part of me thinks that if it’s only the threat of hell that keeps some unstable 14 year old boy from killing himself because he didn’t make the basketball team, and because he delays for a few days or weeks he finally gets the help he needs, then I guess that measure of hesitancy served a purpose. But don’t we have to go back to truth? Shouldn’t we try as hard as possible to live according to truth, and never to use fear as a tool, even when it can serve what seems to be a useful purpose? Won’t those who live by the sword ultimately die by it?
There’s no good reason to assume that suicide leads directly to hell. Actually, in my theology, there’s really no way to put those two things together at all. Hell is not a place we get to from doing one bad thing. Hell is separation from God, and that happens gradually, over a long period of time, by deliberate unwillingness to face and follow truth. A person committed to living in truth does not go to hell because he/she did one sinful thing, then steps outside and gets hit by a bus and dies. We grow in our understanding of everything in life, yet many of us are content to never go beyond a third-grade understanding of spiritual things. We stay stuck in childhood theology because of fear that growing up in faith means “compromise” and “selling out.” But there are new vistas of understanding out there, if we will but abandon fear and go after them.
No, suicide is not mortal sin. I suppose there may be cases where a man kills himself in the same state of rage from which he might kill someone else, and in this case there is no question that what is known as sin would be involved. But to assume that this one act of sin leads immutably to hell is a huge leap. It’s an even bigger leap to assume that any one act, especially an act committed from a place that is so clearly “not well” ties God’s hands and prohibits him from the exercise of mercy. And finally is the fact that most suicides are not in any way rational. They are based in a deep kind of illness which is deserving not of punishment but of compassion. Suicide is painful enough for family members who have lost a loved one to it. They do not need the additional pain of thinking their loved one has separated himself from them both physically and spiritually in that one act. We need a more nuanced theology to deal with this, based less in fear and desire to control, and more in compassion and understanding of the love and goodness of God.