Does Suicide Equal Hell?

hell

Image courtesy of KomodorO // Paco LopeH, licensed under Creative Commons

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 Go.

Note:

If right now you’re having serious thoughts of suicide, call 800.273.TALK. That’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

If you can’t get to suicidal oughts out of your head, are feeling desperately sad, or find yourself thinking about details of suicide like how you’d do it, and where, and when, please get help immediately.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Mike

    I am revisiting this year – old topic with much interest. In your initial post, you said, ” Do you think God would have to issue a command to get people to not kill themselves?” I believe He did! I might have these out of order, but I think there were two commandments which tell people (in a round about way) not to kill themselves.

    First, commandment #6 states, “Though shall not murder.” (also translated as “Though shall not kill). Clearly, the commandment does not distinguish between killing someone else or even ones self – it simply states not to kill. To commit suicide is to commit murder – murder of the self.

    Secondly – and I agree before you argue this one – that this is stretch; I’m throwing it out there anyway! Commandment #5 states, “Honor thy father and mother.” Is there a greater dishonor to ones parents that to take away their most precious gift, ones life?

    So, Dave,” Do you think God would have to issue a command to get people to not kill themselves?” Maybe! Let the discussion begin… :~)

    On a side bar… My sister committed suicide about 30 years ago. To this day I have never believed she went to hell.

    • http://davidkflowers.com thefallencleric

      Mike — Hmm. Not convinced! I don’t believe the command to not kill applies to suicide any more than it applies to killing in war. They are just different animals. I actually think it would fall more under the command to honor one’s parents, like you said. Of course the point of my post was not to argue that suicide is good, moral, or otherwise not sin. It was simply to argue that it does not fast-track a person into hell, and on that we agree.

      • MIke

        Hmmm… Interesting response, Dave (of course I would expect nothing less!).

  • Tim Mattila

    I agree completely that no one will be sent to hell for the act of suicide…that being said, some one who does commit suicide who is not already a follower of Christ would then go to hell. So it begs the question is there any chance of salvation post death? This may be a topic for a whole new blog post but, I thought I would throw it out there.

  • http://www.trevormast.com Trevor Mast

    Let me start you from scratch. From the perspective of a person who has actually been on this precipice.

    Suicide is very much like an immunosystem malfunction, where the bodies defences start to attack healthy cells. The immune system is obviously well-intentioned and acting in good faith, but the result is opposite of it’s designed purpose.

    Fear is a physiological response to a percieved danger or threat. It can take on a life of it’s own when a person has a “panic attack”.

    Fear invokes the Fight or Flight response. Sometimes people have intense fear, but don’t have any idea what they’re afraid of (in the case of a panic attack) In that case, where do you run? Who do you fight?

    Experiencing panic and fear chronicly or with enough intensity will make you want to run and or fight,,,to where?

    Death starts to look like a viable option.

    With enough mental anguish, that you can’t quell or releave in any way, you become desperate.

    Ironicaly, the fight or flight response that was supposed to save you can push you over the edge.

    It was designed to save you, but at this point it malfunctions. It doesn’t have the desired effect.

    So if this makes any sense to you, the fight or flight response malfunctions much the same way that people have adverse immunoresponses.

    No one would consider sending someone to hell for having allergies.

    Point #2, and i know this is getting off track, but let’s all agree that probably suicide is not God’s perfect plan for anybody. That being said, it is most likely a sin. Being a sin, God has promised a way of escape, and we know that God’s promises are reliable.
    So we can assume that there are no suicides that HAD to happen. For sure, God did make a way of escape, if they were looking for it and willing to take it.

    Will it send you to hell? Does anybody really want to take that chance?

    • http://wildwindchurch.com wildwinddave

      I hear what you’re saying, Trevor, and am pretty familiar with the mechanisms of it and how someone comes to this spot (though I appreciate your well laid-out description). Having said that, I still just don’t connect at all with the “taking the chance” idea. I just don’t believe ANY discrete act of sin sends someone to hell. That idea just stands completely outside of my best comprehension of spiritual matters.

      • http://www.trevormast.com Trevor Mast

        I guess we’ve drifted into the topic of Calvanistic/Armenian beliefs. I think that both extremes lead to disaster.

        If a person that has “eternal security” thus thinks it’s safe to live like the devil, there seems to be something that just doesn’t make sense to me about that.

        Then, if a person is so insecure that they are continually worried about their salvation, that seems to be a cruel way for God to treat people.

        Somewhere the truth must be in the middle? Where? good question. I don’t know.

        I have purposefully stayed away from “proof text’s” becuase I think we all know what they are. Instead I am left with “I thinks” and “It seems” and “it feels”.

        I’m not sure there’s a “satisfying” answer to this question. At least not for me. If you could settle this issue for me, I am sincerely all ears and ready to listen.

        So that’s why I’m really as confident about it as you are.

        • http://wildwindchurch.com wildwinddave

          Trevor — I don’t see my position as being in the least bit Calvinistic, or really having much at all to do with that debate. (I agree with you that extreme Arminianism and extreme Calvinism both have their own neuroses.) The question isn’t at all about whether or not someone can lose their salvation, because I take for granted that of course it’s possible. The question is about how that happens. Will you be separated from your children because of one single act they commit, however heinous? Of course not. If God loves us more than we love our own kids, then this could not be simpler, in my view. We will simply not be separated from God because of any one act. That’s not to say we are not free to make a decision to sever that relationship and that God would not honor that decision. But that is quite another thing.

        • CP

          “Will you be separated from your children because of one single act they commit, however heinous? Of course not” My question would then be: Will you separate (or reverse your adoption of them) if they commit many? If so, then how many? And if many is just “many many,” then what kind of Father is that, one that would renounce or deny He adopted a child based on the fact that he made many many bad choices? Salvation is then by works and not by undeserving Grace. However, given that you mentioned about the tree and its fruits, it is not to say that we go on doing whatever we want, because we are now “saved”. Good fruit confirms that the tree is good, and bad fruit confirms that the tree is bad. So the fruit indicates the state of your heart (the kind of tree you really are) and whether you have actually been reached by Grace and transformed into a brand new tree of good fruit. So a person that says “I am always saved so I will go on sinning, so that grace may abound” is actually confirming that he has not been transformed, therefore not saved, or “losing” salvation, because he never had it. I agree that no particular sin can send someone straight to hell, even if they committed it right before they died, that’s where Grace comes in for those who are truly saved. But to say that God will “honor” our decision to “sever” our relationship with Him is to say that our will is greater than His and that the power of the cross is only determined by each human, that we can somehow once again killed the new man He created in us through the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, that his sacrifice wasn’t powerful enough to save us.

        • http://davidkflowers.com thefallencleric

          My post isn’t on Calvinist vs. Wesleyan theology. This post is about suicide. Regarding your comments, I do hear you loud and clear, and disagree firmly on many levels. The whole “eternal security” argument is tiresome, IMO. Is this thing between us and God a relationship on any meaningful level? If so, a relationship can be severed, against the wishes of the other party. If it cannot be, it is not a relationship but something else entirely. I don’t care to argue the theology of it for a simple reason: people far smarter than both of us combined have not been able to agree on this. Which is yet one more reason to suspect that one’s opinion on this, whatever it may be, is probably not of great consequence anyway. Thanks for taking the time to comment, CP.

  • http://www.fiddlebump.com Holly

    Dave, I have lost a few people to suicide. I have been blessed to be lead and counseled by people with similar views. The first person I knew who commited suicide was in the 8th grade. It was painfully sad. I was so tormented with the question..did she really go to Hell for that?? She was in the 8th grade?! She couldn’t make clear decisions in her situation! How could she be condemned for eternity?! Another person, a God loving, faithful servant who belonged to my church in VA, a man who was a father of 3…lost his job, fell deep into depression and then took his life..his son found him…was he making rational decisions guided by our Fathers love? No he made a permanant decision to a temporary problem… I can’t and won’t live thinking that our God would punish the lonely, depressed, down trodden, weary souls who make irrational choices when their mind is clouded….I have known 3 people who took their lives…I have known many others who have attempted it.. I agree with your entry…it is not for any of us to decide/judge/entertain the notion of whos going where and for what..we must encourage anyone facing this situation or any other for that matter and remind them of the love of Jesus and of our Fathers plan for them…not of the hell and brimstone possibility of eternal condmenation…I appreciate you addressing this and hope that it is helpful to others.

  • http://www.hippylostintime.wordpress.com Gina

    Dave:

    Thanks for taking some of this stuff head-on. First, you are right: No one has the right to judge but God, and no one I know can rightfully say they are “speaking on behalf of God.”
    Next, for me, I think some people reach a state of hopelessness not because they don’t believe in God, but they don’t “hear” from him (sense him, feel him, whatever). Whether it’s clinical depression, or a soul beaten and abused by situations and institutions, hope is something that is in short supply these days.
    Also, I think “we” (society and church) have done a poor job giving proper honor to the importance of people, their worth and their dignity. We can quantify them and show them their “worth” simply based on what they can and can’t do for us … personally, organizationally, whatever. We also fall short on creating community… living, breathing groups of friends that actually give a damn about each other. That being said…
    If a person cannot grasp hope, if they feel like they have no values and they have no infrastructure of community to come around them … suicide would seem like a viable option. They would see little future, I’d think.
    However, my mom was wise when she said, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a ‘temporary’ problem” — no matter how overwhelming the situation. I would hope I could be the kind of friend that could point someone toward hope, remind them of their intrinsic value, and give them a safe place to fall apart within the arms of a loving community.
    The last thing I would do is tell them not to commit suicide because it will send them to hell. I just don’t believe it.

    • http://wildwindchurch.com wildwinddave

      Great stuff, Gina. My original post was so long I didn’t want to get in to what’s actually going on mentally and emotionally when people make these attempts, but you covered it well and added a lot of value to my post. Thank you!

  • Jay

    I agree with you on the “no one but God knows” aspect of this. And maybe the suicide rate would be higher if the church hadn’t fear factored suicide, but I don’t think it would become a parlor trick, except for maybe a magician. More of what we can not know. But, from the little I do know, most suicides are souls who have no hope. Discouragement, despair, depression, guilt, loneliness, etc… whatever is in someones life, brings them to a point where they think they can’t live another day. Isn’t that like your ‘anger’ scenario? Where we are so focused on ourselves and how can we conquer, or in this case, not conquer(not make life any better), that that’s the point where we are so far removed from God? Those without hope don’t even see the possibility to call out to a God who is Mighty to save, I would think because there is no faith in that God.

    • http://wildwindchurch.com wildwinddave

      I don’t think it would either, Jay, but I think the church harbors some fear that we have to come down really hard on it as a deterrent of some kind.

  • Chuck Hubbert

    This is thought provoking…

    For my confessed legalistically burdened way of thinking, it begs the question “What exactly does lead to hell?” I’d like it to be more binary, I suppose, and I doubt that it is.

    “Hell is separation from God, and that happens gradually, over a long period of time, by deliberate unwillingness to face or follow truth.” Can we know how long that period of time is? How long can one remain unrepentant of known sin and be assured of entering into the presence of God? I need to ponder this awhile.

    Part of the struggle for the main topic is that we are trying to put logic and rationale behind, as you said, an act that is almost always irrational.

    Pondering…

    • http://wildwindchurch.com wildwinddave

      I think the Apostle Paul listed out for us, in several places, things that “lead to hell.” The problem is, those are not so much acts that lead to hell as they are fruits of the sinful nature (things that demonstrate that we are separated from God). If someone who is doing these things is going to hell, it’s not because they are doing these things, it’s because there is an underlying state of heart — a heart that is in darkness without God — from which these acts spring. This gets tricky, but it helps to keep the focus on underlying states of heart.

      I believe the answer to your question is “No,” we cannot know how long it takes for a person to separate themself fully from God. But it’s safe to say it doesn’t happen by accident, like losing our car keys, and it’s safe to say it doesn’t happen in an instant, like slipping and falling on the ice. Both of these are safe to say because they simply are not relational. God does not act toward us in ways that are determined by decree (Calvinism), but in open relationship with us. Jesus specifically argued that if we treat our own children well, we can expect God to treat us far, far better. We must be confident in this.

      With Christ’s words about a tree being known by its fruit (results that grow naturally from the kind of tree it is) combined with the Apostle John’s words about sins that do and do not lead to death, we are left to conclude that this is a process. Especially when we combine those ideas with Paul’s words about working out our salvation. Clearly something is going on here that takes time. We are saved over time, and we are lost over time.

      This should not be a fearful thing in any way. Children either know who their father is, or they do not. If they know who their father is, then within that relationship to their father, they may venture this way and that, do things that advance the relationship and things that damage it momentarily, but ultimately their father is their father — and he who loves them will certainly not fail to remain their father and continue to love them with a Father’s love!

      As far as how one can remain unrepentant of known sin, I would suggest that this is sometimes characteristic of relationships. There are times we have sinned against our own parents, and part of the heart from which that sin came was an attitude of stubborn rebellion. It may take us some time to ‘fess up, but this doesn’t mean our parents cease to love us, or that the decide to write us off. This only happens because there is in fact a relationship in place. Often when repentance comes it involves not just the act but the whole “place we were in” at the time. I don’t think Wesleyans are comfortable resting in the love of the Father, so we’re filled with all kinds of sin neuroses. :-)

      Of course this is my personal theology, but I reject the idea that there is a one-to-one relationship between specific sins and specific punishments from God. If there is, God is not a loving father and this is not in fact a relationship. If God is love, and love is as Paul describes it in 1st Cor. 13, how can God fail to love us in this way? Does this mean God is “soft on sin?” Of course not. No more than I as a parent am soft on the things that would threaten my own children. I hate those things with a bloody passion, and I place my life willingly between my girls and the things that might harm. If they are lost in this life, ultimately they will be lost over my dead body, and that’s exactly the message God has given us.