Does Suicide Equal Hell?

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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.  

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Why Suicide is Not Selfish

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People say suicide is selfish because choice is involved, but where is choice, really?

There are behaviors we do not have a choice in. If your favorite food is chocolate cake, and I lock you in a room with a fork and a chocolate cake, it’s not a matter of if you will eat the cake, it’s just a matter of when. While you could always say you chose to eat it, if nearly everyone or everyone in your situation would have eaten it sooner or later, there is a certain inevitability to it. If it’s inevitable, it’s pretty hard to understand eating the cake as a “choice” in any meaningful sense.

So what about just toughing it out? Maybe people with depression should just suck it up.

Without treatment, staying alive, for some people with serious depression, is a constant battle. We know from studies on willpower that 1) every person has a limited amount, and 2) the harder a person fights NOT to do something, the closer they actually get to doing it. For some the fight not to commit suicide requires huge amounts of willpower and eventually depletes it. We also know that no one has unlimited willpower. No one. Not me, not you, and not your friends with depression.

What about just changing their thoughts? Why can’t they just stop thinking about suicide?

Sit quietly in a room for two minutes and try to think of nothing. You can’t do it. It’s impossible. Your mind has a mind of its own. It is constantly generating thoughts that lead you off on tangents. This proves beyond dispute that no one has total (and most don’t even have slight) control over the thoughts in their own head. If you do not have serious depression, the only difference between you and someone with it is that the thoughts that automatically come into your head are different. You are lucky, because this is little more than an accident of nature. This means if you don’t suffer from suicidal depression, it is not because you have deeper faith than people who do. It is not because you are more disciplined. It is not because you’re a more moral person, or love your family more. It is not because you have deeper insight than other people, and it’s not attributable to whether or not you believe committing suicide is a sin. If you don’t have suicidal depression, you are fortunate. That’s all. In the same way that if you don’t have MS or other diseases you are fortunate. The automatic thoughts most people naturally have are fairly harmless most of the time, but some have constant thoughts that are very dangerous. Depending on the person, their degree of suicidal ideation, genetic and environmental factors, the question is not if they will attempt to take their life, it’s just when and how. This is still almost completely unpredictable in the mental health arena. We just don’t know who will ultimately attempt suicide. [Or homicide either, which has huge implications for the gun lobby’s suggestion that we have to invest more money in getting potentially dangerous people locked up. But that’s another post.] When thoughts of suicide begin to team up with the thought that removing yourself from the world would actually be better for everybody else, you end up with the twisted notion that this is a good, and perhaps loving, thing to do.

Well horrific things have happened to me, and I haven’t committed suicide

First, you don’t have major depression. But most important, your own experience refutes your point rather than proving it. People don’t take their lives because they experience horrible things like you did. Almost no amount of personal suffering can, under normal circumstances, bring somebody to this point. But when a person has major depression, they can have all the love, money, comfort, fame, and talent in the world, like Robin did, and those things will not keep them from attempting suicide. You may know we almost lost my youngest daughter to suicide three years ago. She wasn’t selfish, she was lost. She thought she was doing us a favor. She knew we’d be hurt, but she thought we’d get over it and our lives would be much better. She didn’t know how to ask for help because she didn’t even realize how profoundly messed up her thinking was. It made sense to her. That’s terrifying to me still, to this day. And getting back into that state of mind is still what my daughter fears more than anything. A few days after her attempt, when she really realized how close she came to dying, it scared the hell out of her and she cried for hours. No one wants to die. But people will only stay alive long-term when they find a reason to live, not merely a reason to not die. I assure you, if you woke up tomorrow and couldn’t find a reason to live, and no medication or treatment could help you, you would probably not be long for this world. No person has infinite will power, and no person can live long without a reason for living. Outside observers say, “What about your children? Your family? Your friends?” But the horrible thing about depression is that, finally, even these reasons end up not being good enough. I know. That’s terrible. It truly is. But it is not selfish. It is diseased thinking and feeling.

Suicide is NOT selfish

So I think it’s irrational to call suicide selfish. That ignores the incredibly powerful instinct all living beings have to live. When a person is somehow able to overcome this most basic of instincts and takes their own life, they have so violated a basic law of nature that it is almost like defying gravity. If someone truly defied gravity, and levitated, you would not ask them how they summoned the willpower to do it, or what strength of character allowed it. Those questions wouldn’t even make sense. Instead you’d ask what special conditions allowed them to do this thing no one else can do. What did they have that others lack. Likewise, when someone overcomes the basic human instinct to survive, asking what flaw in their character allowed it is simply the wrong question. Instead you must ask what special condition existed that allowed them to overcome the life instinct and take their own life (or attempt to). But of course you don’t need to ask that question because we already know the name of that special condition: Major Depressive Disorder, code 296 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

About This Blog

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