Suicide: Hard Questions

Rainy Day

I remember a lot from my childhood most of it good. But not all of it. I grew up in rural Mississippi on a gravel road in a single wide trailer. I must have been between 8 and 10 when I went outside one morning and found police at the trailer across the road. The day was wet, dreary, and chilly. I remember the troopers with their wide brimmed hats and gray uniforms standing at the driveway talking in low voices. I remember my mother bringing out hot cocoa to them. The kids were told to stay back from the road. We watched from our postage stamp front porch as folks came and went. My boyish curiosity wondered what happened. Why all the fuss?  Later my dad told me the 20 something son of the woman across the street had killed himself with a shotgun. I did not know the young man. I had seen him coming and going. But I was kid and he was an adult. Despite my youth, I had questions when I found out he had done that.  Some were wrong, driven by morbid curiosity. But others were legitimate, such as why would someone do that? Are they condemned forever if they do? Is it an act of selfishness or selflessness? I had another friend growing up whose parents had both killed themselves. He was shuffled between the two grand parents. Suicide is a terrible thing, much like divorce,  it leaves an inevitable trail of destruction, pain, and questions.

I am continuing a series of posts on suicide. In the first, I looked at what the catechisms taught. In the second, I explained the basic principle that God gives and takes life. Suicide does not fit God’s divinely appointed reasons for taking a life. In this post, I want to answer some possible questions about suicide. If you have others put them in the comments. Remember suicide is the intentional taking of one’s life.

But what about dying in war? If I go into battle isn’t that a type of suicide? No. Why? Because your death is not intentional, though it may be inevitable. Every soldier should do whatever he can to preserve his life while still working to finish his mission.  Soldiers die. But they do not usually kill themselves. And their death is not by their own hand. Suicide is the taking of one’s own life. Death in war does not fit that category.

But what about a soldier who throws himself on a grenade? Or someone who pushes a child out from in front of a moving car? Or a fireman who rushes into a burning building? Isn’t that a type of suicide? Well again, no. Because the intent is not to take one’s life. The intent is to rescue the life of someone else. If I die in the process of saving someone else that is not suicide. The goal of the two acts are different. When a fireman runs into a burning building he is not trying to kill himself even if he knows that the action may result in his death.

Is suicide a sign that someone has deserted the faith or can someone commit that sin and still be a Christian? Christians can commit any sin. Christians have stolen, lied, committed adultery and sodomy, abandoned wives, children, husbands, etc. So yes a  Christian can commit suicide. What makes our appraisal of the person who committed suicide so difficult is the finality of it. If a man commits adultery our evaluation of his eternal fate would be determined by what happens afterward. Does he repent? Does he turn? Or does he continue down the path of ruin. Even if a man struggles with a sin for most of his life we could still evaluate whether or not there is growth and repentance. With suicide, unless the attempt fails, this is impossible. Is suicide a rejection of God? It certainly can be and often is. But that is not always the case.

Is suicide forgivable? This question and the one above are connected. The Roman Catholics have a theology which allows sins to be forgiven after death. At first glance this appears to be an attractive option, especially in the case of suicide. However it is unbiblical and pastorally dangerous, providing a false comfort, not a real one. A lie, no matter how attractive, is not helpful. For Protestants there have been a variety of answers to this question. Some Protestants have taught that suicide cannot be forgiven. Those who commit suicide are damned forever. In many ways this makes sense.  It is a final act of despair, which would appear to be a rejection of who God is. Plus if there is no forgiveness after death, how can someone commit suicide and be forgiven? Can a person ask God’s forgiveness prior to the act? Does someone’s trust in Christ cover that sin even if it is never confessed? Or does the taking of one’s life indicate a failure to trust in Christ? These are hard questions with no easy answers.

My understanding is that suicide can be forgiven just as murder can be. As a Christian I have willfully committed sinful acts. If I had died before confessing those sins would I have been damned to Hell? Not necessarily so, but it is a dangerous place to be, sitting on intentional unconfessed sin. If I was talking to a Christian (or anyone) considering suicide I would encourage them to not go through with the act. If they said, “God will forgive me.” I would say, “To sin against the light and presume on God’s grace is dangerous.” (I had a friend who went through a dark time. They said the one thing that kept them from killing themselves was they were not sure if they would go to heaven. That was wise thinking.) If someone carried through with it I would have grave concerns about their relationship with God just as I would if a man committed adultery after the same type of conversation. But if I was talking to someone left behind after a Christian they knew committed suicide I would emphasize a different truth. I would tell them that whether or not their loved one is forgiven is ultimately a matter between that person and God. They cannot discern their final fate. They are out of reach now. All those left behind can do is rest in God’s character and kindness, which is good and merciful.

In my next blog post I will address the hard question of whether the refusal to take medicine or treatment to prolong life is equivalent to suicide.