People who ask this question seek biblical grounds for giving hope to the kin of believers who take their own lives. The burden of proof, I should think, lies not with those who offer the solace of grace but with those who deny it.
Will Jesus welcome home a believer who died at her own hands? I believe he will, tenderly and lovingly.
My biblical basis? It is the hope-giving promise of Romans 8:38–39, that neither life nor death can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
How can I trust in this promise and then deny its comfort to people who doubly grieve for brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who in horrible moments of despair decided to end their lives? I believe that Jesus died not only for the sins of us all but for all of our sins, including the forgotten ones, including suicide—if indeed he reckons it always as sin.
The Bible does not seem to condemn suicide. There are, I think, six accounts of suicide in the Bible, the most notorious being those of King Saul (1 Samuel 31:2-5) and Judas (Matthew 27:3-5). Others are Abimelech (Judges 9:50-54), Samson (Judges 16:23-31), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), and Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20). As far as I can tell, none of the six is explicitly condemned for taking his life.
Some say that suicide cannot be forgiven because the person who did it could not have repented of doing it. But all of us commit sins that we are too spiritually cloddish to recognize for the sins they are. And we all die with sins not named and repented of.
When I was a child, I heard compassionate people comfort the loved ones of a suicide victim with the assurance that anyone who commits suicide is insane at that moment. So, being mad, a suicide victim would not be held accountable by God, despite the sin. But they were wrong of course. People of sound mind make rational decisions to end their lives. They choose to die rather than endure more pain than they think they can bear, or to spare their loved ones the pain of watching them die an ugly death. And rational people of good intentions sometimes help them do it.
But people who take their own lives are not usually cool and rational about it. Nor do they mean to flout the will of God. Most of the 500,000 people who attempt suicide every year in America do not so much choose death as stumble down into it from a steep slope of despair.
We are told that every 17 minutes someone in America commits suicide. In North America, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people 15 to 25 years old, college students for the great part. And note this tragic feature of American life: among children between 5 and 14 years of age, suicide is the sixth most common cause of death.
Suicide is also a significant threat to young people who have discovered that they have homosexual feelings. While there are no conclusive statistics on the phenomenon, some studies suggest a high rate of suicide attempts among young people with same-sex attractions. These are not people sticking their fists in the face of God. These are children who look in their own faces and hate what they see.
The heart asks, Why? But the answer is blowing in the wind. Young people kill themselves mainly for one reason: they cannot believe their lives are precious enough to make them worth living. Despair, depression, hopelessness, self-loathing—these are the killers.
I believe that, as Christians, we should worry less about whether Christians who have killed themselves go to heaven, and worry more about how we can help people like them find hope and joy in living. Our most urgent problem is not the morality of suicide but the spiritual and mental despair that drags people down to it.
Loved ones who have died at their own hands we can safely trust to our gracious God. Loved ones whose spirits are even now slipping so silently toward death, these are our burden.
Lewis B. Smedes is professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. His latest book is Standing on the Promises: Keeping Hope Alive for a Tomorrow We Cannot Control (Thomas Nelson).
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See also today's other stories on suicide, "Suicide—A Preventable Tragedy?A ministry helps churches handle the complex issue" and "Suicide and the Silence of ScriptureThough the church has come to opposing conclusions about the fate of victims, we have a mandate to minister to those left behind."
Smedes also discussed suicide in an interview with the Salvation Army's New Frontier.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, we encourage you to reach out and talk to your local pastor or call the confidential National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255
Earlier Good Question columns include:
- Was Slavery God's Will?
- A Little Wine for the Soul?
- Should We All Speak in Tongues?
- Did Jesus Really Descend to Hell?
- Take, Eat--But How Often?
- Is Christmas Pagan?
- Are Christians Required to Tithe?
- Is Revelation Prophecy or History?
- You're Divorced--Can You Remarry?
- If Grace Is Irresistible, Why Evangelize?
- If I'm an Evangelical, What Am I?
- A Cracked Code
- Committing the Unforgivable Sin
- What Bible Version Did Jesus Read?
- Did God Die on the Cross?
- You Must Be Born Again--But at What Age?
- Was the Revolutionary War Justified?
- Can the Dead Be Converted?
- Cloaked in Mystery
- Is Hell Forever?
- Denominations: Divided We Stand
- Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?
- Do Demons Have Zip Codes?
- Doubting Thomas's Gospel
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