My wife called me at work several weeks ago; the morning was good but the news was not. Our daughter had been perusing her friends’ posts on Facebook and saw some from one family that were unclear but disturbing. We called them, close personal friends for over 15 years, and learned that their oldest son had killed himself.
It was a painful shock. These friends were dedicated Christians and had raised their children in the faith. We had known this young man since he was a little boy, playing at our house and sharing birthdays and holidays. He had prospered in the US Army. In the past year, he had inexplicably severed ties with his family and joined a cult.
Our mental and emotional roller coaster began in earnest. How could such a promising young Christian man sink so deeply into despair and confusion that he could do this? Why couldn’t any of us reach him to prevent this? Why hadn’t we prayed more for him when he was growing up, and especially when he went astray? The thought crept in about what this cult may have done to him, and how we could punish them for it.
Two questions are the most important, however. The first is “Is this young man in heaven with the Lord, or has his final, desperate act somehow undone the saving work of God in his life?” The second is “how do we protect God’s children from the despair that so often ends in suicide?” We will address the first question here.
The Lord put on my heart to pray for the family again this morning. Afterwards I read an email from the father. He wrote “We don’t understand it other than he was temporarily led astray by a deceiver, but we have a hope that God did not allow his precious sheep’s soul to be snatched away for good.”
We must begin by admitting that suicide, ending one’s own life, is a sin in the eyes of God. The command “Thou shalt not kill” speaks specifically to murder, the Hebrew word (רצח ratsach – to kill) referring accidental or intentional homicide rather than killing an enemy, usually in war (הרג harag), or killing in legal justice (מות muwth – to be executed). As suicide is self-homicide, it falls under the prohibition in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13). However, nowhere in the Commandments does the Bible imply that killing is somehow worse than the other things listed there and nowhere does it imply that homicide/suicide somehow disqualifies a person for salvation. If it did, Moses (Exodus 2:11-14), David (2 Samuel 11:14-21) and Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-16) would be disqualified from salvation.
Medicine has much to say about suicide, but the final common pathway is that those who commit suicide do so because they see their problems as overwhelming and believe that there is no way out; no future for them. People who are depressed and who use alcohol and/or illicit drugs are more likely to end their own lives. Chronic painful illness and epilepsy are other risk factors. It is not clear that treatment is preventive; over half of people who ultimately commit suicide have received mental health care in the previous week. Medicine, however, cannot answer the question at hand, “Will a Christian who commits suicide still go to heaven?” We must look to the Bible to find the answer.
There are several examples of suicide in the Bible.
|Abimelech||Judges 9:50-54||Abimelech, ruler of part of Israel and the treacherous son of Jerubbaal (Gideon), was mortally wounded by a woman casting a millstone down from a tower. He told his armor bearer to kill him lest he die at the hand of a woman.|
|Samson||Judges 16:23-31||Samson, one of the judges of Israel, was captured and blinded by the Philistines. Rather than remain a sightless slave to his enemies, Samson asked God to give him the strength to destroy the Philistine temple, even though it would result in his own death.|
|King Saul||1 Samuel 31:2-5||Saul was badly wounded by Philistine archers in battle and he asked his armor bearer to kill him so his enemies would not torment him before he died.|
|Ahithophel||2 Samuel 17:23||Absalom, the rebellious son of King David, asked Ahithophel how to attack to end his father’s reign. Ahithophel provided wise counsel, but Absalom rejected it. Anticipating Absalom’s subsequent defeat and his own execution, Ahithophel hung himself.|
|Zimri||1 Kings 16:15-20||Zimri, commander of Israel, assassinated Elah, the king of Israel. Israelite forces under another commander, Omri, rebelled against Zimri. When Omri prevailed against Zimri’s forces and captured his stronghold city, Zimri burned the palace down over him.|
|Judas||Matthew 27:3-5||After betraying Jesus, Judas felt remorse at betraying innocent blood and killed himself.|
What can Christians learn from these examples? The first is that the men saw no future for themselves. Abimelech had no way of knowing whether he was actually going to die, and he was cogent enough to talk. Medically speaking, he probably had a skull fracture but his Glasgow Coma Scale was probably at least 12, possibly survivable at the time. However, he saw no future and therefore died. Samson could have lived but wanted vengeance on his enemies. It is impossible to know how badly Saul was wounded but even seemingly mortal wounds occasionally heal. Ahithophel, Zimri and Judas could have lived on but felt they had no future and so killed themselves.
The second thing to notice is that not all of these men had evidence of mental health illness. Saul may have been depressed or bipolar but we don’t know enough about the others to suggest a diagnosis. Substance abuse was common in ancient Israel (Proverbs 23:29-35) but in the examples above acute intoxication does not seem to have played a role.
A third observation is that in every case the person who died at their own hand had lost control of their lives and wanted to maintain at least the control over their death.
A fourth thing to note is that nowhere does the Bible specifically condemn these men. Jesus said that Judas would have been better off if he had never been born (Matthew 26:24-25) but that was because of Judas had a heart of darkness which would eventually betray the Master and destroy the owner; it was not because he was about to kill himself.
Will a Christian who has ended his own life go to heaven and enjoy eternal life with God?
Suicide is a sin, an example of disobedience to our Creator, but it is not unpardonable. It is the result of a tragic series of ideas and events that result in a person feeling that he has insurmountable problems and no future. On one hand, suicide separates us from eternal salvation no more effectively than any other sin does, even those that seem innocuous. On the other hand, suicide is the one sin from which man can never repent.
But Jesus took to the cross all of the sins of those whom the Father gave Him (John 17), including sins past, sins present, and even sins future. Salvation ultimately is of the Lord (John 1:12-13, Romans 9:16), though it is available to whosoever will (John 3:16). Since salvation is an act of God, it cannot be reversed by man by any means. Consider Paul’s magnificent promise:
35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written,
“FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.”
37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Life is long and hard and there are many ways that humans, weak and sinful as we are, can go off track. The love of God, manifest in Jesus Christ, can save and will save His children even when they fall into such despair that they take their own life.
There is no greater horror to a parent than to lose his child, and no worse way to lose a child than through suicide. Guilt, blame, fear, anger, and sadness will continue to trouble parents, siblings, family and friends until the end of life. On this side of the grave, the pain will never entirely go away. One burden that Christians who have experienced such tragedies should not have to bear is doubt about the eternal salvation of their departed loved one. If the loved one ever truly trusted Jesus, they trust Him now.