All emphases within scripture references (as indicated by italics) are mine.
This subject is a difficult one to discuss, because nearly everyone has been directly affected by it in some way. If you haven’t personally known a family member or friend who has killed himself (or herself), at the very least you may have suffered some sadness and confusion due to the suicide of a personal hero or influence; perhaps a favorite athlete, writer, artist, or musician. It is natural to grieve, and to want to make some sense of it.
Most likely because of the attendant strong emotions, the subject has been either neglected or incorrectly addressed, even by those professing to be Christian teachers. But we shouldn’t avoid matters simply because they are unpleasant to us; lives and eternal souls are at stake. The truth about this issue needs to be told, so that people can move past their losses, and so (hopefully) further loss can be avoided.
Suicide with salvation?
Perhaps, then, the main question that is often asked should be dealt with first: namely, whether or not a person can commit suicide and still go on to be saved and enter the Kingdom of God. The answer is no, and I will give Biblical evidence for this, along with ancillary support from literature and popular culture, as well as intrinsic evidence. Then I will move on to the question of what would motivate a person to do such a thing in the first place, and how we can best hope to minimize this problem.
There are a number of scriptures that address the matter, either directly or obliquely. In First Corinthians 3:16-17, the apostle Paul writes, “Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man defiles the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.” Some may claim that the word temple in this passage refers to the Church as a whole, rather than to the individual. This is a pointless distinction; even if it were so, the church is made up of individuals. To defile the self, then, is to defile the Church. In any case, in chapter 6, verses 19-20, the point is reiterated: “What? Know you not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which you have of God, and you are not your own? For you are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”
We who believe in God also recognize that the Bible (as well as basic sense) repeatedly tells us that each person will be judged “according to his work.” There is such an abundance of verses to support this fact that I will only reference four of them here, and leave it to the reader to examine them and to search out the rest: Romans 2:6-11, Matthew 16:27, John 5:28-29, and Proverbs 24:12.
Regarding suicide (and other willful sins), John’s first epistle describes the consequences of such a grave disobedience: “And hereby do we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that says, I know him, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4). Now, I will remind the reader that God gave the command, “Thou shalt not kill,” this pertaining to murder; therefore anyone who murders is obviously breaking a major commandment. John goes on to say, “whosoever does not righteousness is not of God,” and “you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (3:10 and 3:15). And what is suicide? It is the murder of the self. That’s why it has the suffix –cide. Homicide is the murder of another individual. Genocide is mass racial or ethnic murder. Regicide is murder of the king. Suicide is self-murder, and as mentioned, murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.
Similarly, Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, reveling, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (chapter 5, verses 19-21). He goes on to contrast this by saying that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (verses 23-24). Consider these in conjunction with Romans 8:9, in which he says, “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” So then, if one has the Spirit, one will have the fruits of the Spirit. And if that person has the aforementioned fruits (love, joy, peace, and so on), why in the world would he kill himself? If you have patience, why wouldn’t you wait out your difficulties rather than trying to take – as some wrongfully call it – “the easy way out?” If you have gentleness and goodness, why would you do something so cruel to those close to you, or even to the strangers who may have to find your body, and bury you, and take care of your personal affairs? Why would someone with temperance do such a rash deed? The answer is that a Spirit-filled person would not. And without the Spirit, such are “none of his.” Likewise, Jesus taught that “You shall know them by their fruits… a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matthew 6:16 and 18-19). It is safe to say that total and permanent self-destruction – self murder – is a very bad fruit, so it is plain from Jesus’ words that those that commit this deed must be “bad trees.” Once again, Jesus taught that men will be judged according to what they have done.
In keeping with the idea of the fruits of the Spirit, and in particular the fruit of patience, consider further what Jesus taught: “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13). In Revelation 2:26, he says, “And he that overcomes, and keeps my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations…” Believers are required to endure, to overcome, to keep Christ’s words and works unto the end. Suicide is the polar opposite of this ideal. It’s giving up and quitting early; it’s forsaking the work in an attempt to relieve the self of present difficulty and pain. It is evident that quitting is not rewarded or respected in any other area of life, no matter what the quitter may have done in his life beforehand. If you run 26 miles of a marathon, then stop and walk off the course without finishing the last two tenths of a mile to cross the tape, you didn’t finish and you can’t win – even if you were a mile ahead of the next competitor who did in fact finish. Even the last place finisher would be better than you, though you had led all the way, but then gave up and quit early. Consider this truth in light of Ezekiel 18:24, as well: "But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All his righteousness that he has done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die."
While the Biblical evidence is paramount, some literary sources indicate that in certain times and places, and amongst certain people, the truth about the cursed nature of those who commit suicide was commonly understood. Though the following references do not constitute proof in and of themselves, they do corroborate a concept that has not always been as foreign to people as it seems to be in modern times.
Act Five, Scene One of Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins with a dialogue between two men preparing a grave for Ophelia, who had previously taken her own life. The first of them states, “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?” He goes on to say, “How can that be, unless she drown’d herself in her own defence?” The conversation continues, with the second man eventually saying that “If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’Christian burial.” The clear implication is that Ophelia’s family members had used their power and influence to bypass a commonly accepted tradition that condemned suicide as damnable, and dictated that those who commited it were to be buried without honor.
In chapter 6 of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the characters Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray (later Harker) are depicted seated together in a churchyard near a scenic cliff. There are graves in the churchyard, and an old sailor with whom they have a conversation points out that the grave on which their seat rests is that of a man who killed himself. Lucy responds to this news by saying, “Oh, why did you tell us of this? It is my favourite seat, and I cannot leave it; and now I find I must go on sitting over the grave of a suicide.” A short while after this, Lucy falls under the influence of the vampire, to which she eventually succumbs entirely. Throughout the story, there is always danger in failing to guard the avenues through which evil can enter. The refusal to take even a stranger's suicide seriously enough seems to be one of those dangers.
The Bible makes evident what suicide is, and what kinds of people commit it. Certain literary sources convey a similar lack of respect for those who end their own lives. And yet the world lies to us, and tells us to respect such people, often ignoring the manner of death particularly when the temporal achievements of the deceased are considered noteworthy. The world is saying, effectively, "Hemingway wrote some classic literature, didn’t he? Kurt Cobain helped pioneer a new musical movement, right? So what if they ended their lives with shotguns? After all, they were hurting; they were suffering souls. They should be given special reverence!" How ironic it is that not only is suicide no longer denounced as the detestable deed that it is, but rather, people who kill themselves are actually construed as heroes; as though they were better than everyone else… too good for this world! Society would have us believe that they must have moved on to a better place. But this is a lie. People don’t kill themselves because they’re better people; they’re actually worse people, and are condemned to a terrible existence in the next life. So why do they do it, then?
The motive for suicide
Obviously, people kill themselves because they’re hurting. But what leads to that particular kind of hurt, a hurt that would move someone to try to end it all (though since humans are eternal beings, they really are not ending anything)?
Jesus told us the particular behaviors that lead to life, and those that lead to death: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall find it” (Luke 9:23-24). Likewise, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). In contrast to these ideals of self-denial, when reprimanding the religious leaders of his time, Jesus accused them of being duplicitous (“hypocrites”) and full of “uncleanness”, “hypocrisy and iniquity”, and “extortion and excess” (see Matthew 23). In the New International Version, the word excess is translated as self-indulgence. The word hypocrite essentially means “actor.” While a life of self-denial and service toward God and others leads to joy and peace, a life devoted to excess, selfishness, and duplicity – that is, pretention – leads to death, both temporal and eternal. Self-indulgence leads to self-consciousness, which leads to self-absorption, and if the person in question remains unrepentant, this process will continue into madness and self-destruction. A life led in thrall to self-centered, carnal, immediate desires inevitably will head in this direction; a man cannot help but reap what he sows (Galatians 6:7).
Often people are confused by suicide, because the culprit (as opposed to the commonly used victim) seemed to be such a wonderful soul. But leading a double life is what such people excel at. Even the popular non-Christian storytellers understand this concept well. How does the life of the criminal mastermind so often end, in movies such as The Shawshank Redemption or Minority Report, to cite two examples? When the primary villain orchestrating the grand scheme of corruption is finally caught in the midst of his masquerade without hope of escape, he kills himself. This is the logical way for that person’s story to play out at that point; it’s an archetype.
Suicide has been long understood to be the justified end to the life of a traitor. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus (who was central in orchestrating Caesar's betrayal and assassination) ends up killing himself after suffering the torment of extreme guilt. In Macbeth, the wife of the title character kills herself after similar conscience-stricken episodes. She had encouraged her husband to murder their king while he was a guest under their own roof, and apparently could not find peace.
As the ultimate bad example from actual history, we can refer to Judas Iscariot. As bad as the Pharisees were, he was worse. The Pharisees, at the least, were enemies of the truth somewhat openly. Judas was an insider who turned on his own master and his compatriots in secret. According to Matthew 27:5, after the betrayal, Judas went and hanged himself. While Luke’s account differs slightly, both agree that Judas was accursed, and that his manner of death publicly demonstrated that fact. But this betrayal and self-murder were not isolated or abrupt incidents. According to John’s Gospel account (chapter 12), Judas was leading a secretly self-indulgent and deceptive life before he eventually turned all the way to treachery. He is therein revealed to have been “a thief, and had the (money) bag, and bare what was put therein.” So he was already stealing money that was intended for Jesus’ work, and then, after being reprimanded for an insincere remark about aiding the poor, he went and made a hidden bargain with the Pharisees to betray Jesus. When that was done, seeing no other option for himself (and in this case, he was actually correct), he killed himself.
You can be sure that if someone you care about has committed suicide, it was not a sudden or isolated act, made without behavioral precedent. Suicide is the final act of a life lived in passionate (and often secret) service to self. While the actions that led to this end are sometimes exposed later, they often remain hidden for some time.
All of this is evident also from more current real-life criminal cases. One recent example is that of a man who used the Craigslist advertising website to arrange contact with women for sexual purposes. He then killed those women, and was caught and arrested. He later committed suicide in jail. There are several examples of mass murderers who have killed themselves, after opening fire in a school, for instance. Criminals who are incarcerated for extremely heinous acts are often put on suicide watch. The fact that the person you know who committed suicide was never accused, convicted, and jailed for a terrible crime doesn’t mean they weren’t guilty of one – whether according to temporal human law or a transcendent moral law. Strictly speaking, Judas didn’t commit a crime according to human law when he betrayed Jesus, either. But before God, the act was unforgiveable.
One could cite many other cases of suicide throughout history in which the preceding evils committed were plain to see. Hitler killed himself, and Nero is said to have done so. As mentioned, sometimes the crimes are not so evident. Paul says: “Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after” (First Timothy 5:24). When a man commits atrocities, his God-given conscience is going to be drastically affected, in some cases beyond repair. The result is despair, and oftentimes self-murder.
Why does it matter?
Some may contend that it would be better to simply not discuss these things. Why bring additional pain to the families and friends that may be grieving? Why not just let them be comforted by the idea that the deceased is now finally at peace?
For my part, I don’t understand such arguments. It seems to me that an interest in the truth should be justification enough, because truth liberates, while lies only enslave. And I can speak with authority on the subject, having been directly affected by a family member’s suicide myself. The truth, though perhaps unpleasant at first, has improved my life, not worsened it – and it’s helped me narrowly avoid going down the same road. It’s also valuable to know these things to help get through the necessary grieving process. Understanding the “whys” and the results of the act of suicide helps us let go of those people who preferred their own indulgence and isolation to the alternative of remaining a part our lives.
The truth is also eminently important for those who remain alive and may be facing similar struggles. There has been some contention that acts such as suicide may be, in a very real sense, contagious. There is Biblical support for this idea; the apostle Paul wrote in at least two epistles that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (First Corinthians 5:6 and Galatians 5:9). He also wrote, “bad company corrupts good character” (First Corinthians 15:33). He was warning the churches that evil deeds, if left unchecked, will spread like wildfire. Since this is true, such a tragedy can best be avoided by telling people clearly that if they kill themselves, they will go from their current proverbial frying pan into a literal and permanent fire. We can tell them that as hard as it may be to wait things out, waiting at least allows a person to keep the door open to the possibility that things may somehow get better. To kill oneself is to eliminate this possibility. If the one who is suffering will wait a while, perhaps he or she will one day be able to say, as the prophet Jeremiah once did, “The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeks him… for the Lord will not cast off for ever: but though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies” (Lamentations 3:25 and 31-32). If that person quits, however, it’s all over, because he did not endure or overcome. People need to hear this truth, so that perhaps some lives will be saved.
What is plainly not helpful is to make heroes out of self-killers. Years ago, an acquaintance of mine killed himself, and a college scholarship was set up in his name. More recently, a sports icon from the area in which I live committed suicide (incidentally, this person had personally witnessed a friend’s suicide some years earlier, perhaps lending more credence to the “contagion” theory). A foundation which was set up in his name has a stated goal which proclaims that it is dedicated to “…preventing suicide and fighting its stigma…” Sometimes, memorials or statues are erected in honor of those who have done this terrible deed. While I understand and empathize with the desire to think the best of our loved ones, these types of actions are totally unhelpful with regard to preventing suicide, or to overcoming grief and moving on. They send a mixed message: “Suicide is terrible, and we want to prevent it; but people who commit suicide deserve to be given high honors.” If you send that message to someone who is considering suicide, you may actually encourage them to go ahead and do it, by offering them the false hope of lasting respect and honorable remembrance. Moreover, I would ask: how many people live full lives – lives committed to service and self-sacrifice – and yet never have a scholarship or a foundation named after them (and quite possibly wouldn’t even desire such a thing)? To confer such memorials upon those who quit life early (leaving their family and friends to suffer and to pick up their pieces) is to imply that suicide is, at the least, acceptable – and perhaps even noble. This is, once again, a lie. As to the idea of removing the stigma from suicide, that’s an incongruous idea. Stigma is defined as “a mark of stain or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.” For certain acts, stigmas are very appropriate. There is a stigma attached to child molestation, there is a stigma attached to the abuse of animals, and there is a stigma attached to other types of murder - and there should be. Why should there not be a stigma associated with destroying one’s own God-given gift of life? Reinforcing (rather than eliminating) this stigma could go a long way toward preventing some suicides. If a suffering person was faced with the prospect of being remembered poorly, or of being forgotten entirely, or of having their name live on in infamy like Judas or Hitler or Seung-Hui Cho, perhaps that person would at least hesitate a little longer, or even abandon the thought entirely. But if that same person is offered a societally-sanctioned fantasy about having a statue of his likeness set up in the town square, he has possibly been emboldened to commit the act.
Sadly, even with all of the knowledge in the world, there are some who won’t listen to warnings regardless of how clearly they are given. Judas was told by Jesus himself what the consequences would be if he went through with his betrayal (see Matthew 26:24), but he did it anyway. These are people for whom no prospect of negative consequences is a deterrent, and the best way to deal with that is to simply be aware of it and to accept it, while trying to minimize the accompanying damage to oneself and to others. But if we do everything we can to help and to warn, we may rescue some who are still willing to listen, and we need not feel guilty if a few stubbornly insist on going their own way. We don’t have to ask ourselves, “What more could I have done?” as long as we can recall that we disclosed the full truth. But if we sugar coat difficult things like this, we will most likely be subject to a legitimate degree of guilt ourselves, because deep down we will know that we didn’t offer all the help that was available. If we lie, either overtly or through our silence, we must share at least some of the weight of responsibility, as watchmen (see Ezekiel 33:1-9).
What do I do if I feel like killing myself?
Undeniably, sometimes circumstances seem overwhelming to us, whether they are of our own making or not. Many of us – perhaps more than would like to admit – have at some level considered suicide. I’m one of those people. One question that I’ve asked myself, and which I submit to you, is that if life is so bad and everything is so hopeless, why not just offer your life in service to others instead of ending it immediately? If you really can’t see any chance for your own happiness, then you have nothing to lose by getting some kind of menial job (or even a volunteer position) and doing something that still has at least some value to others. Maybe you really can’t see how to improve your own life, but perhaps you can still improve the life of someone else. Instead of letting your last act be taking your life, give it away by helping others somehow. Who knows but that after a few days, or weeks, or even months or years of doing that, you might see some happiness return? And what’s the rush, anyway? Life is already short. If you’re old enough to be reading this, it’s almost certain that you’ll be dead in a hundred years, at the very most. Is that really not soon enough for you? Why kill yourself now, when eventual death is unavoidable anyway? Stick around awhile. That’s what faith means: sticking around even when it seems like there’s no more point in doing so. In contrast to this ideal of endurance, to quit is to be faithless, and “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
People want to excuse suicide on grounds such as, “Well, she was just suffering so much.” Is that not an inexcusable insult to those who have suffered just as much and perhaps more, yet endured it? Even many non-believers have some awareness of the story of Job, and how he lost everything that mattered to him, short of his own life. And his wife actually encouraged him to “curse God, and die.” Job’s response was, “you speak as one of the foolish women speak. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:9-10). In the epistle of James, chapter 5 verse 11, we are reminded of Job’s faith: “Behold, we count them happy which endure. You have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” If you’ve read the Gospels, you may also recall the story of a man filled with a “legion” of demons, as told in Mark chapter 5. In verse five, it says that, “always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.” This man was suffering more torment than most people will ever experience in life, and yet he did not kill himself. And when Jesus came to the area where the possessed man was, the man approached the Lord and was by him delivered, and found “sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind” (verse 15). Who knows how he got into his severely disturbed condition, or how long he was in that miserable state? But eventually, his willingness to endure, to whatever degree he was able, paid off. He deserves to be honored (and has been, since his story is still told around the world nearly two thousand years later), as do those others who demonstrate the same perseverance through trial. Why should those who refuse to endure, choosing rather to give up, enjoy the same sort of public acknowledgment (not to mention eternal life in Heaven) as those who demonstrate the faith to trust God to the end? They should not. In present times, you don’t have to be out and about too much before you’ll see someone who’s paralyzed, or dying of a debilitating illness, or impoverished, and yet is not only enduring, but living a productive and happy life. So to take one’s own life is not only a slap in the face to God, it’s a direct affront to all of those who suffer loss, grief, depression, and more – and yet continue. It’s a form of blasphemy. If the last acts that you commit in this life are blasphemy and murder, you will be subject to the judgment of eternal damnation.
I hope this is helpful to those who may read it. It’s not an enjoyable topic, but it’s a necessary one, and these things have been helpful to me when faced with difficulties that I had no idea how to overcome. I truly believe that society at large is dropping the ball, as it were, by distributing false information about suicide, and it’s the responsibility of Christians to offer the truth. This is my best effort to do that.