Suicide and Salvation – A Letter
(This letter was written in answer to a question which appeared on the Truth Alive online group. The question concerned whether suicide was a sin, and if it might prevent one from being in the Kingdom.)
Dear Brother C.,
Despite my previous volubility on this sort of subject, I find it hard to bring myself to write what I'm about to write. Mental illness runs in our family, so the subject of suicide, and the Big Question of whether it is a salvation-preventing sin or not, is not an academic one for us.
I have had the privilege of fighting mental illness alongside another brother in my ecclesia who also has manic-depression, even worse than I do. During the worst of it, we were both an immense help to eachother, and had an intense friendship, one akin to David and Jonathan, to "brethren in arms". During the worst period, this brother faced a continual and daily pressure to "check out" from a mental pain that not even I can imagine. We personified this temptation as a dark and seductive woman called Thanata, calling to him, tempting him to embrace her, holding out the lure of release from pain in oblivion.
This sort of dark humour was an enormous help to us. Thanata became for us a symbol of the strong allure of death when you are going through this much agony. For those who haven't suffered in this way, this temptation can be hard to understand. We love life, even on bad days. We fear oblivion above all else, in those rare moments when we think actually stop to think about it. But oblivion seems sweet when you are enduring this kind of mental pain, and the temptation to commit suicide can be very strong.
I don't use the term "temptation" lightly, it is just that. So, having used the word "temptation", am I then implying that suicide is a sin? Even worse, is it a sin which cannot be forgiven, since you can't seek forgiveness when you are dead and the deed is done? Does dying with unforgiven sins of this magnitude prevent salvation?
I would like to suggest that the way in which you answer the question as to whether suicide could prevent someone from being in the kingdom, indicates your true beliefs about sin, forgiveness and salvation, and what these are is based on. Those who claim to follow Christ have not been kind to people who commit suicide, or their kin. In the history of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches up until the recent past, suicides have been denied the comforts of the "last rites". In their theology, this indicates a belief that the person committing suicide has no chance for the afterlife. Their fate was imagined to be hell without question, and they were not allowed to be buried with other Christians. Protestants have been a little more nuanced about this, with an emphasis on justification by faith. But overall, the idea is very prevalent in Christianity that suicide prevents salvation.
I submit that this way of thinking exists because, in general, Christians, including ourselves, have a very muddled view of what salvation and forgiveness are all about. It seems to me that many of us start our thinking about this subject with what I call the the "transactional view". This is a form of "salvation by works" thinking, probably in its crudest form.
We imagine that God requires moral perfection before we can be saved. We know this is impossible, but we might imagine that God is merciful, and forgives those sins we commit for which we ask forgiveness, thereby erasing them from the tally. At the end of the day, or every week at Confession or Mass or Breaking of Bread, etc., we pray to God for forgiveness for the sins we have committed during the last time period. We thus begin the next period with a "blank slate". We then do our best during the next day or week to not put any marks on the minus side, and try perhaps to put a few marks on the plus side. Then we come to the end of our regular period, when we "clear out" those sins again by praying to God for forgiveness.
This might seem rather crass or simplistic to you, but you would be surprised how many people, both inside and outside the Christadelphians, have this view, even if it is not so simply put. Ask some probing questions of the young people in your ecclesia. That will tell you what they really learned, which may or may not have been what you tried to teach them. I'm not picking on the young folks. The fact is, in a community like ours, where our teaching about this subject, when we talk about it at all, is very muddled and unclear, this is about the best that most of us can come up with.
The problem then becomes: what if you die before you have been able to "clear the registers" as it were? (The "mechanical" nature of the idiom I use is not unintentional). For some Christian groups the answer was something called "last rites". Preferably while you were actually dying, but at least as soon afterwards as possible, someone would pray for forgiveness for you, thus clearing your tally one last time, and freeing you for salvation.
Things are not so simple for groups like ours who reject the concept of "last rites". If we don't have some understanding of salvation as something which is given by God as a gift, rather than earned, then those unforgiven sins become a problem, one that may keep you from being saved, particularly if the unforgiven sins are "big" ones. Into which category we usually put suicide.
I think you probably see where I am going with this. I believe that a better view of salvation for us, and one that is far more Biblical and consonant with what we know about God, is to understand that salvation is a free gift from God to people who cannot earn it. When we become followers of Christ, or more precisely when we become "in Christ" through repentance ("turning away" from our previous life) and baptism and acceptance of that gift, we come into a state whose natural outcome is salvation. So long as we "remain in Christ", we share his destiny. We will be "raised in Christ" to reign with him. Death becomes for us merely a long nap, God tucking us in, as it were, when our "now" bodies can no longer function, to await resurrection and the gift of a "then" body. Tears come to my eyes as I write this, this is a beautiful picture to me.
However, there is an even better way to look at this matter. When we come into Christ, we become related to God. We join his family. God truly becomes our father, our "abba", our "daddy". Christ is "Big Brubby" (this is what my younger brother calls me). Our brothers and sisters, become literally our family, our kin, our people, our tribe. The only way to really leave a family is to completely reject the whole family, move somewhere else, change your name and try to forget your past. Sadly, this does happen. We all know of brothers and sisters who have done this. God sadly, and with weeping, lets them go. So it is possible to reject the gift of salvation. And it is possible of course, to leave the family, even if your physical body still attends family reunions. But if you remain in the family, then God our Father takes care of his family. Now. And forever. Amen.
When you view things in this light, the question of the salvation of the suicide can now be asked in a different way. Does suicide equal leaving the family? God knows that "our flesh is grass". God knows the weaknesses of our human mind. We don't believe that humans have an immortal and immaterial soul, one that can exist consciously if separate from the body. Thus we can agree with the finding of modern science that consciousness, the brain processes we refer to as "our mind", are entirely dependent upon the workings of the organ of the body we call the brain.
Consciousness is what is called an "emergent" phenomenon, something which occurs when multiple hundreds of billions of cleverly designed and cleverly connected computers inside our skulls come online at some point in the first few weeks or months of our existence. The brain is the biological "support system" which allows the mind to exist. If the brain ceases to work, the mind can no longer exist, until God recreates our brains in our resurrection bodies.
Conversely, if the brain is not working correctly, then the mind will probably also not work correctly. In the last 10 years or so, psychiatry has made enormous strides in understanding how the brain works, and the ways in which brain malfunctions can cause mental illness. Illnesses such as manic-depression, anxiety disorder and schizophrenia are now known to be caused by brain disorders. Manic-depression, depression and anxiety disorder are now very treatable, since the advent of effective anti-depressants such as Prozac. Slower progress is also being made in the treatment of schizophrenia.
If you have ever worked with computers, then all of this will make sense to you. We can think of our minds as software, which is being run by the hardware of our brains and bodies. If the hardware is malfunctioning, then the software won't run well, if at all. (Though we should also keep in mind that software itself can have problems!) . If you've ever consumed alcohol, or other mind-affecting substance, then you are aware how our thinking can become affected by something which affects the workings of the brain.
One of the most tragic things about suicide is that now it is often preventable. Depression is very treatable now, with a combination of medication and counseling. Medications have become available in the past 10 years which are very effective at curing depression. But the biggest problem preventing us from dealing with this issue more effectively, is that folks still do not seek medical treatment when they or their loved ones are experiencing depression. This is due in part to attitudes which are still held by many concerning the cause and treatment of depression and mental illness in general.
God is merciful to us. He understands that for our minds to work properly, our brains must also be functioning correctly. He "makes allowances" without at the same time lowering his standards. His standards are high, and no one except His Son, has ever met them. But he understands why we fail, that our bodies and minds are weak, and subject to failure of all kinds.
Let's put this into family terms: does your children's failure to meet your own standards put them outside the family? If one of your children commits suicide, do you consider them to no longer be in your family? Certainly you might be furious with them, but.... they don't stop being your son or daughter, do they? Especially considering that their suicide probably has nothing to do with rejecting the family or with rejecting you, but rather to just simply wanting the pain to stop, with not being in their right mind. We don't blame someone with one leg for not being able to run, do we?
The hardhearted might argue that the act of killing yourself is certainly equivalent to leaving the family. And from a certain perspective, you could argue this. If someone "checks out", they are certainly not around anymore for family reunions. But this is a narrow and sickly view of family, if death is thought to remove us from a family. Those who die are still considered part of the family by those who remain. We don't take down their pictures from the walls of our hearts. We still call them our "son" or "daughter" or "brother" or "sister". This is even more doubly so with God, who thinks eternally. When you are in the family, you are in FOREVER. Death does not part us from God. Even death at our own hands, in a moment of supreme weakness and pain.
Praise be to God.
grace and peace,