Christians and the Tragedy of Suicide

Suicide remains a serious problem in our world today. And some researchers say suicide rates have increased during the pandemic.1 In fact, during the month of October 2020 there were more deaths in Japan from suicide than from COVID-19.2

Suicide is but one aspect of the broader problem of evil, pain, and suffering. Thus, Christians are not immune from this tragic reality. In fact, over the last couple of years you’ve probably seen news reports of evangelical pastors who died by suicide. Because my family has been touched by the tragedy of suicide, I wrote an article about the subject, specifically addressing whether suicide is a sin that can be forgiven by God.

Here is the concluding paragraph of my earlier article:

I argue, on the basis of Scripture, that God can and does forgive his children who take their lives. This affirmation of forgiveness in no way condones suicide, which is a great sin. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death atones for all the sins of his people—past, present, and future (Romans 3:25). And God will not remove his forgiving love because a mentally ill person in a state of desperation commits a terrible self-destructive deed (Romans 8:38–39). Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ enjoy God’s enduring and complete forgiveness for all their sins (2 Corinthians 5:18–19).

I received many comments on this piece. Some of them came from Christians who had lost loved ones to suicide. One such person, a father, even thanked me for helping him to think through the loss of his dear son and how God’s forgiveness related to the tragedy.

But I also had more than one person object to my theological conclusion that God forgives believers in Christ who take their own lives. Here are the (paraphrased) comments of three people who objected to my conclusion followed by my responses. My objective is not to win an argument per se but to hopefully bring insight and empathy to a very painful topic that touches many families.

Objection #1

Does a person with genuine confident trust in and reliance on Christ take their own life? Wouldn’t real faith in Christ translate into a hope that sustains the will to live, the will to honor and serve our Savior, the will to persevere through the valley of the shadow of death? Isn’t growth in sanctification one that climbs higher overall, closer to God, not down and away into suicide?

My Response

While I am not a mental health professional, after much study and reflection on this difficult topic from a theological and psychological perspective, my answer to your first question is yes. I have known Christians who have died by suicide. Christians are not immune to serious mental health challenges or even to despair itself. Sometimes despair overwhelms their faith to the point of not being able to take the pain any longer.

Sometimes that despair may be the result of mental illness or great trauma, abuse, addiction, or a combination thereof. The person feels a great sense of mental and soul sorrow.

Human fallenness and brokenness are profound. Original sin shouldn’t be underestimated. Salvation and sanctification are not guarantees that Christians will not struggle deeply. I’ve known Christians who were combat soldiers with PTSD and for me to tell them to just strive harder at their sanctification wouldn’t be sufficient or compassionate.

I’ve talked with people who were in their darkest hour. I had compassion on them and I’m confident that God, in his infinite love, does as well. The wonderful thing about God is that he loves even those who engage in self-destructive acts. God’s grace (unmerited favor) is rich, deep, and evident in the person of Jesus Christ. That grace causes me to empathize with a person’s deep mental suffering.

Objection #2

What about 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 which specifically states that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit and anyone who destroys the body will be destroyed by God? How do you see that verse?

My Response

As a Christian theologian and apologist, I attempt to understand Scripture within its proper context.

The biblical commentaries I’ve consulted concerning 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 indicate that the temples of God the apostle Paul is speaking about are to be understood corporately as the church and not as individual human bodies. Thus, God will punish those who damage or fracture the church. So, this passage seems to have no application to the issue of suicide.

Objection #3

You can’t know with certainty that every suicide victim who is a Christian goes to heaven or is rescued from hell after they sin. “You shall not kill” is in the Bible. I know the atoning death of Jesus is all-powerful so I guess the issue is: is repentance required for the blood of Jesus to cleanse away sin? And would that be possible even after the soul/spirit leaves the body and the person has not repented?

My Response

The Hebrew is translated: “You shall not murder.” Suicide is self-murder but it is likely done by people who are psychologically ill and thus not in full control of their mental faculties. I read Scripture as indicating that God forgives all the sins of his people including the tragic cases of suicide in which one cannot repent. Does anyone ever perfectly repent of all their sin? Sinners are sometimes oblivious of their sins (pride, envy, selfishness).

Leaning on Hope

Suicide is an especially painful tragedy for surviving family and friends. And when a Christian takes their life it raises genuine theological issues. In such difficult circumstances it is reassuring to hear the apostle Paul’s extraordinarily comforting words:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38–39).

As Christians we long for the time when “‘He [our God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Reflections: Your Turn

If you are contemplating suicide or know of someone who is, someone at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available to chat right now (24/7).

Have you known Christians who have struggled with suicidal thoughts?

Resources

Endnotes 

  1. Ann John et al., “Trends in Suicide during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” BMJ 2020, no. 371 (November 12, 2020): m4352, doi:10.1136/bmj.m4352.
  2. “More People Died of Suicide in Japan in One Month Than the Entire Coronavirus Pandemic,” FOX News (November 28, 2020).

  One thought on “Christians and the Tragedy of Suicide

  1. snowtracks
    January 19, 2021 at 5:03 pm

    Nicely done, Joe

    • January 19, 2021 at 6:35 pm

      Thanks.

      Ken Samples

  2. January 20, 2021 at 4:59 pm

    Thank you very much for addressing this sensitive subject.

    If someone who has committed suicide had been suffering from a psychophysiological disorder that ultimately deprived that person of their free will, then I’d agree with your reasoning that God would graciously forgive that person. However, this leads me to wonder:
    a) if original sin has subjected all of us to varying degrees of death and deterioration, including mental illness, then to what extent do we have free will?
    b) couldn’t a similar line of reasoning result in the universalist conclusion that God will ultimately deliver everyone from eternal damnation (thereby contradicting the notion of unpardonable sin)?

    Again, thank you; as someone who personally struggles with severe depression, I very much appreciate your thoughtful and compassionate responses.

    • January 20, 2021 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Carolyn.

      I don’t have a completely satisfying answer for you. But here are a few of my thoughts.

      I tend to think that true mental illness to the degree where someone loses their volitional abilities is rare.

      It also seems to me some people commit suicide to escape moral responsibility. I think in that case they move from the frying pan into the fire so to speak.

      Yet self-destructive tendencies without the desire to escape moral responsibility seems to fit the Christians I’ve known who have committed suicide. That is they are overwhelmed by despair itself rather than using suicide to escape moral responsibility. In that case I see God forgiving his children who suffer existentially.

      My theology tells me that there is no true free will after the Fall but there is somehow moral responsibility. That may sound either contradictory or paradoxical. But I’m a theological compatibilist in the tradition of Augustine and Edwards.

      I don’t want to underestimate the disordering caused by original sin. But I think universalism is an unbiblical heresy.

      Peace be with you.

      Ken Samples

  3. John Stokes
    January 21, 2021 at 1:04 pm

    Thank you for your article, Ken. As a Christian who has been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), I’d like to expand on your responses from personal experience.

    Re: Objection #1 – “Wouldn’t real faith in Christ translate to hope to live?” – ‘Knowing’ there is hope doesn’t always translate to ‘feeling’ hope. The Israelites had to wait 400 years – several lifetimes – before God sent Moses to free them. I have confident hope that God wins at the end of history, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to hope in my immediate circumstances. The eventual hope of heaven and/or the New Creation doesn’t necessarily translate to hope in my moment-by-moment life. We must be able to ‘feel’ hope in our personal lives to rise above despair.

    Re: Objection #3 – “Is repentance required for the blood of Jesus to cleanse away sin?” – Repentance is a “good work”. Requiring repentance for forgiveness removes Christ’s all-sufficiency and makes Christianity a religion of works like so many others. Remember the Old Testament sacrificial lamb, without spot or blemish? It was offered for “sins committed in ignorance.” If repentance was required for forgiveness, no one would be in Heaven, because we haven’t repented of the sins we committed in ignorance. Arguably, suicide isn’t committed in ignorance, but Christ’s all-sufficiency still applies. In addition, I have personally experienced such extreme psychological pain that all I can think of making it stop by any means necessary, so there is a type of “ignorance” in those moments.

    An additional objection that has been leveled at me: “Isn’t suicide a selfish act?” – In my darkest moments, I genuinely believed I was an unbearable burden on my family and friends. The kindest thing I could do for them was to remove the burden that was me. I recognize it’s dreadfully distorted thinking, but in my mind suicide would have been a kind, selfless act. I encourage people to listen to Lacey Sturm’s testimony.

    • January 21, 2021 at 2:52 pm

      Thanks, John.

      May our Lord give you rest and peace.

      Ken Samples

  4. February 2, 2021 at 7:37 am

    The book by Cosgrove is no longer available & I’m actually in severe depression & can’t function. On the floor listening to worship & trying to read thru tears. Would this book be helpful if I could get it?

    • February 2, 2021 at 8:53 am

      Nikki:

      Amazon may have used copies.

      The book may be helpful.

      I pray for your good health.

      I hope you are in touch with a counselor.

      Warm regards.

      Ken Samples

  5. February 12, 2021 at 6:24 pm

    Thank you. I needed this.

    • February 13, 2021 at 3:28 pm

      You’re welcome.

      Peace and hope be with you.

      Ken Samples

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