Do people who commit suicide go to hell? It’s a question that haunts some of us, chills others and is rather simple to still others.
The Catholic Catechism addresses suicide beginning with article 2280. It offers the following statements:
2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
No one can properly express in words the unimaginable pain that might provide explanation for actions like suicide. It is a despair that stands completely alone. No one, therefore, can judge a person whose choice we cannot fathom, whose life we can remember, but cannot restore, and whose pain we cannot understand. There is seemingly no solidarity for us, the living who are left to remember the dead. There seems to be an impenetrable wall between us and those who take their own lives and we are often left wondering what might have driven them to such extremes. It’s something that stands beyond our scope of comprehension even when we have notes and apologies and answers, they never seem to be quite enough.
We the living have no true point of contact with these actions, even those of us who have been to the point of despair where we have contemplated the taking of our own lives, cannot adequately relate to the one who has done so. We must let the absurdity of the action stand aloof from all categorization, precisely because if we were to dissect it we would violate the inviolable, the inner consciousness of the person. Some angry preachers get up in their pulpits and call suicides cowards, and while that may be true of some, it’s certainly not the universal case, and it’s rather unbecoming to call someone a coward or the cause of their own destruction when their pain and suffering invite us to empathize and weep, not point fingers. Precisely because we cannot enter into this realm of solidarity and find ourselves in this despair it remains God’s, and what we must do with that understanding is look for the crucified Christ.
There are those of us who will be confronted by the ultimate questions, who will not be presented with answers, we will grasp at significance and find only silence. We will confront the sheer absurdity and pain and seeming meaninglessness of the universe. We will see that the universe doesn’t care whether our planet hiccups and 200,000 lose their lives in a single moment. Our planet doesn’t seem to care whether we live or die, and seems to us to be a terribly cruel and heartless place sometimes. Some of us will be confronted with the overwhelming sense of the meaninglessness of everything, and there are some who can bear it, others who cannot. Some of us will feel that we are God forsaken, and carry out the logical conclusion of that belief unto death. The very death of ourselves.
Suicide is the tragic victory of incomprehension over love. That is why we weep. When we feel God forsaken, or when we see those who act as though they are God Forsaken, we must find the love necessary to make room for them, not to push them away as though they were useless unbelievers. If we do not rightly stand in the gap for those who have taken their own lives, we’ve failed to understand the gospel, and the power of repentance that Jesus makes possible in this life, and in the one to come.
Jesus entered into the realm of God forsakenness. What we confess in the creed is that ‘He descended to hell.’ He enters the place of despair, He has to. Jesus in order to redeem humanity from despair must go into the lowest depths of what it means to be human and assume it all within Himself, even our despair, even the very forces that coerce us into destroying our bodies, which are God’s good creation. If Jesus is truly able to redeem us, He has to go into the lowest depths, even the depths where suicide reigns. As St. Athanasius point out, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” So even our lowest depths of despair, tragedy and pain have been united to God in the life, death burial and resurrection of this Jesus of Nazareth. If there was a time when God did not feel these things He certainly does after the incarnation. God has not just taken on skin, but our entire misery, our full despair, and the depths of our own indeterminate and unfathomable distance from Him, our very God-forsakenness.
Death is never easy. Losing loved ones is terrible, always. But, it is my opinion that sin does not get the last laugh. Not even in this case. The gospel clearly pokes fun at death, Paul writes that death has no victory and sin has no sting. They are already defeated, and thus we cannot speak of suicide as a victory for death, it’s inexcusable. If we see our talk about suicide not as a special case of death, but as a death, a case in which a life was violently taken from us we can begin to make better sense of what we stand for.
Suicide is certainly a sin, it is clearly a problem, one that we cannot abide to have cohere with the Christian life. But we must also not point fingers at the weak and distressed and blame them for those things which hold them hostage. That a person should arrive at such despair invites us to find a way to manifest the compassion of Jesus which can be the beginning of redemption for that situation.
I think the popular notion of suicide as an unforgivable sin is counter-intuitive to the gospel. This isn’t to create a Lassiez-faire free for all on suicide, because that is improper stewardship of the lives we’re given, and it is to ignore our nature as creatures. Suicide is a violation of the order of things, we are created beings, but our idea of suicide being an automatic ticket to hell falls short of the redemption that God makes possible in Jesus Christ.
If we are to take seriously that a suicide is not in their right mind often and they are driven by hopelessness and despair, sending them to hell in our minds is a surefire way not to help God redeem the creation and liberate it from sin and death, but to give sin and death the victory over that life by dismissing the real emotional trauma that has dulled a soul’s ability to hope. That’s the real tragedy. When our doctrines serve themselves instead of the life and reconciliation Jesus makes possible we’re making a mistake. The law does not serve itself, but life, and the reconciliation made possible by this Jesus whom we adhere to. If the law we lay down does not serve the life of Jesus, the life that his community is to embody in patience graciousness trust and kindness, we’re missing the point. A theology of suicide that isn’t founded in love is a terrible monster.
I think that we all might be pleasantly surprised that sin’s power over suicides is nil and we’ll see that God has liberated what humans thought irredeemable. The protestant tradition has a clear problem at this point because we tend to believe that there’s only life, and then heaven or hell. There’s no room for a suicide to repent and believe in this life, unless in some moment between pulling the trigger and the end of brain activity there’s a quick moment of repentance, but even that is suspect. When there’s no room for life after death to include repentance, you’ve already missed out on the possibility of drafting an adequate theology of suicide.
Love redeems and reconciles everything. That’s what we believe. He shall put all powers under his feet, even the ones that cause people to shoot themselves, or walk off bridges, and those powers shall have been overcome by His suffering, not our power for righteousness in ourselves. Those powers will have met their death in His wounds, not how well and politely we lived after we said we believed in Him, whatever that means.
Our hope has to be that they too will find redemption because it first found them. Because redemption has already been established and God has declared clean everything we thought unclean. Redemption has already taken place, inaugurated in the life and death and resurrection of this Jesus of Nazareth. He’s leading his victory march across time and space against sin and death, whether we are with Him or not.
Our hope isn’t optimistic, it just wants the best for others. It’s not a blind optimism that ignores reality, it’s a hope founded in love for others and our desire to bring them with us into redemption. Not heaven. Heaven isn’t good enough, not for me. When I hear of a suicide, I weep for justice, I grit my teeth hoping against hope for redemption. I know somewhere in my heart that something is not right, something has been stolen and it needs to be set right once again. It’s not a shallow way that allows for carelessness. I don’t think suicides automatically go to heaven or hell. That remains to be seen. However, suicide is one of the things that caused me as a Christian to take seriously the idea of purgatory. A chance to be free of the powers that held us bound in this life, and a chance to see once we’re free from them, the error of our ways. Purgatory isn’t an idea that balances out half good people, it’s the only thing that makes sense of having sins that need to be atoned for in this life or in the next.
Suicide is rough. It’s never an easy time for anyone, and preaching hellfire because of some idea someone had, we don’t even know who, that it was an unforgivable sin, is stupid. The crucified God points no fingers. His wounds do not exclude suicide. They welcome all our misery, into his wounded body, and ask us to take seriously the depths His love is willing to go to to bridge the gap between our own unloveliness and His infinite Loving-ness.
I know that the Jesus I’ve met is one that descends into the very depths of our despair and wants to be found there not in exalted places. He wants to be in the deepest darkness because if he can be found there he will liberate and redeem it. Like David says..”even if I make my bed in Hell you will be there.”
The god who redeems us, and makes his presence known even when we’re in hell, be it mental anguish solitary despair or the actual taking of one’s life, that’s the God of Jesus Christ. The God who bears our despair in His wounds, that is the God we see in Jesus Christ.
Our appropriate response is to pray for the dead. If we can find it in our hearts to pray “Lord have mercy on those who stand before you in judgment this day,” How much more merciful must God be to exceed our mercy? Surely if we can muster this compassion, Love Himself will not cast out based on arbitrary insanities. Our only hope is to pray for the dead, and for the Justice that has been stolen from them and from the living left to mourn.
I’d like to conclude with the following prayer which is taken from the Archdiocese of Dublin website.
READING Mark 15:33-37
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
When the sixth hour came there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?, which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? When some of those who stood by heard this, they said, Listen, he is calling on Elijah. Someone ran and soaked a sponge in vinegar and, putting it on a reed, gave it him to drink saying, Wait! And see if Elijah will come to take him down. But Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
We remember those who have taken their own lives:
May they come to know the tender compassion of the God who created them in love.
We lift up to the Lord those bereaved by the suicide of someone they love:
As they continue their journey may they meet Christ in the support of others.
We pray in hope for all:
May the Spirit of God open our ears to each other
and may the circle of light generated
shine in the dark places of our lives.
In our turmoil, pain and anguish let us know
that we are loved and accepted by you.
As the Good Shepherd you are searching for us
to carry us in your arms.
Jesus, our burden can never be too heavy for you;
you carried the cross of shame and humiliation.
Surround us with your protecting love
and lead us to confide our pain to another