Is there any hope in the world to come for those who take their own lives? Our entire extended family is reeling under a horrendous burden of pain, guilt, and confusion. My nephew-a college-bound high school senior, honor student, accomplished athlete, and respected leader of his church youth group-recently committed suicide. In addition to our grief, which is nearly overwhelming, we're struggling with agonizing questions about the fate of this young man's soul. Somewhere I heard that suicide is an "unforgivable sin," and that those who kill themselves have no chance of getting into heaven. Is that true?
Our hearts go out to you. It's obvious that you're hurting deeply. Before getting into doctrinal questions, we want to encourage you and the rest of your family to do everything possible to stop the bleeding and bind up your wounds. Your first concern should be to take deliberate steps to keep yourselves from falling into an even darker pit of despair and self-blame. Your friends at Focus on the Family are available to help you navigate that journey.
We suggest you begin by telling one another that your nephew's death was not your fault. Do this over and over again if necessary. Then, if you think it might be helpful, feel free to call and discuss your feelings with a member of our team. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone. They are available at this number.
You may also find it worth your while to seek the help of others who have walked this path before you. There are several reputable organizations and ministries that offer support groups for parents and family members of suicide victims. For further information, see the Web sites of the following groups: SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education); The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; The American Association of Suicidology; and The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program. It's important to fight any tendency you may have to withdraw into yourselves and "clam up" about the terrible thing that has happened to your family.
That said, we'll return to the question you've raised. Theologically speaking, suicide is a difficult and thorny problem. Down through the centuries, discussions of this subject have given rise to a wide variety of opinion. Equally committed believers and equally astute biblical scholars have come to different conclusions. It isn't hard to see why. Everyone can agree that suicide is a sin, since it clearly involves the unauthorized taking of a human life. But is this particular sin qualitatively different from any other sin? Is it somehow ineligible to come under the healing and redeeming power of Jesus' death on the cross? That's where the rub comes.
Some Christians have said yes. They have argued that the act of ending one's own life is an unforgivable sin. Why? Because it leaves no opportunity for repentance. And repentance is generally understood to be a necessary precondition of forgiveness. As you and your relatives know all too well, this line of reasoning is anything but reassuring to families impacted by suicide.
Fortunately, there is another way of looking at it. Many theologians contend that, for a believer, the atoning efficacy of Christ's blood covers every sin and every mistake he or she has ever committed or ever will commit. That includes past, present, and future. This can be a comforting reflection in the case of suicide victims who, like your nephew, are known to have been faithful and dedicated followers of Jesus.
We aren't in a position to tell you which of these two opinions is correct. That's something you'll have to decide for yourself. But we can say this much: the Scriptures state plainly that God's grace and mercy are beyond our understanding. They declare that His judgments are unsearchable and past all finding out (Romans 11:33). They also assure us that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord-"neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing" (Romans 8:38, 39). That, as far as we're concerned, is the bottom line where your nephew is concerned. If you have any doubts about that aspect of the question, we hope you won't hesitate to call the number provided above and discuss them with one of our staff counselors.
Aftershock: Help, Hope and Healing in the Wake of Suicide (book)
GriefShare - GriefShare groups meet weekly to help people face the pain of loss and move toward rebuilding their life.
New Hope Telephone Counseling Center - 1-714-NEW-HOPE (639-4673) is a 24-hour, Christian counseling service.