With the death of Robin Williams, many people are talking a great deal about the tragedy of suicide. Sadly, many of us have known people who have taken their own lives. The shroud of darkness that covers a family that experiences this horrible kind of death can be overwhelming.
Often during these times questions arise. Is it a mortal sin? Is that person going straight to hell? Can they ever be forgiven?
But how do we talk about suicide? If we speak too harshly we might wound people too deeply who are already heartbroken. If we speak too lightly, we might give the impression that we tacitly approve of such an act.
So what are we to do?
I write now not as a mental health expert, but as a theologian and teacher. I write based on those experiences alone. If you or a loved one is struggling with this issue, please know that there is zero shame in seeking counseling.
Is suicide a mortal sin?
Mortal sins cut off our relationship to God. They are sins that are so far beyond the pale that the make our soul damnable. The Church has always taught that anyone who dies in a state of mortal sin would go straight to hell.
Does that include suicide?
Before we answer this, we should remember what the three components of a mortal sin. All three of the below must be present for a sin to be mortal. If even one of them is missing the act is not a mortal sin.
- Serious Matter = the act must be gravely wrong.
- Full Knowledge = the person must know that the act is gravely wrong when they do it.
- Full Consent of the Will = the act must be done completely freely by the person.
The first component is objective. It is something that we can all observe and judge. And suicide is without a doubt a serious matter. It is self murder.
It is also an act of ultimate selfishness. The person who commits suicide takes the one and only life God has given and throws it away. And the person who does it does not take into account the black hole they will leave in the lives of those around them.
Suicide destroys more lives than the one who does it. It tears apart all those who loved that person. It tears them apart in a way that other tragic deaths do not. Someone who commits suicide must therefore put their own pain and anguish above others.
It is also an act of foolishness. It is based on the idea that things will not get any better. But none of us knows the future. It might get worse. And it might get better. No one knows. Killing yourself means that you are claiming knowledge (things will never get better) that you could not possibly have.
Are these words too harsh? When speaking about the objective truth about the sin I do not think so.
So does the person who commits suicide go to hell?
Well, we need to look at the other two components of a mortal sin.
The second two, full knowledge and full consent, are subjective. I can see easily whether something is objectively a serious matter. But I cannot see into a person soul to tell if they have full knowledge or consent.
If either of those two components are missing, then the sin is not mortal and there is hope for salvation.
Perhaps the person did not truly know that suicide is a mortal sin. Maybe they come from a culture (like medieval Japan) that glorified suicide. Perhaps no one told them that it was such a terrible sin. In Biblical times, self murder was so abhorrent that only three people in the entire Bible do it (Abimelech, King Saul, and Judas). But nowadays with the secularization of culture and the rabid effort to not stigmatize, it is possible that someone could not know how deadly a sin it is.
But the main focus is usually on full consent of the will. If you are unable to control your actions or if something is clouding your judgment to the point where you cannot think clearly, then you may not have full consent of the will.
I often think about 9/11. The image that haunts me the most are the ones of people throwing themselves out of the towers. I literally shudder imagining that moment, surrounded by thick darkness, choking smoke, approaching fire, and the sound of the structure slowly giving way. And then they see the open window. I know this is unpleasant, but put yourself in that situation. Could you think clearly? Could I? I don’t know.
And then there is the issue of depression. This disease is so horrible in that it wraps itself around the soul and covers it like a shroud. But it is a disease, which means that the person suffering from it is not responsible for the disease.
Is it possible for someone suffering from depression to lack full consent of the will when killing themselves? Yes.
Notice how in these last two components of mortal sin I am being circumspect and speaking only in possibilities and not sureties. That is because I can only speak in the abstract. I cannot see into anyone’s soul.
Is it possible for someone who commits suicide to go to heaven? Yes, if they lack either full knowledge or full consent of the will. But is it possible that they will go to hell? Yes, if they have both full knowledge and full consent of the will.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that if we are to make an error, we should err on the side of mercy. We must be very clear about the truth of this tragic and horrible sin we call suicide. Truth is truth and the truth will set us free. Maybe speaking frankly about the horror of it will serve as a wake-up call for those who romanticize it.
But let us offer the deceased up to the mercy of God. And God is more merciful than any man.
Copyright 2014, W.L. Grayson