“God’s way is to speak the truth in love. As Christians we can be great on the ‘love’ part, but the ‘truth’ part is more often than not lacking, simply because we’re immersed in a culture where any pointing out of right and wrong is said to be called “mean” and “judgmental”. (Comment on Michael Patton’s “Asphyxiation of Hope: Michael Warren.”
In the Garden of Eden, Adam ran – away from God. The Bible doesn’t tell us whether Adam, at a later stage, ran back. Ever since, sinners have been running away from God. Some sinners, through God’s mercy, run to God, to Christ. Some of these Christians run to and fro between faith and doubt, between hope and despair. The most desperate human act is arguably suicide. The question I deal with here is whether a Christian who commits suicide will hear these wonderful words from the King: “’Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
The suicide of Matthew Warren
A week ago I attended a memorial service for someone who had killed herself. What the preacher said disturbed me very much because it seemed so out of kilter with scripture. I wasn’t going to write anything about it until I heard today that Rick Warren’s youngest son, Matthew, had also committed suicide. Here is an excerpt from a short report on Matthew Warren in the New York Times:
“The 27-year-old son of the Rev. Rick Warren, one of America’s most influential religious leaders, committed suicide, Mr. Warren said in an e-mail released on Saturday to staff members and congregants at his 20,000-member Saddleback Valley Community Church.
Rick Warren said in the e-mail that his youngest son, Matthew, had “struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts.” After a happy evening with his parents, the e-mail said, “in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life. Mr. Warren said that he and his wife, Kay, often marveled at Matthew Warren’s “courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said ‘Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’ but he kept going for another decade.”
If Matthew Warren was sure he was going to heaven, it seems that, in his setting, he would have believed, but not necessarily, that he was a Christian, and thus a stranger in this world and a citizen of God’s kingdom, for that is how the Bible describes Christians.
Christians as strangers in the world
The question is, how do Christians “show their colours” (Martyn Lloyd Jones, “Privileges and responsibilities”). The Christian is involved in the cares and worries of this world but does not allow them, with God’s grace, to choke the word: “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). Christians – those who say they believe in/trust Christ – are strangers and pilgrims in this world but citizens of God’s kingdom. Christians are in the world but not of this foreign world. They are sojourners – Gershoms (The name Gershom consists of ger and shom. Ger means alien, exile, stranger, sojourner; shom could mean either “there” (sham) or “name” (shem). “[Ruel] gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land’ ” (Exodus, 2:16-22).
“No person, writes Jonathan Edwards, who seeks to go on a pilgrimage to a glorious and exotic place will take up permanent residence at an inn along the way.” Succoth (feast of Tabernacles) commemorates Israel’s sojourn in the midbar wilderness (Leviticus 23:43). Succoth reminds us that we are merely sojourners on this earth (1 Peter 2:11): “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
The preacher’s sermon
What was it in the preacher’s sermon (mentioned earlier) that got my theologicals in a spin? In brief, the preacher said that the person who had killed herself believed; “she will definitely be in heaven, she lost a battle but won the war.” The preacher ended by appealing to the congregation, “some (of you) will be raised up to eternal life others to damnation.”
The gist of the sermon: believing in Jesus is the issue. By “believing in” I think he meant more than believing in the facts of Jesus as saviour – the devils believe that – but trusting in Jesus as saviour. So, the upshot is that as long as you trust Jesus as your saviour, it’s ok to commit suicide, as long as you have tried your best to win the battle of (this) life. But if you lose it, through suicide, in this case, you still win the war, and so winning abundant life, eternal life.
Here is the story of Hans Herzl (Theodore Herzl’s son), who had converted to Christianity but also suffered from deep depression. In Bordeaux, the day after his sister Pauline’s death, he wrote the following letter:
“If a ritual can really calm our spirits and give us the illusion of being in the company of our beloved dead once more I can’t think of anything better than a visit to the Temple: there I can pray for my parents, ask their forgiveness [Hans’ father hated religion] and repent my apostasy before God. I am destitute and sick, unhappy and bitter. I have no home. Nobody pays any attention to the words of a convert. I cannot suddenly turn my back on a community which offered me its friendship…“Without prejudice, even if all my physical and moral impulses urge me to: I have burned all my bridges… What good is the penance which the Church has ordained for my “spiritual healing”! I torture my body in vain: my conscience is torturing me far worse. My life is ruined… Nobody would regret it if I were to put a bullet through my head. Could I undo my errors that way? I realize how right my father had been when he once said: “Only the withered branches fall off a tree – the healthy ones flourish.”
Hans was 39 years old (1891- 1930) but didn’t wish to survive. The day after the death of his sister Pauline in Bordeaux and thirty-five years after Theodor, his father’s dream about crowning him King of Israel, Hans wrote a short note to the hotel manager, in which he apologised for the mayhem he was about to unleash. Then “with a single gunshot, pierced the head his father had dreamed would wear the crown of Israel.” (Hans Herzl (3): Catholicism, liberal Judaism and death).
Hans’ life – indeed the lives of the whole Herzl family – was consumed by tragedy (I wrote much on the Herzl family here). Hans said: I realize how right my father had been when he once said: “Only the withered branches fall off a tree – the healthy ones flourish.” Contrast this with:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-6, ESV).
John MacArthur on suicide
Here are some thoughts on suicide from John MacArthur’s “Grace to you” (my italics):
Suicide is a grave sin equivalent to murder (Exodus 20:13; 21:23), but it can be forgiven like any other sin. And Scripture says clearly that those redeemed by God have been forgiven for all their sins–past, present, and future (Colossians 2:13-14). Paul says in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. So if a true Christian would commit suicide in a time of extreme weakness, he or she would be received into heaven (Jude 24). But we question the faith of those who take their lives or even consider it seriously–it may well be that they have never been truly saved. That’s because God’s children are defined repeatedly in Scripture as those who have hope (Acts 24:15; Romans 5:2-5, 8:24; 2 Corinthians 1:10, etc.) and purpose in life (Luke 9:23-25; Romans 8:28; Colossians 1:29). And those who think of committing suicide do so because they have neither hope nor purpose in their lives. Furthermore, one who repeatedly considers suicide is practicing sin in his heart (Proverbs 23:7), and 1 John 3:9 says that “no one who is born of God practices sin.” And finally, suicide is often the ultimate evidence of a heart that rejects the lordship of Jesus Christ, because it is an act where the sinner is taking his life into his own hands completely rather than submitting to God’s will for it. Surely many of those who have taken their lives will hear those horrifying words from the Lord Jesus at the judgment–“I never knew you; Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). So though it may be possible for a true believer to commit suicide, we believe that is an unusual occurrence. Someone considering suicide should be challenged above all to examine himself to see whether he is in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).”
I comment on “So if a true Christian would commit suicide in a time of extreme weakness, he or she would be received into heaven (Jude 24).” Here is Jude 1:24 (there is only one chapter in Jude): “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” Obviously, the “Grace to you” writer (John MacArthur?) would not regard suicide as stumbling – and certainly not falling.
John Piper on suicide
The following is the final part from a funeral meditation given by John Piper for a member of Bethlehem Baptist Church who committed suicide in 1981. Identifying information has been removed.
“God’s ways are strange and we must be slow to pass judgment on his wisdom and love. There is great mercy and long-suffering and patience and forgiveness with God. Anyone who will trust him can be made new. Finally the question: What about our friend? Was she made new when she put her life into the hands of God? We have good reason to think she was on the new road. Not instant change, but on the road. The wounds of sin don’t heal easily. But then came the suicide. And in our minds there lingers the question: Is she safe with Christ? Or does suicide bring condemnation? Jesus has a word for us here: ‘Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness but is guilty of eternal sin’ (Mark 3:28–29). Only one thing puts a person beyond forgiveness: blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. But this is not any single act, for Jesus says any sins and blasphemies will be forgiven those who follow him. No. Blasphemy against the Spirit of God is treating the Spirit as dirt by continually and persistently resisting and rejecting this call to repentance until death. No single sin, not even suicide, evicts a person from heaven into hell. One thing does: continual rejection of God’s Spirit. Our friend, we believe, gave up that resistance and accepted the forgiveness of Christ. What sort of momentary weakness, what brief cloud of hopelessness caused her to take her life remains a mystery. But no one can say this: that her final act is unforgivable. Nor any other act by any of us. For Jesus said: all sins will be forgiven the sons of men if they give up resisting the Spirit and look to Jesus for salvation.”
Piper said: “No single sin, not even suicide, evicts a person from heaven into hell. One thing does: continual rejection of God’s Spirit.” The problem is that suicide is often not a single act but a long process. Granted that there have been single (mostly frantic) acts. I think of the WWI pilot who shoots himself in his burning plane heading for the ground. I’m sure you can think of many situations.
Suicide and human freedom
In “Suicide and the Silence of Scripture” (Christianity Today), the writer says:
“Suicide is confusing for Christians. Although the general thrust of scripture is clearly opposed to the taking of one’s own life, it provides no clear disapproval of the few cases of apparent suicide it recounts. Suicide also confuses us because some of those we believe to be strong in the faith have considered it as a ‘way out.’…Must we believe that those who have taken their own lives suffer the eternal punishment of God? Nothing in scripture drives us to that conclusion. Of the seven or so suicides reported in Scripture, most familiar are Saul, Samson, and Judas. Saul apparently committed suicide to avoid dishonor and suffering at the hands of the Philistines. He is rewarded by the Israelites with a war hero’s burial, there being no apparent disapproval of his suicide. And while there is no hero’s burial for Judas Iscariot. Scripture is once more silent on the morality of this suicide of remorse. The suicide of Samson has posed a greater problem for Christian theologians. Both Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the case and concluded that Samson’s suicide was justified as an act of obedience to a direct command of God.”
With regard to Judas Iscariot, He was chosen, but not to be saved. He is called the Son of Perdition (Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:21; John 17:12).
“Objections to suicide have a long history in the church. But the idea that suicide is an unforgivable sin is less easily traced. Among the church fathers, Saint Augustine was the most prominent and influential opponent of suicide. And early church synods declared that bequests from those who committed suicide (as well as the offering of those who attempted suicide) ought not to be accepted; and throughout the medieval period, proper Christian burial was refused those who committed suicide.”
And here is the pivotal paragraph:
“We must understand suicide as free and uncoerced actions engaged in for the purpose of bringing about one’s own death. Once we define it this way, it is easy to grasp the church’s clear teaching throughout the centuries that suicide is morally wrong and ought never to be considered by the Christian. Life is a gift from God. To take one’s own life is to show insufficient gratitude. Our lives belong to God; we are but stewards. To end my own life is to usurp that the prerogative that is God’s alone. Suicide, the church has taught, is ordinarily a rejection of the goodness of God, and it can never be right to reject God’s goodness.”
Having said that, the writer, adds:
“If we define suicide as consisting of only free and uncoerced actions, we must ask a series of questions as we try to understand any particular suicide: To what extent do we know the suicide in question was genuinely free? Could pain (either physical or emotional) have coerced the individual to do what he otherwise might not have done? But even if we could know that an act of suicide was genuinely free, can we know that the aim of the act was indeed one’s own death rather than a misguided cry for help? Can we know that the suicide believed this action would really kill? These questions lead us to withhold judgment in many cases; but more telling yet is this question: Did the individual aim at removing himself from God’s goodness by suicide? Was this an act of suicide directly aimed at saying no to God? Or was it rather a tragically misguided attempt at saying yes to God? Eternal punishment is reserved, Christians believe, for those who directly reject God and reject God as a consistent pattern in life, not merely in a solitary final act. Every suicide is not a rejection of God’s goodness. Indeed, in many cases suicide is mistakenly chosen to bring one nearer to God. We cannot say that such a motive for suicide is correct. Nor can we say that a person who makes this tragic mistake has removed herself forever from the grace of God.”
(This article originally appeared in the March 20, 1987, issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Thomas D. Kennedy was visiting assistant professor of religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is now associate professor of philosophy at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana).
Suicide and the regenerated sinner
My question is: can someone who has been regenerated (born again) by God be so overcome by the worries and cares of this world to commit suicide? Scriptures that speak to a person’s situation – depression, bereavement, poverty and so forth – are often the ones that attract one to the Gospel, but not always, for what is irrelevant to us may be, and indeed often is, relevant to God. God sovereignly chooses both means and ends, which may either connect to our situation or become a gradual realisation, or sometimes arrive as a bolt from the blue, where the last thing on your mind is Christ. Archibald Alexander explains:
“The question is sometimes asked, is regeneration an instantaneous or a gradual work? This is not a merely speculative question. If this is a gradual work, the soul may for some time, yea, for years, be hanging between life and death, and be in neither one state or nor the other, which is impossible. Suppose a dead man to be brought to life by a divine power, as Lazarus was, could there be any question of whether the communication of life was immediate? Even if the vital principle was so weak as not to manifest itself at once, yet its commencement must be instantaneous; because it may be truly asserted that such a man is dead or alive; if the former, life has not commenced, and whenever that state ceases, the man lives, for there is no intermediate state. So in regard to the communication of spiritual life, the same thing may be asserted; for whatever regeneration is, the transition from a state of nature to a state of grace must occur at some point of time, the moment before the sinner was unregenerate” (Archibald Alexander, A Practical View of Regeneration).
The Bible says that once a person has been regenerated, there cannot be any turning way from trust in Christ. One “cannot” turn away because one wills not to turn way. Yes, I mean once saved always saved. This is a clear teaching of scripture: “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). This, you may object, all depends on whether the person wants to stay, for, of course, Jesus will not turn away anyone who desires to stay. I reply, Jesus says a few verses later in Chapter 6, “”No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Now, if Jesus raises up on the last day all those he draws, then they will certainly always (want) to have faith in Him, and always (want to) remain steadfast. Jesus guarantees that they will remain steadfast, because he says that he will definitely (in the English of yesteryear, “he shall”) give them eternal life.
”Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will… being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will (Ephesians 1:5, 1:11). “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (John 6:39).
All these Bible verses apply to those who will inherit eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.
I return where I began – the sermon at the memorial of a suicide, Recall the preacher: believing in (trusting) Jesus is what he regards as the ultimate issue. As long as you trust Jesus as your saviour, it’s ok to commit suicide. As long as you have tried your best to win the battle of (this) life, it’s ok to commit suicide. So, when you lose the battle of this life and decide to end it, you – as long as you trust Jesus, will win the war and receive your reward in heaven.
It is hard to reconcile 1. the preacher’s certainty that this person, who succumbed to the cares and worries of this life, is now definitely in the bosom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with 2. the fact that those who believe in/trust Christ have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,” You might ask, “But didn’t Jesus take his own life? No, he gave it – as a ransom for many – to take it up again.
“Put me in a den of atheists. Put me with those who hate me. Put me in a crowd of those who hate God and my Lord, Jesus Christ. My faith will remain. But put me in a crowd of those who are all calling on their God to save them from doubt, pain, and depression and my faith will be in quick-sand with them. Why? Because I don’t know what to do.”( Michael Patton THE ASPHYXIATION OF HOPE: MATTHEW WARREN (1986-2013)).
Patton’s URL is http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/. His faith will be in quicksand, he says. And his mind? Difficult to reclaim from quicksand. How does one help those whose mind is made up to to end their life? Have they lost their mind and, in the process their freedom to struggle on? Scripture knows best: ”Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 43:5).
Once at a pastors’ conference, relates John MacArthur, a man asked me, ‘What’s the real secret of Grace Community Church’s vitality and growth?’ I said, ‘The clear and forceful teaching of the Word.’ I was shocked when he countered, ‘Don’t give me that! I tried it and it doesn’t work. What’s the real secret.’” (John MacArthur, “Our sufficiency in Christ,” Struik Christian Books, 1991, pp. 118-119).
What then is a Christian, that is, someone with a saving faith? Someone whom God secures in hope to the end. Does God secure in hope to the end a suicide who claims to have Christ at the centre of their lives? God knows.
Since the publication of this article, Christianity Today (13 April 2013) published the article When Suicide Strikes in the Body of Christ? Here is a relevant excerpt:
“Those ministering to the grieving should not offer certainty that a loved one who died by suicide is in heaven, but they shouldn’t definitively state that he’s bound for eternal condemnation, either. The simple truth is that only God knows his fate. To say otherwise is beyond our knowledge” (Al Hsu).