Does suicide send you straight to hell?

by K.W. Leslie, 29 July 2020

Years ago I taught at a Christian junior high. We had the usual classes you’ll find at most schools, plus bible classes and a weekly chapel service. Principals led most chapels, but the last year of our junior high program (before the school phased it out and I went on to teach fourth grade), our principal handed off the duties to various guest preachers. Earnest guys… but let’s be blunt: Some of ’em didn’t know what they were talking about. Some churches have no educational standards, and’ll let anyone babysit pastor the youth.

One of our regular chapel speakers was a youth pastor, the husband of one of our school’s daycare teachers. As far as theology is concerned, my eighth graders knew more. Not just ’cause I trained them; he really was that ignorant.

One week this guy was talking about salvation, and he let slip that if you commit suicide, you go to hell. It wasn’t his main point, but one of our seventh-graders did catch it and question him about it: “You go to hell for suicide?”

“Yes you do,” he said, and went on.

Once the eighth-graders were back in my classroom, one of ’em asked, “You don’t really go to hell for suicide, right?”

ME. “What’re you saved by, God’s grace or good deeds?
SHE. “Grace.”
ME. “Any of your evil deeds gonna send you to hell if you have God’s grace?”
SHE. “No.”
ME. “Suicide gonna send you to hell if you have God’s grace?”
SHE. “No.”
ME. “Okay then.”
SHE. “Well, why’d he say suicide will send you to hell?”
ME. “Because somebody told him that, and he believed it. He didn’t bother to ask questions and get to the truth like you’re doing. He doesn’t know any better.”

Some of the kids were looking in surprise at one another—Pastors can be WRONG?—and if they didn’t know this yet, best they learn it now. We’re all wrong in one way or another. No exceptions. And when you catch someone getting it wrong, ask questions. “Where in the bible does it say that?” usually does the job, although a lot of times they do have a proof text—which they’re quoting out of context.

But I digress. The youth pastor’s belief is surprisingly common among a whole lot of Christians. The rationale is simple… but graceless.

Saved by confession.

Works like yea: You’re saved by grace, right? This, they’ll concede. We don’t save ourselves; God does the saving. So how do we get grace? Easy: We ask God for it, and he grants it.

And every time we pray, let’s be sure to ask God’s forgiveness for every sin we’ve recently committed, and every good deed we’ve left undone. He’ll totally forgive us; we’re clean. Now, go and sin no more. Otherwise… we’ll be unclean again, and now we gotta apologize to God all over again. He’ll forgive us all over again, but do try to stop sinning.

Sounds good? It won’t in a moment.

Now what if we die before asking God’s forgiveness for the most recent batch of sins we committed? Say you just left the accountant’s office after lying a whole bunch about your taxes. Or nothing so dramatic; you just told various white lies throughout the day, and just haven’t got round to confessing them yet. Then you stepped into the street, got hit by a distracted Uber driver, and had no time for a last-second “Save me Jesus!”—you were dead on impact. What happens then?

Right you are: You still got sins on your soul. God forgave everything up to the last time you confessed your sins, but you’re still on the hook for everything since. And God can’t abide sin… oo it’s off to hell with you.

So wait: We can spend our entire lives following Jesus, carefully and devoutly, and one little mishap can plunge us into fiery hell? What kind of grace is that?

Well it’s not grace. It’s good works.

Yep, turns out we imagine we’ve been saved because we regularly performed the good work of apologizing to God for our sins. And I’m not saying it’s a good work we shouldn’t do! The Christian life is meant to be one of repentance. But in this scenario, if there’s any lapse between repentance and death, we wind up un-saved.

This is how graceless Christians think. They don’t view God as loving and forgiving, but harsh and strict, and any little mistake will doom us. They’re the ones who claim suicides are going to hell. Because suicide is self-murder, and murder’s a sin. Ex 20.13 Either they killed themselves quickly, and had no time to repent; or slowly, but they didn’t bother to stop their coming death, so they weren’t all that repentant. Either way, suicides had sins on their souls. They’re going to hell.

Especially since John said murderers don’t have eternal life in them. 1Jn 3.15 Self-murder or not, suicide is considered a hell-worthy sin.

Thus for centuries Christians (more accurately Christianists, worried about how it’d look) refused to bury suicides in church graveyards. ’Cause these people were in hell, right? Why should their bodies mingle with those who are going to heaven? Why should they be confused for saints?

Didn’t matter if these suicides were suffering from clinical depression. (A subject, I should point out, which the average person nowadays still doesn’t entirely understand.) Didn’t matter if they were suffering from chronic pain, or from an abuser they didn’t imagine they could get away from; suffering makes no difference. Suicide is a sin, and puts you in the hot place, where the worm doesn’t die and the fire doesn’t go out. Mk 9.48

Is suicide a sin?

Now, a lot of the reason people today insist suicides don’t go to hell, has nothing to do with God’s grace. It’s because they don’t consider suicide a sin.

Usually it’s ’cause they’re pagan. They don’t care what the scriptures say, one way or the other. They’re sympathetic towards the suicides, and figure they killed themselves because they were suffering in some way. They figure God’ll be kind enough to comfort them in the afterlife after all their suffering on earth. (Well, most of the suicides. Not Adolf Hitler. He’s in hell.)

But the fact is the scriptures never specifically describe suicide as murder. For one very simple reason: If you permit yourself to die in order to save others, you actually are killing yourself. It is suicide. But you’re saving others, so that’s noble, and people immediately overlook the suicide—or even argue it’s not suicide, and can’t be suicide: You’re sacrificing yourself, which is the most selfless and noble thing you can do.

(It’s not actually what Jesus meant by “laying down your life for your friends.” Jn 15.13 He meant submission, not sacrifice. But yeah, dying for them can be a form of submission. Sometimes it applies. Not always though.)

Simply put, the bible puts suicide into a gray area. It always depends on circumstances. Just like homicide: Sometimes it’s murder. Sometimes not: When you shoot an attacker it’s self-defense. When you intentionally poison a rival, it’s just plain murder. Suicide’s the same way, so we gotta look at motives. If you’re trying to end your own suffering, most folks, including a number of Christians, consider it yet another form of self-defense. I don’t always agree: Same as when people shoot “attackers,” there’s often a non-fatal way to deal with the problem. But people didn’t wanna take that route; killing the bad guy is quicker and easier—and let’s be blunt: Some of ’em have always wanted to kill somebody, and this makes it nice ’n legal. Killing yourself has often been called the easy way out, because dealing with pain is hard. But unless they’re nuts, nobody likes pain. So they won’t call it self-murder: To them it’s justifiable homicide.

Now true, some people kill themselves to escape justice. A former pastor of mine shot himself before he could be arrested for fraud. He figured instead of going to jail, he’d go to heaven. That situation is a little hard to be sympathetic about. Hard to classify as self-defense. Hard to not call sin. The pure selfishness of it wipes away any gray area.

Jesus, as we know, came to save the world. Jn 3.17 He did so by sacrificing himself. He wasn’t a victim of circumstances: He was in total control of these circumstances. He could’ve put a stop to his death at any second. Mt 26.53-54 He chose not to.

John 10.17-18 KWL
17 “This is why the Father loves me: I put down my life so I can pick it up again.
18 Nobody takes it away from me; I put it down on my own.
I have the power to put it down, and the power to pick it up again.
I received this commission from my Father.”

But those who consider suicide a sin, do not wanna describe Jesus’s self-sacrifice as that. They’re gonna be outraged by the very idea.

And yet it’s what they themselves have always taught: Jesus was a willing sacrifice. Jesus was in complete control. Jesus is sovereign. Jesus could’ve stopped his death at any time. They’ll say all this stuff about him. They’ll just never say “let himself be killed” is the same as “killed himself.”

…That is, till someone waves a gun in front of a police officer, hoping to suffer “death by cop”—then it’s not the officer’s fault for shooting the apparent criminal. Or till someone signs a “do not resuscitate” form—then it’s not the doctor’s fault for doing nothing to revive the patient.

Fact is, suicide is sometimes sin, sometimes not. In an ideal world nobody should have to, or want to, kill themselves. Should never be necessary in God’s kingdom. But sometimes it happens, and yeah, we can judge the act as sinful or not.

If it’s a sin though, does that mean it nullifies grace?

Grace trumps all.

If suicide is just the latest selfish act in a person’s life, capping off a lifetime of disregarding God’s commands and taking him for granted, culminating a life of fruitlessness and gracelessness, there’s absolutely no evidence God will save this person. These suicides will likely go to hell. I say “likely” because we never know for certain: God can do whatever he wants, including save ’em anyway if he so chooses. Since they’re likely gonna hate heaven—and be very annoyed their death didn’t result in non-existence—I wouldn’t count on it.

But for everyone else: Thanks to Jesus, we know God forgave our past sins, our present sins, and our future sins. Not that this gives us a free pass on future sins: Keep avoiding sin. But when we do sin, we have Jesus, our advocate, who cleanses us. 1Jn 2.1-2

Our real, living relationship with Jesus means we’re not getting sent to hell on a technicality: “Well, you murdered yourself, which is a no-no, and died with an unconfessed sin on your conscience; guess that cancels out everything I’ve ever done since I sealed you with the Holy Spirit, so off to hell with you.” That makes no sense. Might to a legalist, or to anyone so graceless as to throw away a decades-long relationship over one poor decision. But not to God.

God isn’t like that. If we’re his friends—really friends, and not just suck-ups or hypocrites or people who think their orthodoxy will save them—we were never going to hell anyway. Suicide won’t tip the scales against us. Thanks to grace, God threw out those scales a long time ago.