Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some Thoughts About Suicide, Salvation and Compassion

Recently, I read a brief post at a Facebook page for one of my Facebook friends. The original post had stated that one of that person's Facebook friends was experiencing depression and "suicidal tendencies" in response to the recent death of a friend. Prayers for that person were solicited.

A guy named Pat Taylor responded as follows:

To Claire: Suicide solves nothing.. it is not an end to pain. It is not a solution, but a lie. Hang in there... please...get through this. Your friend is in good hands; the hands of a merciful and loving God. I know it's His will that you stay around for a while because people love you and you're important to them. I know the gut wrenching pain that seems to only be healed by unconsciousness. I've been there, really.... Please, the Lord desires you to stay on earth, and for good reason. If at all possible, don't doubt our Father, but call on Him.... reason with Him... He knows what's going on, and He loves you and He loves your friend who's passed on.

I was frankly curious about how Pat or anyone else could authoritatively say that suicide solved nothing. To know that for certain, one would have to have successfully committed suicide one's self, or one would have to have conversed with someone else who fit that description. I don't know anyone who's still alive who can state with any certainty that he or she knows on the basis of personal experience what happens to a person after he or she successfully commits suicide. One might say that people who try to commit suicide and who fail to do so still continue to have the same problems they had before, but that is hardly surprising, and it is utterly unrelated to the question of whether or not successful suicide achieves its objective. Since one is utterly presumptuous to claim to know the answer to that question on the basis of personal experience, the only other basis I can think of would be direct revelation. As a Christian, I believe that the only authoritative source of revelation is God's word. Therefore, the following was my earlier response to Pat's comment:

Pat, your statement to the effect that suicide isn't an end to pain is a commonly heard sentiment, but it seems to be a theological statement to the effect that suicide automatically dooms people to hell regardless of whether or not they are Christians, since we know from the Bible that there will be no pain or sorrow in heaven.

I know of only one scripture (repeated in three different gospels) which refers to an unforgivable sin, and it has nothing to do with suicide. It's in Matthew 12:31-32, Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, and it refers to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (which, in context, amounted to attributing the work of God to Satan). Some others argue that the "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" is just another way of saying "rejecting Christ as Savior", although I'm not sure that the context supports that interpretation. In any event, it seems to me that it's a real stretch to equate "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" with suicide, since suicide isn't even mentioned in those passages of scripture.

Arguing that suicide dooms people to hell also seems to me to contradict the known character attributes of God. God is compassionate towards hurting people. The vast majority of suicide victims are hurting people who might never have considered suicide in the first place if Christians who claimed to care for hurting people actually demonstrated that concern in practical ways, which would vary in their specifics on a case by case basis.

It's quite true to say that many Christian leaders have opposed suicide, and some have even claimed that it was an unforgivable sin; but Christian leaders have disagreed with one another about a good many things, so my own standard is what God's word actually says, not what fallible Christian leaders say about what God's word says. Show me chapter and verse that says that suicide victims all go to hell regardless of whether or not they had accepted Christ as savior, and I'll revise my opinion. As far as I know, no such scripture exists.

No one with any intelligence or compassion would argue that we ought not to be deeply concerned when people express suicidal thoughts. But telling fellow Christians that they'll go to hell if they kill themselves constitutes taking it upon ourselves to make definitive statements about a matter about which the Bible is silent. Furthermore, it's an abication of our moral responsibilities (described in the Bible as "the law of Christ) to bear one another's burdens. It's not a fulfillment of those responsibilities. It also implies that suicide is even worse than murder, since we know that murder is a forgivable (albeit serious) sin. Personally, I find that hard to swallow.

Want to help your friend? Then don't threaten or even imply hellfire. Doing so will just make things worse than it is already.

Do be a shoulder to cry on, and offer any practical support which may be needed. In other words, obey the Golden Rule by treating the person the way you'd want to be treated if the shoe was on the other foot.

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, Pat Taylor responded poorly to my criticism. In his first response to me, he denied that what he'd written implied in any way that people who committed suicide would go to hell even if they'd been Christians in this life. Later, after I'd responded to that denial, he responded by saying that I had "issues". Well, yeah, I've admitted as much (as I did in an earlier blog post).

One of my "issues" is that I am very annoyed when people make statements which imply things which they aren't willing (or able) to acknowledge.If one says that suicide doesn't solve problems or make pain go away, then it seems to me that one is implying that people who commit suicide won't go to heaven, since we know from the scriptures that heaven will be a perfect place where pain and problems no longer exist. Therefore, it seems to me that one is implying that those people will go to hell. Is that such a difficult concept to grasp? It seems like a "no brainer" to me.

I resent having to take the time to try to explain such simple concepts to obtuse individuals who aren't honest enough with themselves to admit that they have made extremely uncompassionate and judgmental statements which have no solid scriptural basis, and which serve no useful purpose. In my opinion, Pat Taylor's initial statement most certainly wouldn't deter one single person from committing suicide if that person was truly suicidal. In fact, I suspect that it might provoke such a person to carry through with such plans, inasmuch as it is just one more example of the fact that we live in a world full of people who lack empathy for hurting people, and who don't understand why the idea of escaping from this world of sin and pain to a far better world where such things ostensibly don't exist might appeal to people who feel desperate.

Do I have issues? Yes, I do. Show me a hurting person, and I will show you a person with issues, especially if the hurt could have been avoided. But show me a person who lacks empathy for hurting or depressed people, and I will show you a person with even bigger issues, even if he or she isn't willing or able to admit it. In my opinion, my issues with regard to this particular subject pale in comparison with Pat's.

One other comment. In one of his replies to me, Pat asserted that suicide was tantamount to murder. This seems to me to be a truly ludicrous thing to say. Just as my own possessions are mine to use as I see fit even though another person's possessions are not mine to use as I see fit, it seems to me that the same could be said with regard to my life. Just as a person is regarded as a thief when he takes another person's possessions without permission, whereas he has no need to ask permission to take and use his own possessions, the same principle would apply to a person's right to take his or her own life if that seems to be preferable to continuing to live in a world where hope seems to have evaporated. To be a prisoner in one's own skin is a truly intolerable situation.

We often praise people (in certain circumstances) when they take the lives of other human beings (e.g., when such killings occur in the context of wars or in the context of capital punishment), but we condemn people if they take their own lives because they are miserable and there seems to be no relief in sight. Many people seem to be unable to imagine that there could ever be extenuating circumstances which might justify suicide, even though they have no difficulty imagining that there might be extenuating circumstances which would justify murder in the name of justice or self-defense, or even (in the case of abortion) in the name of "choice". That seems perverse to me. Surely taking the lives of other human beings, even in the most extreme extenuating circumstances, ought to be regarded as much worse than taking one's own life, since personal autonomy is normally regarded as every person's right!

As for the idea that it deters people from committing suicide for other people to imply that they will go to hell if they do so, I would simply observe that roughly 2,000 people commit suicide throughout the world every day, according to one fairly credible online source. That's roughly 200,000 people every 100 days (or about the same number of people as the total number of recent fatalities in Haiti). If deterrence is the objective of people who make such statements, that strategy plainly isn't working.

Of course, efficacy isn't the sole measure of legitimacy, and we ought to speak the truth as we see it, whether it accomplishes anything in the way of deterrence or not. But when we do so, we should be sure that we have a solid basis for believing that what we say is in fact true. When it comes to matters regarding eternity, that solid basis has to be rooted in God's word (and not just what other people say about what God's word means), since God alone knows such things with any amount of certainty. So again, I repeat: Show me definitive and persuasive biblical proof that such a fate awaits all people who commit suicide, even if they've accepted Christ's forgiveness for their sins, and I will revise my opinion on the subject.

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