When I Asked My Pastor If People Who Die by Suicide Go to Hell
If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
I have spent most of my life struggling with treatment-resistant depression and severe anxiety. It wasn’t until college that I sought out professional help. While it was an important decision, it didn’t immediately change things — and less than a year after beginning psychiatric care, I attempted suicide. My attempt was “as close to death as possible, without dying” according to the emergency physician. In other words I had “almost succeeded.” It’s a twisted statement to think about, the idea that someone could “succeed” at such a thing, but those were the words they used.
Over 15 years later I was still struggling with those things. I still had times of severe depression where I no longer had the strength to live. I went to a psychiatric facility three separate times to save my life, but still there were times I didn’t want to be saved. In an interesting twist of fate, I was soon “saved” in a different way — I found God and chose to become a Christian, after years of refusing to even contemplate such a thing.
Now, finding God is not to say that any of those things changed, because they didn’t. Not at all. I still struggled just as severely with my mental health just as strongly as ever before. Becoming a Christian was not some quick fix idea to change it all. None of my struggles actually got better — but I had a new question to add to the mix:
Do people who die by suicide automatically go to hell?
Is heaven reserved for those who don’t end their own life?
It was a question I had never much cared about before, because when I was ready to end my life I was already living in “hell.” But now I wanted to know. I was curious how my pastor would answer such a difficult question. So just a week after a severe depressive episode, during which I reached out to him about how suicidal I felt, I asked him that very question. And his answer was a complete game changer regarding the struggles of Christianity and suicide.
My pastor is a strong and compassionate man. He is always accepting and supportive of my struggles and encourages me to be open and to question the things I don’t understand. So I knew he would have some sort of response to my question, but what would it be? The email he sent me back was an insightful glimpse into what I was really asking him:
“My answer to this question is different today than it has been in the past. Before, I would have emphatically said that ‘no, suicide will not send you to hell’… but today, my answer is different. I know, I realize, I fear, that my words have more power than they have ever had before… I don’t know if I could ever say to someone, ‘It’s ok to take your life, you won’t go to hell,’ because if that person ever did take their life, I’m just not sure how I would recover from that.”
At first I interpreted his response as saying he was “uncertain” if someone who dies by suicide will automatically be barred from heaven. But after thinking about it, I realized that was not what he was saying. He was saying that he was afraid to answer that question because he didn’t want his words to somehow make someone feel more inclined to take their life by saying that they will still go to heaven. He realized the power of his words like never before, after seeing me so close to taking my own life just a week before. It was something that made him rethink the potential impact of his words if he was faced with that question. He couldn’t fathom how he would live with himself it he answered that question and that person ended their life. It made me realize what a struggle it could be for him — so I decided to give him some insight into the struggle of the person asking.
I told him he had no power to “cause” someone to make that choice.
Now, there are those who would say that his answer to that question — that those who die by suicide can still go to heaven — could encourage a person to take their life, but I believe that is rarely ever going to be a possibility. I know that for me, nothing anyone said was going to make me more likely to die by suicide. People could only help me want to live, not want to die. The reason is simple: I already wanted to die, so nothing was going to make me “chose” to die. For all intents and purposes, I was “as close to death as possible,” without yet being dead.
Is it conceivable that there could be someone who would interpret his answer as a green light to die? Anything is possible. But I believe that a very, very strong majority of people in that position simply can’t be given an “excuse” to end their life. They don’t need one. However, his words can give someone hope, because it is a response to a cry for help. It gives him the chance to ask that person if things are OK, and if they feel like taking their life right now. Nothing he could have said the night I was suicidal would have prompted me to “go ahead with my plan,” because I was already there. He could only use his words, his influence, to help make me feel heard and cared about. He was given the opportunity to walk me through those feelings with genuine compassion, by hearing my desperate words of hopelessness. And I believe that the question of faith I had asked him was a difficult one to for him answer, because his heart was fearful of what his answer might mean.
How do we balance faith and fear? How does someone with the strongest faith answer such a question without fear? There is probably never going to be a moment where he doesn’t fear the power of his answer, and I don’t blame him. But no one should ever be afraid to respond to questions about suicide, because it will always be a chance to give that person a safe place to discuss their feelings and struggles.
It is OK to engage a person who may be suicidal in a non-judgmental discussion about what they are struggling with. If someone reaches out in any way, it means they are searching for hope to keep living, not an excuse to end their life. It is not a challenge reserved for Christians — it is a topic of difficult discussion for anyone. Many people fear that engaging in that discussion with someone may make them more likely to take action on it. However, it is not. It is an opportunity to give someone a safe space to talk about what they are feeling and thinking. It becomes a light in their darkness by making them feel heard, and less alone.
Anyone, whether coming from a place of faith or not, should try to find the courage to reach out to a person who may be suicidal. It will not cause them to lean towards ending their life — it will encourage them to live.
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