April 15, 2002

Is suicide the 'unpardonable sin'?

___Is suicide a sin? Five to seven deaths may be considered suicides in the Bible. The biblical writers do not specifically state that such deaths are acts of sin. This probably is due to the fact suicide would be included under the law that forbids murder in the 10 Commandments. Some would be considered justifiable, such as that of Samson. He actually asked God to give him the strength to destroy the building he was in, an act that would kill the enemy as well as himself.
___Suicide was practiced as martyrdom by Christians during the Roman persecution. They would put themselves in situations where they knew they would be killed so they coul
d die for the faith. Many of these believed martyrdom was a guarantee of entrance into heaven.
___Augustine was the first theologian to declare a distinction between suicide and martyrdom. He said suicide is an act of murdering oneself, a decision in direct opposition to God's will. Suicide, along with adultery and apostasy, came to be seen as unredeemable. Thomas Aquinas later classified suicide as a mortal sin that cannot be forgiven. Because of this, the Roman Catholic Church for many years refused to conduct funerals for people who took their own lives. In recent times, the Catholic Church has modified this view, stating that suicide is no longer viewed as a reason to deny a Catholic funeral, unless it would cause a public scandal. Protestant leaders Martin Luther and John Calvin did not declare suicide to be an unforgivable sin.
___The only sin the Bible declares to be unforgivable is that of blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). Bible scholars debate what this sin actually is. The basic meaning is that of denying the work of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who convicts of sin and offers God's forgiveness for sin, to reject the work of the Holy Spirit is to reject forgiveness--by definition, the unpardonable sin (to refuse to be pardoned is unpardonable). A related sin is the "sin unto death" in 1 John 5:16-17. This probably is a reference to rejecting Jesus Christ and the salvation he alone provides.
___One of the issues before us today is the belief of some that ending one's life is an acceptable way to demonstrate a genuine commitment to Christ. Suicide is thus seen to be giving one's life to Christ so that he/she can be with him in heaven. In response to such thinking, we need to point to the clear teaching of the Bible that the true "sacrifice" required of Christians is to give one's life in living for Christ (Romans 12:1-2). The Apostle Paul himself demonstrated this in his own personal "struggle" described in Philippians 1:21-26. Subject to depression himself due to imprisonment, criticism and other types of persecution, Paul admitted his personal desire was to die and be with the Lord. However, he stated that what was more necessary was that he should go on living so he could minister to others. In Philippians, he encourages Christians to look beyond themselves and transform selfishness into the desire to serve others.
___The Bible nowhere commands believers to take their own lives as a sign of commitment or love for God. Rather, the Bible commands Christians to endure hardship and persevere through adversity as a witness for Christ. Such perseverance is the most powerful testimony we can offer to the power that God gives his people (Philippians 4:13).
___Another way of approaching suicide is that of illness. Since the 19th century, suicide has been seen more as a symptom than a sin. People who take their own lives are viewed as suffering from emotional, psychological, mental or spiritual illness. Clearly this is true. Those who commit suicide are not truly healthy at the time. They literally are not in their "right minds." Realizing that people who commit suicide are not really themselves at the time helps to put this act in perspective.
___So, how do we minister to people who are grieving over the loss of a loved one or friend who has committed suicide? Obviously, such people may not respond well to lectures on theology. Our most important initial ministry is simply to "be with" them, weeping with them and sharing their grief. There is a valid ministry in permitting grieving people to express their feelings--whatever they are. One of the most common emotions during grief is anger. Let people know that feeling anger at God ("How could you let this happen?") or at the person who committed suicide is understandable under the circumstances. If it is an issue, assure people that suicide is not the unpardonable sin. For Christians, all sin, past, present and future, is covered by God's grace. Salvation is a gift purchased by Christ's death and given freely to all who ask for it and receive it by faith. In Romans 8, Paul claims that nothing, not even our own actions, can separate us as believers from God's eternal love.
___It is true that we do not have all of the answers to life's questions now (1 Corinthians 13:12). However, we need to assure everyone that the Christian faith has answers--wonderful answers--which can provide comfort and hope for all.
___Fred Meeks is chairman of the religion and philosophy division at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview

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