Does Suicide Guarantee Hell?

When Sin Meets Grace, Grace Wins!

Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min.

When a person commits suicide, do they automatically consign themselves to hell? Let me say up front, I do not believe that suicide necessarily condemns to hell. Indeed, Samson took his own life (Judges 16:25-31) in killing many Philistines yet one finds his name listed among the faithful of God (Hebrews 11:32). In this article I propose to challenge the view of many that suicide guarantees hell.

A family rarely welcomes the death of a loved one. Following the death of a family member, those left behind usually go through grief. Often times this grief takes a long time in adjusting to the loss of that significant family member. When a family member willingly takes his or her own life, this act greatly multiplies the ensuing grief.

All humans experience grief. Paul said, "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope." (I Thes. 4:13, NIV). Here Paul encourages us in our grief to realize that grief for departed Christians comes with hope of our seeing them again, "We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." (I Thes. 4:14). To grieve comes naturally and healthy to us all.

Grief brings with it a multitude of emotions. If you have experienced a major loss in your life, you will recognize some if not all of the following:

  1. Shock
  2. Denial
  3. Bewilderment
  4. Guilt
  5. Anger
  6. Depression
  7. Relief
  8. Acceptance

These emotions find expression in most if not all-major grief reactions. To experience these emotions means you experience normal human emotions. Of course, if you carry these emotions for more than three to five years, than I encourage you to get help. Indeed, with the new technology of neuro-linguistic programming coupled with the healing power of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, one may dramatically cut the time of grief.

However, for our concern here with suicide, as you look at each one of these, especially the first six, realize just how much suicide will magnify these emotions. A natural grief reaction will usually have feelings of guilt if for no other reason than that person died and you still live. But when the deceased willingly takes their own life, questions come up like "What could I have done to have prevented him/her from taking their life?" Family and friends start searching their memory banks for times when they perceive that they did something or didn't do something that would cause the person to want to take their life. "He/she seemed depressed, I should have noticed." "Surely he/she gave some indication and I just didn't see it or hear it." "If I had paid more attention maybe I could have prevented this suicide. Our brains have a natural tendency to go for cause effect, i.e., what did I do to cause him/her to take their life. Or, I have heard, "The d___ b_______ would leave me and leave me with all these children to raise." Yes, anger may intensify at the one who took their life and left a spouse or another family member, partner, etc. with a lot of responsibilities, debt, etc.

I believe that depression from grief comes out of stacking bewilderment on top of hurt, on top of guilt on top of anger. We get to thinking about our loss and we become bewildered. Than we may get angry about our bewilderment, i.e., what will I do? Then we feel guilty about feeling angry. These emotions just stack on top of each other in continuing loop that keeps magnifying the other until we work up a great case of depression. This happens constantly when people lose loved ones naturally. But, when we magnify those emotions with a suicide, watch out! Depression lingers just around the corner.

Now, on top of all of that above, along comes some well meaning friend like Job's so called friends who say, "Well, he/she took his/her on life, I guess he/she wanted to spend eternity in hell." Now that represents the last thing a grieving person needs to hear following the suicide of a loved one. However, how many times have you heard it? Or, how many times have you said it? Or, how many times have you thought it?

Whom do we have to thank for this warped theology? According to my information, St. Augustine in the 5th century popularized this concept. St. Augustine had a profound affect on early Roman Catholic theology. From there, this concept bled over into Protestantism and we still have it. St. Augustine based his views on the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."

Of course, if one followed the logic that breaking a commandment consigned one automatically to hell, then we all face big problems with eternity. Gentleman, how many times have you looked and lusted? Well, Jesus said, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart"(Matthew 5:28). Have you ever coveted a person's automobile, home, etc.? Have you ever born false witness? Have you ever placed anything or person before God? The point--of course, we all have at one time or another broke a commandment and we will in the flesh continue to do so occasionally until we die.

Then, how come do we have the logic that if someone breaks the commandment that "Thou shalt not kill" that they automatically go to hell when we don't apply this to the other commandments? How come we apply the marvelous forgiving grace of Jesus to the other commandments but not to suicide? I personally believe that Jesus died for my past, present and future sins even if I should become so mentally deranged that I should commit suicide. Paul teaches us that salvation comes VIA grace and not by what we do or don't do, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). What about you? Do you believe that when a Christian becomes so mentally deranged that they commit suicide, that the God who saved him/her will throw away His grace and consign that person to hell for committing one sin ? I don't.

Let me pause here and give a personal testimony. The day after I finished my junior year of college my mother placed a pistol to her head and took her life. I had purchased that pistol and sold it to my father. At that time I served as pastor of my first church and attended college as a ministerial student. My mother moved in and out of a state mental hospital all my childhood years. I remember visiting her with dad when they had to institutionalize her. I can still see myself sitting on a bench outside Broughton Mental Hospital in Morganton, North Carolina watching the patients go by and asking myself, "Why is my mother here with all these crazy people?" Remember, at that time I was just a child. Momma suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

As a child growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, we did quite a bit of hunting. Rabbits and squirrels provided us with some much-needed meat. I well remember dad saying to my brother and me, "Boys, you mother is getting sick again, we best hide the guns. Well, I thought I had hid all the ammunition when mother shot herself for we knew she had become seriously ill again and when she got sick, she would inevitably speak of killing herself.

Then, six years after the suicide death of my mother, my younger and only sister hung herself. She had made numerous serious attempts at suicide since the death of my mother. At that time I was working on my Doctor of Ministry Degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastoring a Southern Baptist Church. My sister illustrates quite well what an unhealthy grief reaction can do to a person. She never could accept the death of mother, so she joined her in the grave.

So, during my college and seminary years in study for and in actual ministry, I lost both my mother and sister to suicide. I did some real serious thinking, studying and praying about the thought, "Do suicide victims go straight to hell?" For sure, "doing" ministry does not immune one from tragedy. Of course, my position had nothing to do with my trying to insulate myself from tragedy. It just so happen that I served as a pastor and was attending school for ministry. I never, even before my mother's death, really believed that suicide victims necessarily went to hell. I had a higher view of grace than that.

If ever an individual believed in the Lord Jesus, my mother did. Yet, she took her life. Indeed, my brother said that my mother had the Bible open to Isaiah 40 and lying on her lap at the time of her death. That chapter begins with this comfort, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins" (Isaiah 40:1-2 KJV). Do I believe my mother is in heaven? Yes! How come? Because she believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as her personal Savior. Jesus said it well, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16 KJV). My mother believed in Jesus and thus I believe she is now with Him.

In my opinion, one needs no more information than that the marvelous grace of Jesus Christ covers all sin including suicide to give the suicide victim hope of eternal life, but the Bible gives us more. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul gives us some insights I believe into a teaching that one can apply to suicide. I shall break these verses down into three major points:

  1. Sin and death came through Adam and all have and do sin. Paul says, "…the many died by the trespass of the one man…" (15a). Again, "…the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men…" (18a). And, "…through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners…" (19a). In these verses Paul teaches the doctrine of original sin in that all have sinned since and through Adam.

  2. The Law makes us responsible for our sin. In verse 20 Paul says, "The law was added so that the trespass might increase…" In Romans 3:20 Paul declares, "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." The law thus makes us conscious of our sin.

    In traditional Southern Baptist thought, God does not hold a child responsible for sin until that child reaches "the age of accountability." Now one does not find that phrase in the Bible but one does find the concept. In Romans 5:12-13, Paul says, "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-- for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law."

    In these verses, Paul refers to the period of time between the Fall of Adam and the giving of the Law by Moses. Paul says that during this time, "sin was not taken into account." The KJV renders this phrase as "imputed." The word in the Greek is ellogao and comes from a compound Greek word en and logos or literally, "in word." The word would find use in describing an accountant inserting information into a ledger. So, the NIV accurately renders it as "not taken into account." Paul thus says, that during those many years from the sin of Adam to the giving of the Law by Moses, God did not hold the people responsible for their sin. They had no Law to make them knowledgeable of their sin. Thus, they could not be held accountable.

    From this concept Southern Baptist generally believe that God will not hold a child responsible for their sin and for turning to Jesus. The child must reach an age where the child can understand the meaning of sin and salvation. The child's mental capacity must develop to the point where the child can grasp abstract terms like sin, faith, grace, etc. before they can understand their need for salvation. I believe this a very sound theology.
  3. So, just like God did not hold responsible the sins of the people from the time of the Fall of Adam to the giving of the Law by Moses, neither will God hold a child responsible for his/her sin until they reach and age of responsibility. So, what about infants who die without first making a profession of faith in Christ? Do they have responsibility? Surely not? The sinful nature, which the child inherits from Adam, meets the greater grace of Christ's atoning death and grace. When sin meets God's grace in Christ, guess what wins? Of course, grace wins.

  4. Grace comes through Jesus. These verses of Paul resounds with the greater grace of the Lord Jesus, "…so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous…. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (19b, 20b-21).

Yes, we all sin but God's grace functions at a much higher and therefore much more powerful plateau. Sin produces death; grace produces eternal life.

What does all this have to do with suicide and whether or not they destined themselves to hell? I believe it has a lot to do with it. Let me state categorically, I believe life comes from God and hence is sacred. Scripture clearly states that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). Out of all of God's creation, only man has the unique distinction of being created in God's image. The Biblical teachings against murder also speak of the sacredness of human life. Therefore, one must conclude that, yes, suicide opposes the will of God. It violates God's purpose for man.

Yet, does this mean that the victim of a suicide cannot find the forgiveness from God? Will God somehow understand and forgive? Yes, I believe so, if the person knows Jesus. I believe, as with the concept of the "age of accountability," one must take into account the individual's state of mind at the time of the suicide. Will God hold accountable someone whose state of mind has reached into the depths of despair so deep that the person takes his or her own life? I don't think so. No more than God held accountable those people from the time of Adam to the time of the giving of the Law by Moses, will God hold accountable the victim of suicide. No more than would God hold accountable a small child who should die before confessing Christ, will God hold accountable a person whose depths of despair leads them to such an irresponsible act.

Michael Hall, Ph.D. says concerning whether or not a suicide victim necessarily goes to hell, "The whole issue really comes down to Response--Ability. God only holds response-able those who truly have the ability to respond. Infants don't. Children don't. People in the midst of emotional crises don't. We can indeed lose -- permanently or temporarily -- the ability to respond. Such describes the nature of despair -- when one suffers from a 'broken spirit.'"

In my mind the question becomes, has the suicide victim acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? If he or she has, I believe their sin of suicide will meet the greater grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nowhere in the Bible does God say that He forgives all sin but the sin of suicide, nowhere. Running through the pages of the Bible is a scarlet thread of the blood of Jesus. His blood covers all sin including the sin of suicide. So, does suicide guarantee hell? No, only unbelief in Jesus guarantees hell. Does the victim of suicide have hope of eternal life? Yes, if they knew Jesus before they took their life. I believe that my mother and my sister are now with Jesus.

What about Jesus? Did He commit suicide for us?

The suicide death of one of His children does not mean that our Lord sends that person to hell. It means that the heart of Christ who chose to die for her cries for her and welcomes her into His kingdom. His welcome is not based on what she did or didn't do to end her live but it is based on her belief in His atoning death for her.

Think about this question: what about "how" Jesus died? Now, I am not talking about the "means" of His death - I am talking about "His choice" to die. I could be wrong but to the best of my knowledge, the only "suicide" in the Bible, other than Samson, is this one death of our Lord. Now, of course He didn't go to the Cross out of an act of desperate depression. No, He went out of a desperate Love for you and me. His mind was not on some kind of inner pain that was in control of His thought processes. No, His mind was on us. He knew if He said "No" to the Cross, you and I would never have hope for eternal life.

Thus, could we not conclude that His death was indeed a form of suicide, was it not?  In our world it is called "suicide by cop".  In Roman culture it would be called "suicide by crucifixion". Jesus "chose" to die. He could have chosen to live but He didn't - He chose to die hence our Lord and Savior "committed suicide for us". Aren't you glad?

What about those who choose to die for others?

Think about a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save the lives of his friends. If this soldier were a Christian, do you think that God would send that soldier to hell?  Only God ultimately knows who makes it to heaven and who doesn't. Yet, I am fully committed that all who go in go by the blood of Christ. The Scripture teaches us that "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13 NIV). No, I cannot accept that the Lord would send this soldier to hell because he took action that resulted in his death - he chose to die. Maybe, this soldier is counted among the martyrs. I think so.

And what about those who die rather than denounce their faith?

In Revelation 17:6 John saw the martyrs (KJV) or "the blood of those who bore testimony of Jesus". The word martyr (martus) simply means "a witness" or a "martyr" so the NIV has correctly translated that passage by translating the martus as "...the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.". Many in the 20th century shed their blood as a testimony to their faith. Easton's Bible Dictionary places the number of martyrs in the last century in the millions. And, it appears that the 21st century will offer up many more thousands of those who die rather than denounce the Lord and swear allegiance to some foreign god. So, here, we have these many who die rather than denounce their faith. And, of great interest, is that rather than consigning them to hell, John the Revelator assigns them a special place in God's Kingdom.

No greater honor can be bestowed upon the Christian than that he dies for his faith becoming one with the Martyrs. Will they go to hell? No, just the opposite. God has a special place for them in His heavenly Kingdom.

Closing thought:

Through my mother and sister's suicide, being a ministerial student and a pastor, I found something really real. I found that though my questions will not find full answer until I get to heaven, God's grace gives more than sufficient support for family and friends of suicide victims.

1998; Revised 2009 by Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min. All rights reserved.