Suicide, Scripture, and the Grace of God

Our postmodern culture believes that absolute truth does not exist (itself an absolute truth claim). In a nontheistic or relativistic society, it is difficult to argue for life and against suicide. If we are our own “higher power,” we can do with our lives what we want.

But if God is the Lord of all that is, he retains ownership over our lives and their days. He is the only one who can determine when our service is done, our intended purpose fulfilled. It is the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture that our lives belong to their Maker, and that we are not to end them for our own purposes.

Suicide and the Catholic Church

Does this fact mean that suicide costs Christians their salvation? Most of the theological questions I have been asked in this regard relate in some way to the Catholic Church’s teachings on the subject. The Catholic Catechism contains several statements regarding suicide and mortal sin (all italics are in the original).

Suicide

On suicide, the Church does not maintain that taking one’s own life always leads to eternity in hell, as these statements make clear:

#2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

#2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

#2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

#2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

Mortal sin

The Church maintains a distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins. The former separate us from God’s grace; the latter, while serious, do not. The Catechism states:

#1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

#1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

#1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

#1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

#2268 The fifth commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful. The murderer and those who cooperate voluntarily in murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance.

#1470 …it is only by the road of conversion that we can enter the Kingdom, from which one is excluded by grave sin. In converting to Christ through penance and faith, the sinner passes from death to life and “does not come into judgment.”

Theological results

From the above statements the following principles of Catholic theology seem clear:

We cannot be sure of the spiritual state of the person who commits suicide. This person may be suffering from “grave psychological disturbances” which “can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (#2282). Mortal sin requires “full knowledge and complete consent” (#1859), and can be diminished by unintentional ignorance (#1860).

Thus the Church “should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” (#2283).

However, if the person was fully aware of his or her actions, without suffering “grave psychological disturbances,” this person committed murder, an act which is “gravely sinful” (#2268).

A person who commits a mortal sin and demonstrates “persistence in it until the end” goes to hell (#1037).

Since a person who commits self-murder (suicide) cannot then repent of this sin, it is logical to conclude that this person cannot be saved from hell. However, the Catechism nowhere makes this conclusion explicit.

Suicide and the security of our salvation

Most Baptists (and most Protestants) do not believe that it is possible for a Christian to lose his or her salvation, even if that person commits suicide. Here is a summary of the typical Baptist position on the subject of “eternal security.”