My brother committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in the fall of 1980. It was a gut-wrenching blow to my family. We felt as though our lungs had simply stopped working. We gasped for answers and ways to deal with the loss, the guilt, and the sense of abandonment. More than anything, we simply wanted my brother back. We wanted to place him in the center of the family circle and tell him how much he was loved, that his worth as a son, as a brother, and as a person made in the image of God could not be calculated. Instead, we were left with emptiness, a seemingly endless plunge into a bottomless pit.
When I read the reports of Jarrid Wilson’s death, all of the thoughts of those dark days flooded my mind again. The loss of a loved one is a wound that remains with us throughout our lives. The searing of emotional trauma etches it upon the soul.
It does not help in such a situation to be told that the loved one, by virtue of the act of suicide itself, stands outside the will and mercy of God. This kind of comfort is really pastoral malpractice. This does not mean that suicide is a light matter before the Lord. For Augustine and Aquinas, suicide violated the commandment not to murder, the gift of life given by God, and the natural love of self. Aquinas added that suicide injures the human community to which each person belongs. Suicide breaks the ties of kinship and so tears the very fabric of human life.
No one feels this more deeply than the family left behind. On the one hand, there is the sense of guilt that you should have somehow augured the signs; on the other hand, there is the anger that you were left out, cast aside by your loved one who decided, for whatever reason, not to ask or trust you to intervene. Underneath it all is the sense of helplessness that your love was powerless in the face of this leviathan. Regardless of the motives or reasons for the suicide, its effects open up a breach in familial bonds.
There is no escaping the fact that suicide involves the taking of an innocent life, even if that life is your own. And it does not help the situation to water down the Church’s teaching on this matter. The Church must do all it can to aid those battling the darkness in which death appears as a friend who brings release. Telling people that suicide is morally acceptable is like giving an addict another hit. It breeds destruction.
After a believer commits suicide, however, how should we think of this person who has succumbed to the forces of darkness at work in the mind? This question is particularly acute in light of the crippling effects of clinical depression, which strips persons of their dignity and tempts them to deny their own fundamental goodness as human beings. There is no separating the psychological from the spiritual, or the material from the immaterial. The biblical admonition to cast down imaginations and every thought that sets itself up against God must be framed in the context of the unity of body and soul and the openness to transcendence. The demonic exploits the breakdown of this unity in fallen humanity, feeding off of clinically depressed imaginations and breeding death and destruction. It turns the human desire to transcend into a hunger to escape present circumstances at any cost. These “grave psychological disturbances” debilitate and enslave. They hinder rational judgment.
In his Table Talk, Luther commented that suicide victims are overcome by the power of the enemy much like a robber attacks and murders a traveler on a remote stretch of road. John Bunyan portrayed despair as a giant who imprisons souls in doubt and beats them relentlessly until they forfeit their lives. Framing suicide in terms of an internal struggle between the believer and the enemy places it in the context of Christ’s own battle with the forces of darkness. This is the promise of Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday reminds us that Christ objectively entered fully into death, moving to its outer rim only to destroy it from the inside. As the Scriptures declare, “you will not abandon my soul to Sheol” (Ps. 16:10).
Christ enters into the death of every believer to wage war against the final enemy. Christ’s entrance into the darkness does not rest upon the believer’s capacity to overcome, but on the capacity of the eternal Lord to right his own creation. He justifies us by righting what we cannot. We do not know the kind of psychological warfare a believer who commits suicide endures in the final moments. We do not know the precise confluence of the forces of depression and the demonic that would cripple human rationality and reduce the flame of life to a flicker that can be snuffed out. We do know that Christ is present in the pit of despair because the power of the life of the one eternal Son has met the power of death and conquered. All believers face death—even death by suicide—in the victory of God. The justification of God flows through Christ’s triumph, stripping death of its destructive capacities.
And so the final word for the family of the suicide victim is hope. Such a hope is premised objectively upon Christ’s conquest of death and the father’s whispers to his beloved son or daughter in those final moments, “I have not abandoned you to Sheol.” God alone knows the full conditions under which each suicide victim succumbed to the darkness. And we can be certain that Christ’s journey down the via dolorosa through Golgotha into the kingdom of death means that he has already walked that lonely road.
He is there absorbing the darkness for those who, pummeled by the giant of depression, hover in the space between faith and doubt as they groan, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” For that reason, we place all believers who commit this act of violence against their own lives into the hands of a God who has tamed the violence, and whose hospitality extends to the realm of death itself.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.