Andrew Stoecklein . . . August 2018.
Jim Howard . . . January 2019.
Jarrid Wilson . . . September 2019.
Darrin Patrick . . . May 2020.
Steve Austin . . . June 2021.
These are the names of five pastors who took their own lives over the past thirty-six months. These are men who shepherded their flocks, who loved their wives, who doted on their children, and who served in their communities. These are men who rolled out trashcans, cleaned up spills, unloaded the dishwasher, and experienced countless otherwise-unseen activities associated with everyday life. And these are men whose departure from this world undoubtedly has left an irreplaceable void in the lives of the collective thousands who were impacted by their lives and ministries.
Each time a pastoral suicide hits the news cycle, the Christian and secular publishing worlds forge an awkward alliance in an attempt to sort through the obvious question that is pressing in on everyone’s mind: how can—or how does—a pastor get to the point where he would make the decision to end his own life?
It’s a good question, and it’s a question that needs to be explored humbly and prayerfully for the sake of current and future shepherds and the overall health of Christ’s church. However, and with all due respect to those who have been asked to cover these heart-rending stories, the inquiry typically has been too narrowly focused on a particular class of men (pastors) and their particular struggles and their particular sins (yes, suicide is a sin—more on that later).
A better question to ask is this: how should Christians think about suicide? Pastors, after all, were Christians before they became pastors (at least that’s the hope!). They were sheep before they were shepherds. And so it would be most helpful to broaden the inquiry to understand how Christians, in general, should think about suicide, and the existence of suicide not only in the pastorate but in the church at large.
That is the aim of this article. Without in any way attempting to exhaustively cover this expansive and sensitive subject, and for the purpose of accompanying a recently-released For the Gospel video on this subject, sketched out below are three over-arching principles to consider when thinking through the topic of Christians and suicide.
1. THOUGH MARKED BY HOPE, CHRISTIANS CAN FEEL HOPELESS.
Christians are people of hope. We worship the God of hope (Rom 15:13)—the one true and living God who has revealed Himself to us through Scripture, creation, history, and our conscience. We have been saved “in hope” (Rom 8:24), and have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3), which points forward to an eternal inheritance “which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:4). Our hope is anchored in God’s perfect and unfailing love for His people (Rom 5:3-5), and in the truth of His promises (Titus 1:2), which we find in His Word. Indeed, as Psalm 130:5 says, “in His word do I hope.” Our hope in the Lord, in turn, fuels hope-filled praise (Ps 71:14) of our great God.
As outlined above, God’s Word speaks with crystal clarity on the subject of the Christian and hope. We, of all people, should be ever-hopeful.
But then the eviction notice arrives. Or a pink slip is delivered. Or divorce papers are served. Or a breakup is announced on Instagram. Or a parent dies. Or a child goes wayward. Or a conflict with a loved one erupts. At that point, the heart rate starts fluttering. The muscles start tensing. The head starts throbbing. The inner voice starts screaming. The doubts, feelings of loneliness, and feelings of worthlessness start creeping in. And in a matter of weeks, days, or even hours, the tensions, worries, and hurts of this world start crowding out what the follower of Jesus Christ knows about what Scripture reveals about God, Christ, sin, salvation, and eternity. A worldview that was once thoroughly biblical is now blurred. An outlook on life, which used to be eminently Godward, is now dimmed. A once faith-filled sense of hope (Hebrews 11:1) is no more and has been replaced with a sense of listless despair. While such a person, through their God-given faith in Jesus Christ, has ultimate hope, in a cruel twist they have lost sight of that hope and, in extreme cases, may cut short the life God has loaned them by suicide.
Put plainly, the Christian who commits suicide has lost a true sense of their identity. They have lost perspective on the biblical realities mentioned above. In their distress, they have lost sight of the fact that a hopeless Christian is a contradiction in terms. They have lost their way. They have forgotten not only who they are (a hope-filled follower of the Lord Jesus Christ), but Whose they are (the “God of hope” revealed in Scripture). They have, as their final act here on earth demonstrates, lost hope.
2. THOUGH SUICIDE IS A SIN, IT IS NOT THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN.
There undoubtedly is someone reading this article who already disagrees fundamentally with its underlying premise, namely, that there is such a thing as a professing Christian who commits suicide while truly being a regenerate, born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. The detractor’s reasoning likely goes something like this: the person who commits suicide has committed the act of murder (self-murder), murder is a sin, the deceased person obviously never repented of that sin, unrepentant sin is a mark of unbelief, and so they must have gone out from us (and not only from the Christian community but ultimately from the world) because they were never truly of us (1 John 2:19). As a result, they are now suffering in the eternal flames of hell.
Indeed it is true that suicide is a sin. The taking of the life of an image-bearer of God – even one’s own life – is sinful. John Calvin noted, rightly, “We are not our own masters, we belong to the Lord. Self-destruction as the taking of one’s own life in this way is clearly self-murder.” Further, it is true that all sin in a believer’s life must be repented of (1 John 1:8-10). But it is a bridge too far, both biblically and theologically speaking, to say that the professed Christian who has committed suicide is now facing the torments of hell either because they have unrepented-of sin (the sin of suicide) on their record or because of the particular means (self-murder) by which their life ended.
One simply cannot overlook the fact that all sin – including the sin of suicide – is forgivable at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. It is not as though our Lord’s blood congealed at Calvary for those of His true followers who would one day commit the sinful act of suicide. No, our Savior’s shed blood poured out, flowed, and covered all of the sins of His people – including the sin of suicide. There is only one unforgivable sin mentioned in Scripture (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10) and—spoiler alert—it is not the sin of suicide.
Further, and on a practical note, the suggestion that a genuine follower of Jesus Christ faces eternal judgment because their life was cut short before they repented of a particular sin is problematic on multiple levels. For instance, do we know, with certainty, that Stephen repented of all known sins he had ever committed before he was martyred (Acts 7:54-60)? Was Paul’s record of repentance spotless by the time of his execution in Rome? Or how about Peter’s, when, according to tradition, he was crucified upside down? The reality is that Scripture does not reveal a “perfect score” of repentance even in the lives of these mightily-used saints.
Not to mention, what to make of the faithful pastor of 40+ years who is killed when, through his violation of the speed limit (a sin), his car careens down a steep embankment? Or what do we say about the godly older woman who faithfully loved her family and served her church for decades, only to succumb to a heart attack mere seconds after entertaining feelings of unrighteous anger (a sin) toward her husband? Would these individuals go to hell? If they had previously submitted their lives to Jesus Christ by turning and trusting in Him (Mark 1:15), the answer, most assuredly, is no.
So why would it be any different if the Christian’s final act is the act of suicide? The answer is, it isn’t. All sin – even the sin of suicide – is not only forgivable through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, but is forgiven through that same blood if a person has given their life to the Lamb. A truly regenerate follower of Christ who dies by suicide does not, through that act, lose their grip on the legal declaration (pronounced in the courts of heaven) that they are once and forever “justified.” God’s promise to them that they have been “redeemed” is irrevocable.
Jesus truly did “pay it all.” He paid for the sins of His people—fully, completely, and perfectly—including the sin of suicide.
3. THOUGH DEATH IS GAIN FOR THE CHRISTIAN, NOT ALL “CHRISTIANS” WILL GAIN CHRIST IN DEATH.
“To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
If you’ve read this far, you may agree with this article’s first point – that a professed Christian who commits suicide ultimately has lost hope. You may even agree with the article’s second point – that suicide is a sin, albeit a forgivable (and forgiven sin) for those who have genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation.
But then things get a bit complicated.
On the one hand, for some Christian readers who are otherwise sound in their theology and their understanding of the gospel, because of a warm sense of sentimentalism or a genuine hoping for the best, they have blinders on when it comes to the likely eternal state of a loved one who has perished via suicide. Though the loved one who died in this manner may have identified themselves as “Christian,” such a person cannot deny what they heard their loved one say about there being “many roads to heaven.” They cringe when they think of their loved one’s open support of the Roman Catholic Church. They cannot un-hear what they heard their loved one say about homosexual “marriage” being acceptable in the eyes of God. They cannot un-see their loved one’s long track record of drunkenness, or lying, or sexual immorality, or you name the sin. Can such a person rest their head on the pillow at night confident that their loved one is currently experiencing the glorious joys of heaven? No, they cannot. But can they sleep soundly tonight knowing that God is not only “blameless” (Ps 18:30) in His ways, but that the “Judge of all the earth” will (and does) “deal justly” (Gen 18:25) in all matters? Yes, surely they can.
On the other hand, there are those reading this article who would say they are Christians, and who would say that if they died today (whether by means of suicide or otherwise) they would “depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23), when in fact they are deceived about their true and current standing before the thrice-holy God revealed in Scripture. Maybe it is their (at-best) hazy familiarity with the facts of the gospel. Maybe it is the complete lack of spiritual “fruit” in their life (Gal 5:22-23) to evidence genuine gospel transformation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 2:20). Maybe it is the double life they are currently living, as they go through the motions of doing all of the things Christians are supposed to do (attending church, reading the Bible, praying, listening to Christian music, reading Christian blogs like this one, etc.), all while hiding where their money goes, where their time goes, where their eyes go, and where their thoughts go – all of which reflect ultimately where their heart is.
Such a person simply cannot, and must not, entertain any notion of escaping this world, through suicide, to be with Christ. Such a person will not only have sinned in committing the act itself, but they will also, in the words of John Bunyan, soon be experiencing the eternal “groans of a damned soul.”
If you are a Christian who has been impacted by suicide through the death of a friend or loved one, be encouraged in knowing that “The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim 2:19), and that He always acts in a manner that is good, righteous, and just. Nothing – not even the suicide of your departed friend or loved one – is outside His sovereign plan or purposes. He will use this tragedy, and your grief, to accomplish and further His purposes in this broken and fallen world.
If you are a Christian who is struggling with feelings of hopelessness and despair, read and meditate on Psalm 13. Then, set up a time to meet with a pastor or biblical counselor at your church. If your church does not offer biblical counseling, seek it out. The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors website (www.biblicalcounseling.com) is a great place to start.
If you are not a Christian (either because you are convictionally not a believer or because the scales are falling from your eyes as you realize you have been deceived) and you are struggling with feelings of hopelessness and despair, note these words: the only place hope can be found is in the cross of Jesus Christ. Repent of your sins (meaning, turn from your current manner of sinful, unholy, anti-God living), turn to Jesus Christ, and trust that His finished work on Calvary’s cross is the only means by which you may gain a right standing before the God you have been running away from. Escaping this world, via suicide, will do you no good. Instead, flee to Christ and He will save you. Call out to Him, trust in Him, seek forgiveness through Him, have your sins forgiven by Him, and begin living for Him today.