I remember the first time I heard it. I was in, admittedly, a religious meeting, a youth meeting. The speaker asked various small groups around the room to talk about suicide. I was an observer.
As I walked around the room I heard teens and adults talking about killing themselves. Everyone knew a story about a loved one or friend who had either attempted or committed suicide. Then I heard it.
I did not grow up in an overtly religious home. I had no idea, until that day, that people who committed suicide went directly to hell. I remember much later watching the movie, “Constantine” wherein Keanu Reeves talked of his desire to earn his way back to heaven. He was hell-bound, you see, because he tried to commit suicide. Bizarre.
A few years after that small group experience I was talking to a bunch of Christian teens and offhandedly scoffed at the suggestion that their relative who committed suicide was automatically condemned to burn in hell for all eternity. As a psychology dude you can imagine what I was thinking. When the parents found out I told their children that suicide was not the unforgivable sin in Christianity, they proceeded to rip me a new one. How dare I tell this to their teens? What if one of them used this information to justify killing themselves. I tried to explain that if fear of hell was the only thing keeping their Emo brat from offing himself than maybe there was another problem that has been wildly overlooked.
It wasn’t even good theology. I have talked to several theology types and no one worth their salt gives any credence to this religious “old wives tale”. The only unforgivable sin, I am told, has nothing to do with this issue at all. The bad theology is based on the misunderstanding that a person who kills themself has no time to “repent” and therefore must go to hell for that sin. By that definition if I lose my temper once or pick my nose wrong just before a deadly traffic accident than I am hooped. Even the most conservative of my religious friends will not allege that, after a legitimate conversion experience, one outstanding blemish will deal you out. Such a belief would be incredibly fear inspiring and virtually impossible to adhere to with any level of confidence. Heaven only as long as you are perfect at the time of your demise – no outstanding sins, no active character flaws, no hidden accounts, no working under the table, no yelling, no little white lies, no swearing (apparently I’m screwed)…
Dealing with the horror of a loved one who has taken their own life is already unimaginable. Holding cognitive distortions that only make things worse (suicide as the unforgivable sin), is truly tragic. You have enough to deal with without some ignorant religious zealot convincing you that your loved one is doomed for a trillion years. If you don’t believe me talk to a pastor about this topic. Chances are he or she might agree with me.
Let’s continue to address the misconceptions around this most tragic act of madness and pain.
10 thoughts on “The Truth About Suicide Part Two – The Myth Of The Unforgivable Sin”
I always knew that in Catholicism that suicide was an unforgivable sin – in large part because you would have no way to atone for it – but I haven’t been a religious person for a long time, anyway. It seems like cruel and unusual punishment to have suicide be unforgivable – not of the person who committed suicide, because their suffering is over, but of that person’s friends, family, and loved ones, who get constantly told that not only is their friend, son, daughter, brother, sister, etc. dead and gone, having chosen to leave the world, but that he or she is also damned to hell for all eternity. Suicide is terrible enough as it is, religion doesn’t need to try to make it even worse.
Our entire species is suicidal…..if you think about it.
Scott, as a therapist who lost my brother and father to suicide (I was on the scene for both), I thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront. My brother’s suicide in 1975 was “the” event that brought me straight to the feet of Jesus. I was suffering from panic disorder and agoraphobia, as well as major depression and suicidal ideation (constant) at the time, and the fear of my brother living in hell almost undid me entirely. Then when my father followed suit, my depression developed “psychotic features.” I know about the pain of this stuff only too well.
You can imagine my surprise, when, years and years later, I fearfully opened up The Catechism of the Catholic Church to see what they believed about someone who commits suicide. It ended up being one of the most healing things I had read on the subject. Like you, I never really believed committing suicide was an automatic ticket to hell, but I was afraid to ask theologians about it…it was too triggering. I am far past healed now, and find myself walking through this stuff with my clients without even remembering my own family members ended their lives long ago. That is God’s grace to me.
I write about my experience with this in some blog posts on my memoir blog. I am going to be taking these posts down soon and turning my story into an e-book, so I am not trying to build my list here. I’m moving on to something else online. But if anyone is interested, you can find these over at http://www.lindalochridge.com. Find one of these at http://lindalochridge.com/the-beginning-of-sorrows/. There’s a picture there of me looking at my brother. You can see how much I loved him. Thanks for all you are doing, Scott!
Well said and Amen.
Thank you for shedding light on the dark side of religion. Growing up, as with suicide, sex before marriage was an unforgivable sin. It took me 18 years to start to shake off the damage religion caused every part of my being. I have spent many years in the East liberating every part of me. You and your readers may enough one of my blogs which addresses spirituality vs religious dogma: http://loveworkandmiracles.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/what-is-does-this-mumbo-jumbo-spiritual-stuff-mean/
Amen brother. You had me at “the truth” but what was that middle thing? Picking my nose-do I have to ask forgiveness for that?
Suicide is a mortal sin in Catholicism. Most priests nowadays leave room for God’s mercy after death before going to hell, which is a comfort.
Thanks for this, I currently know people struggling with such ‘theology’… it has caused them to walk away from their faith… it is such a harsh, judgmental, cruel way to look at God and the world… If God is really a just and fair God then sending those who are so desperate, confused, overwhelmed and hurting that they see death as the only option straight to hell would be very contradictory… God is love, forgiveness, and mercy… I believe He holds those people closest to His heart and cradles them for awhile… that seems right to me…
Thank you, thank you, thank you. What is actually unforgivable is humans making up hurtful and arbitrary rules about who’s good enough for heaven and who’s not. -Amy
Yes! That is precisely how I was brought up. You only went to heaven if there were no outstanding sins at the time of your demise, no active character flaws. You had to strive to be perfect every second. You couldn’t risk sinning, because you might not have time to repent from it–even a small sin, like losing your temper and saying something unkind you didn’t mean could damn you to hell. And if you did sin, it had to be dealt with at once. Yes, it was incredibly fear-inspiring. It was ridiculously unmanageable. No one else has quite nailed that on the head before. I know that’s not the main point, but it’s so nice to hear someone articulate the main idea I was brought up with. Thank you.