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.