Monday, September 23, 2019

Anonymous Asks (59)

“Is suicide a mortal sin?”

Some people — Christians included — are going through incredibly tough times; emotionally, physically or both. For a person in unrelenting pain, the temptation to take a pass on more of the same when there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel is very real indeed.

So since “mortal sin” is technically a Roman Catholic term, let’s ask them, at least for starters. I’ve always vaguely wondered what the official RC position was, but suicide is one of those issues I haven’t personally contemplated for almost forty years, and even when I did, I can’t say I was terribly serious about it.

A good long look at the tarmac from the top of a highway overpass will tend to dissuade all but the most committed. Turned out I was a dilettante.

Parsing the Catechism

“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” (#2280).
There’s not much to argue with there. As with many RC position statements, there are not a lot of Bible citations, but it is easy to see this aspect of the Catechism is firmly grounded in scriptural truth. In support of the first sentence we have Romans 14:12, “Each of us will give an account to God.” In support of the second, 1 Timothy 6:13, “God ... gives life to all things.” As to the responsibility to accept life gratefully, we have the praise of the twenty-four elders in Revelation 4:11 to set the example of the appropriate thankful response, and as to the obligation to preserve life, Genesis 9:5 teaches “For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning.” (This principle predates the Law of Moses and cannot reasonably be considered invalid on the basis that Jesus has fulfilled the Law.) Finally, the claim that we are stewards rather than owners of our own lives is backed by 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

Thus, for Christians at least, the teaching that suicide is sinful on several different levels is unambiguous. The individual who argues “I am not a Christian so none of this applies to me” is not interested in God’s view of suicide anyway.

The Meaning of “Mortal Sin”

Still, as the Lord himself taught, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people.” The Catechism doesn’t help us determine if there is something about this final act of self-indulgence that makes it uniquely unforgivable. For that, we need to examine the Catholic definition of “mortal sin”:
Mortal sins ((Latin) peccata mortalia) in Catholic theology are wrongful acts that condemn a person to Hell after death if unforgiven.”
By this standard, I suppose, many Protestants regard all sins committed by those who do not know Christ as Savior as potentially mortal, since we believe being excepted from the judgment of hell is a matter of once-for-all forgiveness granted to those who trust in Christ for salvation: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Our enjoyment of our lives and our fellowship with the Lord Jesus depend on seeking forgiveness for individual sins committed after coming to Christ; our salvation from hell does not. Thus we would not single out suicide as a uniquely damning act, however selfish and ungodly it may be.

However, according to Catholic theology, individual sins committed by believers may condemn a person to hell if they remain specifically unforgiven. Because suicide leaves the sinner with no opportunity to repent in this life, the RC view is that it is indeed “mortal”, as confirmed here by William Saunders.

Wiggle Room?

That said, Saunders himself allows that even black-and-white Catholic theology has some latitude:
“Here though we must remember that for a sin to be mortal and cost someone salvation, the objective action (in this case the taking of one’s own life) must be grave or serious matter; the person must have an informed intellect (know that this is wrong); and the person must give full consent of the will (intend to commit this action). In the case of suicide, a person may not have given full consent of the will. Fear, force, ignorance, habit, passion, and psychological problems can impede the exercise of the will so that a person may not be fully responsible or even responsible at all for an action. Here again the Catechism states, ‘Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide’ (#2282). This qualification does not make suicide a right action in any circumstance; however, it does make us realize that the person may not be totally culpable for the action because of various circumstances or personal conditions.”
Interesting. Saunders finishes by noting that all judgment belongs to God, with which we would certainly agree. This would seem to leave the troubled Catholic pondering his options without complete certainty of his church’s position.

God Only Knows

From the Protestant perspective the issue is similarly murky. Does the Bible categorically state that all suicides go to hell? No, we cannot go that far. We can draw inferences from scriptural principles, but to dogmatize where the word of God does not is risky business. It may be that one person’s suicide is a forgivable act of momentary and uncharacteristic despair, while another’s is evidence their profession of faith was never genuine. Only God knows the answer to that one.

What can be said is that even in the worst of circumstances, the Bible does not give us the sort of certainty about suicide that might permit us to dispatch ourselves from this world in full confidence of finding ourselves in heaven. Our security in Christ should not lead us to imagine we may safely continue in sin in order that grace may abound.

That is not an assumption a saved man or woman makes comfortably.


  1. Your Saunders link above gives me a 503 error. Not working on my Android phone.

    1. Try this:

  2. This reminds me of what I had thought about and tried to figure out as well a while back. Namely, with God as the author of life and really ultimately in control of circumstances does he not have some responsibility if your life has taken that type of turn. It seems we are willing to belief that just by thinking it so he could lighten the burden that compells a person to contemplate such serious action. By not doing so and by simply letting the statistics play themselves out where does the real responsibility rest? Are we therefore graded (compensated) with a sliding scale?

  3. The children of God have his assurance that "he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability" (1 Corinthians 10:13). Those who do not belong to Christ have no such promise to claim, sadly.

    1. How about this hypothesis? When God created spiritual beings with free will things did not work out so well overall. So he rethought the matter and decided spirits needed a training ground with all types of challenges and obstacles to overcome to train the spirit in matters of character and endurance. So he came up with the physical world and existence to serve as that training ground with the ultimate aim of reinforcing the desired and necessary spiritual character traits needed for coexistance with God.

    2. The whole idea of God rethinking things he somehow didn't anticipate doesn't really work for me.

    3. Right, but think about it. The idea that I build a house knowing that I am partly using inferior parts that I know will corrode and fail in 8 years also does not make any sense. We simply don't have the picture.