As a child, I memorized every line of Good Morning Vietnam. I feel, as many of you do, that we knew him. He was in some way a part of each of our families. It’s heartbreaking to realize he is gone.
Anytime a tragic death like this happens to someone so influential in our culture, many people will ask questions about depression and suicide. Most of these questions I am not qualified to answer. However, this question: “Is suicide unforgivable?” has a simple answer with a basic understanding of how salvation works. The traditional view, not biblical, is that suicide is the one unforgivable sin. As I will make clear, I have no intention of judging Robin Williams or anyone else in his position, I only want to answer an important question that many people find themselves asking.
How Salvation Works
Salvation is not achieved by our behavior, either good or bad. Really good people don’t get an automatic ticket to Heaven and people who struggle with sin do not automatically get a ticket to hell. Romans 10:9 gives us the most basic look at how salvation works:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
This is counter intuitive to the common perceptions of salvation. Most people are trying to “get right” with God by being good people. The reason Jesus died on the cross is because God knew none of us could ever be “good enough.” So he gift wrapped salvation in the form of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Now, to be saved, we must simply believe. It all boils down to this simple act.
Now, stick with me to the end here. People who believe in Jesus are not perfect. They make mistakes. A person who believes does not step in and out of salvation based on their good or bad behavior. Remember, their faith is what saves them.
So, the question of salvation for anyone who dies by suicide is NOT…
What sin did that person commit last? OR How bad of a sin did he or she commit?
The question the New Testament teaches us to ask is this…
Did that person authentically believe Jesus Christ was the son of God?
If that person has faith, the act caused by their severe depression is neither here nor there.
I want to highlight the word authentic, because that is really important. After all, how can you tell if someone believes something in their heart or whether they are just paying lip service to an idea. Authentic faith produces, what the Bible calls, fruit. The fruit analogy is very simple to understand:
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Matthew 7:16-20
Someone who has authentically placed their faith in Christ will be different. They will follow Christ’s commands. Serve like Jesus. They will have a new world view that is shaped by the Bible. This is their fruit. So here is the dilemma with suicide: can someone who authentically believes in Christ and produces fruit die by suicide?
Making the Call
As a pastor, I have officiated many funerals. Each funeral is the same. Friends and family look to me to affirm that their loved ones are in Heaven. The first funeral I officiated was when I was 22 years old. The deceased was a young man who had died from a drug overdose. The mother, understandably, was distraught. She kept hugging me and saying “I know he is in a better place right now.” I had no idea how to respond. I didn’t know her son. I know they raised him in church and I know that he was baptized when he was young. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to affirm that he was, without a doubt, in Heaven.
The problem is, no one can really know the answer to this question about another person. I CAN know if I authentically believe in Jesus. You CAN know if you authentically believe in Jesus. However, when evaluating another person, we are just guessing.
So, with every funeral, I am faced with the same dilemma. Do I make the call, like I am a football ref reviewing a play OR do I leave that question unanswered and let people wonder? My current approach is to talk about the greatness of Jesus and give people a clear understanding of faith, and I leave it there. Based on that information, they can decide (guess) as to whether or not this person “made it.”
We should not declare people into Heaven or hell. We should, however, be very diligent about two things:
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? 2 Corinthians 13:5
2. Encourage others to have an authentic faith
If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 1 John 1:6-7