Not long ago, I sat in an emergency room with a friend who had been musing about suicide. My experiences with such matters are limited, but I wasn’t taking any chances. This man had lost his job and was being evicted from his apartment. He was at risk of losing custody of his children to his former wife. And he has a history of depression and bi-polar disorder. He claimed not to be suicidal, but I was worried for him.
This experience has prompted me to ponder the eternal fate of those who commit suicide. If you have not considered this topic before, you might be surprised to learn that the word suicide does not appear in the standard works. Indeed, the concept of suicide seems strangely muted in the scriptures. While there are numerous examples of people taking their own lives (e.g., Saul, Samson, and Judas), discussions of the consequences of such an act are scarce.
Most who write about suicide from a scriptural perspective rely heavily on the sixth commandment: “thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13) For some Mormon perspectives, consider the following from (1) George Q. Cannon, (2) Bruce R. McConkie, and (3) M. Russell Ballard (all taken from Elder Ballard’s article, “Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not,” Ensign, Oct. 1987):
Cannon: “Man did not create himself. He did not furnish his spirit with a human dwelling place. It is God who created man, both body and spirit. Man has no right, therefore, to destroy that which he had no agency in creating. They who do so are guilty of murder, self-murder it is true; but they are no more justified in killing themselves than they are in killing others. What difference of punishment there is for the two crimes, I do not know; but it is clear that no one can destroy so precious a gift as that of life without incurring a severe penalty.”
McConkie: “Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.”
Ballard: “I feel that judgment for sin is not always as cut-and-dried as some of us seem to think. The Lord said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Does that mean that every person who kills will be condemned, no matter the circumstances? Civil law recognizes that there are gradations in this matter—from accidental manslaughter to self-defense to first-degree murder. I feel that the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstances: Was the person who took his life mentally ill? Was he or she so deeply depressed as to be unbalanced or otherwise emotionally disturbed? Was the suicide a tragic, pitiful call for help that went unheeded too long or progressed faster than the victim intended? Did he or she somehow not understand the seriousness of the act? Was he or she suffering from a chemical imbalance that led to despair and a loss of self-control? Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth. When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth.”
All three of these passages connect suicide and punishment, but why is suicide bad? The following passage from John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae offers an interesting perspective on this question:
Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice. Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one’s neighbour, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole. In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death….
I hear in this passage echoes of the quotation from George Q. Cannon above (“Man has no right, therefore, to destroy that which he had no agency in creating.”). In my view, this is at best an incomplete account of the tragedy of suicide. In my view, the most important consequence of suicide to the individual who commits the act is that he or she has artificially shortened the day of probation. Suicide deprives the person of the opportunity to improve the soul with the aid of a mortal body.
This explanation fits with my understanding of the plan of salvation, but it raises a potentially thorny question: is it possible that, in some instances (e.g., when people experience profound depression), the mortal body has become a liability to spiritual growth?