By Chris Palmer, Crosswalk.com
“If a pastor—or anyone, for that matter—commits suicide, can he or she still go to heaven?”
I received several queries like this in my inbox this week as the result of yet another influential pastor’s suicide. As I mulled them over, I thought, It’s too soon. That’s not the right question, at least not now . . . and preferably not ever. This is not the time for theology. Don’t spoil the vigil.
But in their defense, that’s probably why some of my followers private-messaged or emailed me instead of opening the discussion up in my social media thread. The thread is a forum of celebration, a place where we comfort the grieved, highlight redemption emerging from the tragedy, and use the sorrow to draw others out to avert their own. But the inbox is where we spill our real sentiments and leak what we’re thinking, or at least trying to think.
We can avoid the question, for now, I suppose. Out of respect for the family, we can back off. Then after our memorials come to an end, our lives will carry on. And the question won’t return until it has to, when we’re not supposed to ask it because it’s too near again.
The problem is, when the issue is far off, who wants to bother with sorrow? Life is too short to spoil the good times with morbid musings that beg to be answered. However, there really is no convenient time to wrestle with matters pertaining to grief.
I should apologize here for my insensitivity, for bringing up a difficult question that will always seem somewhat out of place. Death and the thought of death should feel foreign and alien to God’s creation. I become concerned for those who are comfortable walking through a cemetery and talking about death like it’s a hobby. We should not stay on the matter longer than we have to. At times, though, we do have to, despite how we feel.
My replies to my inbox messages were somewhat apologetic. While people believe that pastors are experts in matters of religion, the truth is, our expertise lies in knowing what we do not know. I know God is merciful . . . but I do not know the extent of that mercy. I know murder is a sin . . . but I do not know what to make of it when a person is depressed and in a dark place and decides to end it all. There are too many variables in this. There is no smoking gun in Scripture that tells us the eternal destiny of those who take their own life, no rules that say under what conditions it may be forgiven or not.
All I know is that the pastor who took his own life was a devoted Christ follower, a clever writer, and a family man, loved by his wife and his church family. His life appeared to be an anthem of hope. I know that God is concerned with justice and is fair to His creation, so based on what I know about this pastor, I take comfort in this knowledge rather than tremble.
It’s too convenient to shrug off this comfort under the sentiment that his suicide was an act of cowardice¾he left his wife, his kids, and only shifted the pain. I understand this notion. But this wasn’t a man who caused people pain his whole life—quite the opposite, in fact.
Revelation 2:17 says God will give each righteous person in eternity a “new name.” The word new in the original language means “custom made.” I believe our new names in heaven will incorporate an element of our personal sufferings from here on earth. It’s not that they define who we are. Rather, they help to tell the story of our own unique redemption—how God saved us and what He saved us from, including depression, loneliness, and a dark place that only our loving God understood.
I believe God can redeem the suicidal, especially those who strived to share His light and Word with the world. This pastor lost his battle with depression . . . but does that negate all of the good that he did for God's glory?
Although the question is cut-and-dry, the answer really isn’t. Let’s keep in mind that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, [and]endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7, ESV). Let’s believe the best about this pastor, and most importantly, the best about our heavenly Father, who can redeem all things if our hearts are right.
Chris Palmeris host of the popular podcast, Greek for the Week, and pastor of Light of Today Church in Michigan. His first book, Letters from Jesus: Studies from the Seven Churches of Revelation recently released.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Михаил Руденко