God is more just than I will ever be. And, God is more loving than I can ever imagine.

For centuries it has been standard church doctrine that suicide is a shameful sin, deserving eternal punishment. Persons who took their own lives were restricted from church burials, families were ostracized, even excommunicated for fear this deadly infection would spread to the whole body. The teaching that suicide leads directly to hell is rooted not so much in Scripture as in a desire to deter someone who wants to end his life from doing so.

Lately, with suicides of prominent church leaders and their family members, this teaching is being called into question. Most recently, Inland Hills Church put out this message:

Inland Hills Church grieves with heavy hearts as our Lead Pastor Andrew Stoecklein was welcomed into Heaven on Saturday night after battling depression and anxiety. It’s not the outcome we hoped and prayed for, and today we grieve as a church family. In his time leading Inland Hills, Andrew reached so many with his warm wit, passionate heart for God, and teaching that always, always pointed others to Jesus. The loving husband, father, son, and friend that he was will continue to inspire us in leading others into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

It is a far stretch from seeing suicide as a sin deserving eternal punishment to being vehicle for an early admittance into heaven. Both views are misleading and dangerous.

First, the notion that suicide is the unforgivable sin misrepresents Scripture. The Apostle Paul proclaims that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We enter God’s heavenly realm through faith in Christ, not by anything we do or avoid doing. Suicide is a terrible spiritual attack, a tragic end to a life often filled with despair. It causes traumatic collateral damage on those left behind. The last thing they need heaped on this pile of pain is shame over the outcome of their loved one’s desperate actions.

Suicide is not a sure train to hell. Yet neither is it a fast jet to heaven. When someone has gone through a great deal of suffering and anguish, it is tempting to see death, even suicide, as a merciful end. I hear things like, “Her struggle is now over.” “He has found peace.” In this way, we assure ourselves that this life is not all there is, that there is a better life to come. At the same time, we risk attempting to play God and pray someone to heaven.

Only God knows the state of our souls. Suicide does not necessarily result in eternal punishment, yet neither does it guarantee future reward.

InterVarsity senior editor Al Hsu dealt with these questions in a very intimate way when his father died by suicide. Hsu contends:

Christians often assume that suicide is an unforgivable sin and that those who die by suicide automatically go to hell. That’s a misconception that believes in a transactional view of sin and forgiveness, where if we don’t confess the sin of suicide after it takes place, it can’t be forgiven. But that idea comes more from Augustine and medieval theology than the Bible. Scripture doesn’t actually say that suicide separates us from God for eternity. The unforgivable sin is never equated with suicide in Scripture. Somebody like Samson died at his own hand, but he’s still included in Hebrews 11 among the Hall of the Faithful. And there’s the promise in Romans 8 that “neither life nor death,” not even death by suicide, could “separate us from the love of God in Christ.”

He is then asked —

What’s your advice for talking to children when a loved one dies by suicide?

In many cases, families try to cover up the truth to “protect” the children. Young kids may not understand why a parent has taken their own life, and so the temptation is to couch it in terms like, “Oh, there was an accident” or “Mommy didn’t mean to take those pills.” That might work for a little while, but inevitably the kids grow up and hear the full story from somebody who doesn’t know that they weren’t supposed to talk about it. Not only does this launch them into grieving the loss of their parent dying in this way, they also feel betrayed by those who have covered it up. It’s better to speak candidly but in age-appropriate ways to kids to help them understand:

Mommy felt that she could not go on living. Her feeling was like an illness or disease that prevented her from seeing hope for the future. She felt like she couldn’t go on.

We should reassure children that they are not at fault. Young children are particularly egocentric, and they often think they caused something. So we need to reinforce: “It was not your fault that Mommy or Daddy did this. They are responsible for their own actions.    (“The Truth About Suicide,” Interview by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today).

My job as as a follower of Christ is not to beat someone up with wrong-headed bad theology. Neither is it to falsely reassure with well-intentioned error. My job is to comfort and encourage those left behind, with words of hope. Life is worth living. Death is not the final word. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death with the light of Christ.