Q: This past summer, I've had to deal with not one but two deaths by suicide. Each of these men seemed to have so much to live for, but unfortunately, we really never know what someone else is thinking.
What happens to these men's souls after they die? I'd hate to think their souls would have to live as tortured an existence in the afterlife as they had to live on earth. Both were good men, but their demons obviously got the better of them. It breaks my heart. — A., Valley Stream, NY, via firstname.lastname@example.org)
A: Your question breaks my heart as well. The recent suicide of a friend of my friend still haunts me. The teaching of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) about suicide perfectly reflects our own divided souls on this terrible matter.
On the one hand, we all want to condemn suicide in the strongest possible terms. On the other hand, we want to have compassion for the poor tormented souls who've blundered into a broken place where hope was fatally elusive. Our religions speak to both sides of this human tragedy.
On the condemnatory side of religious beliefs about suicide — I would actually prefer to call this the life-affirming side — is the belief that murder, including self-murder, is the worst of all sins because it takes away God's greatest gift, the gift of life.
We did not give ourselves life, so we are not allowed to usurp God's right to take it away from us. Deuteronomy 30:19-20 reminds us that God has set before us life and death, and our job is to choose life, no matter how difficult that choice might be:
"I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live. That thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him, for he is thy life and the length of thy days..." (KJV)
Seen in the light of this text, suicide is not just a rejection of life but a rejection of love and a rejection of God. No despair, no matter how deep, should drive us to throw away every supremely good thing in life.
One of many Christian Testament texts expressing a similar anti-suicidal sentiment is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17:
"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." (KJV)
The Koran 4:29-30 follows this life-affirming prohibition against self-murder or any murder:
"Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily God hath been to you Most Merciful!"
So the consequences of killing yourself are the same as the consequences of killing any other innocent person, and those consequences reflect the sanctity of life.
However, all these traditions have another more merciful element in their teachings about suicide that reflects our compassion for all murder victims, including those who murder themselves. After all, sometimes suicide is a cry for help that goes too far.
Sometimes suicide is the result of an accidental or impulsive overdose of drugs. Sometimes suicide is the result of risky behavior that suddenly becomes fatally risky. And sometimes suicide is the result of severe mental illness that was not or could not be treated.
So, for example, in Judaism, although a person who commits suicide cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, when actually confronted with a suicide victim, rabbis will always rule that the person should be allowed to be buried in the cemetery anyway because perhaps he or she died of fear before the suicide. It makes no sense, I know, but if you're trying to fit compassion into tragedy, it makes all the sense in the world.
In Christianity, the belief that those who have truly accepted Christ will absolutely be saved regardless of their works in life enables Christians to hope that the suicide victim will be saved and brought to heaven because of his or her faith.
I'm not in a position to say what awaits the souls of your two friends and my friend, but I do believe that somewhere in their debriefing, the angels will quote to them this verse from one of T.S. Elliot's poems: "Trying is all that matters. Everything else is just not our business."
Then the debriefing angels or God will ask their souls: "Why did you stop trying?"
Some questions are just too hard for me to answer. This is one of them.
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