Do people who commit suicide go to hell?
By William J. Byron, S.J.
What is the Catholic Church’s teaching on suicide? Do people who take their own lives go to hell? My son committed suicide. In the note he left, he said he was going to hell for this, but didn’t know what else to do. He made many mistakes, and I made lots of mistakes raising him. I’m truly sorry.
- D.B., Minnesota
No one can appreciate the unimaginable pain that is the ultimate explanation for such a tragic action. No one, therefore, can judge a person whose choice we cannot fathom, whose life we can remember, but cannot restore, and whose pain we cannot understand. This is how the Church tends to look upon suicide today.
The Church teaches that suicide is wrong; it is contrary to the Fifth Commandment. It is an action that runs counter to the proper love of self, as well as love for God, the giver of life. We are stewards of our lives, not owners. The person who takes his or her own life also wrongs others — those who remain experience loss, bewilderment, and grief. You won’t find anything in that teaching about going to hell.
Pity, not condemnation, is the response of the Church. Prayers are offered for the deceased. Mass is celebrated. Burial with dignity, in consecrated ground, is provided for one who dies this way. Not that long ago, Christian burial was denied to those who took their own lives. There may have been another denial at work in those days, too — denial of our inability to understand the pain. We assumed that those who chose to take their own lives were acting freely and under no psychological distress or illness. Or worse, there may have been a denial of responsibility to try to understand the pain. As your son said in the note he left behind, he just didn’t know what else to do.
So for those of us who remain, the Church encourages paying attention to the pain that produced the action. Then, look forward, not back, to pain within ourselves and pain in others, especially when we see no signs and hear no calls for help.
Why do we avoid speaking to one another about inner pain? Why are we not more sensitive to the pain in others’ hearts, or able to read the pain in others’ eyes? Why do we spend millions for “pain relief ” over the counter or by prescription, but not spend the time it takes to encourage those who may be hurting to open up? This kind of thinking is all now part of the Church’s pastoral response to the tragedy of suicide.
It seems to me that there has to be some mysterious insulation enveloping those who commit suicide. Tragically, their minds cannot be read by those around them, nor can they reach out and ask for help. Again, the unimaginable pain.
The Church teaches through liturgy, and the liturgy on occasions like these stresses divine mercy. Take a look at Psalm 103, and recall the dimensions of God’s mercy — as far as the east is from the west, as high as the skies are above the earth.
The Church still teaches that there is a hell, but leaves it to God to decide who should go there. And divine decisions, in this regard, are filtered through divine mercy. Tragedy at the end of this life is no sure sign of an eternal tragedy in the next.