Growing up with the idea of heaven was not as easy for me as one might think. There were many times I wished my life would just end; for me to go to sleep and not wake up. There were many times I prayed for God to just take me home. I do not remember clearly now the reason for such thoughts, but I remember having them from time to time as a teenager all the way to my twenties.
I am not suicidal. I have never seriously or actually attempted ending my life, though I do remember entertaining the thought and trying to decide which method would be fastest and most pain-free. At the lowest points in my life when I wanted to die, I wondered why most people, especially Christians, seemed afraid to die and clung on to life. Why would they endure the heavy cost of hospitalizations and being hooked up to this and that machine? Why delay the inevitable? Why not instead by joyful and excited to go to heaven and be with God?
There were early groups of Christians who thought this way, most notably the Donatists, a 4th century sect that went against the priests and bishops, believing their authority to be invalid and therefore refusing to be subjugated by them. They were politically active, stirring up violence and protests in the street against the creeping hold of Roman authority in the church. Even when most of the Christian world came to accept the emperor Constantine as a leader of the church, the Donatists saw him as the devil incarnate.
Donatists also thought that suicide, in the name of their cause, would make them martyrs and thus guarantee their place in heaven. This line of thinking is eerily familiar when one reads of the motivation of Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War 2 (redemption, payment for debts in this life, honor) and of suicide bombers who are promised heavenly comforts (the famed reward of 72 virgins) as well as earthly securities for the loved ones they would leave behind.
It is not difficult to see that this was a dangerous train of thought. In the 5th century CE, Augustine of Hippo (later canonized as a saint) condemned suicide as a violation of the fifth commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” explaining that the prohibition included the killing of one’s self and not just others.
By the 6th century, suicide had become a secular crime as well, which is not surprising knowing how tightly intertwined religion and government were at that time. Even those found attempting suicide were in grave danger of excommunication and all the social consequences that entailed. Those who died by suicide were forbidden Christian burials on “consecrated” ground, and denied ecclesiastical rights, which was a sure way into hell.
In the Catholic tradition, it is possible for a person to die with unconfessed sins. If they die with unconfessed venial sins (like lying, petty theft, and the like), they undergo a cleansing process in purgatory to be “purged” from these sins. If they die with unconfessed mortal sins (like murder, suicide, divorce, and even masturbation and participation in Freemasonry), then they are in very real danger of going to hell.
In the Protestant tradition, however, there is the belief that when one accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, one is cleansed from all sin — past, present and future — and so one is now under the grace of God. The bible passage often quoted is Romans 8 which begins with saying that there is “no condemnation” for those who are in Jesus and ends with a grand statement that nothing, no powers, angels, demons, nor life nor death can separate a person from God’s love.
It is interesting to note though, that despite this, I have heard sermons or teachings from certain pastors (especially the more legalistic ones) that suicide is an unforgivable sin pointing to Jesus’ reference to an “unforgivable sin” in Matthew 12:31-32: “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”
The argument is that a Christian’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and so to commit the ultimate sin against one’s body by killing it is a “blasphemy against the Spirit.”
Nevertheless, in my experience, very few people today are willing to take a firm stand on who goes to heaven and hell. Even when I express my atheism to Christians, when I ask them point-blank, so do you think I’m going to hell? Very few would give me a straight yes or no answer and would be very roundabout in their responses, but mostly along the lines of “Who am I to judge? God will decide.”
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.