Reflections on Suicide

John Odhner

 

What Should We Think About Suicide?

Suicide brings up a lot of pain and grief for those affected by it. There is usually a lot of anger, guilt and depression surrounding it, and the process of working through these feelings can take a lot of time. Unfortunately, these feelings are often compounded by expressions of criticism, judgment and blame. We think, ‘If only this person had behaved differently,’ or, ‘That person should have done something sooner.’ We may pass judgment on the person who commits suicide, or we may place the blame on family or friends. Either way, it puts an additional, unnecessary burden on people who are already burdened.

Some people say that those who commit suicide cannot go to heaven, or will suffer terribly after death because of their crime. Perhaps this idea is intended as a deterrent to suicide. I think it actually is not an effective way to prevent suicide, since it can make a suicidal person feel even more unloved and distant from God. In addition, I believe it causes extra pain for the family and friends, who then have to deal with the thought that someone they love is headed for hell or suffering horrible punishments. They are already in a very painful situation, dealing with real hurts, and don’t need imaginary and hypothetical ones added. Furthermore, I believe that it is wrong to pass such judgments on people, living or dead.

Suicide Does Not End Our Problems

Emanuel Swedenborg had the ability to be conscious in the both the spiritual world and the natural world at the same time. Because of this he was able to tell us what happened to people after their death, and also to see how people who have gone on to the spiritual world influence people who are still on earth. In Swedenborg’s unpublished diary we read what happened to a person who committed suicide:

A certain one in the life of the body had committed suicide by stabbing himself with a knife, having been driven to desperation through depression, to which he had been driven by diabolical spirits. He came to me complaining that he was being miserably treated by evil spirits, and said that he was among the furies who were continually provoking him. The place where he was, was in the lower earth, a little to the left. He also seemed to me to have a knife in his hand which he wanted to drive into his breast. He labored hard with that knife, wanting to throw it away from himself but without success. For whatever happens in the last hour of death remains for a long time before it disappears, as I was told. (Spiritual Diary 1336, 1337)

This shows us that whatever inner problems we have in this life we will generally have to face in the next life. If we look at this passage negatively, we might conclude that people who commit suicide will after death be tormented by evil spirits and will continue to have suicidal experiences. But before we make such generalizations, we should note that this passage is describing a particular person’s experience, and with other people suicide may have different effects. We should also note that this person’s difficult time was temporary. The person had to go through painful experiences in order to come into a better state. By struggling with the evil spirits who were attacking him, he could eventually overcome his depression and suicidal tendencies. What happens at the time of death is likely to have a big impact on a person’s subsequent thoughts and actions (Compare Heaven and Hell 449), but this does not mean that all who commit suicide will respond in the same way. In fact, the next two passages indicate that this does not happen with every suicide.

Are People Punished after Death for Suicide?

The fact is that no one is punished in the next life for deeds committed in this life. When people are drawn to suicide through evil that they have deliberately chosen, that evil will probably stay with them, and they will suffer as a result. But when the suicide is from pressures beyond their control (such as insanity), they will not suffer for it at all in the next life. The following passages do not speak specifically of suicide, but the connection is clear:

No one in the other world suffers punishment on account of the evils that he had done in this world, but only on account of the evils that he then does; although it amounts to the same..., since everyone after death returns into his own life and thus into like evils and the person continues the same as he had been in the life of the body.... But good spirits, although they had done evils in the world, are never punished, because their evils do not return. Moreover, I have learned that the evils they did were of a different kind or nature, not being done purposely in opposition to the truth, or from any other badness of heart than that which they received by inheritance from their parents, and that they were carried into this by a blind delight when they were in externals separate from internals. (Heaven and Hell 509)

But as regards good spirits, if perchance they speak or do evil, they are not punished, but pardoned, and also excused. For their end is not to speak or do evil, and they know that such things are excited in them by hell, so that they have not come to pass by their fault; and the same is also observed from their resistance, and afterward from their grief. (Arcana Celestia 6559)

From this we can see that a person who is basically good who commits suicide will not be punished at all for this in the other life, because their intention in committing suicide is not to hurt other people.

Suicide Permitted to Protect a Person’s Soul

Another passage in Swedenborg’s private diary speaks of evil spirits who attempt to kill the people they are with.

It was told me they were such as had formerly [in their lifetime] slaughtered whole armies, as is recorded in the Scripture histories, having induced insanities upon them, for they rushed into the chambers of their brain, and then inspired such terror that one slew another. That they were able to strike such terror I was assured, but it is seldom done at the present day. It is extremely rare that the bonds are loosened to any of them at this day, and only takes place in the case of some one who is of such a quality that it were better that he should be permitted to perish as to his body than as to his soul, and in regard to whom, unless he perished bodily in this manner, by means of insanity and suicide, he could not well be prevented from perishing to eternity. (Spiritual Diary 1783; compare Arcana Celestia 5717)

This passage also may not apply to every suicide, but like the first passage, it shows us that suicide can result from insanity induced by evil spirits. Perhaps more important here is the teaching that suicide is permitted in order to keep a person from perishing eternally. This is quite different from the teaching of some other religions, that people who commit suicide go to hell. The truth is that the Lord may allow people to commit suicide when He sees that it is the only way they can come into heaven.

As a confirmation of the fact that people who commit suicide can go to heaven, note that the Writings imply that Judas, who committed suicide, is now in heaven. (True Christian Religion 791, Matthew 27:5)

Swedenborg’s Suicidal Urges

Swedenborg himself had suicidal urges. He wrote, "I wanted to kill myself with a knife. This desire grew so strong that I hid the knife in my desk." (Spiritual Diary 4530.) This feeling was the result of a woman who had hated Swedenborg during her life in this world. She carried that hatred into the spiritual world and there she tried to get revenge by inspiring him to kill himself. Swedenborg also mentions spirits that apparently tried to make him step in front of a moving vehicle or jump off a bridge. (Spiritual Diary 253 & 1043) This reminds me of the demon-possessed person who would throw himself into the fire or try to drown himself. (Matthew 17:15)

From this we can see how useless and even hurtful it can be to blame suicide on the individual who kills himself, or on the person’s family or friends. It’s possible that we are at fault for harboring evil desires that draw such evil spirits to us, but it could also be something that is completely out of our control and not at all our fault.

Better to Die Than to Be Drawn Away from the Lord

I suspect that some people may commit suicide because they see their life headed in a bad direction and they feel it would be better to die than to be drawn further along the path to hell. Consider this experience that Swedenborg relates:

When any wish to lead astray the spirits of that earth, and draw them away from faith in the Lord, or from humility toward Him, and from uprightness of life, they say that they wish to die. Then little knives are seen in their hands, by which they seem to wish to pierce their breasts. When they are asked why they do so, they say that they would rather die than be led away from the Lord. Sometimes the spirits of our earth laugh at these things, and infest them with questionings why they do so. But they answer that they know very well that they are not going to kill themselves, and that this is only an appearance proceeding from the will of their mind, showing that they would rather die than be drawn away from the worship of the Lord. (Arcana Celestia 8950)

These spirits knew they would not kill themselves because they were already in the spiritual world, so they could not die. If they had been alive in the natural world, might they have possibly killed themselves? I don’t know, but I suspect a similar kind of motivation enters into some suicides in this world.

Giving Up Your Life to Find Life

All of us, in order to come into heaven, must in some sense be willing to voluntarily give up our lives. We must be willing to give up the life of selfishness and materialism, which is the death of our selfish and worldly desires.

He who loves his life shall lose it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to eternal life. (John 12.25)

Whoever will save his life shall lose it: and whoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:25, 10.39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, 17:33)

If any one comes to Me, and does not hate his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own soul also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:26)

"And they loved not their soul unto death." (Revelation 12:11) This means they did not love themselves more than the Lord. "Loving their soul" means to love themselves and the world, for the soul means the person’s own life, which everyone has by birth, which is to love himself and the world above all things. Therefore "not loving his soul" means not to love himself and the world more than the Lord and the things which are the Lord’s. "Unto death," means to be willing to die instead. Consequently it is to love the Lord above all things, and the neighbor as one’s self (Matthew 22:35-39); and to be willing to die rather than recede from those two loves. (Apocalypse Revealed 556)

Happy are the dead who die in the Lord ... "the dead" mean those who afflicted their soul, crucified their flesh, and suffered temptations; ... "and that they may rest from their labors," means that those who are tempted will have peace in the Lord, ... "Temptations" here mean spiritual temptations, which take place with those who have faith in the Lord and live according to His commandments, when they drive away the evil spirits that are with them, who act as one with their lusts... The reason why they are meant by "the dead" who have afflicted their soul, crucified their flesh, and suffered temptations, is, because thereby they have caused their former life to die, and therefore are become as it were dead before the world. (Apocalypse Revealed 639)

I believe that sometimes suicide may involve letting go of and giving up our excessive interest in ourselves and in worldly things.

The Lord Gave Up His Life Voluntarily

Jesus said, "No one takes My life from Me, but I lay it down of Myself." (John 10:18) The Writings say that it was through this the Human was united to the Divine:

It was not in respect to His Divine but in respect to His Human that the Lord suffered, and by this an inmost—thus complete—union was brought about. This may also be illustrated by the fact that when a person suffers physically his soul does not suffer, but only grieves; and after the victory God takes away this grief and wipes it away as one wipes away tears from the eyes. (True Christian Religion 126)

Biblical People Who Desired Death

Besides Judas and Jesus, there are a number of other people in the Bible who expressed a desire to give up their lives. Saul saw that the Philistines were about to capture and kill him.

Then Saul said to his armorbearer, "Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me." But his armorbearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword and fell on it. And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him. (1 Samuel 31:4)

The Writings say of this that the "uncircumcised" Philistines represent filthy, selfish, materialistic loves. (Arcana Celestia 1197, 4462) Is it possible that a motive in suicide might be to avoid being captured by such desires?

Just before Samson brought the whole building down, killing the crowd of Philistines who held him captive, he said, "Let my life die with the Philistines." (Judges 16:30) When Jesus spoke of His own coming death, Peter said, "I will lay down my life for You." (John 13:37) Jonah also expressed a desire to die:

"Therefore now, O Lord, I beseech You, take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live..." And it came to pass, when the sun rose, that God prepared a strong east wind. And the sun beat on the head of Jonah, so that he fainted, and wished in himself to die. And he said, "It is better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4:3, 8, explained somewhat in Apocalypse Explained 401:36)

Elijah also wished to die when he was despairing about Israel’s rejection of the Lord:

Elijah requested for himself that he might die; and said, "It is enough. Now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers." (1 Kings 19:4)

Samson, Peter, Jonah and Elijah may have had rather selfish motives for wanting to die. For Samson it may have been revenge; for Peter, glory; for Jonah, self-centeredness. But on a deeper level these stories are all about the fact that temptation is a kind of spiritual death, and the selfishness in us must die in order for us to progress spiritually.

The Heroism of Giving Up One’s Life

Every act has its quality from the motivation. Suicide can be a very selfish act which shows complete disregard for other people. Yet giving up one’s own life is a heroic act if the purpose is to protect others. It is the ultimate expression of unselfish love.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

If the country is threatened with ruin from an enemy or any other source, it is noble to die for it, and glorious for a soldier to shed his blood for it. (True Christian Religion 710)

In the other life all goods are immeasurably increased, and the life in the body is such that people can go no further than loving the neighbor as themselves, because they are in the things of the body, but when these are removed, the love becomes purer, and at last angelic, which consists in loving the neighbor more than themselves. The possibility of such love is evident from the married love that exists with some people, who would suffer death rather than let their married partner be injured. It is also evident from the love of parents for their children, in that a mother will endure starvation rather than see her infant hunger, and this is true even among birds and animals. It is likewise evident from true friendship, in that we will undergo perils for our friends. (Arcana Celestia 548)

Suicide and Heroism

When a person commits suicide as an escape, or worse, as a way of causing suffering to others, it is a selfish and cowardly act—just the opposite of heroism. Yet at times the line between heroism and suicide becomes blurred. It is the motive more than the action that makes the difference, and looking at others we see only the apparent motive. We may not know the real reason a person takes their own life.

If a person dies in battle, we assume the motives were noble, although the person could have been suicidal. For example, in the opening scene of Dances with Wolves, the soldier is depressed because he is about to have his leg amputated. He recklessly charges into the crossfire hoping to be killed, but other soldiers think he is bravely leading a charge. They follow him, and so his attempted suicide accidentally leads a charge which turns the tide of the battle. He gets decorated as a hero although he had no heroic intentions. In this case, what looked like heroism was actually an attempt at suicide.

It can also happen that a person may have heroic motives when all we see outwardly is an attempt at suicide. When a person commits suicide, we do not know what kind of battles they are going through, and what good reasons they may have for giving up their life. Perhaps what seems to us a selfish act is actually a heroic effort to give up selfishness. We cannot judge.

Broader Teachings about Death and Evil

Some of Swedenborg’s teachings can help us understand suicide better even though they are not directed specifically at suicide. Rather than going into detail, I will very briefly mention a few specific examples:

Every evil is permitted for the sake of salvation. (Divine Providence 275)

Only that which is done from freedom according to the individual’s reason remains with the person. (Divine Providence 78)

The Divine Providence is in the smallest details of a person’s thoughts and affections, even if the person is evil. (Divine Providence 287)

There are evils we do that are not our fault, and ones that are our fault. (Arcana Celestia 4171, 4172)

The Lord’s providence governs the time of a person’s death. (Spiritual Diary 5002, 5003)

Everyone is protected by angels during the process of death. (Heaven and Hell 449)

Swedenborg wrote so much about life and death that we will find many other teachings that may be helpful and comforting when we face death in any form. Here are just a few:

Each of these ideas could fill a chapter in a book, so there is much more that you can explore, question and grow from if you wish.

Summary

Suicide can leave us feeling that life is extremely confusing, complex and painful. It will often seem to make absolutely no sense at all. The teachings here will not take away all the pain, but they may bring a little clarity and comfort to people who have been faced with suicide. To summarize:

The Lord is infinitely loving and merciful, both to those who feel that love and to those who feel isolated from it. All the evil that the Lord permits, and all the blessings He provides, come from that infinite mercy which is constantly seeking to lead each one of us to heaven as far as we are willing to go, each on the unique path that is best for us.