For many Christians, suicide is a taboo act that will keep a believer out of Heaven. Known by many as the "unforgivable sin," it's a complicated issue that's been widely neglected from theological discussion within the Church.
In a portion of his new book Unanswered, a volume intended to shed light on several hot-button topics that loom large within the Church, apologist and New Testament scholar Dr. Jeremiah Johnston debunks misconceptions about suicide and mental illness — two issues secretly plaguing today's Church.
"Twenty-three percent of pastors right now, according to a reliable LifeWay study, are chronically depressed," Johnston told The Christian Post last week.
Depression is a hidden issue among many pastors who are often expected to somehow be insulated from such a malady. "You're a spiritual leader," said Johnston. "You're supposed to be perfect and made of Teflon." According to data, however, that school of thought is far from reality.
Suicide and mental illness are the most frequently queried topics at the Christian Thinkers Society, a biblical think-tank of sorts, of which Johnston is president. Over a period of six years, from 2009 to 2015, the organization compiled more than 6,000 questions that burned within the hearts and minds of Christians across the country. "For every question we receive about the Bible, we receive three questions related to suicide and other mental illnesses," Johnston wrote in his book, which is an aggregate of such questions.
If that comes as a surprise, consider this: 1 American commits suicide every 13 minutes, and among adults aged 18 years or older, an estimated 9.3 million have had suicidal thoughts, according to 2013 data from the CDC.
Among those statistics was Matthew Warren, youngest son to megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who took his life at age 27 by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in April 2013, as previously reported by The Christian Post. Following his son's death, the Saddleback pastor opened up about the tragedy in a message written to his church staff.
" ... Only those closest knew that he [Matthew] struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts," wrote Warren. "In spite of America's best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life."
So, are those who commit suicide bound to go to Hell because, after they take their life, they can no longer seek forgiveness for their act, therefore making it "unforgivable?"
Johnston told CP, "The only sin that God cannot forgive is the sin of rejecting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Do people who commit suicide go to Hell? Some people teach that suicide is the 'unforgivable sin.' God forgives that sin. Is it a sin? Absolutely. But the salvation we receive from Jesus Christ is eternal, regardless of our mental state or our spiritual maturity or immaturity — otherwise the Gospel is void. Do you know how many Christians die unexpectedly with unconfessed sin in their life?"
The author added, "I have been shocked and amazed how empowered people have felt when I'm willing to actually speak about mental illness in the Church, intervention, and how to minister to those who are mentally ill, and how those who are struggling with a mental illness can still be used of God … Don't think that God can't use you because you have a mental illness."
Johnston acknowledges that certain segments of Christianity discourage believers from confessing or admitting to sicknesses or illnesses, and believe that doing so gives the infirmity power and even demonstrates a lack of faith. Some ministries advocate to "focus on the solution, not the problem." Johnston, however, disagrees with that notion. "We don't see that in the Scriptures … God's not looking for a faith that doesn't admit that you're struggling."
As proof of his point, the theologian refers to Mark 14:36 when Jesus acknowledges and agonizes over the prospect of his death, saying, "Take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt."
On the flip side of things, Johnston reminds believers not to dwell on and glorify their problems. "God doesn't want us to do that either," he said. "So while we admit them [our problems], we don't live there."
While the author believes his book tackles many of the toughest questions facing Christians today, Johnston doesn't claim to have all the answers. He reminds readers that Unanswered is not an "end all be all," but, as he states in the book, it is intended to help Christians develop a "thinking faith, capable to communicate confidently, and committed to escape the tendency to offer trite answers to the unanswered questions of a skeptical world."
Johnston told CP, "That's the beauty of faith. We will never have absolute certainty this side of Heaven. Paul said that he sees through a glass dimly, but someday he'll see things as they really are." Johnston added, " … I think there's a fear that there might not be an answer to some of these questions. That somehow Christianity is a house of cards that will fall."
To those concerns, the Bible scholar said bluntly, " … You are not going to come up with a question that has not either a): been asked in the last few thousand years, or b): was not already asked in the Bible. You're not going to come up with an original question. God can handle it. The Church can sustain it. Trust me."