Can We Hold Memorial Services for Christians who have Committed Suicide? — Will They be Saved or Not

By Zhang Yuanlai, December 06, 2015 12:12 PM

Memorial Service

There is a traditional viewpoint held by some churches that Christians who committed suicide are not to be saved, so it is inappropriate to hold memorial services for them. However, things are more complicated in reality. On one hand, churches may feel sorry for the deceased. But on the other hand, this cruel rejection is another disaster for the deceased's family. Can we hold memorial services for these Christians? We may think about this issue objectively from the perspective of Theology and Christian ethics.

I. Memorial Services, for the Deceased or for the Living?

Is a memorial services held for the deceased or the living? I think the answer is very clear. The deceased cannot enjoy a memorial service because s/he has either entered heaven or has been doomed to be an unsaved. A memorial service is not able to influence a saved person at all. In other words, the deceased's salvation cannot be determined by holding a memorial service or not, or how to hold a memorial service.

A general reason for being against holding memorial services for Christians who committed suicide is that these Christians have abandoned grace as well and therefore, s/he cannot be saved. Since it is impossible for an unsaved to enjoy rest, holding memorial services for  Christians who committed suicide means arrogating the religion to the deceased.

As a matter of fact, Christians' worship is not for any person but for God, which should also be considered as a reasonable act of living. Although a memorial service is for commemorating the deceased, it is actually a ceremony for worshipping God and benefiting the living. Hence, a memorial service is not held for the deceased but for the living, providing them with an opportunity of worshipping God and commemorating the deceased. Hence, the viewpoint of being against holding memorial services for Christians who committed suicide on the grounds that they cannot be saved is in fact unreasonable.

II. Memorial Services, for People, or Only for Saved People?

Salvation is the key point of the contention, i.e. whether it is appropriate to hold memorial services for Christians who committed suicide or not. Since those who committed suicide cannot be saved, memorial services cannot be held for them.  

I associate this contention with a question: Are memorial services held for people or only for saved people? Namely, do we hold a memorial service for someone because s/he is a saved person or because s/he is person who is created in God's own image and saved by God? As far as I'm concerned, the answer is obvious. If we hold a memorial service for someone because s/he is a saved person, our judgment is nothing more than a prejudice by first impressions. In this case, we have judged the deceased' salvation by ourselves. However, we are not able to know everything about the deceased or God's will. Furthermore, as a tradition, memorial services are often held for those who died in serious disasters. Based on basic principles of Christianity and universal logic, you will not believe that everyone died in disasters is a saved person. Then how can you judge that someone is saved or not? If we hold memorial services only for saved people, we have to hold a debate before each memorial service to judge the deceased has been saved or not! It is obvious that we arrogate God's authority to ourselves if we make that judgment. 

Here I have remembered Martin Luther's three surprises. He told us that when we arrive in heaven, we would be surprised by three things: First, a sinner such as I was in heaven! Second, why he was not here? Third, you were here, too! What Martin Luther wants to express is that salvation is grace from God himself rather than people's judgment.

Holding memorial ceremonies is giving respect for life as well as for the master of life. The value of life does not lie in the deceased but in life itself. We hold memorial ceremonies for remembering and praising the splendor of life and the personal charisma of the deceased. Therefore, Christian memorial services should be held for someone in the image of God instead of someone who has been verified as a saved person.

III. Suicided Christians, Doomed to Be Unsaved?

Here we must be faced with a fundamental question: Are Christians who committed suicide really unsaved people? Is there any possible exception from different perspectives other than theology?

1. The Theological Logic of those who Committed Suicide Being Unsaved

St. Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian presented theological reasons why those who committed suicide could not be saved in a systematical way. He argued that suicide was "illegal." From the standpoint of creation, since life was given by God and thus belonged to God, committing suicide meant disobeying God and violating his authority. In ancient times, many churches even refused to hold funerals for these people and expelled those who tried to commit suicide from church. 

The second reason was a very usual one: suicide equaling murder. Since a person's own life was given by God, if s/he killed himself/herself, s/he became a murderer who could not be saved. From this viewpoint, Carl Bath, a famous theologian in 20th century raised four reasons. First, man was not the master of his life since his life was borrowed from God. Second, the goal of life was serving God and man was only the steward of his life. Third, God abounded in love and grace and he ordered us to live. Fourth, man had no right to decide whether his life deserved preservation or not.The third reason was that those who killed themselves also lost their faith in God, so they were counted as unsaved people.

We must admit that all the arguments mentioned above conform to Biblical principles. However, is there any possible exception besides these results based on theological logical deduction?

2. Possible Salvation for People Who Committed Suicide - Something Beyond Logic 

Throughout the whole Bible, many God's servants, such as Moses, Elijah and Jonah, were all once in the deep valley of their lifetime and had thoughts of suicide (Num 11: 10-15, 1Ki 19: 1-5, Jon 4: 9). Even Paul expressed that he wanted to depart from this world and be with Jesus Christ. Namely, he hoped to meet God as soon as possible. According to some surveys made by psychologists, most of people have had thoughts of suicide.

Suicide does not only relate to religion. More often, it is a psychological problem which cannot be equaled with religion. The act of committing suicide may be the reflection of losing all control suddenly in a difficult psychological predicament. At that moment, people are no more controlled by reason, that is to say, it is hard to know whether a person who committed suicide abandoned belief before s/he committed suicide or not psychologically. I have studied several attempted suicides and found that they have suffered psychological and religious struggles before committing suicide rather than having abandoned their belief immediately.

Moreover, there is a logical exception. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Ro 10:13) Committing suicide is actually a process. If a committed man called upon the Lord's name and repented during the process, how can you judge him as unsaved? Extensive researches made by psychologists have proved that most people who have attempted to kill themselves have also tended to regret during the process. If a Christian has repented and asked the Lord to forgive him during the process of suicide but at last, s/he still died of suicide, it is hard to say whether s/ha has been saved or not.

IV. People Who Committed Suicide Should Also Have Dignity of Human Life

People who committed suicide, like everyone, are human beings with integral personality, although they choose to end their life due to some reasons. If you agree that a suicidalman also has dignity, you should respect him. If you don't agree that he has dignity, you cannot thus judge him as an unsaved person.

Sometimes death can be considered as an inappropriate way of safeguarding the dignity of life. Take Mr. Lao She, a prestigious Chinese writer and also a Christian for example. According to some studies of Prof. Wang Weipan, a late Chinese theologian, a group of Red Guards travelled from Shanghai to Beijing at the beginning of the Great Cultural Revolution. They did all they could do to persecute Mr. Lao She, who was writing a book about how much the New China disheartened him at that time. After many tortures and humiliation, Mr. Lao She, who honored life so much, chose to safeguard the dignity of life given by the Creator at the cost of his life. On Aug. 23, 1966, he removed the sign with insults from his neck, threw it to those Red Guards and drowned himself in Taipinghu Lake. Mr. Lao She indeed chose to abandon his life initiatively; however, we cannot bear to judge the aim of his suicide. We may be more familiar with Mr. Fu Lei and his wife Zhu Meifu. On Sep.2, 1966, like Mr. Lao She, after being humiliated and persecuted so many times the couple killed themselves in order to express their dissatisfaction with the Great Cultural Revolution and toshow their respect for life and fight against the unrighteous. Mr. Ba Jin, another famous Chinese writer who did not want to bear extremely painful treatments any more in his last days asked doctors to pull out all his tubes, because he wanted to suffer less and die with dignity. Can we really regard their acts as committing suicide and trampling life? They safeguarded the dignity of life by ending their life and thus, it is difficult to judge the tendency of their conscience when committing suicide.

What I want to point out is that a suicidal man is also a creation of God in God's own image. He deserves our respect as well. The respect is not only for the deceased, but also for the Lord who has given life to him. Certainly, we are resolutely opposed to suicide and ending someone's life in this way. However, can we therefore judge people's conscience and choice? As for their conscience, they might be counted as a group of martyrs who died for fighting against unrighteousness. Historically, only tyrants trampled on life as if they were weeds. Christians should be good and respectful. Particularly, they should have mercy on those who have experienced the unbearable lightness of being and the unbearable heaviness of living as well as tolerate their inappropriate acts performed when they are weak.

Finally, people choose to kill themselves usually because they are overburdened with their problems. An official document released by the Chinese government in 2009 indicates that in China the number of people who committed suicide is estimated to be 287,000 per year. WHO estimates that one million people commit suicide per year globally. A survey made by Dr. Fei Lipeng at a mental hospital in Beijing indicates that suicide ranks the fifth on the list of causes of death in China, only next to cerebrovascular disease, bronchitis and chronic emphysema, cancer of liver and pneumonia. A person usually needs to experience a long mental struggle before committing suicide. According researches made by Hong Kong University, people who commit suicide fall into six categories in Hong Kong: mental patients, those who suffered attempted suicide, losers in employment market, debtors, single persons and unsociable persons, decreasing in numbers. According to Dr. Fei Lipeng's survey, there are eight main factors causing people to commit suicide in China: depression, attempted suicide, great pressure, poor living conditions, long-term mental stress, severe conflicts with others in two days before committing suicide, family members who died of suicide, friends or colleagues who died of suicide, ranking from the greatest to the least.

It is clear that during the process of suicide, a person will experience mental hardships that cannot be totally understood by others. As for Christians, the responsibility is not judging suicidal people's salvation or even rejecting to hold memorial services for them but helping those who are in the valley of the shadow of death with mental care, religious counseling and living support. A memorial service, as worship for resting a spirit, is one of the essential methods for showing this care and support. 

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