Grieving Parents Seek Answers
By Rev. John T. Schwiebert
Recently I received a letter from a man whose son completed suicide some 20 years ago. He was trying to reconcile two conflicting messages he had received from the leaders of his church. On the one hand he was assured that God loved his son; on the other hand it was obvious that many of his fellow church members believed that his son was burning in hell because of what he did.
He was looking for some theological conversation with someone who was willing to struggle with this issue without on the one hand condemning his son, nor on the other hand merely dismissing what the Bible says about hell as outdated religious superstition. He specifically mentioned that mere psychological counseling had not helped him because he was dealing with spiritual questions that his counselors seemed ill-equipped to address.
I am sharing below my response to his letter in the hope that it may help other people of faith who may be wrestling with similar issues. In my response I have tried to work from within the theological framework of the man who wrote to me. In entertaining the notion of hell that has been a part of his religious tradition, I do not mean to imply that anyone is wrong who follows a different teaching about hell, or who simply does not accept the idea of hell at all.
Also, even though, like the writer of the letter, I am a Christian and therefore respond out of that faith experience which we share, I am not a “Christian imperialist.” This means that I do not exclude or discredit the religious experience of anyone who happens not to be a follower of Christ.
Your letter, addressed to Suicide Bereavement Support, was referred to me. I have agreed to respond with this initial letter to the important issue that you have raised, but also to be in further dialogue with you, if this is your desire.
I certainly will not presume to issue a final or authoritative word on this or any subject. But you have raised a genuine question that needs to be struggled with in every generation, and by everyone who has faced the depth of personal pain that has been a part of your life for almost 20 years.
I appreciated the final declaration in your letter when you said, “My wife and I will not stop loving our son and abandon him to hell!” My immediate response was to recall the similar words of the psalmist’s prayer which are reiterated in Acts 2:27:
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
Or let your holy one experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
You will make me full of gladness with your presence.
The author of the book of Acts quotes this psalmist’s prayer in support of the resurrection of Christ, but Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ’s resurrection is only the first fruits of a general resurrection in which “all [who have died] will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:22).
Having experienced the forgiveness and mercy of God in my own life, I am not willing to allege, as some apparently have, that your son is not also included in the ALL of the above promise. Indeed the scriptures abound in assurances that God goes to great lengths to cover all our mistakes and forgive all our sins. For example:
The Lord is gracious and slow to anger
And abounding in steadfast love
The Lord upholds all who are falling,
And raises up all who are bowed down.
The Lord is . . . patient with you, not wanting anyone
to perish, but all to come to repentance.
--2 Peter 3:9
But what about the reality of hell? The scriptures seem to take seriously the notion of hell and therefore so must we. Hell seems to be a way identifying the consequences that issue from our mistakes—extending this not only to the suffering that we experience in our lives because of our missteps but continuing into an after life as well. But nowhere is it suggested that God’s love cannot reach into hell and rescue those who are so encumbered.
It may be necessary, as you suggest, to preach about hell from time to time. But none of us is in a position to suggest that certain persons are damned to remain in hell without relief. Moreover, to use hell as a threat to try to coerce belief and particular behaviors is, I believe, unbiblical. People are brought into redemption not by the threat of hell but by the message of the grace and love of God in Christ Jesus. And no one, including your son, is excluded from that love and grace. An old hymn from my childhood poses this provocative question:
Are you able to remember, when a thief lifts up his eyesThat his pardoned soul is worthy of a place in paradise?
I personally am able to remember, and I appreciate this reminder whenever I am tempted to condemn anyone whom God loves. And I truly believe God loves your son!
So, to answer your question, YES. I am willing to stand with you and your family in continuing to love your son, and in trusting that even his violent death by his own hand cannot separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (see Romans 8).
If you would like to discuss these things further please don’t hesitate to
call me at 503-281-3697, or contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org