By Eric Johnson
Suicide is a growing problem in American society today. Many people have been greatly affected in one way or another by this issue, having lost a friend, family member, or coworker who, for whatever the reason(s), decided to end their life. In this article we will take a closer look at the issue of suicide in relationship to the religion of Mormonism. We will consider the statistics on suicide in Mormon-dominant states as well as search the unique scriptures and teachings of the LDS Church to see if there is a consensus on the eternal fate of those who commit suicide.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), general statistics for suicide in the United States reveal:
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death
- In 2017, there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts
- A total of 47,173 Americans died by suicide in 2017, about 14 for every 100,000 individuals*, equaling 129 suicides per day
- In 2015, suicide and self-injury cost the US $69 billion
* Note: All the numbers used below reflect how many suicides (in the case above, 14) were committed for every 100,000 individuals.
Many may assume that suicide is a “young person’s problem,” but shockingly this is not true. In fact, the highest rate of suicides (20.2) are committed by adults between the ages of 45-54 as well as adults 85 or older (20.1). According to the AFSP, “younger groups have had consistently lower suicide rates than middle-aged and older adults.” While the numbers for teenagers/young adults are certainly still too high, the rate of suicide for those aged 15-24 was 14.46. While not as many young people commit suicide when compared to older people, this doesn’t mean that many don’t attempt it. According to AFSP:
Based on the 2017 Youth Risk Behaviors Survey, 7.4 percent of youth in grades 9-12 reported that they had made at least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months. Female students attempted almost twice as often as male students (9.3% vs. 5.1%). Black students reported the highest rate of attempt (9.8%) with white students at 6.1 percent. Approximately 2.4 percent of all students reported making a suicide attempt that required treatment by a doctor or nurse. For those requiring treatment, rates were highest for Black students (3.4%).
Meanwhile, males were 3.5 times more likely to kill themselves than females, while white males accounted for close to an astounding 8 out of 10 suicide deaths. In addition, white people consistently have the higher per capita suicide rates, more than double the rates of blacks and Asian/Pacific Islanders. Only Native Americans come close.
Statistics in Utah and other LDS-populated states
Many consider Utah to be a “Mormon” state, although less than two-thirds of the state’s 3.1 million residents call themselves “Latter-day Saints.” Still, no state in the United States has more Mormons than Utah, population or percentage wise. Utah’s suicide rate has gone up 46.5% since 1999, making it the fifth highest rate in the nation. The suicide rate in the United States as compared to the rates in Utah differ greatly. The next states with the highest percentage rates of Mormons are Idaho (about a quarter of the state’s residents are LDS) and Wyoming (12% are LDS), which are included in the following chart, again listed per 100,000 individuals:
The western United States has the greatest concentration of suicides, per capita. However, California (2% in this state are LDS ) had the lowest suicide rate anywhere in these surrounding states, less than half the rate of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming!
According to the Public Health Indicator Based Information System (IBIS), from 2015-2017 Utah averaged 628 suicides per year, which was the fifth highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. during this time period. For young people ages 10-17 and those aged 18-24, it was the leading cause of death. Another alarming statistic was that the
2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, during the past 12 months before the survey Utah high school students, reported the following: 33.0% felt sad or hopeless, 21.6% seriously considered attempting suicide, 17.1% made a suicide plan, 9.6% attempted suicide one or more times and 4.0% of these students suffered an injury, poisoning, or an overdose that had to be treated by a doctor or nurse. Source
Why Utah and the western states?
Michael Staley, who works for the state’s medical examiner office that studies suicides in Utah, said, “It is sort of a question that is the bane of my existence in a way — why Utah? To be completely honest, we don’t have very many answers” (“Utah’s suicide rate has shot up 46.5% since 1999–making it the fifth highest in the nation,” The Salt Lake Tribune, June 2, 2018). The article explained the following:
The problems most frequently associated with suicide, according to the study, are strained relationships; life stressors, often involving work or finances; and recent or impending crises. The most important takeaway, mental health professionals say, is that suicide is not only an issue for the mentally ill but for anyone struggling with serious lifestyle issues.
Several theories have been discussed as to why the suicide rate is so high in the western states, including Utah. Here are a few possibilities:
- High altitude depression: It does appear that a person living in a higher altitude can become more easily stressed and have a greater tendency to commit suicide.
- Antidepressant drug usage: The usage of drugs such as Paxil, Lexapro and Prozac are up 65% in the U.S. during the past decade and a half. Source Utah is known to have one of the highest rates in the nation for residents who use drugs to battle depression. However, some studies, including one completed by the University of Utah, theorizes that these drugs are less effective at high altitudes. These drugs come with warnings that they could cause suicidal tendencies. Source
- Utah has a high rate of mental illness compared to the rest of the nation. Source
- With Utah’s high homosexual population, those who are either in or are considering alternative sexual lifestyles may be more likely to commit suicide due to perceived/actual persecution at the hands of a conservative/religious culture. Source
The elephant-in-the-room question is whether or not Mormonism deserves any blame in Utah’s high rate of suicide. I believe it is practically impossible to link the high rate of suicides with Mormonism in the three states with the highest percentages of Latter-day Saints, even though some with an agenda have certainly tried. Let me give one example of what is a dubious connection. In late 2015, the LDS Church announced a policy that bars children of homosexual parents from getting baptized into the church until they are 18. A group known as the New Civil Rights Movement called this a “new devastatingly anti-gay policy labeling people in same-sex marriages ‘apostates’ and barring their children from being baptized” and claims that this decision caused 32 LGBT Mormon young people to commit suicide in just a few months” (“32 LBGT Mormons Aged 14-20 Have Committed Suicide in Wake of New Anti-Gay Policy, Group Says”).
The article reported that during a conference of Affirmation, a Mormon LGBT support group, “the families of the 32 victims had contacted her directly about the death of a child or sibling.” Several questions must be asked:
- What is the evidence that the decision made by church leaders in 2015 caused all 32 of these young people to kill themselves in less than three months?
- Were these children active in the LDS Church? Or were they “Mormon” in name only?
While groups such as Affirmation and Mama Dragons have a vested interest in linking these suicides to the church, is there any ability to know for sure that the church is responsible for these suicides? Unless there is further study to show this is true, the answer is no.
From the research I did, it appears to be universally accepted by scholarly academics that those who have a religious history of any kind, including Mormonism, are much less likely to commit suicide than those who do not have a religious history or upbringing. Of course, this doesn’t mean religious people don’t commit suicide–certainly they do–but it does mean that, on the average, they are less likely to do so. Consider several sources.
In 2017, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (November 2016, pp. 845-850) explained,
We found that past suicide attempts were more common among depressed patients with a religious affiliation (OR 2.25, p=.007). Suicide ideation was greater among depressed patients who considered religion more important (Coeff. 1.18, p=.026), and those who attended services more frequently (Coeff. 1.99, p=.001). We conclude that the relationship between religion and suicide risk factors is complex, and can vary among different patient populations. (“Religion as a risk factor for suicide attempt and suicide ideation among depressed patients“)
A 2014 article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry stated,
There is evidence to suggest that religion may help people to cope better with life stresses, reduce the incidence of depression and substance misuse, facilitate recovery from depression, enhance social support and provide sources of hope and meaning (pp. 179-180). Any or all of these considerations provide possible explanations for the putative protective benefit identified in the study by Kleiman & Liu. Although interpretations of such studies are debated, and negative findings are also reported (e.g. King et al ), the overall balance of findings is thought by many to reveal a benefit for religious beliefs and practices in relation to mental health and well-being (British Journal of Psychiatry (Vol. 204, Issue 4, April 2014, pp. 254-255).
The American Journal of Psychiatry reported in 2004, “Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation.” Source The study concluded,
Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.
A study printed in Health Day said that children of religious parents are less likely to commit suicide. The article reads in part,
The lower suicide risk among those raised in a religious home is independent of other common risk factors, including whether parents suffered from depression, showed suicidal behavior or divorced, the Columbia University researchers said. The study, however, does not prove that a religious upbringing prevents suicide, only that there is an association between the two.
“We know that spiritual beliefs and practices tend to help people feel a greater sense of connection, of hope and meaning in their lives,” said Melinda Moore, chairwoman of the clinical division of the American Association of Suicidology. She is also an assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky.
In addition, spiritual communities can help people who are in crisis by giving them hope and meaning, she said. And while clergy aren’t trained mental health professionals, they can refer people to appropriate care. (“Parents’ Religious Beliefs May Affect Kids’ Suicide Risk: Study,” Health Day, August 18, 2018).
Finally, a study printed in BYU Studies (“Statistics on Suicide and LDS Church Involvement in Males Age 15-34,” Vol. 39, No. 2, 2000) made a case that the more a person is involved in the activities of the LDS Church, the less likely suicide becomes an option. The study concluded:
Religious activity rates of males as measured by lay priesthood office in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was significantly inversely associated with suicide rates in the State of Utah. Inactive LDS males had age-adjusted suicide rates approximately four times those of active LDS males… U.S. white males had rates approximately two and one-half times those of active LDS. In the group where church activity is most closely approximated by lay priesthood office, the U.S. rate is nearly seven times that of active LDS (p. 179).
Although this last study is just shy of two decades old–ancient according to the world of statistics–the conclusions do make sense, especially in light of the other research. It seems logical that someone who is actively engaged in church membership activities would be much less likely to commit suicide than someone who is not dedicated to a religious faith. Even if the religion is not true, Mormonism can help keep a person focused while providing a support network, such as from church leaders (i.e. bishops, stake presidents), home teachers, and, for the youth, seminary and institute teachers.
When it comes to suicides in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming–states with much higher-than-normal suicide rates–we can only wonder how many who committed suicide were active participants in their local wards. The problem is there is no recent research available to provide understanding. Information that would be helpful include knowing if the suicide victim had gone on a mission, been married in the temple, served church callings, attended church regularly, etc.. A question to be answered is whether or not the victims were actively practicing their faith at the time of death or were “Mormon” in name only. Also, information about why a former Mormon left the church or is no longer practicing is necessary to see if the religion of Mormonism deserves any blame in the suicide. Factors that could be considered include:
- loss of a marriage and the closeness of children because of a divorce related to the suicide victim having left the religion
- loss of a job because the suicide victim left the religion
- loss of friends and other family members due to the suicide victim having left the religion
- substance abuse/addiction that resulted as a coping mechanism once the suicide victim left the religion
- the feeling of marginalization because the suicide victim no longer socially fit into a Mormon culture
It is possible that those who were once active in the church (but no longer are) are more likely to commit suicide. However, only careful research would be able to help ascertain this assertion, and there is none as far as I can tell. (How difficult would it be for researchers to discover pertinent information when the immediate families–perhaps embarrassed by the stigma of suicide–would withhold important information to make such a study worthwhile?) Therefore, it would go beyond the available evidence to try to link the religion of Mormonism as a major reason why people–whether active in the church now or having once been–commit suicide in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. At the same time, if Mormonism plays such an important role in many people’s lives in these states, another question to research is why aren’t the suicide numbers lower if so many people in these states claim to be Latter-day Saints? After all, if people who are involved in their religion are less likely to commit suicide, why are the numbers in these states so high?
A look at LDS theology: What is the eternal fate of a faithful Mormon who commits suicide?
At this point, let’s turn our focus to the theology of Mormonism when it comes to the fate of those faithful members who end their lives.
Suicide and murder: A comparison
Murder is the “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.” Source This leads to the question as to whether or not suicide is the same as murder according to Mormonism. While I was not able to find anything founding prophet Joseph Smith taught on suicide, we do have his words on “murder.” For example,
A murderer, for instance, one that sheds innocent blood, cannot have forgiveness. David sought repentance at the hand of God carefully with tears for the murder of Uriah, but he could only get it through hell: he got a promise that his soul should not be left in hell (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 339).
Smith also said murder is unforgivable:
Remission of sins by baptism was not to be preached to murderers. All the priests of Christendom might pray for a murderer on the scaffold forever, but could not avail so much as a gnat towards their forgiveness. There is no forgiveness for murderers (Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 221).
The Standard Works certainly taught such a thing. For instance:
And it shall come to pass, that if any persons among you shall kill, they shall be delivered up and dealt with according to the laws of the land; For remember, that he hath no forgiveness (Book of Commandments, 1833, 47:2,3).
And now, behold, I speak unto the church. Thou shalt not kill; and he that kills shall not have forgiveness in this world, nor in the world to come (Doctrine and Covenants 42:18).
The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, saith the Lord God; and he that abideth not this law can in nowise enter into my glory, but shall be damned, saith the Lord (Doctrine and Covenants 132:27).
It should be pointed out that the word “damned” in that last verse doesn’t mean that a person goes to “hell,” as it might appear. Rather, this has been understood in Mormonism to mean that a person is not allowed to move to the highest (celestial) kingdom. It is likened to a dam preventing water from moving to the next level.
Thus, the idea that murder is not forgivable is taught in the standard works as well as by many church leaders. Consider some teachings by leaders during the past five or six decades:
10th President Joseph Fielding Smith
“John says there are two kinds of sins. One kind that can be forgiven; the other kind a sin unto death, for which there is no forgiveness. Murder is one of the latter class” (The Restoration of All Things, 1964, p. 204).
“Murder, the shedding of innocent blood, is a sin unto death” (The Way to Perfection, p. 236).
“Some sins are more serious than others and less easily repented of. There are sins that cannot be forgiven, such as murder, without the punishment of the guilty with the shedding of blood” (Seek Ye Earnestly, p. 151).
12th President Spencer W. Kimball
“The Prophet Joseph Smith underlined the seriousness of the sin of murder for David as for all men, and the fact that there is no forgiveness for it” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 128).
“Our loving Father has given us the blessed principle of repentance as the gateway to forgiveness. All sins but those excepted by the Lord–basically, the sin against the Holy Ghost, and murder will be forgiven to those who totally, consistently, and continuously repent in a genuine and comprehensive transformation of life” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 14).
“Some religionists claim that the murderer dying on the gallows can go immediately to God if he has made confession of belief in Christ. This is unthinkable and untrue. To think that the criminal hanging beside the Lord on Calvary would receive the same reward as the martyr Stephen is unreasonable and untrue.… If one wishes to be forgiven of his sins and reach the celestial kingdom and have associations with the Father and his Son, [he must] repent and serve and do the proper works….” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 69. Ellipsis in original).
“Perhaps one reason murder is unforgivable is that having taken a life, the murderer cannot restore it. Restitution in full is not possible. Also, having robbed one of virtue, it is impossible to give it back” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 85).
“The Lord is just and he is merciful, but he does not allow mercy to rob justice. Where there is proper repentance, he forgives all but two sins: murder, wherein innocent blood is shed, and sin against the Holy Ghost” (Mark E. Petersen, Three Kings of Israel, p. 99).
“A deliberate murder is what the scriptures call ‘a sin unto death.’ (1 Jn. 5:16.) It deprives the murderer of eternal life (1 Jn. 3:15) because there is ‘no forgiveness’ for this act (D&C 42:79). In other words, a person who deliberately kills another shall die spiritually” (Dallin H. Oaks, The Lord’s Way, p. 213).
Meanwhile, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism states,
“Murder is condemned in latter-day scripture just as it is in the ten commandments and numerous other passages in both the Old and the New Testament. The Doctrine and Covenants declares that ‘thou shalt not kill’ (D&C 42:18). The murderer ‘shall not have forgiveness in this world, nor in the world to come’ (D&C 42:18)” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:970).
Whether this act is one person taking another’s life or a person taking his own life, this act cannot be undone. If that is the case, suicide certainly seems to fit the classification of “murder.”
Will suicide prevent a Mormon from celestial glory?
The traditional idea that a person who commits suicide will not be able to reach celestial exaltation is consistent with traditional teachings of church leaders. For instance, Mormon Katie Lambertan remembered “growing up with the belief that anyone who committed suicide wouldn’t make it to the celestial kingdom. . . . But I’ve noticed that I wasn’t the only one with that belief and that many other Latter-day Saints also believe that those who commit suicide will be placed in the telestial kingdom forever, no exceptions. But that’s not the case” (“Where the Myth that Those who Commit Suicide End Up in the Telestial Kingdom Originates”).
Lambert attributes the misunderstanding to a citation “allegedly” coming from fourth president Wilford Woodruff that he had claimed originated with Joseph Smith. She added, “Nowhere in this recorded quote is it specified that those who commit suicide enter the telestial kingdom. In fact, the final destination of those who commit suicide is left ambiguous.”
Is suicide a “sin” according to Mormonism? There is no doubt that several church leaders have said this is true. For instance, twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball explained,
Shortening life is sin. This temple of God is the body that the Lord has given us. It has been given to us to last a long time. It is a terrible criminal act for a person to go out and shorten his life by suicide or by any other method if it is intentional, by shortening it with the things that will create an early death. That isn’t the way the Lord arranged it. He intended that men should live to the age of a tree (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 187. Ellipsis in original).
George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency, explained in the Juvenile Instructor that “Every member of the Church should be made to understand that it is a dreadful sin to take one’s own life. It is self-murder” (Vol 28, p. 352). He also equated murder with suicide when he said,
Man did not create himself. He did not furnish his spirit with a human dwelling place. It is God who created man, both body and spirit. Man has no right, therefore, to destroy that which he had no agency in creating. They who do so are guilty of murder, self-murder it is true; but they are no more justified in killing themselves than they are in killing others. What difference of punishment there is for the two crimes, I do not know; but it is clear that no one can destroy so precious a gift as that of life without incurring a severe penalty. (Gospel Truth, 2 vols., Salt Lake City: Zion’s Book Store, 1957, 1:30; italics added.)
He taught that a Mormon who committed suicide should not be afforded an honorable burial, claiming that
anyone committing this crime should not expect a public and honorable funeral. There is a wide distinction between the condition of one who dies a natural death and one who dies by his own hand. No one should be led to believe that if he commits this sinful act he will still receive the same respect and honor at his burial from the Priesthood and people of God that others do who die as faithful members of the Church. No encouragement of this kind should be given to anyone who has an inclination to commit suicide. For this reason a person who commits suicide should be buried privately and without ostentation, and certainly the funeral services should be conducted without the authorities of the Church lending their presence to the funeral. All should be taught that it is a sin of great magnitude to take the life which the Creator has given to them.
Cannon wrote in his 1894 journal that even if a suicidal victim was considered insane, he or she should not be allowed to be buried in his temple clothes. According to Cannon, the First Presidency “decided that it would be improper for him to be clothed in his Temple robes. I feel that we should set our faces against the crime of suicide and withhold honorable burial from everyone who resorts to this method of destruction.” Apostle Matthias F. Cowley agreed with Cannon, writing,
In connection with this branch of the subject it may be well to refer to the belief of many that, at death the wicked are consigned to their final doom and the righteous to full and complete exaltation in the presence of God. We can explode this fallacy by quotations from Holy Writ. In line with this mistaken belief we find ministers attending the culprit at the gallows, urging him to confess Christ, and telling him that by such confession he will be saved in the kingdom of heaven. In the face of such doctrine the Scriptures plainly declare that, “The murderer hath not eternal life abiding in him.” We who live in this dispensation are forbidden by the living oracles of God to receive temple ordinances for even the suicide” (Cowley and Whitney on Doctrine, pp. 123-124).
At the October 1987 General Conference (“Suicide: Some Things We Know and Some We Do Not”), Apostle M. Russell Ballard said that those who committed suicide have “committed a very serious sin, and some consequences of it may remain with them throughout eternity. Only our Father in Heaven knows the full answer to the questions our hearts ask regarding those who take their own lives.”
What is sin according to Mormonism? The church manual True to the Faith reports that sin is “willfully disobey(ing) God’s commandments, we commit sin. . . . The Lord has said that He ‘cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance’ (D&C 1:31). The result of sin is the withdrawal of the Holy Ghost and, in eternity, being unable to dwell in the presence of our Heavenly Father, for ‘no unclean thing can dwell with God’ (1 Nephi 10:21)” (p. 163).
How is a person supposed to interpret D&C 1:31 cited in this reference? A missionary manual states,
God cannot look on sin with any degree of allowance, and sin prevents us from living in His presence. Only through the Savior’s grace and mercy can we become clean from sin so that we can live with God again. This is possible through exercising faith in Jesus Christ, repenting, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end (Preach My Gospel, 2004, p. 51).
Another manual cites this verse and provides this commentary:
The result of sin is the withdrawal of the Holy Ghost and, in eternity, being unable to dwell in the presence of our Heavenly Father, for “no unclean thing can dwell with God” (1 Nephi 10:21) (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, p. 163).
Earlier, I cited from an article written by Katie Lambert who admitted that, in her earlier years, she and many other Latter-day Saints believed that a person committing suicide was destined for the telestial kingdom. While there is no evidence that any leader has ever mentioned the “telestial” kingdom as the eternal resting place for those committing suicide, there is also no evidence that anybody killing themselves will receive the celestial kingdom. For instance, consider the words of Apostle Bruce R. McConkie:
Agency, of course, is exercised in accordance with law. Once a final choice has been made, there is no turning tack to seek the opposite goal. Men may exercise their agency to repent and turn to the Lord in this life, in which event they will be saved. But if they choose to rebel against the light and work wickedness, they will be damned. And once they are damned, there is no power of choice left whereby they can alter their course and gain salvation. If men choose to commit suicide, for instance, they will continue to have agency in hell, but they will not be able to use it to gain their lives back again. The purpose of this life is to test men, to see if they will take the bodies which have been given them, and by the righteous exercise of agency make those bodies fit abodes for the Spirit of God (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 21).
The current Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops manual published in 2010 talks about euthanasia “as deliberately putting to death a person who is suffering from an incurable condition or disease. A person who participates in euthanasia, including assisting someone to commit suicide, violates the commandments of God” (p. 162). If this is true, wouldn’t it be a logical conclusion that a person who commits suicide on his or her own is “violat(ing) the commandments of God?”
A person who dies at their own hand is incapable of repenting. Yet Alma 11:37 in the Book of Mormon says,
And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins.
And Mormon 9:29 in the Book of Mormon explains that it is important to “endure to the end.” It says,
See that ye are not baptized unworthily; see that ye partake not of the sacrament of Christ unworthily; but see that ye do all things in worthiness, and do it in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God; and if ye do this, and endure to the end, ye will in nowise be cast out.
Finally, Alma 34:32-35 teaches that there is just one life and after this comes the judgment, which falls in line with biblical teaching found in Hebrews 9:27 and 2 Corinthians 6:2.
32 For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.
33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
35 For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.
A Latter-day Saint who has “procrastinated the day of (his or her) repentance even until death” has “become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his.” I’m not sure how this passage could be interpreted any other way.
An exception to every rule
While previous LDS leaders have called suicide a “sin” and even “self-murder,” there have been some in the past few years who have tried to introduce exceptions to the idea that suicide victims cannot attain the celestial kingdom. For instance, Apostle M. Russell Ballard cited founding prophet Joseph Smith at the October 1987 General Conference and said,
I draw an important conclusion from the words of the Prophet: Suicide is a sin—a very grievous one, yet the Lord will not judge the person who commits that sin strictly by the act itself. The Lord will look at that person’s circumstances and the degree of his accountability at the time of the act. (“Suicide: Some things we know and Some we do not”)
Ballard was also cited in an article discussing suicide on lds.org:
Although it is wrong to take one’s own life, a person who does so may not be responsible for his or her actions. Only God can fully understand and judge the situation. Elder M. Russell Ballard said: “Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth.”
In one of eight videos on suicide released by the church in July 2018, Apostle Dale G. Renlund responded to “an old sectarian notion” that says “suicide is a sin and that a person committing suicide goes to hell forever.” He responded, “That is totally false. I believe the vast majority of cases will find that these individuals have lived heroic lives and that suicide will not be a defining characteristic of their eternities.”
Twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball—earlier cited as saying that suicide is a sin—also said,
Mentally ill suicides are not fully responsible. To take a life that we could not give is a sin. To commit suicide is a sin if one is normal in his thinking. We should avoid becoming disturbed in our minds or thinking about it. The terrible sin of suicide is tragic, and it is far more prevalent than we would like to admit. So if the party is mentally well, he has the responsibility to keep himself well and his thinking clear (Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 187).
Apostle Bruce R. McConkie explained,
Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. Mortal life is a gift of God; it comes according to the divine will, is appointed to endure for such time as Deity decrees, and is designed to serve as the chief testing period of man’s eternal existence. It is the probationary state or time during which man is tried and tested physically, spiritually, and mentally. No man has the right to run away from these tests, no matter how severe they may be, by taking his own life. Obviously persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 771).
An article in LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference covers suicide by referencing it as “self-murder” and explained how “modern prophets and apostles have likewise spoken clearly about the serious of murder, including self-murder and the severity of consequences associated therewith” (p. 607). But then it explains:
It is abundantly clear that suicide is indeed an abhorrent thing–a grievous sin. What is not so clear is if the eternal penalty for suicide is the same as for murder. Does the scriptural injunction “he that kills shall not have forgiveness in this world, nor in the world to come” apply equally to all killing? The answer appears to be no. Just as there are differing levels of accountability for killing another person…so is there with regard to suicide” (Ibid.)
When someone takes their own life, only God is able to judge their thoughts, their actions, and their level of accountability. Suicide need not be the defining characteristic of an individual’s eternal life (see 1 Samuel 16:7; Doctrine and Covenants 137:9; Dale G. Renlund, “Grieving after a Suicide,” video at suicide.lds.org).
No biblical support is provided for any of these examples. But if what is being taught is true, shouldn’t there be abundant evidence fro the scriptures? Since these church leaders and the writings available on the Mormon websites have opened the door to justifying a suicide by minimizing their accountability, I wonder how many funeral services are being conducted where those in attendance are being told that the suicidal victim is with family in the celestial kingdom.
I do not want to appear cynical, but don’t all suicidal victims have some type of issue(s) that caused them to act so rashly as to end their own lives? Who exactly has a “sound mind” as defined by McConkie above? Everyone has some type of dysfunction in their life as well as struggles that come naturally with a sin nature.
The official church handbook printed in 2010 adds this note,
It is wrong to take a life, even one’s own. However, a person who commits suicide may not be responsible for his or her acts. Only God can judge such a matter (Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops, p. 167).
If Mormons who commit suicide are not responsible because of extenuating circumstances, then should other Latter-day Saints who don’t commit suicide be held responsible for any celestial law shortcomings they have? With the type of rationale being proposed by these leaders, it appears that the victim of a suicide could have a much better chance to reach eternal exaltation than someone who toughed it out and lived a full life. Based on passages cited in the section above, including Alma 11:37 and Alma 34:32ff, it seems God’s judgment has been made very clear.
There are many quotes that could be cited at this point, but I will limit myself to one. Apostle LeGrand Richards once said,
One erroneous teaching of many Christian churches is: By faith alone we are saved. This false doctrine would relieve man from the responsibility of his acts other than to confess a belief in God, and would teach man that no matter how great the sin, a confession would bring him complete forgiveness and salvation. What the world needs is more preaching of the necessity of abstaining from sin and of living useful and righteous lives, and less preaching of forgiveness of sin. This would then be a different world. The truth is that men must repent of their sins and forsake them before they can expect forgiveness. Even when our sins are forgiven, God cannot reward us for the good we have not done” (A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, pp. 25-26. Italics in original).
The LDS gospel is completely missing the meaning of grace from a biblical standpoint. As Richards put it, a person “must repent of their sins and forsake them before they can expect forgiveness.” If self-murder is a sin, and if the only way to get forgiveness is by overcoming that sin, then does the LDS gospel have anything beneficial to offer?
While the church leaders want to communicate compassion–and I totally understand the desire to want to err on grace–it doesn’t make sense that God’s standards as described in the unique LDS scriptures should be thrown out the door in the case of a suicide. Those faithful Mormons who end their lives should not assume that their early departure somehow provides them with some type of an advantage compared to if they lived their whole lives. Instead of being a compassionate ideology, this attitude of leaning toward leniency for those who commit suicide sets a dangerous precedent. If leaders wanted to end the problem of suicide in their own congregations, perhaps they ought to point them to the very high standards that are required for any of their members to have forgiveness of sins.
Suicide and the Christian
What about the Evangelical Christian who commits suicide? Does this person go to hell? While many may assume that this is the case, the Bible teaches that those who are headed to hell are people whose sins are not forgiven. Because the Bible teaches that forgiveness is based on faith and not works, a genuine believer is destined for heaven, period. Suicide does not disqualify the Christian from eternity with God.
I recommend listening to this audio piece from John Piper who said in part,
The question now is whether a person who commits suicide goes to heaven. That question boils down to this: If a person has been trusting in Christ as their Savior, their Lord, their treasure, does the last act of their life prove the decisive one in showing their true standing as a child of God? There is the key question. Does the last act — in their case, murder — count as the decisive one at the judgment day in showing that we were in Christ or not? Is the last act the one that determines if our faith was real? Or do all the other acts of life count as evidence as well?
Let me give you an analogy. This has helped many people as I have shared it. I hope it helps. Suppose that I, one night — let’s just say right now, 68 years old; it could be at any point — get so angry at my wife that I storm out of the house. I slam the door. I jump in the car and I head for the road and I am so out of control and so angry, so sinful — let me add — so sinfully angry that I totally misjudge one of these narrow turns here where the telephone poles are about two feet off the road and I smash into that telephone poll going sixty miles an hour and I am dead. Now, my last act was sin, and I killed myself by my sin. I didn’t intend to kill myself, but I did. And it was sin that made it happen. So the last thing I did was sin. Is that last sin decisive in determining whether John Piper was born again?
And my answer is: not necessarily. In other words, God will look at my life. He will look at my whole life, and the evidences of whether I belong to him will be assessed not because of that failure alone any more than any other failure alone. Why would the last one be decisive when the others are just as serious?
Another good resource on this issue can be found at carm.org.
Recent responses to suicide by the LDS Church
While I am not a proponent of Mormonism and its church leaders, I do commend them in a general way for their attempts to respond to this very sensitive issue of suicide. For instance, the church has published helpful information on this issue, including the September 2018 Ensign magazine with a four-page feature under the headline “Suicide Myths and Facts” (pages 70-73). The piece was written by Greg Hudnall, the executive director of Hope4Utah, and David Wood, an assistant professor of social work at church-owned Brigham Young University. Explaining that “suicide has become a leading cause of death,” the authors asked, “But what can we do about it?” They then go on to lay out five factual myths about suicide:
Myth 1: Most suicides happen suddenly, without warning. The article stresses warning signs, including if the person is talking about suicide, hurting themselves physically, and have become more worried or anxious.
Myth 2: If my child is struggling, they just need to read their scriptures, pray, and attend church, and then everything will be OK. “Generally, if your child experiences drastic changes in mood, behavior, or relationships in several different areas of life that last for more than two weeks, the problem may not be a ‘passing mood.’”
Myth 3: Asking a person about suicide makes things worse. The authors say that bringing up the issue of suicide “can establish a real and meaningful connection while demonstrating care and concern.”
Myth 4: I have to be a professional health care worker to help someone at risk of suicide. The authors explain, “People at risk for suicide need the closeness and connection that family and friends can provide.”
Myth 5: I should only trust Church-sponsored resources, not community ones. The article encourages the members to utilize community resources, even if they are not affiliated with the church.
As mentioned above, eight videos related to suicide were released on mormonnewsroom.com in July 2018. While the effort to want to prevent suicide may be genuine, the advice given is not all good. For instance, on February 8, 2019, Apostle Ronald A. Rasband spoke to church education educators (“Elder Rasband calls teen suicide ‘a crisis reaching all around the world,’ shares message of hope in Christ”). At the end of his talk, Rasband counseled the teachers,
Encourage your students to always hold a temple recommend … and then to share their feelings about being in the temple, the revelation and inspiration that comes as they reach beyond this life “for the things of a better” serving those who cannot do the ordinances for themselves (ellipsis theirs).
Recommending that those contemplating suicide should get more involved in church activities while encouraging them to go to the temple more often could end up pushing a troubled person over the edge. It would be wonderful if the church would just teach the biblical concept of grace rather than put the onus of so many good works on the backs of their people. Perhaps another tactic for the church would be to encourage its members to pull back from the many requirements demanded and eliminate guilty feelings! Of course, such a philosophy does not come naturally to leaders such as Apostle Rasband.
Suicide is a difficult topic, one I don’t take lightly. Yet until appropriate research is done to show it to be true, I cannot link Mormonism with the high suicide rate in states like Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Although there has been some waffling on the issue by leaders in recent years, traditional reading of the unique LDS scripture and the teachings of past leaders point to the probability that those who commit suicide are unlikely to attain the celestial kingdom. Suicide, after all, has been classified as “self-murder,” and murder is the unforgivable sin according to Mormonism. However, Evangelical Christian belief says that anyone who dies without having their sins forgiven is headed to eternity without God. My hope is that Mormons will have their eyes opened and see that their hope is found in Jesus, not in a man-made religion such as Mormonism. The answer to problems is not exiting life in a premature way. Only when a person comes into a relationship with Jesus can life be “full and abundant,” as Jesus promised in John 10:10b.