There’s been no shortage of online attention the past couple of days given to Robin Williams’ suicide. Understandably. It’s hard to make a case for anyone contributing more to American entertainment in the past forty years. Very few have provided more laughs. So now we cry. The nation mourns.
What I haven’t seen yet, and what I think a community of largely bipartisan thoughts is longing for right now, is a “trispectival analysis” of the issue of suicide. I find it helpful to use this particular assessment tool whenever possible – consider what an irreligious assessment, a religious assessment, and a gospel assessment of a given situation would all uniquely look like.
I’ve used this tool before, but as a reminder, here’s a quick summary:
An irreligious person sees morality as relative, believes people are born basically good but sometimes hurt others or themselves when put in bad circumstances, and acknowledges no higher authority than man. Irreligion is perhaps best characterized by self-indulgence.
A religious person sees morality as purely black and white, believes there are good people and bad people, and while he acknowledges God as the ultimate authority, he believes that because of his good behavior he is more deserving of God’s blessing than the “bad” people. Religion is perhaps best characterized by self-righteousness.
A gospel-thinking person understands the black and white of morality but recognizes there is a shaded spectrum of motives, believes we are inherently born broken and powerless to put ourselves back together, and acknowledges Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior. Gospel-thinkers are perhaps best characterized by humility about self and confidence in Christ.
With that said, how shall we understand suicide?
The Irreligious Viewpoint
The majority media viewpoint regarding Robin Williams is that he was a sensational talent who died too soon and left us with many fond memories. We (i.e. Christians) can agree with that…in part.
For the dozens of articles I’ve now glanced through on the topic, I haven’t seen any more insightful commentary on William’s life, career, and death than the one Newsweek provided. The author here astutely points out that for all the brilliance of Williams’ improv comedy, his most profound roles were in Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting. He observes, “That all three of those characters—Adrian Cronauer, Keating and Sean Maguire—were men dedicated to enriching the lives of young men whose paths were at a crossroads was probably no coincidence.” I think the Newsweek author is spot on. Williams played what he knew – be it the fifty-two hilarious characters he wove together as the genie in Aladdin, or a middle-aged man reflecting on the internal conflicts of life in those three aforementioned roles.
While remembering the brilliance of Williams’ career, however, you’ll notice that the irreligious world cannot ever offer a reasonable diagnosis of what drives such a talented man to take his own life. You hear a lot about mental illness as disease. You hear about addiction. I’m the last person to discount the occasionally debilitating effects of neurochemicals. But if the chemistry of the brain is the only contributing factor to Williams’ suicide, how do we account for the sixty-three previous years? Doesn’t even brain chemistry sound a little superficial to something so tragic? Fascinatingly, as though finally aware that there’s more going on here than mere chemical interaction, in such moments, even the irreligious community resorts to dabbling with the spiritual when it uses such expressions as “fighting his demons.”
The Religious Viewpoint
In our current age, it’s considerably rarer to hear the other end of the spectrum – the religious viewpoint. But it’s certainly still there. And it’s loud. This is the view of religious people that we are simply the product of our choices. We are who we’ve chosen to be. And we also then have responsibility for those choices. We (i.e. Christians) can agree with this also…in part.
Self-determination, as a philosophy of the individual, has not exactly died, but it’s certainly going away in Western thought. Born out of the ideas of Plato, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and others is the idea that “you can be anything you want to be if you simply put your mind to it and work hard.” It was considered a mere matter of choices. This was the predominant thought in our “Land of Opportunity” for middle part of the 20th century. As the century closed, however, the Nature vs. Nurture issue changed the discussion about how we become who we are. You’ll notice, however, that neither of those arguments (i.e. nature or nurture) has anything to do with our personal choices. Genetics and upbringing are now considered to be major causes in our personalities, our morality, and yes, even our choices. Put differently, people are thinking less and less that we do bad things, like commit suicide, simply because we choose to do bad things.
This has raised many social questions. For instance, consider this: how accountable for their actions should we hold a child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or one raised with Reactive Attachment Disorder? I don’t think anyone would suggest, “Not accountable at all.” But I also think that many people would assume it only natural that we’d have some additional understanding and sympathy for a child who suffers with a condition that he clearly did not choose for himself.
Nonetheless, the religious voice that you hear right now will tell you that Williams took his own life and will have to answer to God. He did this because he’s selfish, godless, and has no concern for the effects of his actions. There’s some truth there, but it’s typically said with such unsympathetic disdain that it disempowers any truth it proposes. If you’re really curious, it tends to sound something like this. When you’re telling someone “how it is” in a moment of tragedy, the smugness doesn’t quite reflect God’s spirit of “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)
By the way, ALL Christians, myself included, are guilty of both the Irreligious and Religious Viewpoints on occasion. The question is not whether we’re ever guilty of them. The question is, when we are, do we defend them or do we recognize them for what they are and repent of them.
The Gospel Viewpoint
This post is not a comprehensive summary on the Bible’s position on suicide. For such information, I’d go here. This is simply my thoughts on two common positions on the topic of suicide and how I believe the Bible guides us to a better one.
Suicide is NOT a product of faith. I want to be absolutely clear about that. However, the act itself doesn’t necessarily declare the complete absence of faith either.
If you’re thinking, “But I always heard when I was a kid that if you commit suicide you’re guaranteed to go to hell”, my guess is that you also heard that wearing jeans to church was also near the unforgivable sin too. Where are we at on that one today? I’m not suggesting doctrine changes. I’m suggesting the application of it sometimes changes and quite frankly, the application is sometimes just a bit off, an occurrence that is sometimes easier to see several generations out.
The Church automatically proclaiming hell for everyone who commits suicide in the middle 20th century is in some ways analogous to the Church finding as a heretic anyone who didn’t believe the earth to be the center of the universe in the early 16th century. It’s a claim that the Bible itself doesn’t make. And then Copernicus came along. And many ministers looked pretty silly as a result.
What we now know about neurosciences, although there’s still a LONG way to go, suggests that someone’s behavior, to some degree, can be affected by their brain chemistry. That some behaviors are also then more erratic, more consequential, more life-threatening than others seems obvious. In other words, it would appear possible for someone who is not thinking straight to take their own life due to poor momentary choices rather than outright unbelief.
Does that take away all culpability? Of course not. Suicide is still sin. Murder, in fact. And humans are guilty for their sins. But it doesn’t track that this particular sin forfeits salvation simply because there is little window for repentance after it is committed. Let’s flesh that thought out. What do you think the odds are that from the time of your last repentance until the moment you die you will have perfectly repented of each of your failures?
Not sure, but I wouldn’t bank my salvation on it.
In other words, your salvation is NOT based on your perfect repentance, but on your perfect Savior. So, if you confess your sins at church on Sunday, slip into a hateful thought about a fellow church member on your drive home, and as you’re distracted by your anger, you get into a car accident and die, THANK GOD your eternal life is not in jeopardy. God’s grace is a state that you live in, not a needle that you balance on. And therefore, if someone who professes Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, in a moment of weak faith, takes his or her own life, it’s tragic, it’s painful, it’s horrible, and it likely won’t ever fully be gotten over by the loved ones left in the wake. What it is not for us, however, is an occasion to declare someone in hell.
I have absolutely no idea about Robin Williams’ eternal life or death. I know he was raised Episcopal. I know that I’ve never heard of him professing faith in Jesus as his Lord and Savior. I know suicide points to either weak or no faith. All that said, I also know that because God fulfilled his promises in sending a Savior to pay for mankind’s transgressions, heaven or hell does not come based upon our actions in life…or death. Jesus is magnanimous enough that he paid for ALL of those sinful actions completely when he suffered upon the cross in our place. Heaven or hell comes when we either receive Jesus as Savior by faith or when we reject him.
God can save murderers. Even self-murderers. In fact, he’s in the basic business of saving murders, as we all are responsible for Jesus’ death. BELIEF in that is what ultimately makes the eternal difference.
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18)