Last month, Andrew Stoecklein, the successful pastor of a mega-church in Chino Hills, California, took his own life. Many people ask, “Why?” or “How? How could a pastor do that? Was he even “saved?”
The topic of suicide is always challenging because so many thoughts and emotions are involved. Dealing with the death of a loved one is always hard, but particularly hard when it was a suicide. My cousin took his life earlier this year and it has been challenging for us and his family. He loved Jesus and was fully committed to Him, but ultimately the demonic power struggle and condemnation overwhelmed him, and he believed the lie that his situation was hopeless. Pastor Andrew had a similar battle. Pastors are human and face trials and tests like everyone else. Unfortunately, the pressures upon pastors make their positions lonely and often filled with times of depression.
To answer the question, “Will a person who commits suicide go to heaven?” let me first say: if you are suffering with depression and even thinking about suicide, God has a different, better plan. He walks with us “THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4- notice He takes us THROUGH it – He won’t leave us there). Satan is incredibly deceptive and wants to lead people to believe their situation is hopeless, and they give up, feeling that suicide is the only way out. That is a lie from the pit of Hell. I believe that is part of what Pastor Andrew succumbed to (and my cousin as well). In the depths of despair or nervous breakdown, the mind is no longer thinking rationally, no longer thinking about 3 young boys who are looking up to him (Andrew), or the family members that love him dearly. Just as we would never condemn a person who dies of a cancer (or any particular illness), we shouldn’t condemn people who have mental illness. Honest scientists recognize we have barely scratched the surface of understanding how the brain/mind works. Mental illness is real and a “broken brain” is not the sign of a weak or sinful Christian. Prolonged depression, anxiety attacks and the like, cause chemical changes in the brain so that a person literally can’t think clearly. Overwhelmed by fear, Pastor Andrew gave into a lie: “this pain/fear/anxiety/terror is never going to stop.” That is THE LIE, completely counter to Psalm 23 (walking THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death). If you or someone you know is struggling with these thoughts, get help, help from people in the Body of Christ to walk through the darkness and get to the other side of the valley. There is help out there and you can’t do it alone.
Hopefully that gives perspective to how a “believer” could commit suicide. Now, let’s talk about a few key theological points to understand where that person will spend eternity.
We are “saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation comes by grace through faith. It is not based on our good works, good attitude or anything good, because ultimately we can’t be good enough. Most people stop there and think that once we are saved, it is up to us to “keep our salvation,” up to us to maintain our saved status. That, too, is a lie. We can’t do it! Just read Romans 7 where Paul wrestles with the flesh:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Romans 7:15, 17–19 (ESV)
So we are saved by grace and we are sustained by grace. I must rely on Him for the power to walk this Christian walk. And if a person is truly saved, born again, then Jesus’ words in the following verse applies:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” John 10:27–29 (ESV)
“No one is able to snatch them out of my hand.” If we are truly born again, then we are in the Father’s hand and He will never let us go. After coming to Christ, everyone still continues to sin. Patterns of sin should eventually be broken, but we will sin until the day we die. This is not an excuse to sin (see Romans 6!) but evidence that as long as we are on this earth and until Jesus comes back and perfects us, we will be in a war with the world, our flesh, and the devil. Some people believe that God will forgive as long as we repent. So whenever we sin, we need to immediately repent so that we don’t have any “unconfessed sin” before we die that would send us to Hell. This is the Catholic view (or a variation of it) and hence their need for the supposed sacrament of “Last Rites.” This is really a works-based salvation, or at least a painting salvation via works. But if we understand that we are saved by grace and sustained by grace, then when we come to Jesus and receive Him as our Lord and Savior (John 1:12, Romans 10:9), He forgives us of our sins, past, present and future.
But what about murder and suicide? These are both awful crimes committed out of fear, anger, rejection, etc. There is always a reason, always a lie that the person who commits has believed, and often the brain chemistry is out of balance making the emotions even more overwhelming. Even a believer can commit such horrible sins in a dark moment. This doesn’t change what God has done for them. If we are truly saved by grace and not our works, then we can’t be “unsaved” by our works.
In the case of Judas, throughout the Gospel of John it is clear that Judas was never a true follower of Jesus in his heart. He looked good on the outside, but his heart was never fully surrendered to Jesus. Even his confession after betraying Jesus was remorse over doing the wrong thing, but not repentance. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:
“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matthew 7:22–23 (ESV)
There will be people who think they are on the road to heaven because they have done miracles, prophesied, cast out demons, etc. But Jesus will say to them on that final day, “I NEVER knew you.” He doesn’t say I once knew you and then you walked away. They were faking it all along. Faking it so much as to possibly even fool themselves (1 John 1:8-10). We are not going to see Judas in heaven; he was never saved.
So when we examine Pastor Andrew’s life, we see tremendous fruit. He was passionate about Jesus and reaching lost people. But in the midst of his depression, he came to a specific point where he believed the lie that his pain, anxiety, torment would not end and that the only way out was to take his life. He fell for a lie with permanent consequences. Whenever we sin we are actually believing a lie, a lie that we need to sin to win, or that what Satan has to offer is better than God. The difference is that suicide is final and there are no do overs.