Caring for people in pain requires a rich theology of suffering.
According to the World Health Organization, 703,000 people die by suicide each year.
In 2020, “suicide was the twelfth leading cause of death overall in the United States. … [In addition, suicide] was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10–14 and 25–34, … and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 44.”
Although churches are becoming more sensitive to suicide issues, the topic has at times been limited to concerns over salvation and damnation. If a person takes his or her own life, will that person go to heaven?
We’re not equipped to fully answer that question, of course. Jesus is the only one who has the power of divine judgment. And more importantly, debating someone’s eternal fate misses a larger opportunity. Suicide is the heartbreaking cry of “My Father, why have you forsaken me?” As believers, we have a chance to meet those who feel forsaken and be Christ to them.
Put another way: Our theology of salvation matters. But at least initially, our theology of suffering matters more, in terms of caring for those in our congregations who are thinking about ending their own lives.
As an aspiring sociology scholar, I spent four months of undergrad studying this issue for a research project at the University of Oxford. One of the key questions I wanted to ask was “How should theodicy—or making sense of suffering from a Christian perspective—inform our approach to suicide?”
“When analyzing the preponderance of cases of suicide beyond physician-assisted death, one is faced with the formidable role of mental illness, a factor that Christian theologians have often downplayed,” writes Elizabeth Antus, a pioneer scholar at the intersection of suicide and theology.
In her scholarship, she turns in part to German theologian Johann Baptist Metz, who provides a promising perspective for a theology-and person-centered dialogue on the topic. His theodicy is all about learning to live in solidarity with those who suffer.
“In my view,” writes Metz in A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimensions of Christianity, “there is one authority recognized by all great cultures and religions: the authority of those who suffer. Respecting the suffering of strangers is a precondition for every culture; articulating others’ suffering is the presupposition of all claims to truth. Even those made by theology.”
Metz wants to see people in the church embrace an open posture that allows them to lament and be in community with those dealing with suicide. He views this victim-sensitive theodicy as a liberating practice that allows Christians to ask God their raw, anger-filled questions.
“Even Christian theology, drawing on its doctrine of creation, cannot eliminate the apocalyptic cry, ‘What is God waiting for?’” writes Metz. “Not even Christian theology can allow Job’s question to God, ‘How long yet?’ to fall silent in a soothing answer. Even Christian hope remains accountable to an apocalyptic conscience.”
Antus, who teaches in the theology department at Boston College, argues that Metz offers a “theology more hospitable to suicide victims.”
In Christ, all of us are free to cry out to God and ask why—whether we have haunting thoughts of our own or know someone else who’s been suffering. After all, at the very center of the gospel story is a God who experiences suffering.
“For the Christian, who believes in the crucified and risen Messiah, suffering is always meaningful,” writes Kathryn Greene-McCreight, author of Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. “It is meaningful because of the One in whose suffering we participate, Jesus.”
As we think about suicide in the context of the Christian life, then, we can take comfort knowing that God sympathizes with human anguish.
He calls us to do the same with those around us. As his ambassadors, the worst thing we can do is shy away from tough conversations and perpetuate narratives of shame and guilt. The best thing we can do is learn about suicide, provide resources for those struggling, and lament with them in their pain.
A person-centric theodicy liberates us to hear deep cries of anguish, especially in the context of suicide. The more we humanize this issue in the church, the more we can be like the one who came to suffer among us: Christ himself.
Mia Staub is the content manager at Christianity Today. This piece was adapted from an essay originally published at the Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford website. Published with permission.