An “old sectarian notion”? LDS teachings on suicide, sin, and damnation



trigger-warning: suicide

This article discusses suicide and some potentially disturbing doctrinal statements about suicide.

If you are feeling suicidal, please call a suicide prevention lifeline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


Introduction

In a series of recently released videos by the LDS Church to address suicide, Dale Renlund stated (emphasis added here and in all other quotes below):

There’s an old sectarian notion that suicide is a sin and that someone who commits suicide is banished to hell forever. That is totally false. I believe the vast majority of cases will find that these individuals have lived heroic lives and that that suicide will not be a defining characteristic of their eternities.

First off, it’s absolutely wonderful that the LDS Church is making (and continuing to make) efforts to address the current suicide epidemic in Utah and among younger individuals, and I applaud them for their efforts in that. Suicide is incredibly tragic, and we all wish that it didn’t happen.

Regardless, Renlund seems guilty of misleading his audience, at least to some extent, because the LDS Church and its leaders in official channels have long taught and implied that:

  1. suicide is a sin
  2. eternal damnation is a distinct possibility for those who commit suicide

Is suicide a sin according to LDS teachings?

Suicide has been defined in official channels as “a very grievous” sin and “a sin of great magnitude”.

M. Russell Ballard wrote in his 1987 Ensign article Suicide:

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. Of course, this gives us no reason to excuse ourselves in committing sins, nor will the Lord excuse us, if I understand correctly. We must constantly strive to do our best in emulating the Savior in every aspect of our lives. At the same time, however, let us remember that spiritual growth comes “line upon line,” that the key—in the spirit world as well as in mortality—is to keep progressing along the right path. …

We cannot measure these particular spiritual experiences, of course. We do not know the extent to which the door is open for these particular people to grow and develop in righteousness until they possibly receive the blessings of exaltation. They 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.

Boyd K. Packer taught in the October 1988 General Conference:

To threaten or to take life, even our own in suicide, is to offend God, for He “in all things hath forbidden it, from the beginning of man.

Remember that sin in the LDS view means to willfully disobey God’s commandments.

Apostle George Q. Cannon wrote in The Juvenile Instructor (Volume 28, Pg. 352):

Funerals of Suicides. 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 them."

Cannon also wrote (Volume 21, Pg. 275) (and was quoted in the October 1987 Ensign article by M. Russell Ballard):

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.

Banished to hell?

Latter-day Saints distinguish between Hell and damnation, and that distinction is relevant to a discussion on suicide. The “Hell” gospel topic states:

Latter-day revelation speaks of hell in at least two senses. First, it is the temporary abode in the spirit world for those who were disobedient in mortality. In this sense, hell has an end. The spirits there will be taught the gospel, and sometime following their repentance they will be resurrected to a degree of glory of which they are worthy. Those who will not repent, but are nevertheless not sons of perdition, will remain in hell throughout the Millennium. After these thousand years of torment, they will be resurrected to a telestial glory.

Second, it is the permanent location of those who are not redeemed by the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In this sense, hell is permanent. It is for those who are found “filthy still” (D&C 88:35, 102). This is the place where Satan, his angels, and the sons of perdition—those who have denied the Son after the Father has revealed Him—will dwell eternally

Renlund fails to mention that anyone who doesn’t eventually reject the Savior’s Atonement will eventually be pulled from Hell, and since that also goes for pedophiles, serial killers, and rapists, this perhaps isn’t as comforting as it may sound at first.

What Latter-day Saints perhaps fear most is damnation—the fear that they will remain separated from God and family forever. The Guide to the Scriptures topic on damnation states:

The state of being stopped in one’s progress and denied access to the presence of God and His glory. Damnation exists in varying degrees. All who do not obtain the fulness of celestial exaltation will to some degree be limited in their progress and privileges, and they will be damned to that extent.

Exaltation logic

LDS doctrine strongly implies that those who commit suicide will not obtain exaltation. The logic is simple and the pieces are ubiquitously taught:

  1. We must strive to keep the commandments in order to be exaltated.
  2. Suicide is a “grievous sin” (as previously demonstrated)
  3. This life is the time to prepare to meet God (See Alma 34:32:35)

The Gospel Principles manual is very clear as to what is required to obtain exaltation. Quoting Joseph Fielding Smith, it states:

In order to obtain the exaltation we must accept the gospel and all its covenants; and take upon us the obligations which the Lord has offered; and walk in the light and the understanding of the truth; and ‘live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God’ (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:43).

As demonstrated above, official Church material defines suicide as a grievous sin.

And finally, LDS leaders are quick to quote the Book of Mormon where Amulek states:

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.

Killing logic

The logic that a person who commits suicide cannot be exalted based on having killed is also similarly simple:

  1. Those who commit suicide have killed (i.e., they killed themselves).
  2. Those who kill will not receive forgiveness in the life to come

Is suicide killing? The Apostle George Q. Cannon in The Juvenile Instructor, Volume 21, Pg. 275 taught (also quoted in the October 1987 Ensign article by M. Russell Ballard):

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.

Finally, D&C 42:18 states in the voice of the Lord:

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.

Other statements on suicide damnation

LDS leaders tend to speak with some ambiguity about the eternal fate of individuals, but the idea that someone who commits suicide may not be eligible for exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom has been somewhat pervasive in both official and unofficial venues. For instance, Joseph F. Smith taught in the October 1907 General Conference:

You cannot take a murderer, a suicide, an adulterer, a liar, or one who was or is thoroughly abominable in his life here, and simply by the performance of an ordinance of the Gospel, cleanse him from sin and usher him into the presence of God.

Even when a person was “demented”, the First Presidency still decided that they could not be clothed in Temple robes, which suggests separation from God. From the Journal of George Q. Cannon:

Friday, June 29, 1894 A dispatch was received by the First Presidency from the south this morning, asking whether a suicide—a man who was demented—could be buried in his Temple clothes. We 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. It should be made odious as far as possible in the eyes of the people, and I have felt stirred up at different times by seeing the disposition on the part of many people to pay respect and give honorable funerals to persons guilty of this crime.

In characteristic style, Bruce R. McConkie lays out what he views is the Mormon Doctrine (pg. 21 under the entry “Agency”):

Agency, of course, is exercised in accordance with law. Once a final choice has been made, there is noturning back 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.

Finally, note that Elder Ballard wrote in the 1987 Ensign article on suicide that “[t]hey committed a very serious sin, and some consequences of it may remain with them throughout eternity”.

Conclusion

Renlund may be right that the idea that “suicide is a sin and that someone who commits suicide is banished to hell forever” is an old sectarian notion—few will take issue with that fact. Still, in choosing to label these ideas “old sectarian notions” he has deflected attention from numerous official and unofficial LDS teachings which also point to such conclusions. Official LDS material defines suicide as a “grievous sin”, the logic of exaltation and the logic on killing both hint or imply that those who commit suicide will not partake in exaltation, and much has been written in official and unofficial channels which supports this conclusion.

So, while the emphasis on suicide prevention is admirable and should be continued, shunting responsibility for attitudes about suicide onto “old sectarian notions” rather than directly dealing with LDS logic and statements on the matter may still be missing the mark and can easily be viewed as a mild form of gaslighting those whose attitudes about suicide have been derived primarily through LDS channels.


Acknowledgements: Some of these quotations were first h/t missedinsunday and RedditIsAWheel.

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