No doubt that by the time you read this you’ve heard that actor and comedian Robin Williams took his life on 11th of August. Apparently, he had fallen into depression, something he dealt with most of his life. He was on a cocktail of medications to help, but in addition to his anti-depressants, he was taking medications to combat early-stage Parkinson’s disease which may have exacerbated his depression and led to the suicide. Some of his friends have speculated that he committed suicide because he used cycling as a means to keep him sober and out of alcohol addiction, and he was afraid that when Parkinson’s took away his ability to cycle he would fall back into alcoholism. Maybe it is some combination of both…we’ll never really know.
However, his passing does make it a good time to talk about suicide and depression. When we look through the Bible, we can find many instances of people being depressed, and we can find examples of people wanting and committing suicide, so they are not problems that are exclusive to modern times. Recently I’ve preached on the subjects individually, and you can find the sermons on our web page in the media section. But I think this is a important subject, which is why I want to take some space here to write about some general teachings available to us in the New Church.
First off, let me say that there’s no reason to believe that people who commit suicide go to hell. That’s just not stated anywhere in the Bible or any of Swedenborg’s Writings. I do think we can say suicide is “wrong” because we are upsetting the natural order of things. When a person is created, God does not intend for them to kill themselves. He intends for them to live a long life and die of old age in their sleep. It just doesn’t always work out that way. Despite a person upsetting the natural order of things, that one act does not condemn them to hell. Hell is for evil people. Hell is not for good people who do one evil thing.
A good general teaching on this comes from Secrets of Heaven. It essentially states that good spirits, i.e. people who have passed into the next life but have not yet made it to either heaven or hell, are not punished at all in the next life. In fact, even when good spirits do something bad, they’re given some slack:
But as regards good spirits, if perchance they speak or do evil, they are not punished, but pardoned, and also excused. For their end is not to speak or do evil, and they know that such things are excited in them by hell so that they have not come to pass by their fault, and the same is observed from their resistance, and afterward from their grief. (6559)
This general teaching provides comfort that a singular act such as suicide, or any evil for that matter, doesn’t condemn an otherwise good person.
While they are not destined to hell, there a is a reason to believe that a person who commits suicide is going to have some things to work out on the other side and it might not be any fun. While in a depressed state we have spiritual associations that aren’t good, and we come to see and be with these associations when we transition into the next life. Swedenborg writes about this in his diary:
A certain one in the life of the body had committed suicide by stabbing himself with a knife, having been driven to desperation by depression, to which diabolical spirits had driven him. He came to me complaining that he was being miserably treated by evil spirits, and said that he was among the Furies who were continually provoking him. He also seemed to me to have a knife in his hand which he wanted to drive into his breast. He labored hard with that knife, wanting to throw it away from himself but without success. For whatever happens in the last hour of death remains for a long time before it disappears, as I was told. (Spiritual Diary 1336, 1337)
This is a specific instance for one person, not a general teaching, so while this one person went through a process of being tormented by evil spirits for a time, we really shouldn’t make generalizations based off something written in Swedenborg’s diary. However, there are general teachings that say whatever inner problems we have in this life we will generally have to face in the next life… and it might not be pleasant dealing with them.
But what if you can’t deal with them here and now? I think all of Christianity teaches that life comes from the Lord, and that of ourselves we have no life of our own, rather we are receivers of life. At first pass it sounds like a pretty abstract teaching that isn’t particularly useful to us, but when considering depression or any mental illness, we start to see why we are taught this. You see, if we are in fact just receivers of life, it does allow for the receiver to be broken. Think of it like this: your radio is a receiver of FM and AM signals. There is no music in the transistors, but when they function properly music is played through them. If however, some electronic part fails, the radio will cease to be a proper receiver of the signals, and a similar situation can occur in people. Something can be biologically wrong that essentially “tunes” us into more negative frequencies. When this is the case, we’re not able to deal with our problems and change our ways. Here’s how it is written in Divine Providence:
The reason no one is reformed in a state of mental illness is that mental illness deprives us of rationality and therefore of the freedom to act rationally. The mind is sick and not healthy, and while a healthy mind is rational, a sick one is not. The illnesses are things like depression, imagined or illusory guilt, various kinds of hallucinations, mental anguish brought on by misfortunes, and mental anxiety and pain brought on by physical disorders. These are sometimes thought of as temptations, but they are not. Real temptations focus on spiritual issues, and during them, the mind is in possession of its skills. The states I am talking about focus on earthly issues, and during them, the mind goes mad. (#141)
This can be comforting in one way, because it is nice to be able to think that, “Yes, there is something wrong with me! It’s not my fault I feel lousy.”
There are, however, other kinds of depression. There are what amounts to “spiritual” depression and a “natural” depression. The former has more to do with not living up to the kind of person you want to be and the inner fight and acknowledgment of failure can bring on depression. The “natural” depression is more about bad luck, misfortunes and worrying about other issues that don’t have to do with our spiritual life but are nonetheless unpleasant. With these kinds of depression the, common problem is the spiritual company we keep. The more depressed we allow ourselves to get, the more depressing thoughts pour in. Even when miserable if we can keep our thinking positive we can retune ourselves only to be hearing the good, affirmative and assuring teachings that the Lord loves us, has a plan for us, and is taking us to a right end. We must suffer ourselves to hope, and if we’re good at it – which isn’t always easy – we, with the Lord’s help, can dig ourselves out of the pit of despair.