The great questions keep on coming. In my mail bag (inbox) today, I had this gem:
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 states, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple” (NIV).
My wife has a relative who has said he thinks about suicide. Would you please explain to her how the verses quoted apply to one who takes his own life (“destroys God’s temple”)?
The key to understanding any passage is the context. Verses 16-17 are part of a unit that begins at verse 5 and ends at verse 17. In my Bible the heading for that unit is entitled, “Watering, Working, Warning.” The warning is obviously verses 16-17. The watering refers to verses 5 through 8. The verses in between, verses 9 through 15, refer to working.
Paul uses him and Apollos as examples of wise master builders. Clearly verses 9 to 15 look at the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Bema. At the Bema all of our works will be judged. In this passage Paul is thinking specifically of our works in relation to the local church. Any works we will do in and for the church which have eternal value will be rewarded at the Bema. Any works which lack eternal value (wood, hay, straw) will not be rewarded. I do not think the issue here is good works versus bad works. The issue is works that last the test of fire, works with eternal value, and works which are burned up. So going on a ski trip for the youth of your church probably has some enduring value, but a lot of it is just vacation. If your church puts in a bowling alley, don’t expect to get a lot of rewards at the Bema for donating for that or for bowling there either.
Verses 16-17 now get to the issue of works that hurt the local church. Paul says, “Do you not know that you [plural] are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you [plural]?” In this context the temple of God is what is being built in verses 9 to 15. Paul then says, “If anyone defiles the temple of God [God’s building, built by wise master builders], God will destroy him.”
The word for temple (naos) is used three times in verses 16-17 and three other times in 1 Corinthians (6:19; 8:10; 9:13). The latter two of those uses refer to pagan temples and to the Jewish temple. However, in 1 Cor 6:19 Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” But to read that into 1 Cor 3:16-17 is a mistake because the contexts are completely different.
While commentators often are wrong about interpreting texts, it is noteworthy that nearly all commentaries on 1 Corinthians understand “the temple of God” in 1 Cor 3:16-17 as referring to the local church (or the Church).
So, these verses say nothing about smoking, drug abuse, overeating, riding motorcycles, playing Russian roulette, or suicide. Paul is not talking here about things we do that destroy our bodies. He is talking about things we do which can damage and destroy the local church (causing divisions, trying to run off the leaders, trying to split the church, spreading lies, etc.).
The point is this: If we destroy the local church, God will then destroy us. That means that He will bring temporal judgment on us, possibly leading to premature death. But it says nothing about eternal condemnation. Paul is writing to believers and believers cannot be eternally condemned.
While this text has nothing to do with suicide, since you raise the issue I will respond to that point as well.
Once. We. Are. Saved. We. Are. Always. Saved. “He who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:26). “He who comes to Me shall never hunger; he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). “He who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
If suicide could undo the new birth, then so could any sin (murder, adultery, drunkenness, apostasy, etc.). But there is no sin, suicide included, which can undo the new birth.
When I was growing up my parents told me not to cross my eyes because they could get stuck like that. That isn’t true. But it kept me from doing that.
Many preachers think if they threaten people with hell for suicide that will keep people from taking their lives. Well, whether that keeps people from committing suicide or not, that is not true.
What such teaching does, however, is contradict the good news of Jesus Christ. Such teaching makes it more likely that the person who hears that will never come to faith in Christ for everlasting life. Ironically one is more likely to be eternally condemned by hearing such teaching than by not hearing it.
If I think that my eternal destiny hinges on me not committing some big sin, then I do not believe in the free gift of eternal life by faith in Christ, apart from works. If you want people to avoid eternal condemnation, proclaim the message of everlasting life to them (John 3:16).
Suicide is terrible. It not only takes a life, it hurts the immediate family, the extended family, friends, coworkers, and so many others. Suicide is not a victimless crime. But no sin can undo the promise of everlasting life to the believer.
One closing note. Suicides are often committed by people who are not in their right minds. They may have mental illness or may be high on drugs at the time. In some cases they might not even be culpable for that action because they were literally insane at the time. We are not God. The Lord Jesus will judge every believer at the Judgment Seat of Christ (the Bema). If you have a believing loved one who took his own life, rejoice that he or she is with the Lord now. And realize that there will be much grace and much understanding at the Bema. We all will need a lot of grace and understanding at the Bema, don’t you think?