The letter arrived anonymously, but its writer was polite. He had a question he hoped I'd address in the newspaper, because he couldn't ask it of his minister or family.
"My concern is that I have a vague recollection that I somehow heard you cannot enter Heaven if you take your own life," he wrote.
He wanted to commit suicide so he could rejoin his late beloved wife. That's why it was important he not be barred from heaven.
"That is where she would be waiting for me," he said.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
He was past 90 years old and seriously ill: "Horrible medical bills eating up all my savings, even with Medicare, drug programs, etc."
He was simply ready to go.
Yet he didn't want to take that step unless he knew his soul would be OK.
I've been debating within myself as to how I should respond. I'm still not sure my answer is the best one, or even a good one.
But my anonymous friend, I'd like to address the rest of this column to you directly. You wrote with dignity and candor, and I'll try to answer the same way. I'll do my best not to spout platitudes and bromides.
Please don't kill yourself.
I don't think you'll go to hell if you do, but I still don't think you should do it. I'll say more shortly about why you shouldn't.
First, though, you mentioned having heard that a person who takes his own life cannot enter heaven.
I've heard that, too. A lot of churches — at least in the conservative tradition from which I sprang — used to preach that.
What you heard probably was a sermon based on 1 John 3:15, a portion of which says, "no murderer has eternal life abiding in him."
Some preachers used to cite that passage and similar ones to argue that killing yourself was, in effect, committing murder.
And because you'd be dead the instant you did it, you'd have no chance to repent — therefore, you couldn't be forgiven and couldn't enter heaven.
Clearly I'm not the living oracle of God. My opinion is only my opinion, and hardly worth the cost of the newsprint you're reading it on.
But I don't believe that line of thinking.
For one thing, if you go back to 1 John and read the verse I mentioned in its context, you'll see that applying it to suicide is taking it wildly out of context.
John was saying we should love each other. He wasn't even talking about literal murder, much less suicide.
Many contemporary Christians agree suicide doesn't automatically damn anyone.
Current theology tends to hold that people commit suicide because they're depressed, which is a form of mental illness, which means they're not in their right minds and can't be held responsible for their actions.
God is incredibly merciful and forgiving. He understands far better than we do the suffering that leads a person to end his or her life.
And to my mind, our eternal salvation — our ticket to heaven, if you will — is a free gift granted us by God because of his unfathomable love. Period.
It isn't dependent on us. None of us will ever walk through the pearly gates on our own merits, or be kept out by our mistakes.
So, my friend, regarding whether you can end your own life and still go to heaven, my answer would be that almost certainly yes, you can.
But you shouldn't do it.
I can't pretend to know your grief, loneliness and fatigue. I'm sure you miss your wife horribly. At your age you must feel you have little to look forward to in this world. I realize you're physically ill, and I've seen how long-term ailments sap a person's will.
Still, you shouldn't do it.
You very well could be depressed. Talk to your doctor about these feelings. He or she can prescribe medicine that will lift your spirits considerably and help you see the world in a clearer light.
More than that, consider your legacy to your children and grandchildren and church and friends. When people commit suicide they leave behind a lot of pain, anger and guilt among their survivors, a lot of hard questions to be answered by those who loved them.
You want to persevere in part as an act of love toward those you care about. You want them to know that even when life is difficult, they shouldn't give up. They should trust God and keep trying — until God himself calls them home.
Finally, try to remember that every day of life is a gift from the Lord. As trite as it sounds, we humans really are fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God. If we are Christians, we are obliged to believe — or at least obliged to conduct ourselves as if we believed — that God has ordained every single one of our days.
To destroy ourselves is to destroy a beautiful creation that God owns. It's to interrupt his plan because completing our course has become too unpleasant.
My friend, you've made it 90-plus years. You can hold on a little longer.
You are in my prayers.