He Descended into Hell: a book review

Suicide is a hard thing for us to talk about. Someone has died, the circumstance seems unnatural and we don’t know what to say. We feel the stigma and the sting. Personally, I haven’t been really close with anyone who died by suicide but I’ve seen from a distance, the way a suicide can wreck those left behind. I’ve seen people shoulder the grief, shame and anger of suicide after they lost a child, a friend, a pastor. It is hard to sit with them in their pain. Harder still to know what to say. Our pronounced platitudes, which really bring no comfort to grieving people anyway, come off as cruel and tone-deaf after someone has taken their own life.

bruised-and-woundedRonald Rolheiser has written a helpful little booklet, Bruised & Wounded: Struggling to Understand a SuicideRolheiser is a priest, renowned speaker and author of books on Christian spirituality. Here, he approaches the topic of suicide with grace and pastoral sensitivity. I generally would not advocate throwing a book at hurting people, but this is one that I think would be appropriate, welcome and helpful for those in the wake of losing someone they love to suicide.

There several features of this book which commend it. First, it is brief. It is a small book that fits in the palm of your hand and it is just 77 pages long (including table of contents and front matter). People grieving a suicide do not need a complicated theological treatise and this is not that. Second, Rolheiser is careful throughout this book to avoid victim blaming.  Often people react with anger and judgment on the suicidal for their selfishness in taking their own life. But Rolheiser observes:

Just as with physical cancer, the person dying of suicide is taken out of this life against his or her will. Death by suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke or a heart attack. Thus, its patterns are the same as those of cancer, strokes, and  heart attacks. Death can happen suddenly, or it can be the end product of a long struggle that slowly wears a person down. Either way it is involuntary. As human beings, we are neither pure angels nor pure animals, but we are always both body and soul, one psychosomatic whole. And either part can break down (10-11).

Later, he writes:

Many of us have known victims of suicide, and we know too, that in almost every case that person was not full of pride, haughtiness and the desire to hurt anyone. Generally, it’s the opposite. The victim has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is wounded, raw, and too bruised to have the resiliency needed to deal with life. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide know that  the problem is not one of strength but of weakness—the person is too bruised to be touched (20).

and again:

Suicide in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death,  but only because they were already burned to death where they were standing (28-29).

By framing suicide as emotional cancer destroying the person instead of as a self-centered volitional act to ends one’s life, Rolheiser doesn’t minimize the tragedy of suicide, but he does give the victim back to us. Their struggle can be honored and life celebrated.

Third, he doesn’t describe suicide, per se,  as ‘sin.’ So where the Catechism of the Catholic Church  says “‘suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life’ and is thus ‘gravely contrary to the just love of self'” (38), Rolheiser draws a distinction between the ordinary suicide —where a sensitive soul is “overpowered by the chaos of life”and the killing of oneself. by the “pathological narcissist acting in strength” to freely end their life (39). It is  the latter, that Rolheiser sees as condemned by the Church, though he notes that the victims of suicide he has known have been ‘the very antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, or the strong, overproud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things” (39-40).

Fourth, Rolheiser emphasizes throughout the grace of God and the way Jesus comes to meet us in our alienation and brokenness. Reflecting on the line of the creed, He descended into hell, Rolheiser writes:

To say that Christ descended into hell is to, first and foremost say something about God’s love for us and how that love will go to any length, descend to any depth, and go through any barrier in order to embrace a wounded, huddled, frightened and bruised soul. By dying as he did, Jesus showed that he loves us in such a way that his love can penetrate even our private hells, going right through the barriers of hurt, anger, fear and hopelessness (14).

Rolheiser also gives the example of Jesus in John’s gospel, penetrating walls and locked doors to meet the grieving disciples (15). Speaking of one victim of suicide, Rolheiser writes:

I am sure that when the young woman . . .awoke on the other side, Jesus stood inside of her huddled fear and spoke to her, softly and gently, those same words he spoke to his disciples on that first Easter day when he went through the locked doors which they were huddled and said: “Peace be with you! Again, I say it, Peace be with you!” (16).

The book concludes with reflections on God’s prodigal, forgiving nature, his power to raise the dead, his understanding and trustworthiness (76-77).

Finally, this book is endorsed by Kay Warren and Marjorie Antus, both of whom lost a child to suicide and find comfort in Rolheiser’s prose. Rolheiser never diminishes the difficulty, anger, and grief of those left behind, but he does offer words of consolation and hope.

I’ve read other books on suicide and pastoral care for the suicidal (notably Albert Hsu’s Grieving a Suicide and Karen Mason’s Preventing a Suicide, both from IVP). This is the book I would recommend for those picking up the pieces at ground zero in the aftermath of a suicide. This is hopeful and gracious. I give this five stars –

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete in exchange for my honest review.


Published by


I am a pastor, husband, father, instigator, pray-er, hoper, writer, trouble-maker, peacemaker, and friend. Who are you?

7 thoughts on “He Descended into Hell: a book review”

  1. This sounds like a wonderful book. From the review, I can’t discern whether it rests on the foundation of scripture. Can you elaborate?

    I find the words of Revelation 14:13 to be hopeful: “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” Those that die while oppressed by sin will return, and be given endless opportunities to die in the way of grace. In support of that goal, the great work of a survivor is to celebrate the grace they experienced in the presence of the departed, rather than to decry and belittle their weakness.

    On a related topic: Have you read Father Amorth’s “An Exorcist Tells His Tale”? In your review above I hear many echoes of his description of victims of possession, whom he characterizes as often being recognized for their grace and charity as children, only to be corrupted when overpowering circumstances caused them to cry out for help from a more powerful spirit.

    1. It’s been years since I read Amorth’s work but I can see the echoes there, though Rolheiser doesn’t talk about possession. Most often, he relating the suffering of the suicidal to that of mental illness.

      On whether the book rests on a foundation of scripture, I’m not sure what you are looking for. Rolheiser makes inferences based on the character of God, the example of Jesus, the hope of the resurrection. Certainly these all have a biblical foundation and he quotes scripture along the way, but this isn’t a systematic treatment or a biblical theology. I know Revelation is your thing, and I can’t remember if he ever quotes Revelation directly (I can’t locate my copy this morning), but he does have an eschatological hope that I think is biblically informed.

      1. When something is imposed upon one, is it “one’s thing?” 😉

        I have no complaints with inspired transmission from personal experience. Some authors rest too heavily upon scripture, which is obscured by a lack of psychological precision in the ancient writings. This is addressed to an extent in the Qu’ran, which describes the Patriarchs not as historical and political figures, but as grace-filled personalities.

        However, there is a tendency in some quarters to mix psychology and religion, without always demarcating boundaries. Psychology can be used to rationalize destructive behaviors. An advocacy for Christian experience must present the preconditions that allow the grace of the Most High to enter into a situation, and the transformations that are expected from that realization.

        This is uncomfortable territory, for Jesus taught to love God (to bring Him close to us) and the love our neighbor. There is a surrender of self. We stop asking “what do I need in this moment?” and instead concern ourselves with the needs of others. There is insight there for sufferers both before and after the suicide.

      2. Sorry for the slow response Brian. When I mentioned Revelation as ‘your thing,’ I just meant that you’ve mentioned more than once stuff you’ve taught from the book, so I figured it was a point of interest for you. In terms of this book, I think Rolheiser is psychologically astute, but he writes as a Christian, religious writer, not a psychologist. I read this book as him puzzling out the Great commandments in light of death by suicide.

      3. So, to illustrate from my personal history:

        When I was about ten, my mother came home from a group study and confronted me with a situation they had discussed: a victim of the Japanese “comfort girl” system in World War II committed suicide, leaving a note while in the care of the occupying forces, leaving a note testifying that she was going “to go be with your Jesus.”

        Forty years later, I used to go dancing out at one of the local restaurants. Socially it was a complex environment, with the manager and at least one of the bartenders having connections to organized crime. They hired a attractive and vulnerable young women. One of them was putting herself through school to earn a pathology certification while struggling through a divorce. She loved to watch me dance, and one night I turned around to see her glowing at me. I went out to share with a fortune-teller friend, and she retorted, “Brian, she’s just reflecting the light that shines from you.”

        The waitress struggled more and more with her feelings with me, occasionally becoming hostile because I didn’t seem to respect her hopes. But one night I broke through into her deep past and saw her lying on the floor in that past life in Japan while another man slithered toward her. Horrified, I reached out with all the power of my will and pushed him away from her.

        Then I remembered what my mother had told me.

        The process of healing soul wounds is murky and constrained by the limits of our own trust. It’s made more difficult because we “die”: we forget the context that created the wounds. It is only in rare moments that we see through and so bring understanding to the problem.

        Confronted with situations like this, I am deeply humbled. I feel almost useless. It was again the words of the fortune teller that resonate here. She said one night “Brian, we know that you think that you’re failing, but just remember what it would have been like if you hadn’t been here at all.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.