The Person Who Sent in the Falling Man Image to PostSecret Explains Why He Did It

The other day, I posted this image from PostSecret:

Well, it’s no longer a secret who sent in that image. It was Michael Convente, a graduate student and someone who’s not religious at all. (He emailed me proof that he really was the sender). At the Daily Kos, Michael explains his rationale behind sending in the secret:

I have heard before from certain groups of Christians who consider suicide a sin that results in that person’s soul being sent to hell. The argument behind this belief is as follows — because the afterlife with God is divine and eternally restful, there must be a barrier in place to prevent people from ending their lives prematurely to rush their ascent toward heaven. An additional argument is that because “thou shall not kill” is one of the Ten Commandments, a person who commits suicide is committing a sin and cannot repent because he or she is dead.

Though, as many of the commenters pointed out on Reddit.com and the PostSecret Community, anyone who fell from the Twin Towers on 9/11 did not enter the building knowing they were going to jump. They were forced not into a choice of not whether they would die, but how they would. They took that decision into their own hands. Therefore, medical examiners ruled those who jumped as homicides attributed to the terrorists.

My words are a criticism of religious (and particularly, Christian) absolutism. Even though many claim the Falling Man had no true choice, he did indeed. Choice for one of several methods of death, while extremely distressing and saddening, is choice nonetheless. And the choice of the Falling Man, when interpreted through the lense of a Christian absolutist, is that of suicide. And in that same lense, that of a one way ticket to hell.

It’s mind-boggling that that anyone would consider the Falling Man’s decision to jump as a “wrong choice” or even a choice at all.

Amanda Marcotte can’t believe it, either:

When I first read about how the choice to jump instead of stay in the WTC to burn to death became stigmatized, I didn’t understand it at all. Why were people judging one choice over another in a choice-free situation? Then I realized the role that religious teachings about “suicide” played in the discourse, and, well, I’m too full of disgust to even respond with much beyond “fuck that noise”.

You want to know why this image is so relevant? Because religious people have to grapple with the notion that their God may have sent this person to hell.

Or, perhaps, that suicide isn’t always a pathway to hell, contrary to what many Christians leaders would have them believe.

Or, to paraphrase a commenter at Pandagon, if this is the sort of action that a “benevolent” God would allow, there’s no reason to put your faith in him.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000041560944 Riz Siemens

    “You want to know why this image is so relevant? Because religious
    people have to grapple with the notion that their God may have sent this
    person to hell.”

    As a former fundamentalist back in the day, I can tell you exactly how hardcore Christians reconcile this problem and why it is so hard to get through to them as a result: They don’t see it as God sending ANYONE to Hell. They see it as people sending -themselves- to Hell.. it’s all about -our- choice, and that makes it one hell of a thing to debunk (even though it’s all equally bullshit, of course.. but they don’t see it).

    • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

      I don’t understand how Christians can see “turn or burn” as any kind of a choice.  That’s like saying if a man puts a gun to your head and says, “Give me your wallet or I’ll shoot you,” and you give him your wallet, it wasn’t theft because he gave you the choice of getting shot instead.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

        Excellent analogy!

      • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

        They really don’t see it that way. I’ve struggled to understand it myself, but they appear to think that we really do acknowlege their deity deep down, and that we have a choice to start believing in it. They just think we’re being stubborn and prideful.

        What I don’t understand is how they can accept torture as moral and not get that their deity is threatening people. Do they really not see it? In the olden days, people were expected to “fear God.” Now it’s like their god is portrayed as a cuddly bunny, except when provoked. Eternal torture is seen as an acceptable punishment for rebelliousness. It’s all very 1984. Big Brother is watching, and you’d better love and worship him, or else.

        • cipher

          Do they really not see it?

          No, they really don’t. It’s a form of psychosis. I’m convinced it’s neurological. They’re simply incapable of seeing it otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve always found the Indonesian tsunami victims to be a more useful example of the deep injustice of biblical notions of heaven and hell. Given the countries affected, the vast majority of the over 230,000 victims were non-Christians. Someone who believes that you have to be Christian to avoid hell must also believe that hunderds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children, were sent straight to hell after being drowned or crushed in the tsunami. Another good example is the non-Christian victim of a rapist-murderer.

    Most Christians are not mean-spirited people. They will instinctively reject punishment for people who are innocent as unfair, which is why you will see such horrible discomfort and verbal gymnastics from one whom you confront with “Your loving god sent the children of the tsunami to burn in Hell”.

    • cipher

      Most Christians are not mean-spirited people. They will instinctively reject punishment for people who are innocent as unfair

      I disagree. They’ll tell you we all deserve to go to hell, and the reason that God chooses to save some and not others is his business, which we aren’t to question.

      When they’re Calvinists (which most fundamentalists are, to one extent or another), it’s even easier for them – God preordained everything, including their “choices”.

      • Rabid

        I think the point I_Claudia was making is that they would reject such punishments instinctively in human affairs but build themselves a mental barrier when it comes time to equate a hypothetical situation where the one meting out “punishment” is their deity.

        • cipher

          That doesn’t affect my point.

  • Sombrello

    I imagine that a catholic priest would probably explain that in the end it is all in the hands of god, suggesting that god may eventually forgive the jumping man. I think that it is not a matter of arguing with religious beliefs. Apart from its deep nonsense, I think the matter is that there is no god, which is evident. If you want to demonstrate there is one (or two, or many) you must prove it (old archaic books are no proof, and neither are visions and relics…), otherwise any religious belief keeps being nonsense to me. If religion states you must believe without actually knowing, that is still nonsense.

    • NorDog

      Even if “there is no god” is a true statement, I don’t think one can call that statement “evident”.

      Reasonable, compelling, convincing, accepted, okay.  But evident?

  • http://carpescripturum.wordpress.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    It’s easy to see that “burn in a horrible fire or jump out a window” isn’t really a good choice, and that those who choose the least horrendous death out of a selection of deaths can hardly be blamed.

    But I think that this should be an opportunity to talk about the wider issue of suicide. For many people who commit suicide (or try to), the choice is no less difficult than the Falling Man’s. It’s a choice between being a burden and a pain to loved ones or setting them free of you, it’s a choice between dying a slow death at the hands of a terminal illness or dying in a way that spares loved ones from having to watch you waste away, it’s a choice between mental illness or addiction and all the pain that comes with it or ending the suffering for loved ones.

    We stigmatize suicide, we call it selfish or stupid. What we fail to realize is that even if the person committing suicide is wrong in their assumptions (such as that losing them will be less painful for loved ones than having them around, however difficult), the choice is still usually made with selfless intentions.

    And yet when people try to commit suicide and fail, they are met with medical professionals who treat them like burdens, who tell them that they are not worth as much as other patients because their wounds were self-inflicted, or even who argue that they shouldn’t be eligible for care at all. They are told that they are going to hell. Would we say these things to cancer patients? So why would we say them of people with illnesses that increase the risk of self-inflicted injury or death? Because a mental illness is still an illness, so why are we treating the consequences as somehow different from the consequences of heart disease?

    Suicide victims are not going to hell. Not just because there isn’t a hell to send them to, but because they don’t deserve it. Any god worth worshipping would never do such a thing.

    • aerie

      Awesome comments about the stigma of suicide & mental illness. I’ve been unable to articulate this self-absorbed notion of suicide as “the easy way out” or “selfish” or “dishonorable” and *sigh*…”why didn’t he ask for help?”. It’s the ultimate in selfishness to expect one to endure their unending pain/suffering – just so I won’t be sad. Or grieve. Or be upset. Or question god. Or cause me to deal with reality.

      Thank you for so eloquently doing it for me.

    • cipher

      And yet when people try to commit suicide and fail, they are met with medical professionals who treat them like burdens

      Yes, THANK YOU. I don’t know whether or not this was your meaning, but I’d include mental health professionals – psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers – in that category. They’ve consistently been among the least compassionate people I’ve encountered.

      • http://carpescripturum.wordpress.com/ MrPopularSentiment

        Absolutely! I had a friend with schizophrenia who cut his wrists during a hallucination – even then, when he could hardly be held responsible for his actions, his treatment from mental health “professionals” was just disgusting.

        • cipher

          I detest that profession, in general. It’s always been about money and dominance. There’s little-to-no altruism in evidence. I haven’t seen any, in any case.

  • Anonymous

    It wasn’t suicide.It was preventing a worse torment.

    • http://twitter.com/celestialorb Christopher Busby

      Suicide is the act of a person completing an action resulting in their death with the intent of doing so.  In this case, it is suicide.  The man jumped out of the towers knowing he would perish from the sudden stop at the end of the fall.

      One response I typically expect to hear from a religious person that I’m surprised I don’t hear more often is that, “My god doesn’t want people to kill themselves prematurely to get into the afterlife, clearly this man wasn’t killing himself to do that.  He was trying to avoid a slow, painful death.  Therefore he won’t be sent to hell for killing himself.”

      • Anonymous

        It was an act of desperation.

        • http://twitter.com/celestialorb Christopher Busby

          True, but that doesn’t change the fact that this man’s actions fit the definition of suicide.  I likely would’ve done the same if I were in his situation and I would say that I committed suicide.

          I do attributed his death to homicide, in agreement with the medical examiners.  The cause of his death is certainly homicide, the hijackers placed him into a situation where he could wait to die in agony and pain, or quick and painless.  Thus his cause of death is homicide, but the method of death was suicide.

          • Agrajag

            It does not at all fit “the” definition. There isn’t even *one* clear definition.

            By my definition, for example. Suicide is choosing death when you -could- choose life.

            Choosing a quick and painless death over a slower more horrible one, does thus not qualify as suicide to me. (not even if the slower method would’ve kept him alife for a few minutes more)

        • http://carpescripturum.wordpress.com/ MrPopularSentiment

          Most suicide is.

    • NorDog

      Yes.  This is not a case of suicide; it is a case of choosing not to burn (or asphyxiate.

      I don’t understand how people can look at this situation and conclude that this is a case of choosing death over life (which to me is what suicide is).

      • Anonymous

        According to the article by the photographer of the Falling Man, some of the people who jumped from the windows were clutching tablecloths and whatnot, attempting to use it as a parachute.  At least some of them weren’t trying to die, they were trying to live no matter how insane the odds.

    • Agrajag

      Indeed. Suicide is choosing to die in a situation where you could choose to live.

      This man was in a situation where he could, to some degree influence *how* he would die, but he couldn’t decide *if* he would die.

      In some places with capital punishment, the prisoner gets to choose how he will be killed. Making this choice is not the same thing as suicide.

  • dash

    All the people who jumped from the World Trade Centre (WTC) on September 11, 2001 were already dead. Whether they stayed where they were and died of smoke inhalation or being burned to death, or took the difficult step out of a window — it makes no matter: no one above the impact points survived.
    That there is a debate about anyone ‘going to hell’ I find completely absurd. Those people  trapped in the WTC were in a hell all its own. Everyone should be grateful not to have to make such a horrible choice.

  • Gerry

    I find it hard to understand why this is even an issue that bears discussing. I’m reading all this and trying hard to follow the points of view.

    Then I realized that it’s an issue because Christians insist on inserting their pinched, mean-spirited theology into something that really doesn’t bear analysis. It’s really about how an individual responds in his last moments of extremity, something none of us  gets a vote on until it’s our turn.

    • http://carpescripturum.wordpress.com/ MrPopularSentiment

      I understand why the religious hangup on determining whether this was a “true” suicide or technically not is worth discussing. What I don’t understand is why atheists are buying in to the discussion and trying to determine whether this man’s death qualifies or not.

      How utterly irrelevant! 

      There’s no shame in suicide. This man is no less dead, and his death is no less a loss to those who loved him.

      And like george.w pointed out, the fact that this particular man’s death was initiated by violent physical suffering doesn’t mean that our more mundane suicide victims don’t suffer every bit as much. These are people with terminal illnesses, depression, mental illnesses… We cheapen their suffering when we quibble over the classification of this one man’s death.

  • george.w

    Having survived many years of severe depression, I can assert that hell often begins long before death.  The experience is not improved by people who are full of advice about how to Feel Better Fast, especially of the religious type.  Suicide is often an escape from hell.  Whether an endless cold dark pit of depression or a flaming office full of stinging smoke, suicide issues from the very human instinct to flee the utterly intolerable.

    Those who judge suicides don’t know what they’re talking about.  Those who condemn suicides contribute to the hell of those who remain behind.

    A loving god would receive the man and validate his ticket.  Or, you know, maybe keep the attack from happening in the first place?

    • Anonymous

      I see attitudes towards suicide, even when devoid of all religious dogmas, as very complex stuff. It’s all well and good to say that “condemning suicide contributes to the hell of those who remain behind” but suicide remains a bad outcome and society is always going to reflect that.

      I personally think that there do exist situations in which suicide is a rational choice. People with degenerative diseases, or people who wish to avoid the painful last days or months of a terminal illness seem quite rationally justified, even as I also understand the wish to fight for each breath.

      However clinical depression, of the sort that can drive someone with no objective reason for it to suicide, is another matter. Suicide in these cases must be viewed as a poor outcome, however inevitable it may seem to the sick person. When someone has a mental illness that results in his or her death, this should be viewed as something wrong.

      I understand the need to perhaps change language. Certainly I find the criminalization of suicide absurd (the only crime you can only be punished for if you fail), but people simply can’t be expected to consider suicide a valid “solution” to depression.

      • aerie

        Mental illness is just as wrong as physical illness. It’s not yours to decide what the ‘valid’ solutions are. The reality is that sometimes – there is no solution. Illness is not always treatable no matter how much you want it to be. People die. 

        Until you’ve lived with mental illness, the low down dirty of it, the ugliness of it; until you’ve seen the bottom of the black hole – then you’re not qualified to judge.  

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

          Thank you for saying this.

          • aerie

            Thanks. Some humans are unable or unwilling to put themselves in others’ theoretical shoes. 

            • cipher

              Thank you for saying this.

              Seconded.

    • aerie

      “…hell often begins long before death” 
      Yes. 

  • LostFaith

    If any christian believes that this man committed suicide, they must accept that their Jesus did the same thing.

    • aerie

      But God created him & he was *born* specifically for this purpose. So, you know… it’s all cool.  :D

    • LostFaith

      I should clarify: If christians think this man went to hell, then jesus went to hell too. And stayed there.

  • malcontent

    Oh, but the christian god KNEW what was going to happen and allowed it to happen!  God is an evil bastard.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    The reason suicide was made a mortal sin is that in the dark Ages, once the Christains had taken over, was because the promise of heaven encouraged the brutalised serfs to kill themselves to get there quickly to a better life.

    Cause – effect – response

    The rich and powerful lords spiritual and temporal couldn’t allow their slave labour to escape.

    See also why the RCC introduced celibacy

  • Mihangel apYrs

    Something else a humanitarian must consider:

    the right to life is one of the first rights detailed in many documents

    surely the right to relinquish it is no less a fundamental right

    • aerie

      The right to relinquesh is absolutely a fundamental right.  But the religious never cared much for human rights. Except their own, that is.

  • Anonymous

    If suicide is a quick ticket to Hell, why are Christian martyrs so revered? 

    • Nordog

      Which Chritian martyr committed suicide?

      Not being able to distinguish between dying for a cause (even a cause one my find idiotic) is no different from not being able to recognize that the man in the photo did not commit suicide.

      • cipher

        NorDog, many early Christians actively courted martyrdom, as they were led to believe it was a one-way ticket to heaven.

        • NorDog

          Of these, who actually killed themselves?

          • Nankay

            In Catholic doctrine, there is no difference between actively killing yourself or allowing it to happen. (sins of comission and omission). The 2 exceptions are “insanity’ and God’s consent.
            (See maddogdelta’s links above)

            • NorDog

              Then how did all those martyr saints get into Heaven?

              I think you misunderstand the doctrine, particularly as it applies (or doesn’t apply) to martyrdom.

              Be that as it may, my point was one regarding the more basic acknowledgement of the difference between acting and not acting.  In the absense of that acknowledgement, discussions of how the difference applies to specific situations (and doctrines) will be problematic.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, dying for a cause when you have a choice of NOT dying is committing suicide–Christian, Muslim, Shinto..what have you. Kamikaze bombers, St. Stephen getting stoned to death and Palestinians walking into a market square with a bomb strapped to them are all suicides.  The falling man is not a suicide simply because he had no choice except in the manner in which he was to die. He could not choose NOT to die.

      • NorDog

        Still, there is a distinction between allowing a thing and doing a thing.  It’s one thing to be killed, it is another to kill.

        Suicide requires an individual to kill himself.  If someone else does the killing, that’s not suicide.

  • Edmond

    Couldn’t it simply be true that, in the confusion and agony of advancing smoke and flame and fume, these people were simply retreating from the fire in utter disorientation, and had no idea where they were and which direction they were going?  That, rather than CHOOSING to jump out the window, it is more likely that they were FORCED out the shattering windows (a welcome source of cooler oxygen), without even realizing which direction they were actually headed?

    Not that this has any bearing on afterlife destinations presented by Yahweh Airlines.

  • Julie Stecker

    So, I’ll just throw out there that not all Christians believe suicide is a sin. Recently, I’ve noticed that, among some more liberal Christians, there has been a subtle change in the language we use to talk about suicide: saying that someone has “completed” rather than “committed” suicide. For me, that removes the stigma from those who feel there is no other way out. I’m not in any way denying that there are Christians who believe suicide is a sin (in fact, I’ll affirm that it is the prevailing belief among Christians), but, as I am wont to do, just wanted to lift up another point of view.

    • aerie

      No one said *all* Christians. I’m not sure why you need to remind us of  semantics. It is hopefully understood by most readers that the *s* at the end of a word doesn’t imply an *all* at the beginning of it. 

      Exceptions vary to the extremes. We know this.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      I definitely see that as a positive thing, but I would be much more impressed if liberal Christians got rid of the notion of “sin” altogether.

  • http://godless.biz Andrew Skegg

    So according to some Christians these people should have suffocated or burnt to death the way god intended, rather than take the tragic decision to end it quickly.  And they wonder why we are horrified by their religion?

  • Michael Thelen

    If choosing to jump is suicide, how is choosing to suffocate and burn NOT suicide? The truth is they had no choice but to die, and judging anyone for jumping is ridiculous.

    • NorDog

      Exactly.  And very well put too.

  • Anonymous

    http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=11143

    That is the Catholic definition of suicide.  So I guess this was suicide, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_Dunham
    and this
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_N._DeGlopper
    and this
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_J._Grabiarz

    I’m sorry, but Christian, and particularly Catholic doctrine can go fark itself. (actually, I’m not sorry. The entire church hierarchy can go DIAF for all I care.)

    • NorDog

      You seem to imply that the situations described in the latter 3 links you provide are in some way condemned by the definition of suicide found in the first link you provide.

      That is not the case.

  • cipher

    I notice none of the Christian trolls have shown up to throw in their two cents (which is a generous estimate of what their opinions are worth).

    Found this statement from Billy Graham while Googling, about whether or not suicide is forgivable:

    The only sin God cannot forgive is the sin of rejecting the Holy Spirit’s witness to Jesus Christ and His offer of forgiveness.

    For an omnipotent being, he certainly seems to have some rather arbitrary limitations.

  • Goodgollyollie

    Suicide is not a condemnable sin. It would be akin to sending a person to hell for the last thing they ever did.

  • Anonymous

    Reading the Catholic doctrine on suicide, there are 2 “outs” so to speak. They make reference to only a sane man committing suicide (those not in their mind are excused) and those suicides committed “with God’s consent”. How one determines if God has consented, I don’t know.  My Great grandmother killed herself in 1930 and she is buried on hallowed ground in the local church cemetary. I think the Church decided she wasn’t in her right mind (well, duh) and gave her a Xian burial.  I also know a woman in her 80′s who was taught by the nuns that given a choice of being raped or jumping out a window, to choose the window. The angels would catch you OR evidentally that was the time God would give his “consent” to suicide.

  • Dirtydishes23

    Many Christians are wrong in saying who goes to hell, and who doesn’t. The BIble clearly states that only God can judge us. Not one human being can say what will happen to a certain man or woman after he/she dies. God is loving and merciful, and in this case (and many more),He is understanding. He knows the position this man was in. The horrible hell that this earth can be should be attributed to the devil. Hate him for the bad, and believe and pray that God will help you through this test we call life.

    • cipher

      and pray that God will help you through this test we call life

      And when he doesn’t?

  • Joelma fire

    When you’re being burned, you don’t have a choice.
    It’s reflex. If there is a safe place to get away from the fire you
    move; if there isn’t, you move anyway. Hold a lighter to your hand and
    tell me you can still think rationally in that situation.


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