Rick Warren’s son is neither in heaven nor in hell

I just caught word that Rick Warren’s 27 year old son has committed suicide. This is obviously tragic and yet… it’s hard not to think about the theological problem this creates for Christians like Warren, which was apparently referenced obliquely in a statement Warren put out. From The Christian Post (emphasis mine):

“He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a bee-line to that person to engage and encourage them,” he continued. “But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

Warren said that he and his wife often marveled at Matthew’s courage “to keep moving in spite of relentless pain.”

“I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, ‘Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’ but he kept going for another decade,” he wrote.

Suicide creates a huge problem for anyone who accepts the idea of heaven and hell: obviously you don’t want to tell suicidal people that they can get to haven by committing suicide. So it seems like you have to say suicides go to hell, which was the standard Christian position for a long time and still the official position of the Catholic Church. But you also don’t want to tell a grieving family that their loved one is in hell.

The tension here comes not just from the question of whether suicide victims go to hell. It also comes from Warren’s apparent acceptance of suicide as a mental health problem. But if you accept the whole Christian framework of sin and redemption, it seems hard to avoid viewing suicide as a sin, which is at odds with the mental health model.

Though it’s not as dramatic an example as 9/11 or the Inquisition, suicide is probably actually a really good example of how the idea of an afterlife is harmful. Suicide is tragic precisely because no suicide victims go to heaven. But none of them go to hell either, and the tragedy of suicide shouldn’t be compounded by making parents think their child might have.

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  • Kyle

    I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, religious and nonreligious alike. However, I appreciate your thoughts on this and it will, no doubt, stir some conversation within the nonreligious circles. Ultimately though, I think the religious will still find a way to twist this into a conversation of forgiveness, redemption, etc. and pander to their “audience.”

    • GSM

      The guys son just died. Can’t y0u have a little decency and put off exploiting it for atheism for a few days?

      You miserable pricks.

      • Emmet

        Hear, hear.

    • MNb

      I thought we miserable pricks of atheists we’re supposed to accept that Mr. Warren’s belief system provides all the comfort he needs. Not so much, I take it, GSM?

      • GSM

        Kiss my ass. The guys son dies and you are jumping right on it. Just Fuck You.

  • kraut

    If Warren truly believes in the bible, there is no escape from the logic as premised that his son will be condemned to everlasting torture. Suicide as an escape from pain and suffering is not permitted, especially in the case of sickness as sickness is a a test set by god to have the believer test his or her mettle.
    The case of mental sickness would clearly fall into this category, and Warren has to bear fully the emotional consequences of a fucked up believe system and suffer the mental agony – no escape possible.
    I do however not feel sorry for a man who preaches his concept of sin and damnation so freely, and as freely condemns everyone to everlasting torture who does not agree with his belief system, feeling himself righteous and superior.
    It is interesting to see how those who suddenly have to account for acts condemned by their version of religion (either committed by themselves or loved ones) find all kinds of excuse to evade the imagined hell they have created as a consequences of those “sins”.
    I only feel contempt, and wish them all the suffering they can bear or that will overwhelm them, for those religious shills have shown no mercy. They shall rot in the hell of their own imagination.

    • Chris V.

      If Warren truly believes in the bible, there is no escape from the logic as premised that his son will be condemned to everlasting torture.

      FWIW, I’m not actually sure that’s true. The Old Testament is fairly neutral on suicide, and my understanding is that the severe views on suicide are a later introduction into Christianity. As Candida Moss has pointed out, many saints and martyrs, treated with reverence by the church, were pretty clearly suicidal. Now, as far as I’m concerned the introduction of reprehensible views about suicide into Christianity by the Roman Catholic Church is just one more reason to condemn that organization. I just don’t it’s they are in the bible per se.

      • Rain

        FWIW, I’m not actually sure that’s true.

        Of course it isn’t true. People can make up whatever beliefs they want. There’s all kinds of “escape from the logic”. Happens all the time. Atheists have been telling believers what they are supposed to believe, and failing to convince them what they are supposed to believe, since the internets began.

        • Charles

          Right, cause Christians have never told atheists what they’re supposed to believe.

          • Rain

            “Right, cause Christians have never told atheists what they’re supposed to believe.”

            Also true! However you can’t tell someone that they believe they are supposed to “take no thought for the morrow” if they think it’s as stupid of a philosophy as you do. Although, good luck getting them to admit that Jesus was an idiot of a philosopher.

  • Rain

    It is interesting to see how those who suddenly have to account for acts condemned by their version of religion

    He isn’t smart enough to account for acts. This is the guy who, when Sam Harris said something about natural selection, asked Sam who was doing the selection. That’s the dumbest most knee-jerk anthropomorphism I ever had the displeasure to read. He just doesn’t have the brains.

  • kraut

    “FWIW, I’m not actually sure that’s true. The Old Testament is fairly neutral on suicide, and my understanding is that the severe views on suicide are a later introduction into Christianity. ”

    That might be the view of a biblical scholar, but not one that is compatible with the view of a fundamentalist like I take it Mr. Warren to be.
    The view as presented here is likely the view that preachers like Mr. Warren espouse, and that is one supporting the hell of their own making.

    ” Christians are called to live their lives for God, and the decision on when to die is God’s and God’s alone. Although it is not describing suicide, 1 Corinthians 3:15 is probably a good description of what happens to a Christian who commits suicide: “He himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.””

  • Jen B.

    I used to be Catholic, and I’m pretty sure they don’t teach that people who commit suicide automatically go to hell these days. People who die by suicide are allowed to have Catholic funeral masses, and Catholics are taught to entrust their souls to God’s mercy.

    I suffer from depression, and I’ve felt suicidal more than once. I’ve had a few people mention hell to me as a deterrent. While it might prevent people who are truly terrified of hell from taking their lives, I remember thinking that a God who could so callously condemn someone who was already suffering from incredible pain and despair wouldn’t be worth worshiping.

    I can’t imagine how tough it must be for a family member or a friend of a suicide victim being told that their loved one is in hell. My heart goes out to the Warren family.

    • Chris Hallquist

      The explanation I remember reading from a Catholic priest a few years back is that it’s theoretically possible for a suicide to ask God for forgiveness with their dying breath, and that’s what allows them to receive a Catholic funeral mass. Seems like a pretty slim chance, though.

      • Jen B.

        I agree. I definitely got the impression that the Church tries to leave it open, but that the chances probably aren’t that great. I also got the impression that it was something that’s said to put grieving family members at ease.

        • Jen B.

          Also, they seem to concede that most people who commit suicide are in the throes of pretty serious mental illness, and that mental illness can lessen moral culpability.

  • Really?

    The fact remains that a father is grieving his son’s death. As God sent His Son to die for our sins then God can relate to the agony that Rick Warren is going through. What makes the difference in ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ and Christ followers is that people that follow Christ understand that not one sin is worse than another, sins are not in ‘bad’ and ‘good’ sin categories. Sin is sin. It separates us from God. God is holy. Christ’s death on the cross bridges the gap to where everyone that puts their faith in Christ’s death as payment for their sins can have a relationship with God – can call him ‘Father’. Nothing you or I do can make that happen – only through Christ’s act was and is this possible. Much love.

    • David Hart

      “people that follow Christ understand that not one sin is worse than another, sins are not in ‘bad’ and ‘good’ sin categories”

      …And this exactly why we find Christianity so silly. In the real world, we have wrongs, and some of these are clearly worse than others. Losing your temper and shouting at someone is wrong, I expect we can all agree. Losing your temper and stabbing them is also wrong, but it is very obvious that it is a worse wrong than verbal abuse.

      If God is unable to tell the difference between degrees of wrong, and would punish someone just as severly for a minor misdemeanour as he would for an egregious atrocity, then he has no sense of justice that we ought to respect. And if you try to get round this by claiming that God’s perfection somehow allows him to get away with holding us to an impossible standard, you then have to answer the problem of why God would make us unable to live up to his impossibly high standard in the first place – a problem no Christian has come up with a convincing answer for in two millennia of trying.

      And for you to then claim that everyone is entitled to God’s forgiveness if and only if they believe a wildly implausible story that only some of us have sufficient reserves of credulity to believe (and of those, only a fraction are lucky enough to also be born into a time and place where the Christian hypothesis, as opposed to any other supernatural scheme, happens to be the dominant mythology), then you have merely replaced an impossible standard with an utterly random one – a god who would make salvation depend on whether you were able to believe, on no good evidence, in what looks like an obvious myth, is just as capricious as a god who would make salvation depend on your mathematical ability, or your hair colour, or your blood type or any other random factor.

    • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com/ Bronze Dog

      One other problem I see with treating all sins equally and worthy of eternal torture is that it seems to have the same problem as punishing all crimes with execution: In for a penny, in for a pound. If littering is punishable by death, it actually encourages litterbugs to murder witnesses, since they can’t get any worse off, and potentially come out unscathed if they manage to prevent being convicted. For that reason, I see belief in Hell as an idea that encourages destructive hedonism: Someone could be convinced they’re going either way, so they squeeze out as much selfish pleasure as they can or they commit big crimes while regularly praying for forgiveness, believing that wipes away everything, whether it’s little sins or big ones. There’s a reason why we scale punishments to fit the crime.

      Oh, yeah, and on the main topic, I’ll add my vote to the idea that treating suicide as a ticket to Hell is a cruel way to kick someone when they’re down. And that Hell itself is an irredeemably cruel myth in the first place.

  • MNb

    “at odds with the mental health model.”
    What’s more, christians being dualists by definition and the immaterial part being connect to the material part they might come to the conclusion that their god is responsibloe for mental illnesses. That brings us back to the Problem of Evil.
    There is a solution though.
    Switch your brains off.
    Just believe.

    • truthisliberty

      Sin is rebellion to God and those in sin reap from their own ways.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

    Interestingly, Roger Ebert’s funeral will be at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. The Church apparently doesn’t object to atheists getting a Catholic funeral.

    • Highlander

      Or at least not when they are famous.

  • LeRoi

    1. The Catholic Church does not teach that suicides automatically go to hell. I think they used to, the reasoning being that suicide is caused by absolute despair, which is a mortal sin. The Catholic Encyclopedia is old-school and very hard, and even they don’t think suicides go to hell. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14326b.htm

    2. Mental health and Christianity. Most Christians I’ve known wouldn’t have, and didn’t, condemn folks with mental health issues. I know folks who are very conservative Christian counselors, and they think mental health issues are sometimes caused by sin, but sometimes by biology or trauma. And most Christians are not that conservative.

    3. I agree that “the tragedy of suicide shouldn’t be compounded by making parents think their child might have” gone to hell. Warren’s son’s wish to just end it and go to heaven is a religiously-translated version of “I just want to end it all” – I don’t read anything else into this tragedy.

  • truthisliberty

    No murderer is going to heaven and suicide is self murder. JESUS does heal tormented souls. Two people in scripture who chose suicide were in rebellion to God. King Saul and Judas. Suicide robs JESUS of glorifying the Father.