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.