Two weeks ago I posted the following social media status after learning about the tragic death of Robin Williams:
The rules for talking about Robin Williams: Don't say where he is now, don’t promote your own cause/message, do pray for him and his family.
Of course, when you only have 140 characters to work with you don’t have room for nuance. My main point was that we shouldn’t leap onto social media and loudly announce whatever thoughts pop into our head about this tragedy. We should simply let this man "rest in peace” and allow everyone else to process what happened.
But now that some time has passed I think it’s appropriate to expand on these rules. Hopefully we'll see some of these being observed when the next celebrity unexpectedly passes away.
Rule #1 – Don’t proclaim the deceased’s ultimate fate
Some people apparently have a direct line to hell’s processing center and so can confidently assert that a deceased celebrity X is now there. However, most people, be they religious or non-religious, know this is offensive.
First, it demonstrates a lack of compassion and empathy. Someone who announces that a person is in hell with the same matter-of-fact tone as someone who announces a flight has been delayed hasn’t really thought about what hell is like; hasn't contemplated the horror of being forever cut off from God’s goodness and having to endure unending “wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Saying that someone is in hell should send chills down our spine and be something we dread to even consider. It’s not something you carelessly append to a hashtag on Twitter.
Confidently declaring that someone is in hell also fails to respect God’s mercy; in fact, it almost rejoices in the death of the wicked. Someone might say that a celebrity “got what he deserved” because he wasn’t Christian or, as in the case of Williams, because he took his own life. That person might say that it’s just a fact that non-Christians go to hell and suicide is an unforgivable mortal sin. But that’s not absolutely true.
The Catholic Church teaches that God desires all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), and accordingly the Catechism says:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation (847).
This can also apply to people who have been poorly evangelized and so do not understand either the truth of the Christian faith, the gravity of their own sins, or God’s saving plan for them. Although this gives us hope for the salvation of non-Christians, it is not a guarantee that they will go to heaven. We must still earnestly pray for them and help them come to know God and his transforming grace that leads to eternal life.
An Addendum on Suicide
In order for an act to be a mortal sin, the person must understand both the gravity of the act and also freely choose it. But factors such as severe depression and mental illness, common among those who commit suicide, can impair one's ability to understand and to choose. That may be one reason why the Catechism reminds us:
We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives (CCC 2283).
Neither should we presume, of course, that those who have committed suicide are in heaven. In fact, such a presumption can have disastrous effects on those who are contemplating suicide. Studies have shown that suicide is, metaphorically speaking, contagious. The more people talk about a famous person’s suicide, the more likely it is the suicidal will see death as a good option, and long for the kind of praise they see being heaped on the departed. That’s why it was so irresponsible for the Oscars to tweet after Williams' suicide, “Genie, you’re free,” a decision about which the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said, “If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it.” In fact, my wife works at a mental health facility and noticed an unusual number of patients threatening to commit suicide the day after William’s death. One patient even said, “Why can’t I kill myself? Robin Williams did it!”
And there are other reasons why we should not presume deceased celebrities, whether or not they took their own lives, are in heaven.
The Problem of Heaven
According to them, nice people go to heaven and only really bad people, like Hitler or Ted Bundy, go to hell. Saying Robin Williams, or any nice celebrity for that matter, is in hell is offensive because it is an attack on the person’s character. Not only are you negating the standard view that the person was “good” or “nice,” but you’ve offensively said they were as bad as Hitler, since only such people end up in hell.
Whereas the presumption of hell lacks compassion and a desire for God’s mercy, the much more popular presumption of heaven lacks humility and a recognition of God’s justice and holiness. It takes the unmerited and undeserved gift of eternal life with God and turns it into something God owes us because we never killed or raped anyone.
But are most of us “nice” enough to deserve heaven? Are we being “good” when we spend thousands of dollars on leisure and recreation each year while at the same time a child on the other side of the globe dies every four seconds from a lack of food and clean water? Are we “nice” enough to deserve heaven when most of us would be mortified to have our uncensored inner thoughts published on Facebook?
I believe that the “Gospel of Niceness” is one of the biggest obstacles to the New Evangelization. After all, why do you need to hear “good news” if there is no bad news for nice people? What’s the point of eternal salvation if, as long as you don’t do anything really bad, there’s nothing you have to be saved from? I for one know I’m not “nice” or “good enough” to earn my way to eternal happiness with God. That’s why I’m betting on God’s mercy and love to save me and not on anything I have done in order to “earn” my salvation.[i]
So when a celebrity dies, we should not presume he is either in heaven or hell. We should simply pray that God has mercy on him, mercy on us, and mercy on the whole world.
Rule #2 – Don’t promote your own cause or message
When some people suggested that Robin Williams’ suicide was a result of an abortion his girlfriend had in the 70’s, I cringed. Keep in mind that I’ve seen the emotional and spiritual damage abortion can cause, and I don’t doubt that it can be a stressor that leads to suicide. But nobody is in a position to know if this actually was a factor here.
Also, connecting a celebrity’s death with a political or religious issue just hours or days after he has passed looks sleazy and opportunistic. Although I believe that those who did connect William’s death to abortion acted out of a genuine and noble desire to help others avoid the trauma of abortion, the sad fact is most people saw it as using William’s death to score points in “the abortion war.”
That’s why, as a rule of thumb, I recommend not using a celebrity’s death as a springboard to discuss something controversial, at least not right after he passes away. There will be another time and place to discuss these issues.
Rule #3 – Pray for the deceased and their family
If you don’t want to commit any of the gaffes described above then I recommend you follow this last rule: limit your social media commentary of the death of a famous person to a simple plea for prayers on the person’s behalf. This respects the person who has died and also respects the holy nature of God and his undeserved gift of grace.
But, if you can do it gracefully, it can also be fruitful to ask those who talk about a deceased celebrity being in heaven what the source is of their hope for this person. You can then humbly share the faith that gives you hope for eternal life with God, or as 1 Peter 3:15 says, “[A]ccount for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
[i] Please note there is a difference between “earning” salvation and meriting it. See this tract for more.