Twenty-seven-year-old Matthew Warren committed suicide on April 5. He was the son of Rick Warren, pastor of the well-known megachurch Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. During this time of grief and devastation for the Warren family, Rick and his wife, Kay, a couple well-known and warmly loved throughout much of the world, have been graciously flooded with condolences and prayers of support.
Sadly, though, as I follow the aftermath of this tragedy I cannot help but see in it a second, almost hidden tragedy: Spiritual care for Matthew Warren has ceased; it ceased the moment his death became known.
Saddleback, a Southern Baptist Church, rejects the doctrine of praying for the dead, as do all major Protestant denominations. This is due in part to the Reformers’ rejection of 2 Maccabees, which clearly demonstrates the doctrine in action. That book records a story of fallen soldiers who were found to be wearing tokens of idols under their tunics—thus, they died committing the sin of idolatry. Even so, their leader Judas Maccabeus and his men prayed for them:
[T]hey turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out . . . [Judas Maccabeus] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering (2 Macc. 12:42-43a).
Maccabeus and his men sought to provide for the spiritual welfare of the fallen soldiers even after their deaths. The soldiers had died in God’s friendship, fighting a holy battle, but they had committed idolatry in the process. Their sins still needed atoning-for. The passage continues:
In doing this [Maccabeus] acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Macc 43b-45)
This Scripture passage indicates that praying for the dead is an honorable act that can help the deceased be purified of imperfections before entering heaven. Of course, prayers are not needed for those already in heaven, and those in hell cannot benefit by prayers. But prayers can and do help those destined for heaven who first need purification. All of Christianity recognized and practiced such “holy and pious” deeds until the Reformers came along. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1032) explains:
From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.
But who is praying for Matthew Warren? Saddleback Church isn’t. Southern Baptists aren’t. Other Protestants aren’t. Their thoughts of Matthew in the glory of heaven are surely comforting to them but, especially considering the way he died, he quite possibly could be in need of purification that their prayers and other intercessions could greatly help with.
Just as Judas Maccabeus and his men could pray for fallen idolaters, Christians today can pray for fallen suicide victims. The Catechism (2283) notes that, “The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives”. So should all Christians.
For the repose of the soul of Matthew Warren, we pray to the Lord.