Abandon all hope

In yet another argument undermining the wisdom of the New York Times' paywall, Ross Douthat, resident prude, argues that hell must exist.  His argument hinges on the reality of human choices.  Human choices, without the possibility of eternal damnation, just wouldn't be real.  He writes:

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

There are other ways our choices are real, I'd argue.  In the first place, our choices create our character right now.  Our choices also affect other people right now.  That, I think, is probably punishment enough.  Meditating on eternal damnation before deciding whether you want to have carnal knowledge of chunky Reese Witherspoon seems a bit much.

Not to be facile, but Douthat also seems to offer one key reason for not thinking there's a hell:

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

Seems like if there were a hell, and if there were a just overseer of it, we'd have an absolutely unequivocal answer to this question.  Turns out, however, we don't.  So maybe our choices have eternal reality in hell, which just can't determine which ones will send us there.

5 thoughts on “Abandon all hope”

  1. Hi John,
    You beat me to the punch with Douthat's column.  I was going to write something this afternoon on it. And you picked up on one thing that bothered me most: namely, that the only way choices matter is if they matter for eternity.  An old trouble for this mode of reasoning:  if my choices mattered only from the perspective of eternity, then I should occupy that perspective as much as I can.  The trouble is that that perspective vastly underdetermines our choices, and so we must adopt other, intermediate, perspectives.  Those matter, too.  And once we see those intermediate perspectives making determinations, it is hard to see what role eternity is really playing, other than to save our hides.  It takes all the moral motivation out of our everyday decisions.  That's, in fact, stripping those choices of significance.
    Notice, also, that Douthat asks if Tony Soprano is in heaven.  I'll say, unequivocally, no.  But he's not in hell, either.  That's because those places are as real as Tony Soprano.
    A final question:  why the tag 'chunky resse witherspoon'?

  2. What I am seeing here is not that you need to believe in hell if you are Christian, but that hell must exist to make a Christian life worth living.
    I defer to a more intelligent man than I and his famous quote, which made many people believe he was athiest:
    "A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeeded be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death." – Albert Einstein

  3. Hey Scott–

    Yes, indeed.  Intermediate things matter a lot–click the link in the post for "Chunky Reese Witherspoon."  Douthat, in other words, ought to know that such choices can matter a lot now, and the eternity of the internet is eternity enough, if God is not evil, that is.

  4. I'm going to guess Ross has never made it to Part III of the Groundwork.

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