Ross Douthat and the case for hell

April 25, 2011 • 1:59 pm

In today’s New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat (I always want to put in a “b” after the “u”) makes “A case for hell.

He points out, rightly, that while belief in heaven remains steadfast among Americans (the latest poll shows it around 80%), belief in hell is waning (though not as much as Douthat thinks—it’s still about 70%).

Why this supposed waning? Douthat proposes a version of Peter Singer’s “expanding circle” hypothesis: as more Christians become aware of the particulars of different faiths, it becomes more and more untenable to think that all those nice people will fry for eternity simply because they were taught different stuff.  What religion would consign Gandhi to eternal immolation in boiling sulfur?


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. . .

. . . 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?

Only a blinkered faithhead could think that human life could seem “less fully human” without hell.  What kind of loving god—anyone’s god—would torture people for eternity? And for things like adultery, homosexuality, miserliness, and masturbation?  That’s inhuman.  What is human is to make choices based on their perceived effects, not on the threat of eternal reward or damnation.

Of course, the whole question is moot if there isn’t a god. But that’s not something Douthat wants to consider.

86 thoughts on “Ross Douthat and the case for hell

  1. Aside from my complete disbelief in an afterlife, I am comforted by the lack of one because, while I would be comforted by the prospect of being reunited with my late wife (a possibility precluded by Christian theology), the prospect of all the other people whom I hate that I’d also have to spend eternity with is horrifying more than anything from the fevered imagination of a Dante, Milton or Niven.

    However, I have a wonderful idea for an afterlife which any deity which might be out there is free to plagiarize:

    Instead of getting what they hope they’ve earned, people in the afterlife get eternity getting what they fear they deserve.

      1. See? It’s already been plagiarized (never read it, and not likely to since I’m not much for graphic “novels”).

            1. or condemned to the world of irrational hyperbole, anyway.

              I mean…

              “Your loss” = “condemned to literary hell ”


        1. “See? It’s already been plagiarized (never read it, and not likely to since I’m not much for graphic “novels”).”

          I was not much for them either, but last month, I read Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”, which won a Pulitzer in ’92. I’m still thinking about it.

  2. Not that I think the NYT is the best newspaper ever, but for a serious publication, I still can’t figure out why they would actually pay someone like Douthat to publish such a puerile piece of drivel.

    1. They’re not really a serious publication anymore. For 8 years they were Dick Cheney’s personal propaganda organ, and now that that’s over they’re struggling to find direction.

    2. I seem to recall T.S. Eliot saying much the same thing as Douthat somewhere, though somewhat better (which doesn’t make the thought, considered in itself any better).

    1. I had a similar experience in Pittsburgh. Seemed like 25, but it was only slightly less than 3. I realized i was an atheist there.

  3. “…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.”

    And just what happened to limbo – or even – God forbid – nothingness?

    Interesting that for Douthat there *must* be unspeakable agony inflicted forever for saying “no to Paradise” in order to have a meaningful choice between being with his God or not. His God must be quite a bore if there is no attraction between being with Him and experiencing absolutely nothing.

    Or is even acknowledging the atheistic void after death too dangerous for his head to get around?

      1. What a strange paper. Who thinks we’d experience nothingness when we are dead? Why would anybody be worried about not being? It didn’t worry us before we were? I thought what worried us was a painful exit.

        1. He seems to be arguing against a literal interpretation of obviously figurative or poetic phrases. He then claims that there is widespread confusion about these phrases by secular thinkers. His evidence of this is that people use these figurative phrases.

          Like you say, strange.

    1. It’s the whole fallacy of confusing “ought” with “is”. It only seems fair that there should be rewards and punishments after death, because otherwise life is so unjust.

      Then the meme spread better if those rewards and punishments were more and more extreme, till now they’re infinite. Now Douthat can’t even imagine anything between, such as nothing, just nothing, not a being nothing, just nothing.

      He must miss Purgatory.

  4. All the rest of his nonsense aside, I keep getting hung up that his example includes Tony Soprano. He couldn’t come up with a real-life individual? Or does he not understand the difference between real-life and make-believe? Given his obsession with heaven and hell, I’m guessing it’s the second.

    1. I keep getting hung up that his example includes Tony Soprano.

      I have seen this frequently with people that don’t understand why their positions do not hold up under logical scrutiny.

      They commonly use fictional characters to support their ideas, and then get defensive when it is pointed out to them that the whole idea of a character being fictional, is so that it can do things REAL characters can’t.

      perfect example:

      Dan Quayle uses Murphy Brown to argue against single parenthood.,9171,975627,00.html

      hell, you could even boil it down to the catchphrase:

      “What would Jesus do?”

    2. Good point. I was hung up on that example too – my reaction was “ok, you’re right. Mobsters probably don’t go to heaven. Now you answer the question about Ghandi.”

      It’s kind of like, even after writing that article, he still couldn’t bring himself to affirm that he believes something so ridiculous as “innocent people must suffer inconceivable pain in order for life to have meaning.”

  5. This post bring to mind Iain M. Banks’s latest book, “Surface Detail”. Those that have read it will immediately see my point. For those that haven’t, and without spoiling anything, there’s a fabulous thread to the novel regarding Hell and its rationales. Read the book, or check out a synopsis or “spoiler” on the net somewhere.

    1. From what I recall, the rationales were all weak and the moral decay they were supposed to prevent never happened when the hells were abandoned. Even in the book it was obvious that hell was a faith-based position going against all evidence.

      Not a criticism of the book, I thought it was one of the best in The Culture series.

  6. The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make.

    At least hell, unlike heaven, offers choice.

    Milton knew that it is Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

    In response to a Hitchens quote about the hell that is the Christian heaven, Ben Goren posted a great Peter Cook skit about Satan’s raw deal ripped straight out of Paradise Lost (complete with an anti-pope gag!):

    The works of God, thereby to glorifie
    The great Work-Maister, leads to no excess
    That reaches blame, but rather merits praise
    The more it seems excess

    1. Wasn’t Peter Cook also in the original “Bedazzled”? That had an interesting (and funny) Satan character.

    1. That depends.

      If you can understand it and offer a reasoned refutation, then no, this is fundamentalism that only a tiny minority of Christians believe, and you’re being unreasonable even to bring it up.

      If you can’t understand it and don’t offer a refutation, then this is serious theology that is too sophisticated for you to understand.

  7. This is a variation of the argument for the necessity of evil for human freedom: in order to be fully human, we have to have free will (“the reality of human choices”), which in turn entails that we can freely choose evil and get our just deserts (hell). What Douthat thinks we absolutely must avoid is determinism, whether it’s via God’s assurance of salvation or “more strident forms of scientific materialism.” But from a naturalistic perspective, a pragmatic, for all practical purposes determinism at the behavioral level is humanity’s best friend:

    1. Yes, you see, it would be logically impossible for God to give us free will and also a world without suffering. So he created us with free will so we can use it to choose to be with Him in Heaven, where, uh, we can use that freedom to, uh, live in a place without any suffering, or uh…

      Look, a shiny new penny!

      1. It should make you think: if hell is necessary to have a heaven but no hell is necessary to have the world in which we live today, then is heaven worth the price?

        Not saying our world is all daisies and rainbows but even a lifetime of torture and suffering is still better than an eternity.

        I’ve never heard an apologist give an answer to that. I’ve never even seen the question asked.

      2. Yep, Curt, that’s the problem in a nutshell. Heaven is the existence proof for the claim that the Christian god could have made lack of suffering and free will compatible.

  8. The thing about Heaven and Hell is that no one seems to have a good proposal for what these places would actually be like. Heaven is just assumed to be the *best* place ever, and Hell the *worst*.

    But what would that mean? Different people obviously prefer different things – what would a masochist’s Heaven look like (or Hell for that matter)?

    1. Parke Godwin’s delightful pair of satires, ‘Waiting for the Galactic Bus’ and ‘The Snake Oil Wars’ offer a wonderful view of both heaven and hell. The former is referred to as Upstairs and the latter as Down Below. Jesus spends almost all of his time in Down Below, because that’s where all the world’s interesting people are and, as he says, there’s absolutely nothing to do Upstairs. Terrific satire.

    2. Yeah, I always think that the best bars and cafes will be in hell.

      Reminds me of an old joke about two friends who meet up after death, one from heaven and one from hell.

      The one from hell says it’s not so bad, a bit warm, got to shovel a bit of coal and sulphur, but most of the time their free to do as they please.

      The one from heaven says it’s work work work all the time, got to put the sun out every morning, pull it in at night, put out the moon, arrange the clouds, etc, etc, etc.

      “What’s the problem?” asks the guy from hell.

      “There are only a few of us up there.”

      1. I once heard a Roman Catholic authority of some kind say seriously that probably very few people were bad enough for Hell and he hoped none were. (This was back when they still had Purgatory for the not-so-bad.) Made you wonder why they went to so much trouble setting it up.

    3. Or the Devil in Miss Jones. According to Wikipedia (I haven’t seen the movie) her hell is to be locked in a room for eternity with a man who has no interest in sex. I guess Douthat would argue that hell isn’t like that, but how would he know if he hasn’t been there?

  9. 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.

    But aren’t humans supposed to be like children to the Christian god? What sort of abusive parent would condemn their child to torture just because they didn’t win a baseball game?

      1. Actually, I think that’s the whole problem with these Abramaic (?) religions. They’re inspired by very disfunctional family relations with an extremely abusive father figure, and all the rest of the family suffers from Stockholm syndrome. Explains a lot, if you ask me.

  10. It’s the classic puzzle philosophers have debated for centuries: why aren’t we happy winning unless someone else has their skin flayed off and is burned at the stake?

    When we finally learn that, we’ll finally learn why there can be no heaven without a hell.

    Some day.

  11. I would think that there would be a trend to greater belief in hell. They, the believers in God, have had proof of a very hot place “down there” lately but I suppose the devil has no control over it anymore since it is God that punishes people with earthquakes, volcano eruptions and tsunamies. Or, is God in league with the devil and sends “down” an order for a FAULT in such and such a place to punish people? Maybe the pope will justify this next year at Easter.

    1. In the words of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, “Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders”:

      “Satan subcontracted with God for this earthquake.”

      And I believe it was a commenter here who described God and Satan as the original “good cop/bad cop.” Nail on head!

      1. Manichaean style beliefs of a dualism are nothing new. I would say they make more sense than trying to force fit the standard christian god into intense complex arguments for how he can see good people suffer or kill the ‘innocent’ while the bad profit.

  12. groan

    It’s so cringe-making seeing a putative adult who’s not actually a cleric talking such childish nonsense as if it were perfectly reasonable. It pretty literally makes me cringe.

    1. But, as I said above, I think you will find T.S. Eliot, and almost certainly Chesterton (admittedly a far lesser figure than TSE), and perhaps C.S. Lewis, saying much the same thing. The trope is an old one, and the idea seems to be that by making a human being’s every action important on a cosmic scale (salvation or damnation), you give ‘dignity’ to humankind. Doubthat is not being original, merely parrotting some deluded betters who find a sort of satisfaction and a superiority in making high claims (because of what I believe, my every action is important, whereas the lukewarm and pullulating hoi polloi wallow in meaningless activity).

      1. I’ve never figured out how anyone can take Lewis’s apologetics seriously. There’s not an argument in them that a reasonably right teenager couldn’t see through (I know from experience). Although I like the Snark in The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain are full of logical fallacies, hand waving and special pleading.

  13. “this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.” – what on earth is that supposed to mean? How can humans be ‘less human’? Can trees be less tree?

    It bugs me the way that religious people suppose that one can repent at the last minute so they CAN, Cinderella-like, go to the ball that is heaven – according to their silly doctrine.

    1. “Fully human” is Christian dog-whistle for “free will.”

      Free will is the thing that allows devout Christians to reconcile themselves to a beneficent God sending Gandhi to hell – Gandhi knew about Christianity but he refused to convert through HIS OWN FREE WILL.

      So now, in Douthat’s mind, Gandhi is enjoying his full humanity for eternity in hell.

      Sick fucks those devout Christians.

      Learn more from the Landover Baptist Church’s book for kids: “Daddy, Why Did Jesus Kill Grandma?”

      (roll your cursor over the book cover image for extra Christian fun.)

      1. This reminds me of one of my childhood heroes – Radbod Duke of the Frisians. He was about to step into the baptismal waters when he asked if he would meet his ancestors in heaven. When he was told they would be in Hell, he declined baptism, saying he would prefer to be with them in Hell, than without them in heaven surrounded by his Frankish enemies.

        Good for him.,_King_of_the_Frisians

      2. But this christian view of free will is so simplistic. It’s either “scientific materialism” governed by “genes and glands” or the ability to make choices that can shape the cosmos and such. But that makes no sense! Free will is not inconsistent with a materialist worldview, but on the religious side it’s hard to see how hell provides more free will then universal salvation. Christians talk about a divine plan and if this is the case he must have pre-ordained who will make bad choices and be punished for ever. How is this better than everyone going to heaven or there simply being no afterlife at all? None of these cases can be used to argue for the presence or absence of freewill.

        1. Yes, it’s simplistic. What can I say?

          The entire concept of free will is inconsistent with an omniscient all-powerful God, who already knows what will happen to you – whether you will end up in heaven or hell – before you are born, and could theoretically change your fate in some way – say if you prayed hard enough.

          Theology is a big barking mad mess.

  14. Jack dies and is judged, and goes to Hell. Satan meets him at the Mouth of Hell and tells him that because humans have been granted free will, Jack will be given a choice of where he will spend eternity.

    Satan first shows Jack the souls (including Gandhi) writhing in a lake of burning sulphur. Jack is not keen.

    Satan then shows Jack an area of Hell where souls are chained to a wall and tortured by imps wielding red hot pitchforks. Jack is not keen on this option either.

    Finally Satan shows Jack a bunch of souls standing chest deep in a pool of human excrement. They are drinking cups of tea and nibbling chocolate biscuits. Although the stench is terrific, Jack elects to stay in this part of Hell.

    Just as Jack wades into the pool the Imp in Charge shouts “OK sinners, tea break over! Get down and do push ups for the next 500 years!”

  15. Tacroy asks,
    “is this the sophisticated and subtle theology we keep on hearing about.”

    It can’t be because misquoting the Eagles is neither sophisticated nor subtle:

    Correct version:
    You can checkout any time you like,
    But you can never leave!

    1. “You can checkout any time you like,
      But you can never leave!”

      That explains how Douthat still has a gig with the NYTimes.

  16. I skimmed that in the print version today. It brought to mind a comment seen on YouTube in re. some gasbag’s comment: I tried to listen to you but I couldn’t stop staring at the dent in your head.”

    The NYT’s opinion editor should get a copy of this thread.

  17. So…is the substance of Douthat’s argument is considered sophisticated theology?

    The religionists need to make some kind of rubric or decoder ring so that the rest of us will be able to discern whether what we’re reading is ST or not.

    1. Sophisticated theology is a form of apophatic theology – no one can tell you what it is, they can only tell you what it is not.

  18. “we are the choices that we make”

    Where does that leave the immortal soul then? Is it just comprised of the choices we make *after* we’re born?

    Seems to me that the best return on life might be to do what we please and repent at the last moment. It’s not without some risk though.

  19. I’ve always wondered how it is that we’re expected to get it right in a mere 75 – 100 years (roughly), and if we fail, off to eternal fire, especially as there seem to be rather a lot of arbitrary rules. At least reincarnation religions give you more than one shot at it.

  20. I am an atheist but rather agreed with the ethical ideal I saw here. first, let me say tha that I have read Peter singer and unger and a slew of othe philosophers, and would consider myself a form of secular humanist–and antitheist. But I have to say that I saw douthat’s argument as undermining religion rather than bolstering the position that hell exists. The ethical position I liked was regarding choices and our no’s having no meaning. To me that is the flaw in the moderate Christian: they believe in all the aspects of the religion that has no real affect on the choices they make and reject what they find unpalotable. But then how are they Christian? Eventually the meaning of the term is empty. The reaction shouldn’t be to retreat to fundementalism, but to reject the religion and it’s untenable metaphysics. I have used the Gandhi example in arguments and even asked my fundementalist Christian mother if she was fine with the idea with me, her son, burning in he’ll for all eternity for the simple transgression of not believing–though being a good person. I also like the further undercutting of Christianity by challenging thoughts about the consequences of actions by someone like tony soprano. People, especially in this naive Christian country, should confront these ethical dilemmas and it seems that most are not ready for the trolley problem, the human prejudice or anything else that secular ethics debates.

  21. Ironically, the ‘eternal’ part of both heaven and hell was one of the main thought lines that led me to strong atheism.

    The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. It would be like giving a baby 10 seconds after birth to not cry etc. Any that cried would be put in prison for the remainder of their lives. That is so arbitrary and stupid as to be incomprehensible…

  22. I think Doubt-that is making an excellent case to jettison superstition altogether. Start out with “gee, I don’t think there can be a hell – what sort of awful god would torture that lovely Bengali family down the road?” Then move onto “maybe they go to their own heaven with their own god” and then perhaps to “if there are multiple gods then my ‘one and only god’ must be a con.”

  23. “…as more Christians become aware of the particulars of different faiths…”

    There’s no excuse for this. It’s the 21st century, I can talk to another person on the other side of the planet. My sister-in-law announced her pregnancy via a skype conference call to her family across 4 continents.

    If you are not aware of the particulars of different faiths then quite frankly I don’t see why your opinion even counts. Except to put you in the ‘Idiot’ bucket.


  24. . . . 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?

    Oooooooh…. ooohs and ahhhhhs from the crowd. And the crowd roars. That is some deep, deep stuff right there. What a clever man. *yawn*

    1. Really you do have to have pity for him though. This “is/ought” type stuff is the best they have. (Besides the fake miracles and second hand exaggerations and outright lies and so forth.)

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