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.