Longer Ross Douthat:
A Case for Hell
By ROSS "Hellboy" DOUTHAT
Here’s a revealing snapshot of religion in America. On Easter Sunday, two of the top three books on Amazon.com’s Religion and Spirituality best-seller list mapped the geography of the afterlife. One was “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” an account of a 4-year-old’s near-death experience as dictated to his pastor father. The other was “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” in which the evangelical preacher Rob Bell argues that hell might not exist.
The publishing industry knows its audience. Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer.
And if everybody's doing it it has to be right. Either way, it's not surprising that people choose to believe in eternal life and happiness, a Fatherly, omnipotent creator who will always care for them, and that they have a hot-line to this Heavenly Father. Why not? Most people would rather live in a state of hope than a state of fear. If there really is a god, they'll be rewarded for their (supposed) belief and if there isn't a heaven they'll be dead and never know.
But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated. Near-death stories are reliable sellers: There’s another book about a child’s return from paradise, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just a little further down the Amazon rankings. But you’ll search the best-seller list in vain for “The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”
Ross has a sad. People no longer live in an imaginary, unnecessary state of guilt and fear, and just roll their eyes every time he tells them they're going to hell in a handbasket.
In part, hell’s weakening grip on the religious imagination is a consequence of growing pluralism. Bell’s book begins with a provocative question: Are Christians required to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being Hindu? The mahatma is a distinctive case, but swap in “my Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist neighbor” for Gandhi, and you can see why many religious Americans find the idea of eternal punishment for wrong belief increasingly unpalatable.
I think he's looking for the word "unbelievable," not "unpalatable."
But the more important factor in hell’s eclipse, perhaps, is a peculiar paradox of modernity. As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well. The argument that a good deity couldn’t have made a world so rife with cruelty is a staple of atheist polemic, and every natural disaster inspires a round of soul-searching over how to reconcile God’s omnipotence with human anguish.
Oh, for the good old days, when everyone was as callous about death as the god of the Old Testament.
Atheist polemic states that there are no deities, so we really don't wonder how a good deity could be cruel. We just like to remind fundamentalists that their loving god is really mean.
These debates ensure that earthly infernos get all the press. Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary “hellmouths” (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet. And if it’s hard for the modern mind to understand why a good God would allow such misery on a temporal scale, imagining one who allows eternal suffering seems not only offensive but absurd.
I think of "hellmouth" as Joss Whedon's resonant phrase.
Yes, Ross Douthat is complaining that the media doesn't discuss his personal and unpopular religious beliefs enough. That kind of self-centeredness is also the attribute of a little bitty child. Douthat doesn't want to let the absurdity and offensiveness of a kind, loving god who sees the sparrow fall but missed out on the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown to stop anyone from believing. That would be bad because then people wouldn't be afraid of eternal damnation and might have gay sex.
Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane.
And less homicidal.
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.
That's right. You do the right thing because you choose to be good. You choose to be good because doing good makes you feel good about yourself and eases the pain almost all of us carry inside; self-doubt, loneliness, frustration, guilt, hunger for love and acceptance. Because we let ourselves feel this pain, we need to ease that pain in ourselves and others. What could be more human than that?
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.
Unlike Douthat's belief system, which sees God as judge, jury, executioner, and jailer.
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.”
We realize that every action is a choice and that we are the sum total of our choices and actions. If we are only good because we fear hell, we will make the choices that we think will make our gods and goddesses happy, instead of making choices that will make ourselves and other people happy. Notice what is missing here? The effect of people's actions on other people. Douthat has neatly cut out everyone else on the entire planet, and reduced all of creation to one thing--whether or not he gets the Official Hebrew God Stamp Of Godly Approval. Once you take other human beings out of the moral equation they become roadkill on your quest for eternal life. That is why it is so easy for good religious people to do bad things.
We could say the same thing about heaven as hell. It gives our life meaning (that is, a goal); our salvation is determined by our belief in heaven (and God) and by our actions on earth. That's not good enough for Douthat. He has to know that others will be punished in the fiery pits of hell, forever. Somebody has to suffer, or else Douthat's life has no meaning. And since Douthat won't be around to see them suffer in hell (or so he presumes), he needs to see people suffer for their sins right here and right now. That will prove that God exists and that He is exactly what Douthat believes him to be. If we could only see more people suffer, everyone will believe and everyone will be afraid of God and everyone will obey God and we will have proof for once and for all that God exists and loves us--as long as they believe in Hell.
And that is why Ross Douthat is proselytizing from the pages of The New York Times, although we are not sure why the Times is eager to pay him for his little sermons.
If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.
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?
No, because he's fictional, much like Heaven. But aside from the self-affirmation, the need for what some people see as Justice is very strong; people who feel they have suffered injustices all their life are overwhelmingly eager to inflict justice on others. Atlas Shrugged is filled with Ayn Rand's cries for justice, her pleas for understanding and appreciation, although with Rand, cries and pleas take the form of arrogant ranting. Those needs don't just go away because we are grown up and seemingly rational.