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.
Now it turns out that Douthat is actually of two minds on this. He writes, “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.” And Douthat’s mind is, in this regard, modern: or perhaps he just thinks that his readers couldn’t relate to the real old-time Hellfire and brimstone. So he skirts any endorsement of, y’know, Hell, and merely asks whether Tony Soprano is really in Heaven.
Me? I’d rather meet Tony Soprano in Heaven than Dick Cheney, for example, or Isabella of Castile, Servant of God. But when I reflect on whether I really want to see Ross Douthat go to Hell, I realize that I’m on the Catholic rather than the Protestant side of the question. What that boy needs is a good dose of Purgatory to rid him of his heartless arrogance.
Footnote “All Israel has a share in the world to come, as it is said: And your people shall all be righteous; they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of my planting, the work of My hands, to be proud of.” Make that “all mankind,” and I’d buy it, as the policy of a loving God. I don’t find much to admire in watered-down Christianity, but its virtual universalism is among its better traits.