Ross Douthat commemorates the Resurrection

by reflecting that his life would be meaningless if he couldn’t imagine people whose conduct or opinions he finds distasteful enduring an eternity of torment.

… by reflecting that his life would be meaningless if he couldn’t imagine people whose conduct or opinions he finds distasteful enduring an eternity of torment.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

57 thoughts on “Ross Douthat commemorates the Resurrection”

  1. The first line of your post is not what Mr. Douthat says, its not an accurate paraphrase of what he says, and its not a logical extension of what he says. Thus, it is dishonest and uncharitable.

    If you want to disagree with Mr. Douthat’s column then fine, do so. But putting words in his mouth so that it sounds petty or self absorbed isn’t disagreeing with him, its setting up a strawman that you can more easily dispose of.

  2. sd, I have a question which I have wanted to ask you for some time. I’m sure this will seem like a cheap shot and is probably one any catholic apologist has encountered before, but I am actually curious. Do you believe in papal infallability? Do you believe in the existence of witchcraft as a set of powers granted to fallen mortals by Satan?

  3. I will add as a gesture of good faith that, spurred by discussions originating here which you participated in, I informed my current girlfriend that I would oppose an abortion on moral grounds if she were to become pregnant. Of course I informed her of my moral opinion as part of a discussion on increasing the efficacy of our contraceptive efforts… I guess my road to hell is paved with slightly better intentions since I changed my mind?

  4. Douthat is being impeccably orthodox here in Christian terms. But I’m with Mark (and Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and a few other eminences) in the Apocatastasiast Club. We admit fans of purgatory.

  5. I really don’t know what RD is arguing in his op-ed this morning. Maybe that he’s pro-choice on the question of heaven or hell. I was taught by the nuns at Cardinal Pacelli that non-Catholics go to hell (including my mom!), that skipping Mass on Sunday would earn me a ticket to hell as well, to eat a jelly bean on Easter morning before Communion wd at least send my to purgatory. Pretty heavy stuff for a 2nd grader. And contra RD, I wasn’t taught that it was a matter of choice. If I was hit by a car on the way to confession, it was just tough luck.

  6. If it makes you feel any better regarding that “All Israel has a share in the world to come” and its apparent exclusivity, it seems that the ancient rabbis agreed with your assessment. The prayer book they wrote, which we still use, includes a line in the Amidah, the central series of blessings that we (or those who practice) recite each day, and it includes a blessing for, among others, “gerai ha tzedek”, which literally translates as “righteous strangers”. That’s generally understood to mean either righteous converts or righteous non-Jews. And indeed, if I’m not mistaken, that line about “all Israel” literally translates as “all the world”. We Jews can be a trifle self-protective at times, but at the very least we’re required to recognize righteousness when it comes from other nations, even if we don’t always do so. And thus we always hope to approach nearer to righteousness.

  7. Mark Kleiman summarizes Ross Douthat as saying: his life would be meaningless if he couldn’t imagine people whose conduct or opinions he finds distasteful enduring an eternity of torment.

    sd writes:

    The first line of your post is not what Mr. Douthat says, its not an accurate paraphrase of what he says, and its not a logical extension of what he says. Thus, it is dishonest and uncharitable.

    Which parts of Mark’s summary do you think are substantially inaccurate?

    “his life would be meaningless [if there is no Hell]” … that sure seems like Ross’s point to me.

    “an eternity of torment” … that’s the basic concept of Hell.

    “people whose conduct or opinions he finds distasteful” … given that Ross believes it’s important for him to be able to imagine some people being sent to Hell, who do you seriously think he would be mentally consigning there? People whose conduct and opinions he admires? Seriously?

  8. The more I think about this, the weirder it is. The New York Times — allegedly the highest-quality newspaper in the world’s only hyperpower — is publishing, in complete seriousness, a column musing about the literal existence of a completely imaginary place.

    What’s next? Perhaps the NYT will print an op-ed recommending that Libyan rebels could be airlifted to Narnia for combat training? Or that with the closure of Yucca Mountain, perhaps the US DOE could investigate opening a new high-level nuclear waste repository in Middle Earth?

  9. See, this is why I don’t read Douthat. Or that Jonah guy on the LAT ed page. Save yourselves the trouble!! Seriously. Spend that time reading a *worthwhile* conservative thinker.

  10. We Jews can be a trifle self-protective at times, but at the very least we’re required to recognize righteousness when it comes from other nations, even if we don’t always do so. And thus we always hope to approach nearer to righteousness.

    I was taught that there are all sorts of rules to be followed in order to be a good Jew, and that non-Jews who only follow a much, much smaller subset of those rules are equally as good people as the Jews who follow all those rules. All part of the conception of “chosen people” as being a burden and an obligation rather than a reward or a prize.

  11. See, this is why I don’t read Douthat. Or that Jonah guy on the LAT ed page. Save yourselves the trouble!! Seriously. Spend that time reading a *worthwhile* conservative thinker.

    I never read Douthat because his thinking ranges from the inconsequential to the asinine (I’d place today’s meanderings in the latter category, or perhaps in both). But can you name ” a *worthwhile* conservative thinker”? The obvious conservatives with elite platforms don’t qualify (Douthat, Brooks, Will, Krauthammer) and the most obvious serious conservatives are outre and not listened to (Larison) or are considered ex-conservatives (Frum).

  12. C.S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce, which features an excursion bus that leaves Hell daily and stops at the gates of Heaven. Anyone can get on and no one is obliged to return to Hell. The story deals with how various people arrive at the threshold of Paradise, but find their own reasons to take the return bus. Resentments of others and attachments to self make it an unattractive deal to stay and enter. The chairman of the theological society, for example, has to get back to deliver a very important lecture. Another man is disgusted at the sight of a murderer he knew greeting him at the gate, assuring him that everything was well now, and that the victim was also there; the mercy that allowed this to happen is repugnant to him, and he takes the return bus.

    Lewis was departing from classical doctrine, of course, but the idea was that choices become matters in which we have personal investments, and we may have to risk losing those investments in order to transcend ourselves and let ourselves be transformed. Lewis’ literary hero was the Victorian writer George MacDonald, who had a strong sense that all would be saved in the end.

  13. Warren Terra: well, not really. But that’s probably my own fault. I used to greatly enjoy reading Herb Stein years ago on Slate. But that was easy. Nowadays I guess I’d have to go search one out.
    And people here have recommended some folks, but I haven’t looked them up yet. I will try to dig out the suggestions and re-post them.

  14. I’m afraid I couldn’t find the suggestions. I probably have them saved on a hard drive which is in another city right now… Zounds.

  15. @Warren & NCG:
    Good conservative thinkers? I like http://www.theamericanscene.com. Conor Friedersdorf has moved from there to The Atlantic–he’s pretty good. Pat Buchanan may be an old anti-Semite, but some of the stuff he runs in theamericanconservative.com isn’t half bad. (And some of it is pretty dull.) And frontporchrepublic.com can be pretty good.

    Of course, good conservative thinkers are not going to be very influential. The Movement cannot tolerate heterodoxy or playful intellects. But a number of heterodox conservatives are stimulating.

    One of the problem with many (although not all) heterodox conservatives is that their policy prescriptions sound quite mainstream Democratic. The fun with them, however, is the very different routes by which they reach these prescriptions.

  16. Universalism is silly. Rob Bell’s book can’t be taken seriously. I don’t agree with Douthat’s logic for how he comes to conclude that there is a hell, since I believe the Bible clearly teaches “irresistable grace” which is to say that nobody can resist by human choice the effectual calling of God into the kingdom. Douthat’s logic is the same as Billy Graham’s…”God has cast one vote for you, the devil has cast one vote against you, and you cast the deciding vote.” This is a contingency-based salvation which puts the ultimate power of salvation squarely in the hands of humans. Man becomes god. So while I don’t buy Douthat’s logic for the existence of hell, the existence of hell and of a just and righteously indignent God could not be any more clear in the scriptures. Thus, I believe in hell because I believe the Bible to be truth and the Bible makes it clear that there is a hell and some are going. For a Christian to try and argue otherwise puts him/her completely outside of the realm of orthodoxy as supported by the scriptures and the entire history of the Christian church. Rob Bell is thus pretty much a heretic if he believes in universalism, which from my understanding of his book (I have not yet read it) it’s not entirely clear that he is proposing universalism. For those who would like to believe in universalism for conveneince sake or because it makes them feel warm and secure inside, I’m glad it brings you comfort to know that you will spend an eternity in paradise side by side with the likes of Hitler. Of course as represented by the above comments I’m guessing many of the readers here believe in neither heaven nor hell. In that case we all return to dust and life is meaningless.

  17. Ah, yes, Bux returns to the comments here – after a long absence, I think – to inform us that without God “life is meaningless”. I suppose the generous response would be the sentiment (which I know comes from some philosopher, but I cannot recommend which, and Google on this topic just brings up an endless list of tiresome screeds) that some people need to believe in God, that it does these people good, and they should be permitted to do so. Of course, the problem isn’t their belief, it’s their evangelism, their assertion that all people need to believe in God for life to have meaning. Especially because they tend to know which God …

  18. I love that Ross Douthat managed to quote the Eagles (without citing them): “you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.”

  19. Warren, please tell me how life is meaningful in an objective sense without a god. I’m not talking about whether or not you feel it has meaning (which would be meaningfulness in the subjective sense). I’m talking about whether it has any ultimate meaning in an objective sense beyond the here and now. As far as your “generous response”, even if religion is the “opium of the masses” or some psychological crutch that many believers lean on, I hope you don’t offer this up as any kind of proof against the existence of god since to do so would be to commit the genetic fallacy of saying that explaining how a belief originates you thereby show the belief to be false.

  20. Bux, we’ve had this debate before, as have many people far more seriously and at far greater length. I feel no need to rehash it here. You believe that in the absence of God life is without meaning and ethics are impossible. I disagree. A lot of people disagree with your stance, and some have been eloquent and/or quite long-winded on the subject. I don’t think we’re going to agree about any of that.
    I may have phrased it unkindly above, but if you feel that your life has meaning, that’s probably a good thing for you. If you feel that meaning comes from God, that’s fine, too. Whatever works.
    On the other hand, to say that others’ lives have no meaning because they don’t share your beliefs, or to say that they don’t understand why their lives have meaning because they don’t share your beliefs – well, that’s just reprehensible. You say it with some considerable verve and vehemence, and this rather shapes my opinion of you.

  21. Bux, “meaning” is inherently subjective. You can’t prove that “life with religious belief is objectively meaningful”, and Warren can’t prove that “life without religious belief is objectively meaningful.”

    If you choose to respond to this, I hope you’ll do so without using circular reasoning or argument from authority.

  22. To Bux: To answer you – The orthodox Christian God still remains a subjective being with a subjective will. The “objective” meaning of a person’s life would only be to relegate one’s authority to God’s, but that seems no different than relegating one’s authority to any non-supernatural entity, creating an “objective” meaning without the need for God.

    To get to the sort of transcendent meaning (ie., escaping the bounds of subject/object relations) that you seem to want would require a radically different conception of God than the one you seem to believe in.

  23. Bux,
    A lot of people have killed each other over their differing versions of things that “could not be any more clear in the scriptures”. Does this mean anything to you? Or is objective God just sorting it out?

  24. Warren, we may have had this debate before but I don’t think you were really listening to what I said, if your above response is representative of your interpretation. So let me try and state it more clearly, not that it will resolve the debate. I DO believe that in the absense of God life is without ultimate meaning. I do NOT believe that ethics are impossible apart from God, meaning that it certainly is possible for those who don’t believe in God to act ethically. I do NOT believe that other peoples’ lives have no meaning because they don’t share my beliefs. Every human life is objectively meaningful because every human life is a subject made in the image of the object who gives all meaning (i.e., God). Again, this solves nothing in our debate other than to perhaps clarify my view which you seem to have misinterpreted.

    @Sean, I think my clarification to Warren might get at your comments about escaping the bounds of subject/object relations. In my comments I have not tried to escape the subject/object relationship, but to the contrary have precisely set out to define objective meaning as such. Again, my view is that we are the subjects and God is the object, thus objective meaning to our lives. Without God there is no object. One could make the argument, as you seem to try and make, that the object could be a non-supernatural entity and thus not require “God”, but I suspect that if we start to dig into what that non-supernatural entity looks like (i.e., its properties), it would start to look like something that we would call a god, and so we’re right back to the concept of god but just defining god a little bit differently in terms of god’s properties.

  25. Bux, in the past you have absolutely stated that without God there can be no ethics (this is not quite the same thing as saying that Atheists cannot be ethical, but it’s not a million miles away from it, either). And in this very thread you’ve stated, twice now, a position the least offensive version of which is that Atheists do not understand the reason their life has purpose (you apparently reject the still more offensive version, which would be that the lives of Atheists lack purpose).

  26. J wrote:

    “Which parts of Mark’s summary do you think are substantially inaccurate?

    “his life would be meaningless [if there is no Hell]“ … that sure seems like Ross’s point to me.

    “an eternity of torment” … that’s the basic concept of Hell.

    “people whose conduct or opinions he finds distasteful” … given that Ross believes it’s important for him to be able to imagine some people being sent to Hell, who do you seriously think he would be mentally consigning there? People whose conduct and opinions he admires? Seriously?”

    First, Mr. Douthat never says that his life would meaningless if there were no Hell. He suggests that a believer cannot square a belief in human free will with a belief that there are no definitive consequences of choice in the afterlife. This is more or less a tautology. He’s saying that if one is not free to reject the goodness of God then one is not free to embrace the goodness of God. If I walk up to a vending machine that has 6 compartments but each are filled with Diet Coke, then I don’t have a choice of soda. Saying that does not imply that any given person has definitively rejected the goodness of God. One can believe that the population of Hell is vast, or one can believe that the population of Hell is tiny, perhaps even zero. But one cannot believe that Hell is impossible and simultaneously believe that human beings have any degree of free will with regard to God’s invitation to enjoy his eternal friendship. There are a variety of influencial thinkers in the Christian tradition whose theology brushes up on the very borders of universalism, but who nonetheless hold that eternal damnation must remain an existential possibility for human being (even if no human being that has ever lived is so wicked as to actually be damned) if the integrity of human free will in the face of God’s offer of eternal bliss is to be preserved.

    Second, Mr. Douthat does not suggest that “Hell” neccessarily implies an eternity of torment. He may well believe that, or he may not. But there is a perfectly respectable and orthodox line of thinking in Christian theology that says that the state referred to as “Hell” represents an erasing of the soul. That the saved go to heaven to have life forever and the damned cease to be. Either this line of thinking or the line of thinking that the damned are eternally tormented and remain conscious of their state would “fit” with Mr. Douthat’s argument.

    And finally (and most importantly), Mr. Douthat never says that any of this hangs on whether people “whose conduct or opinions he finds distatsteful” are likely to be damned or not. Mr. Kleiman simply made that up. And no, it does not logically follow that he must think this if he belives in the existance of a Hell. There are plenty of people whose conduct and opinions I find distasteful. In my better moments I hope (perhaps through gritted teeth) that they will be saved. In my baser moments, I don’t care (and shame on me for that). But I would never, ever presume to know one way or another what their eternal fate will be, nor would I suggest that their damnation is logically neccessary for there to be a free will. But the possibility, however remote, and however infrequently realized, of the damnation for you, me and them is indeed neccessary for there top be free will.

  27. @ SD:
    Touche.
    But it’s still a good website, despite its dubious antecedents. Douthat doesn’t write for it anymore.

  28. I would offer this from an Orthodox Christian perspective:

    Hell is freely chosen both as something we incarnate in the present and embody in the hereafter. The results of the Judgement are not imposed, they are chosen. The path upon which one sets himself is the path that one is on. Repentance is always possible, even to the last breath, but is never assumed or assured.

    Our choices have effects. We choose in every moment to embody either heaven or hell. We choose life or death. Those choices in the present set the pattern for our choice in the hereafter. It is testing God to choose hell throughout our life, in the mistaken belief that God will not allow us that choice in the life to come.

    Hell is chosen. The Holocaust was a choice, not by the victims (is there anything more wrong-headed than the new-agey “why did you choose that reality for yourself” blaming of the victims?) but by the adherents of the Third Reich and the architects of the Final Solution who sought to create Hell for others, but utterly destroyed themselves. It was Victor Frankl who noted that there were those who went to the chambers with the Shema, or the Lord’s Prayer, on their lips, who had not given in to the darkness being imposed upon them. He, a survivor of that hell, disagreed with the concept of “Holocaust Theology” that said that God had abandoned his people and was essentially dead. We believe that those who chose heaven in the midst of that hell were martyrs, and vindicated by God himself.

    To the question of the salvation of non-Christians, Ghandi et.al., an Orthodox Bishop once said “We know who is within the Orthodox Church, what we don’t know is who is outside it.” In essence, that’s God’s business, not mine.

    These choices are not about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by-when-you-die. They’re about what we make real in every moment. The major difference between Tony Soprano and Dick Cheney is that one is a fictional character, and the other believes that incarnating hell is an acceptable and even necessary way of achieving heaven.

  29. Earth to Doubthat, there is no reality of human choices. We make choices, but only those that we cannot help but make. This is why any religious conception of divine retribution necessarily makes a mockery of any conception of God or the universe. Eastern religion, to the extent that it embraces reincarnation, is at least coherent in that it sees the “grand play” in which we humbly take part, and serves no retribution to us that is not internally consistent with causality.

  30. Douthat says:

    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.

    This is ridiculous. Adding Hell to the equation doesn’t make me any less a prisoner of God. I have no choice but to play the game by His rules. I don’t have the choice not to play. I don’t have the ability to meaningfully argue that the rules by which I’m being sent to Hell don’t make any sense. The fact that God created me with a mental disability (or allowed one to be inflicted upon me before I had any conscious ability to consent) that limits and conditions my responses to things doesn’t constitute a defense; of course, that’s true even of people without mental disabilities, as humans are born with certain tendencies that are considered sins. The existence of Hell does nothing to alleviate God from a large share of the responsibility for each and every person that ends up there. Humans may have free will, but they don’t have absolute control over their choices.

    I am a universalist (and a Universalist, for that matter). I’m kind of squishy on actual belief, but I hold that *if* there is a being that resembles the Christian God, the only way He can fulfill His ascribed attributes of being all-merciful and all-just is for there to be no one who is condemned to an eternity of torment. Hell as conceived cannot be either merciful or just; it is not just for a single decision, made with incomplete information (for even if any particular advocate of Christian theology is correct, there really is no way for me to determine which one it is, or even whether it is a Christian who is completely right) to result in an eternity of torment. Theologically I’m fine with purgatory; it is possible for temporary suffering to be merciful and just so long as the subject is permitted to conform to the desired behavior and alleviate the suffering.

    Yes, Adolf Hitler gets to go to heaven. I can live with that. I’m with Mark that it ought to involve him coming to an understanding of his crimes and both an empathic appreciation for the suffering he caused and an honest repentance for it. We could all use some time like that, and if you want to call it punishment, we’ll have to disagree about that.

    We have a response to those who tell us that universal salvation removes all incentive to be nice to the people around us. It’s that we *need* to be nice to them, because we’re going to have to spend all eternity with them.

  31. “Yes, Adolf Hitler gets to go to heaven. I can live with that. I’m with Mark that it ought to involve him coming to an understanding of his crimes and both an empathic appreciation for the suffering he caused and an honest repentance for it. We could all use some time like that, and if you want to call it punishment, we’ll have to disagree about that.

    “We have a response to those who tell us that universal salvation removes all incentive to be nice to the people around us. It’s that we *need* to be nice to them, because we’re going to have to spend all eternity with them.”

    LOL! Hitler spending eternity with the Jews and calling it heaven? It’s his operative definition of eternal damnation, of Hell!

    And in this we come to a wholly Orthodox understanding of heaven and hell, which is that we’re all exposed to the uncreated Light of God, those who have spent their lives preparing are warmed and enlightened by it, those who have spent their lives seeking the darkness are burned and blinded by it. It’s not God that changes, but our experience of God as comforting or torturing.

    And so when you write “I don’t have the choice not to play.” that’s like saying “I have no choice not to have received this incredible gift that I didn’t require.” It’s how you experience the gift that is your choice. We choose how we experience these things, we choose how we respond, we choose what we do. It is your choice to reject the gift of life and to be bitter about your very existence, but what a tremendously sad choice to make!

  32. Venice, yes, the Adolph Hitler – or the Dick Cheney, or the Isabella the Butcher – who could enjoy Heaven would be a different person than the one who plotted the Holocaust (invented Gitmo)(carried out that horrible ethnic cleansing and started the autos-da-fe).

    People change over time; presumably they would change more over eternity. But I’m sorry that Bux accuses the Lady Julian – “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” – of heresy. I hope he doesn’t want to dig up her bones and consign them to the flames.

    There are certainly passages in the Gospels and the Epistles that seem to imply the existence of a (non-empty) Hell. On the other hand, there’s not a hint of it in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures. Isn’t it at least a little puzzling that this rather basic fact about the universe should have been withheld from (or by) Abraham and Moses and Solomon?

  33. What I find odd here is that Douthat sees the knockdown argument against an eternal Hell clearly enough: “..imagining one ]a God] who allows eternal suffering seems not only offensive but absurd…” – but it doesn’t stop him.
    His objection to “prisoners of God” illustrates a peculiarly modern, perhaps peculiarly American, belief that personal liberty is the highest good. God must attach very high importance to it as well, given the price. But traditionally the mystics of many religions have seen as the summum bonum for the human soul as freely chosen surrender to God: as in Donne’s shocking “Except though bind me, Never will be free/ Nor ever chaste except Thou ravish me”. Heaven as self-annihilation through bondage rape.

  34. sd says: First, Mr. Douthat never says that his life would meaningless if there were no Hell.

    It seems obvious to me that he is saying that. Did you miss this part? “As Anthony Esolen writes […] 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”.

    sd continues: Second, Mr. Douthat does not suggest that “Hell” neccessarily implies an eternity of torment.

    In the 3rd paragraph of his column, Douthat refers to Hell as “eternal punishment”. In the fifth paragraph, it’s “eternal suffering”.

    sd concludes: Mr. Douthat never says that any of this hangs on whether people “whose conduct or opinions he finds distatsteful” are likely to be damned or not.

    It seems to me that you avoided my point. Douthat clearly says that it’s important for him to believe that some people have been consigned to Hell. So, who are those people? Does Douthat believe that the people he esteems and admires are those who will be cast into Hell? If so, why does he admire them? It requires a monumental suspension of disbelief to think that Douthat believes deeply in the idea that some people will be damned eternally, and that Douthat believes this is a good and necessary thing, but that he genuinely doesn’t even make the faintest assumption that the people who will be eternally damned are the kind of people he thinks of as “bad” while the people who will be rewarded are the kind of people he thinks of as “good”.

    Look at the column itself! Douthat assumes that people (like him) who aren’t fundamentalists should feel discomfort at the idea of Gandhi being in Hell, or Tony Soprano being in Heaven. Why does Douthat assume we must feel that discomfort? Obviously, because Gandhi is supposed to be someone whose conduct we admire, while Tony Soprano’s conduct appears evil to us.

    Re-read the final sentence of Douthat’s column — he clearly finds the idea of Tony Soprano not being consigned to Hell so ridiculous that he uses it as a “reductio ad absurdum” to prove his point about the necessity of Hell.

    Mark’s point from the original post is accurate: Douthat feels that life would be meaningless if he couldn’t imagine that the repulsive Tony Soprano is in Hell.

  35. One more point. sd writes: There are plenty of people whose conduct and opinions I find distasteful. In my better moments I hope (perhaps through gritted teeth) that they will be saved. In my baser moments, I don’t care (and shame on me for that). But I would never, ever presume to know one way or another what their eternal fate will be

    You may say that, intellectually, but I’ve never met a Christian who genuinely acted that way. Go to the funeral of Kindly Grandma, or of Lovable Child, and try suggesting to the attendees that hey, maybe Grandma or Child isn’t actually smiling down on them from Heaven, but is instead facing an eternity in Hell. Try convincing Douthat that maybe Evil Mafia Boss is in Heaven.

    I think pretty much everyone who claims to believe in Hell generally assumes at a gut level that their own ideas about who goes to Heaven vs who goes to Hell are more or less aligned with God’s ideas. They may strenuously deny that, and may even intellectually convince themselves that they’re not falling victim to that kind of hubris. (I can see steam coming out out people’s ears as I write this….)

    But unless we humans have a pretty good idea of what kind of behavior leads to Door A and what kind leads to Door B, the much-ballyhooed “free will” is irrelevant. It makes no sense to say that “Hell is necessary for people’s choices to be meaningful” if the consequences of our choices are completely opaque to us. How “meaningful” is the flip of a coin?

    Douthat believes that Tony Soprano’s choices in life are “meaningful” and he asserts that this “meaning” is somehow tied up in the possibility that making the wrong choices would lead Tony Soprano inexorably towards eternal damnation. This implies that Tony Soprano must have some inkling of what is “right” and what is “wrong”; otherwise his destination is not the product of free will. Since Douthat presumably has the same “free will”, Douthat must also have the ability to look over Tony Soprano’s shoulder and say “Well, I may not be privy to all of this guy’s inner struggles, but it seems pretty obvious to me that he’s going to Hell.” Which is exactly what Douthat does!

  36. Just to note, as has been twice noted above, that “once in hell, you stay there conscoious forever” is in no way necessary to Douthat’s argument, and is not based on anything he said. The idea of Lewis, and of several early Christian writers, that hell offers endless choices to change and leave, but you have to be willing to make them, (yes, this is more like the common notion of purgatory than of hell) is perfectly compatible with what Douthat wrote.

  37. Mark, isn’t the concept of hell explicit in the Psalms?

    “For filled with evils is my soul, and my life unto hades has drawn nigh. I am counted with them that go down into the pit; I am become as a man without help, free among the dead, like the bodies of the slain that sleep in the grave, whom Thou rememberest no more, and they are cut off from Thy hand.” – Ps87

  38. SamChevre, I agree that one could imagine a Hell that’s more like Purgatory. But it seems to me that, for Douthat, Hell is indeed “eternal punishment” or “eternal suffering”, both of which he uses as descriptions of Hell in the column itself (albeit not in the excerpt Mark cites).

    Two explicit references to Hell as “eternal”, and nothing in the column that explicitly or implicitly suggests otherwise. Perhaps Douthat does believe in a kinder, gentler Hell … but I don’t see any place where he even hints at that.

  39. venice: well, for one thing, most Christians don’t believe King David is among the damned, so taking that psalm as describing “Hell” is problematic for that reason alone.

    Secondly, the Hebrew word ‘sheol’ (rendered as ‘pit’ in the version you quoted) has nothing to do with the Christian concept of Hell. The ancient Hebrews believed that everyone, good or evil, went to Sheol when they died. Sheol was conceived as a shadowy underworld where nothing much happened, more like the Greek Hades (where the vast majority of people lost their memories and sort of just languished there) than the Christian Hell.

  40. Josh,

    I think Elijah managed to miss Sheol, right? 😉

    And yes, the concept is that everyone goes to Sheol, good and evil alike, that everyone is subject to that place. It was the gates of Sheol that Christians believe Jesus shattered by descending and then rising from the dead, “freeing Adam from corruption and destroying death,” so that (very democratically) everyone got to join Elijah…

    King David is perhaps the most famous penitent in history. Part of being repentant is to understand one’s current condition, and King David did so far more eloquently than most. It’s not at all “problematic” that he should reference a state of being he desired to avoid, and I quoted it merely to demonstrate that there was some conception of an underworld separated from God in the Hebrew scriptures. A state of alienation from God after death was not unheard of, the fact that it was understood as normative for the good and evil alike does not make it a good place to be.

    In fairness, what Americans think of as Christianity are actually multiple variants of Protestantism, which are variants of Roman Catholicism, which separated itself from the rest of Christianity back in 1054. The result is that there are multiple allegedly “Christian Hell”s out there which themselves arise more out of popular culture than revelation. Dante was a poet, not a prophet. But this does point up the problem with most of the popular attention being given Hell these days, which is that it has all the depth and understanding of American popular culture, as Ross’ column demonstrates.

  41. While I am here, I have to say that one magazine I really miss is the Notre Dame magazine that used to be during, I think it was, the 90s. The whole thing, pretty much, was about “what should we be doing?” It did have class notes and what-all in the back, but most of it was trying to figure out how we might fix things. It was sooooo much more satisfying and educational than, say, the “Week in Review” of the NYT, which ought to be interesting but usually isn’t. Usually the writers just make a couple observations of this and that, but they don’t take any position. Boredom! And nowadays the ND mag is more of the usual sort of thing. Still probably better than average, but not the gem it used to be. I wish I remembered who the editor(s) were.

    That is what I wish we had more of in our discourse. Less horserace, less personal attacks, less attention to whatever stupid thing Trump or Palin or ________ (whoever the left equivalent is?) said today.

    Which is a long way of saying, I don’t know where folks get the energy to worry about Hell so much. I can’t even figure out what *I* should be doing, much less the rest of you. Though I guess the problem with the big questions is they turn out to be about values, and there’s no math for that.

  42. But can you name “a *worthwhile* conservative thinker”?

    Um … maybe Bruce Bartlett?

    The obvious conservatives with elite platforms don’t qualify (Douthat, Brooks, Will, Krauthammer) and the most obvious serious conservatives are outre and not listened to (Larison) or are considered ex-conservatives (Frum).

    Oops, never mind, then. I don’t think anyone on the “conservative” side is interested in what Bartlett has to say these days.

  43. venice,

    I’ve really enjoyed your comments. But I wouldn’t be the needling prick that I am if I wasn’t to point out that the date your referenced, 1054, doesn’t deserve the weight it was given. Cardinal Humbert had no authority to excommunicate Patriarch Cerularius and the Patriarch did not excommunicate the Pope Humbert represented who had by that time died and consequently so had any powers he had endowed upon the delegation.

  44. “Isn’t it at least a little puzzling that this rather basic fact about the universe should have been withheld from (or by) Abraham and Moses and Solomon?” -Mark Kleiman

    I find this to be a rather charming defense of Jewish belief from within the Jewish belief system contra other belief systems.

    To answer your question from the Christian perspective, not at all, since the revelation continues until the Word is made Flesh.

  45. Dorothy L. Sayers translated Dante, with commentary about its relevance to our own affairs. In Canto 18 of Hell, the flatterers lie immersed in the dung that the world’s sewers carry thither. Sayers remarks, “These, too, exploit others by playing on their desires and fears; their especial weapon is that abuse and corruption of language which destroys communication between mind and mind. Here they are plunged in the slop and filth which they excreted upon the world. Dante did not live to see the full development of political propaganda, commercial advertisement, and sensational journalism, but he has prepared a place for them.”

    Though individual Fox News anchors may hope to be delivered from the frightful abyss, their anchor desks have a position secured for them in the world to come.

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