In April, Ross Douthat of the New York Times made the case for continued belief in Hell and damnation, a belief that seems to have been increasingly abandoned by the religious faithful in the U.S. One could make more detailed arguments about this based on Biblical interpretation, but Douthat’s argument has one obvious flaw from the get-go. As Douthat puts it, “If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either.” However, if we do believe in Hell, then it seems that “our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make.” Douthat’s assumption seems to be that two completely separate forms of eternal afterlife–paradise and damnation–are required in order to lend meaning or moral weight to our choices in this earthly life. Our choices have real consequences now, though, and could still have such consequences sufficient to lend them meaning and gravity in an afterlife, even if souls are not sorted into these two final resting places.
Even without a Hell of fire and brimstone and devils with forks, we might still be punished for our choices or end up “distant” from God in some respect. The idea of sin as separation from God is horrifying enough to the believer, but even outside this religious context one might argue, Platonist or Neo-Platonist style, that leading the wrong sort of life dooms one to becoming trapped in that wrong sort of life, which is ultimately miserable. If the part of the soul that is separated from this embodied life is the best, purest, least materially-concerned part, and one has consistently neglected that part, then one is likely to have troubles in any existence beyond death. In short, the usual stories about Hell don’t seem required to accomplish the purpose Douthat suggests.