Our Hellish Doctrine

In Sunday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat, a Roman Catholic, gave us “A Case for Hell.” (Yes, The New York Times sometimes delivers sermons for us so that we are not without appropriate Sabbath reading.)

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.”

As you can see, his argument comes down to sovereign human choice-making. I find that just a little less self-centered than the self-justifying universalist view he is trying to refute.

It is interesting to me that in his argument he makes no mention of Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant. Without Christ, his subtle indignation that anyone would suggest that Gandhi is anywhere but in heaven is more appealing. Only the news that’s fit to print, I suppose.

David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).

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