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.
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.
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.”
Douthat, it seems -- and he has given much other evidence of this in his other columns -- thinks that life in this world is meaningless it itself, and only acquires meaning insofar as it affects our fate in eternity. I find this puzzling. Does he really think that the choice to become, say, a serial killer, makes no difference if we don't end up in heaven or hell? When a nation chooses to launch a war, condemning hundreds or thousands to death and many more to maimed lives, does that have no moral meaning to Douthat unless the presidents or the generals end up in heaven or hell? This widespread human habit of dismissing human life in our astonishing world disgusts me. I believe, and I believe nothing else so strongly, that if our lives have any meaning that meaning must be found here, in the only world we know. People who cannot see the importance of moral choices within this life are suffering from a strange blindness toward what they see around them. Douthat and many other believers I have encountered feel just as strongly that a world without divine judgment is meaningless. How either group could even begin to persuade the other escapes me.