In part, hell’s weakening grip on the religious imagination is a consequence of growing pluralism. Bell’s book begins with a provocative question: Are Christians required to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being Hindu? The mahatma is a distinctive case, but swap in “my Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist neighbor” for Gandhi, and you can see why many religious Americans find the idea of eternal punishment for wrong belief increasingly unpalatable.
But the more important factor in hell’s eclipse, perhaps, is a peculiar paradox of modernity. As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well. The argument that a good deity couldn’t have made a world so rife with cruelty is a staple of atheist polemic, and every natural disaster inspires a round of soul-searching over how to reconcile with God’s omnipotence with human anguish.
These debates ensure that earthly infernos get all the press. Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary “hellmouths” (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet. And 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.
Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.
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.
I understand the need to feel that there's a reward for the tribulations we experience in life. Without the promise of goodies at the end of it all, it would have been difficult to do things like convert slaves to Christianity, but it's Douchebag's insistence that there be a Hell to go with Heaven that is so emblematic of the conservative mind.
I'm not necessarily an atheist, but I sure as hell don't believe in some Great White Alpha Male in the sky who micromanages people's lives, knocked up a girl and then told his son "I'm going to let them kill you so that 51-year-old John Ensign can screw around with his best friend's wife and then ask his parents for money to keep said best friend quiet," and who told Abraham to sacrifice his son to him and then just as the latter was about to do it, said "Kidding! Just wanted to see if you'd do it! Hahahahaha!" But I have about as strong a moral code as anyone I know. I would cite the Incident of the Bell Pepper at the Grand Union as evidence. I once found a bell pepper wedged in my shopping cart when I took it out to the parking lot. I found myself with three choices:
1) Put the pepper in my bag and go home;
2) Leave the pepper in the shopping cart;
3) Take the pepper back into the store and put it back;
4) Take the pepper back into the store and pay for it.
Almost everyone would agree that Option 1 would be the wrong thing to do, except those who believe that as long as I believed that Jesus died for my sins and that I was saved and forgiven, I could have taken the pepper, gone home, and had a clear conscience. It's arguable that option 2 might be a moral choice, because I wouldn't be taking something I didn't pay for. But the pepper would be out in the hot sun and wouldn't be saleable, which from the viewpoint of the store (if it were, say, a mom 'n' pop shop instead of a supermarket) is the same. To me, Options 3 and 4 were the only moral choices, so I took the pepper back into the store and paid for it.
It wasn't God who made me do it. It wasn't some Jewish guy getting nailed to a tree that allowed me to do it. It's simply being able to tell what is right and what is wrong.
Douchebag's insistence that "If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either" may be the most profoundly twisted thing I've ever read. Are we simply infants who respond only to carrot or stick? Maybe Ross Douthat needs to have the threat of punishment hanging over his head to keep HIM on the straight and narrow (and given some of his columns, it wouldn't surprise me, as you can see from this Tbogg compendium of Doutiana), but some of us are capable of making moral choices on our own.
And that's what infuriates culture war conservatives, isn't it? This idea that someone might actually be able to navigate a path through life that involves honesty, hard work, fidelity, and truth, for its own sake rather than because of some punitive parent figure we conjure up who also offers unconditional forgiveness? What are we, five-year-olds?
It certainly explains their insistence on implementing laws to keep the rest of us on the straight and narrow -- because they can't do it without the threat of punishment, and the simply cannot understand how some of us can -- and do, every day.