Universalism, the belief that everyone is going to heaven, is becoming widespread. Check out the popularity of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person WhoEver Lived as an example. A perennial question Universalists love to ask traditional religious believers is “How can Gandhi be in Hell?” Ross Douthat, in his piece A Case for Hell, turns the table on the Universalist by asking an even more provocative question: “Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?”
Yet on second thought, Douthat’s question might not unsettle the reader as much as he hopes. It is easy to write off Tony Soprano because he can be lumped together with other (real) villains like Hitler, Stalin, and Charles Manson. He is, after all, a crime boss. Such people belong in a world totally separate from the one ordinary Americans inhabit. For that reason, his question might still come across as abstract to most people. Moreover, such villains are believed to evil by nature and thus set apart from the rest of us. Choosing the good is never really a choice for them. (Douthat disputes this last point here, but even he ends the post admitting that Tony Soprano could never be redeemed.)
If that is so, then Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad might be more effective in getting modern secular viewers to rethink their assumptions about cosmic justice. Gilligan is interested in just these sorts of questions: “I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end.” This leads him to a conclusion that is similar to the problem Douthat raises: “My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’ ”
Walter White, the show’s lead, begins the series as a middle class, law abiding American. He could be the guy next door, which is why his sins startle us in a way Tony Soprano’s never could. Chuck Klosterman writes:
“There’s a scene in Breaking Bad‘s first season in which Walter White’s hoodrat lab assistant Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) tells Walter he just can’t “break bad,” and — when you first hear this snippet of dialogue — you assume what Jesse means is that you can’t go from being a law-abiding chemistry teacher to an underground meth cooker….But this, it turns out, was not Jesse’s point at all. What he was arguing was that someone can’t “decide” to morph from a good person into a bad person, because there’s a firewall within our personalities that makes this impossible. He was arguing that Walter’s nature would stop him from being bad, and that Walter would fail if tried to complete this conversion. But Jesse was wrong.”
Jesse is wrong because White is “not the product of his era or his upbringing or his social environment. It’s a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that’s what matters.” Walter’s evil choices are more instructive than Tony’s because of the transformation he undergoes. He was a good man who became bad; Tony was always bad so he is easy to dismiss. Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously said “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” It is with this truth in mind that we should reflect on questions of heaven and hell.