To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

It was another wild week, to say the least, for people who are following the hellish details of the Jeffrey Epstein case and the fallout from his death.

I am referring, of course, to his reported suicide in his non-suicide-watch cell, which contained no required roommate (check), no working video cameras (check) and no regular safety checks by his sleeping and maybe unqualified guards.

Forget all of that, for a moment. While you are at it, forget the mystery of how he ended up with a broken hyoid bone near the larynx, something that — statistically — tends to happen when a victim is strangled, as opposed to hanging himself with a sheet tied to a bed while he leans over on his knees. And go ahead and forget about that painting (or print) of Bill Clinton photographed in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, the portrait of the former president wearing a vivid blue dress, red women’s high-heeled shoes and a come-hither look while posed relaxing in an Oval Office chair.

No, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on some of the hell-based rhetoric unleashed by the disgraced New York City financial wizard’s death. This was hooked to my “On Religion” column for this week, which opened rather bluntly (if I say so myself):

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds, playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal contacts file — politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others — was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people. … The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation — a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

By the way, would this discussion or moral theology and eternity be any different if we were talking about the Rev. Jeffrey Epstein or Rabbi Jeffrey Epstein?

What, you missed that detail during this wild week of Epstein news? It was contained in a New York Times “Common Sense” essay by columnist James B. Steward, which ran with this headline: “The Day Jeffrey Epstein Told Me He Had Dirt on Powerful People.”

This fascinating detail followed some talk about Epstein’s consulting work (alleged) with Tesla and his friendships with other rich, powerful, brilliant and famous people. Oh, and there is a different photo of Bill Clinton.

Behind him was a table covered with more photographs. I noticed one of Mr. Epstein with former President Bill Clinton, and another of him with the director Woody Allen. Displaying photos of celebrities who had been caught up in sex scandals of their own also struck me as odd.

Mr. Epstein avoided specifics about his work for Tesla. He told me that he had good reason to be cryptic: Once it became public that he was advising the company, he’d have to stop doing so, because he was “radioactive.” He predicted that everyone at Tesla would deny talking to him or being his friend.

He said this was something he’d become used to, even though it didn’t stop people from visiting him, coming to his dinner parties or asking him for money. (That was why, Mr. Epstein told me without any trace of irony, he was considering becoming a minister so that his acquaintances would be confident that their conversations would be kept confidential.)

Nope, no irony there. No irony at all.

The bulk of the podcast focuses on tensions inside the America’s soul when it comes to judgments about good and evil, heaven and hell and sin and repentance. Oh, and God is in there somewhere — maybe. I worked my way through nearly a dozen options while describing some common beliefs about hell (and I skipped a bunch).

The key is that hell, if it exists, most ordinary modern people have decided that it is a place for really, really, really bad people and “we” get to decide who deserve to fry, apparently. It’s salvation or damnation by plebiscite.

This equation has nothing to do with any specific world religion. It’s more like a lowest-common-denominator vision of a People’s Hell. The bottom line: The public yearns for judgment, when faced with the death of a person who has done evil things, often to innocent people.

This is not something new in the era of Epstein. To illustrate that, consider a chunk of an “On Religion” column that I wrote a quarter of a century ago about a different Jeffrey.

That would be Jeffrey Dahmer. Remember him?

Dahmer died on Monday after he was attacked while cleaning a prison bathroom. He died while saving the life of another inmate, shielding the body of a man who was under attack. This inmate was critically injured and a third is the prime suspect.

Dahmer was serving 15 consecutive life terms after confessing to killing 17 young males. He also said he dismembered some of his victims, had sex with their corpses and ate parts of their bodies. The blond-haired, blank-faced killer became a national symbol of the demonic. Dahmer confessed his crimes, but no one seemed inclined to forgive him.

Nevertheless, he seemed to find peace through prison Bible studies and, in May, he made a public profession of faith and was baptized. After praying that God would forgive his sins, Dahmer became remarkably calm about his fate — even after an inmate tried to slit his throat during a July chapel service.

Traditional Christians would have to say that Dahmer is heaven bound, if his repentance was sincere.

The problem is that many people seem to believe that there are two kinds of sins, and sinners. First, there are ordinary, good people who commit garden variety sins. They go to heaven, no matter what. Then there are the really bad sinners, especially those whose sins are linked to violence, drugs or sexual perversions. They are doomed to hell, no matter what.

Sound familiar?

Enjoy the podcast.

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