Tony Soprano Is Going to Hell?

"For six seasons, 'Sopranos' fans have been asking what will happen to Tony. The answer: He is going to hell" - Patton Todd

Patton Dodd raises an interesting theological question in a recent article discussing the finale of the TV series “The Sopranos". He writes in part:

The opening image the third-to-last episode of "The Sopranos," is a steaming pile of trash. "Sopranos" devotees know that this isn't just any trash—it's Tony Soprano's trash, a pile of asbestos produced by a workers union the Sopranos are extorting. The trash is a fitting image for Tony's decline. Trash has been a way for the "Sopranos" to make literal the ways in which the Mafia is in the business of disposal. Mobsters don't just execute victims; they make them disappear. Being a good mobster means being a good custodian.

But we're in the End Times for Tony Soprano. He hasn't been a good enough manager of waste. Earlier this season the FBI discovered the resting place of Tony's first murder victim, a man Tony killed more than two decades earlier. The image of burning asbestos, then, is the answer to what has always been the most pressing question for fans of "The Sopranos":

What will happen to Tony? Answer: Tony Soprano is going to hell. Or: he's already in it.

Tony's potential for moral transformation, to choose good instead of evil, has always been part of the drama of "The Sopranos." Tony's evil is that of fits and starts. He cheats on his wife, Carmela, then dotes on her and pledges fidelity. If Tony is hell-bound, it's not because he's unaware of his direction. Tony is often pointed away from the path of destruction. Dr. Jennifer Melfi, his therapist, counsels him toward self-knowledge, but Tony chooses self-aggrandizement. His wife Carmela leaves him, and he lures her into coming back--without changing his wayward ways. In a near-death experience after being shot by his Uncle Junior, Tony has a dream that affords him clues as to how he could liberate himself from his evil life, but when he awakens, he ignores those clues.

We watch Tony because he is an Everyman. Whoring and murdering aside, we relate to him. His solid, hulking girth is imposing, but it is also pathetic. He floats on his pool in a green blowup mattress. He wakes up groggily each day, slumps down the stairs in his plain white bathrobe—stomach protruding beneath his tank top—and hopes Carmela has fresh coffee brewed. He rolls his eyes at his son's videogames, worries over his daughter's dates, and mans the barbecue grill for Sunday afternoon parties.

We watch the show, and the show watches us. It questions our affection for these characters, and it asks us to consider how we're like these people. The show is done asking, and I have to wonder how many "Sorpanos" viewers have heard these questions. The show does not extend grace toward its characters, and neither does it extend grace toward its viewers, whose hope for Tony's goodness is futile, and whose affection for Tony's sordid story is part of what allows Tony to exist.

Arriving in the restaurant in the final scene Tony played "Don't Stop Believing” on the jukebox during what was expected to be his 'last supper'. Viewers were left, however, to wonder whatever happened to Tony.

Is Tony Soprano going to hell?

Posted June 11, 2007


Joan Ferguson said...

Well he is a fictional character so in truth he can’t ‘go’ anywhere ;-)

The show had a great ending!

Let’s for purposes of argument make the assumption that there is indeed a place called ‘Hell’ though I am not sure what the various religions positions would be on this concept (perhaps others can help me on this - I would love to see some comments)

But if we look at this question as a hypothetical from my POV as a lapsed Roman Catholic I think that my former church’s position would be quite simple. Tony has free will which he is exercising; Tony knows what he is doing is wrong morally, religiously, in whatever way you look at it. He has not rejected his faith and so I am guessing he is hoping for some forgiveness after his ‘last supper’ as you described it. And who knows he might get it but there was only glimpses of Tony’s repentance (for want of a better word) in the series. He only momentarily on several occasion in the show considered changing his heart especially with respect to his wife.

Which brings up another question – where is she going. She enjoyed the fruits of his labors while also knowing what was going on.


Elizabeth Murray said...

As an atheist having no belief in either heaven or hell in an afterlife I don’t think he is going anywhere but to eternal oblivion with the rest of us when we die.

On the other hand is he experiencing some form of a heaven or a hell here on earth? I think the answer is both! He lives a relatively comfortable life – big house, fancy car, lots of cash, and can exercise whatever pleasures he feels he wants to indulge in.

Yet he also is in a bit of a hell with respect to his relationships, his insecurities, his expectations for the future etc. But then who isn’t?

I think there are a lot of people in his world who would give up their present lot if they could exchange it for the one Tony has. I would bet that in terms of the income level in the USA he is probably in the top 5% and if one doesn’t have a conscience or have any other needs than those of the material world then Tony has it made!

Reason rules!

Vinny Hall said...

This question stimulated me to take a look at what the present theological beliefs in hell are. I came across a great article by Jeffrey Weiss in The Dallas Morning News of November 18, 2006.

Weiss raises the question “Who does go to hell?” and says…..

Judaism teaches of the eternal nature of the soul, a divine judgment, and a mostly undefined "World to Come." But specifics are left up to God.

Islam is more like Christianity, with concrete traditions of paradise and hell. Who ends up where is a matter of how well the person submitted to God's will while alive. Hindus and Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation, so the evil done in one life is atoned for down the road – a road on earth.

Modern Christianity has many answers to who goes to hell. On the one extreme are Universalists who say that a loving God could leave nobody in eternal torment. On the other are strict Calvinists who say that God picked a small elect for paradise before the world was created, and everyone else is simply stuck in the Handbasket to Hard Times.

The Christian discussion generally starts with this passage from the Gospel of John: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." But how does Jesus decide who he'll take to the father – and who he won't? Not every Christian claims to have a straight answer.

Let's make the question concrete, with two examples that theologians actually chew over:

Imagine a man who grows up alone on an island and has never heard of Jesus. When he dies, does he go to hell? Or consider Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. He was saintly, but not a Christian. (He was once quoted as saying, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.")

Is Gandhi in hell?

Given the importance of the questions, it's not surprising that denominations have official stands on the answers:

United Methodists Methodism has a traditional belief in what it calls "prevenient grace," God doing good for us before we know it. That means God could be offering a ticket out of hell to anybody. Disagreements about this question have been fossilized in Methodist doctrine. The Methodists had an official doctrine about grace and heaven, the United Brethren about condemnation and hell. Were they complementary or contradictory? Who knows? Both passages are included in current UMC doctrines.

Southern Baptists The Southern Baptist position is basically "What part of 'no' don't you understand?" The Baptist Faith & Message, the official statement of the denomination's beliefs, says unambiguously: "There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord." So unless Gandhi accepted Jesus before he died, he's in hell. The man on the island? Ditto. That belief is what drives Southern Baptists to take their message into the world – to save the "lost" from eternal damnation.

Catholic Church The Catholic Church has absolute doctrines, plus two millennia of nuance. The Vatican says one who truly believes in Catholic teachings and lives a life in accord with those beliefs is guaranteed a place in heaven. What about non-Catholic Christians? Fifty years ago, if you asked your average parish priest or nun, they would have told you than non-Catholics are not going to heaven. These days, the answer is maybe. The Catholic Church says it has the only complete instruction manual – there's only one best way to the summit of Mount Everest. Other routes may be harder or may end at a crevasse. But some who take a different route may still end up at the top. Not even all who say they're Catholic are guaranteed to stay out of hell, though. According to a document produced in 2000 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), salvation comes through grace. But "if they fail to respond in thought, word and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged." What about non-Christians? From a document issued by Pope Paul VI in 1964: "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too many achieve eternal salvation."

That covers the man on the island. But Gandhi did know about Christ, didn't he? Maybe not, Dr. Ogilvie said. If he was driven away from the church by nasty Christians, he may never truly have understood Jesus. The official Catholic catechism offers an even larger possible exception: God can do what God wants. "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments." The traditional Catholic understanding of the afterlife has had three final destinations – heaven and hell, plus limbo. Limbo was thought to be for cases like the guy on the island, or infants who died before baptism. A draft document circulated recently, apparently carrying the blessing of Benedict, would ax limbo.

Presbyterian Church (USA) The Presbyterian Church comes from the Calvinist tradition. That tradition includes a belief that God created some people predestined for hell. Most Presbyterians find that today to be offensive and theologically not attuned to the Gospel of God's sovereignty and grace. The denomination's official position is contained in its catechism, last revised in 1998: "The limits to salvation, whatever they may be, are known only to God. ... No one will be saved except by grace alone. And no judge could possibly be more gracious than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." How about Gandhi? "How God will deal with those who do not know or follow Christ, but who follow another tradition, we cannot finally say. We can say, however, that God is gracious and merciful, and that God will not deal with people in any other way than we see in Jesus Christ, who came as the Savior of the world."

Church of God in Christ The Church of God in Christ is the nation's largest African-American Pentecostal denomination. The Pentecostal belief that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation means Gandhi is probably out of luck, by Church of God in Christ standards. But the man on the island is another story, said David Daniels, a church history professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ. Pentecostal doctrine teaches that the Holy Spirit routinely brings miracles to people and that God-sent visions and prophesies are happening this very day. "God can work without a human instrumentality," he said. "And therefore God can come to that person in a dream and tell him about Jesus Christ. "A Pentecostal would not be surprised if someone stood up ... and said, 'I never knew about the church until I got this vision.' "

Nondenominational Many Americans now attend nondenominational churches. If those churches wanted to hew to a particular denomination's doctrine, they wouldn't be independent. Therefore, they cover the wide spectrum of answers to the question of who goes to hell. The Rev. Carlton Pearson was once head of a wildly successful Pentecostal megachurch in Oklahoma City. Then he decided the Bible teaches that everybody can escape hell – even Satan – through repentance and the love of God. His "gospel of inclusion" got him booted from his denomination. Today, he leads a smaller independent congregation. The Rev. Todd Wagner leads Watermark Community Church in North Dallas. He teaches that belief in Jesus is necessary for salvation.

But the man on the island isn't inevitably damned, he said. Nobody is good enough to seek God on his own, but God will get his message to whomever he, in his kindness, chooses, he said. "No man is going to be judged because they rejected a Jesus of whom they never heard," Mr. Wagner said. "The character of our God is such that if he confessed the guilt awakened in his conscience and acknowledged his debt to his creator, I believe my creator will get Jesus to him."

Gandhi has another problem, he said. If, in saying he "liked" Christ, Gandhi accepted him as the son of God and savior of the world, then Gandhi is not in hell. "But if his Jesus is not that Jesus, he will go to hell," Mr. Wagner said. "And that's not my opinion. That's Jesus' opinion."


PRD said...


That was interesting. Tony is definitely in the wrong religion if he wants to keep going the way he is.

As I scan the summary of various religious views on hell it seems that Judaism, Islam, Baptist are all out for Tony.

I guess he is too intellectually impoverished to consider secular humanism which gets him off the hook completely. Nondenominational is a good bet in that case or maybe he should give Methodism a shot – that would be my recommendation. Presbyterianism might fit him too but you know the story about this branch of Protestanism – too many committees and meetings which come to no decision. Tony has enough ‘meetings’ to attend many of which have quite terminal outcomes!


Janet Witherspoon said...

The BIG question for religion is why evil exists. If one assumes that we are created in the image of God then doesn’t that image apply also to Tony?

Are we not really all Tonys just to greater or lesser degrees?


Pianoman said...

Has anyone read the paperback “The Sopranos and Philosophy – I Kill Therefore I Am” published by Open Court in 2004?

Chapter 16 is right on the topic of this discussion – it is entitled “Tony Soprano in Hell: Chase’s Mob in Dante’s Inferno”. (Chase is the writer of the series.)

The epic journey through Hell from Inferno is used as the background for an essay looking at the moral and religious aspects of The Sopranos.

Joan Ferguson said...

Yes, Pianoman, I have that book but have to admit I had forgotten about it. It’s part of a great series on popular culture and philosophy. I can also recommend in the same series “The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! Of Homer”.

The chapter you mention is really funny. Below I have summarized the Nine Circles of Hell as defined by Dante in Wikipedia – anyone want to venture a guess where Dante would place Tony?

First Circle (Limbo). Here reside the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ. Here also reside those who, if they lived before the coming of Christ, did not pay fitting homage to their respective deity. They are not punished in an active sense, but rather grieve only their separation from God, without hope of reconciliation.

Second Circle. Those overcome by lust are punished in this circle. These souls are blown about to and fro by a violent storm, without hope of rest.

Third Circle. Cerberus guards the gluttons, forced to lie in the mud under continual cold rain and hail whilst being forced to consume their own excrement.

Fourth Circle. Those whose concern for material goods deviated from the desired mean are punished in this circle. They include the avaricious or miserly, who hoarded possessions, and the prodigal, who squandered them.

Fifth Circle. In the swamp-like water of the river Styx, the wrathful fight each other on the surface, and the sullen or slothful lie gurgling beneath the water.

Sixth Circle. Heretics are trapped in flaming tombs.

Seventh Circle. This circle houses the violent. The Outer ring, housing the violent against people and property – the Middle ring has the suicides, who are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees. The other residents of this ring are the profligates, who destroyed their lives by destroying the means by which life is sustained (i.e. money and property). They are perpetually chased by ferocious dogs through the thorny undergrowth – the Inner ring houses the violent against God (blasphemers), the violent against nature (sodomites), and the violent against art (usurers), all reside in a desert of flaming sand with fiery flakes raining from the sky.

The last two circles of Hell punish sins that involve conscious fraud or treachery.

Eighth Circle. The fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil—are located in a circle named Malebolge ("Evil Pockets"), divided into ten bolgie, or ditches of stone, with bridges spanning the ditches.

Ninth Circle. Traitors, distinguished from the "merely" fraudulent in that their acts involve betraying one in a special relationship to the betrayer, are frozen in a lake of ice known as Cocytus. Each group of traitors is encased in ice to a different depth, ranging from only the waist down to complete immersion.

Good luck!


Derek Bell said...

I like the reference to Dante – pity it isn’t Silvio the manager of the Bada Bing!

Where do I place Tony?

Not in Limbo and anyway the Pope took this away from Dante.

Certainly he merits a place in the Second Circle because of his lust which was graphically observed on numerous occasions.

Definitely in the Seventh Circle especially the Outer ring

I’m not sure about the Eighth Circle – I don’t think Tony seems himself as fraudulent or even thinks what he is doing is evil. He puts it all down to ‘business’.

So I guess number seven is as bad as it gets for him.

D. Bell

Janet Witherspoon said...

I picked up the book today and read the chapter mentioned.

Derek: Sorry to disappoint you but Tony gets a pass on the lust thing. Apparently mistresses are widely accepted by the spouses in Tony's society. In fact Carmela remarked that she views it as a form of masturbation which takes the weight off her (no pun intended).


Peter said...

Tony himself believes that he is saved through belonging to the RC church! He keeps saying that he is a soldier, albeit in organized crime, and as he sees it soldiers kill because they have to, not because they want to, and hence they are not committing any sin.

Take care,

Janet Witherspoon said...

The last chapter of "The Sopranos and Philosophy" on the problem to theism of evil was quite a good summary. Not sure if I agree that comparing Tony Soprano with Yahweh will cut much ice but it was an interesting seque into such a comparison.

For those who haven't yet read the book here is the section in question ....

According to some interpretaions of Jewish theology, the deity is both good and evil and much less than omnipotent.

The deity of the OT resonates powerfully with The Sopranos ... Tony is in many ways the OT deity writ small. Like Tony, Yahweh is a jealous, vengeful ruler who brutally punishes those who betray Him. He has the divine analogue of the 'mood swings' that Carmela worries about. The moral justification of 'smiting' is little different from the moral status of 'whacking.' And the OT deity tests and warns his ceatures with every it as much vicious alacrity as Mob bosses.

Hebrew patriarchs like Abraham enjoyed concubines with as little moral compunction as Mob bosses have 'goomahs'. The similarities between Tony's admirable traits and those of the OT deity are equally striking. Both are loving and loyal to the members of their favored tribe or family. How can someone as violence prone as Tony indeed be loved by audiences? Is this appeal any more mysterious than the appeal of Yahweh?


Anonymous said...

my take on the christian message is that Jesus will come to earth again, resurrect everyone, take back to heaven the christians and simply leave the sinners on the burning earth, (wether it will literally burn i dont know, the messages could be interpreted as being stuck on earth with the then everyday evils that be. Soprano might actually do alright in that ;)

btw there is nothing solid to say there is or isnt a god. so just live life, and if your lucky there is a nice god who wont burn you or scientists invent a 'live forever' formula in your lifetime. and the most likely and most depressing circumstance is we are just gonna become piles of dust when we die. simply just dead.