Imagining David Bowie in Hell

Born in 1977 to young parents, I grew up with a lot of that era’s music in my home. My father’s record collection had quite a range, from the Beatles to the Doobie Brothers, Chicago to Dire Straits, The Eagles to Steely Dan. If he had a David Bowie album, I don’t remember listening to it, and I listened most of what he had on vinyl or, later, cassette tape.

For me, David Bowie will forever be immortalized in his role as Jareth, the Goblin King, in the 1986 Jim Henson fantasy classic, The Labyrinth. It was a memorable film, and Bowie’s acting performance, as well as the unique brand of music he added to the movie’s few musical numbers, demanded attention. I loved him in that movie (even if I wasn’t a fan of those pants) and ever since, that role was my point of reference when encountering him in a movie (like Zoolander), a show (like Extras), or even discovering some of his very eccentric music. I could never have been classed as a David Bowie fan, but I was certainly aware of who he was and the strange breed of iconic status he once enjoyed.

Yesterday, when I heard he had died at the young age of 69, I was as surprised as anyone. As I approach 40 myself, I’m living through the time when more and more of the ubiquitous figures in my life — both personal and cultural — have passed, or are passing away. When it’s a family member or the parent of a friend, I always have some idea about who they really were and how they lived, and there’s a consolation in that whenever I come to understand that they were men or women of faith, close to God in the sacraments and in the lives that they lived.

It’s a much more ominous feeling, though, when I hear that a celebrity has died. We tend to be aware of their personal proclivities and behaviors too, but often their worst ones. Bowie was famous for living the stereotypical life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Whether it was his flamboyant, androgynous, and obviously chemically-fueled performances as Ziggy Stardust, or his open claims of bisexuality, or any of the other excesses he was known for to even a non-devotee like me, his was not a life that would ever have been construed — from the outside — as one that courted the sanctifying grace necessary for salvation.


Perhaps I’m just morbid, but when I hear that someone like David Bowie has just died, my first impulse is to think what a horrible shock the particular judgment must be. It’s terrifying enough for me to contemplate as a believer (and sinner) who expects it; what must it be like for those who live their lives as though such a thing does not exist?

Last night as I was getting ready for bed, I found myself imagining David Bowie in Hell – which led immediately to praying quietly for his soul. Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the… and here I pause. Every time. Can I say “faithful departed” about someone like this? Can I hope that maybe in his last days, unbeknownst to us, or in his final moments, unbeknownst to anyone but he and God, there was a moment of grace? Of conversion? It could be! …all the souls of the faithful departed…and all the departed (just to cover my bases) through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

I know what the Church teaches. I understand the necessity of Baptism and the Eucharist and Confession and lived faith and even membership in the Church for salvation.

But the idea of Hell is so awful, the reality of eternal suffering in the knowledge that you could have kept yourself from it so horrifying, I find myself fervently hating the idea that anyone, even someone as weird and as openly amoral as David Bowie, being there.

After all, I could very well wind up there too. I could never take delight — not in this life anyway — in such punishment, even knowing that it is perfectly in accord with God’s justice.

There but for the grace of God go I. 

So I pray for souls like Bowie’s. I hope that God, in His infinite mercy, gave him a moment to see, to choose, to understand, as did Dismas on the cross beside Jesus, that even a life spent largely in the pursuit of vice is no impediment to final repentance.

If I love souls, it is because God loves souls, but also because I see in others the same possibility of damnation that I see in myself — and the same opportunity for eternal beatitude.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but this is why I despise the promotion of the idea of universalism, that numbing self-deception that seeks to soothe our troubled minds with a belief that all men are very likely saved. If that’s the case, why bother trying? Why not live like David Bowie? Or for that matter, like Hitler, or Stalin, or Pol Pot? Why make sacrifices or observe meatless Fridays or live chastely or go to Mass or practice the works of mercy or spend time praying or any of a hundred other things we must do on our path to sanctification, and ultimately, heaven?

Anything that absolves us of our sense of responsibility to live our faith, or to “go forth and make disciples of all nations” or to “instruct the ignorant” or “admonish the sinner” is a damnable lie, and will surely make it that much easier for souls to fall into perdition. Any attempt after death to canonize the dead instead of pray for them, or to simply cover over the reality of the Last Things with some empty sentiment is a grave injustice to the departed. After all, God transcends time, and thus, so can our prayers. If we do not know that a soul is lost, we can pray even after their death that He gave them that final grace of repentance.

Does Hell exist? It does, without question. Are people there? Yes, though we know not who. Is David Bowie in Hell? I certainly hope not, though at this very moment, he is somewhere, and ignoring it changes nothing.

Will I go to Hell? Please God, let it never be so. But there is nothing in my life that is so worthy of being called a Son of God that I could preclude it as a possibility. I may not live a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but I have a long way to go before I am even consistent in practicing virtue. So I pray for the perfection of my soul, and salvation of the souls of others — even those who gave the appearance that they never gave a damn about being damned — because we’re all in this together.

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