I Feel Sorry for Hugh Hefner. Here’s Why

The death of Hugh Hefner has elicited quite a range of different responses. Some commentators praised his business acumen and others focused on his cultural influence. And yet others, such as Ross Douthat in the New York Times, used the opportunity to “Speak Ill of Hugh Hefner,” by mentioning how deeply his legacy is tied to divorce, consumerism, pornography, sexually transmitted diseases, and the exploitation of women.

There is probably some truth in each of these (and especially the post by Douthat). Yet my response is different. Rather than focusing on the public face of Hefner, or his legacy, I have been thinking about him as a person. Like everyone else, he was a human being made in the image of God. Ultimately, he had the same needs and wants as any other human being. And yet when I consider the entirety of his life, I can’t help but see it as a tragedy. That’s right, the life of Hugh Hefner was tragic. And I feel sorry for him.

Love from His Father

I feel sorry that he never had a good relationship with his father. In an interview with Lee Strobel, on his former show Faith Under Fire, Hefner described how he never had a close relationship with his dad. Lacking that close bond with his father, it seems, was one factor that drove him to a hedonist lifestyle at the expense of other people.

And he has elsewhere described that his parents were strict Methodists. He once said,

“My folks are Puritan. My folks are prohibitionists. There was no drinking in my home. No discussion of sex. And I think I saw the hurtful and hypocritical side of that from very early on.”

As a result of not seeing or being taught how to have a balanced (and biblical) view of love and sex, he turned to Hollywood for his model. And the rest is history. No one knows for sure, but I deeply suspect that if he had grown up in a home filled with love and warmth, and appropriate boundaries, his story might have been very different. And a lot less people would have been hurt.

Love from a Woman

I also feel sorry for Hugh Hefner because he never truly knew the love of a woman. I am not implying that I feel sorry for single people. After all, John the Baptist, the prophet Jeremiah, and even Jesus were single. You can live a fully actualized and fulfilling life without sex (despite what Hefner said).

My point is that “Hef” thought he understood love and sex, but he was profoundly mistaken. He believed that he understood love, but could not have been more wrong. He settled for a counterfeit. Essentially, his philosophy was, “If it feels good, do it.” This is a hedonist philosophy that undermines true human flourishing.

Years ago, Carl’s Jr. ran a commercial featuring Hef. Standing in his classic robe, he took a bite of a chicken burger, and then a bite of a beef burger. Then the camera focused on a blonde woman, a brunette, and then a redhead. Finally, Hefner says, “I love them all. It just depends on what I’m in the mood for.” And then an announcer ends the commercial by saying, “Because some guys don’t like the same thing night after night.”

The implication is clear: variety is the spice of life. According to Hef, those who follow the biblical pattern of sex, which is being faithful to one person of the opposite sex for life, are missing out on the “good life” (after all, he might claim, who wants the same kind of burger every night?).

The reality is that Hef is the one who missed out. He never experienced the unwavering love of a woman who cared for him because of his character rather than his power. He never experienced sex in a committed, loving, and faithful relationship.

As my father and I lay out in the introduction to the updated Evidence that Demands a Verdict, humans are designed to be sexually monogamous with one mate for life. The further humans deviate from this behavior, the more physical, emotional, and relational problems they encounter. Hef never knew sex as it was designed to be experienced, even though he thought he did. And for that, I feel sorry for him.

Love from God

Hugh Hefner certainly influenced the world. And he will be remembered for a long time. But I just can’t shake the words of Jesus: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

I hope Hefner repented before his death. God’s grace is immeasurable, and He would have loved to see Hefner turn to him. But I find no reason to think he did. And for that, I feel sorry for him.

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.


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