Hugh Hefner is dead at 91. And now the man who promoted sex as religion, and libertinism as the path to salvation, is likely having a very eye-opening reality check. I can only imagine what it's like to stand before the God of the universe and defend a life spent actively destroying the sexual ethic taught in Scripture.
Plus, this man knew better. Hefner came from a family of devout Methodists and his mother actually wanted him to be a missionary. I suppose he was a missionary — just not a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, Hefner famously asserted, "The major civilizing force in the word is not religion, it is sex."
Hefner pitted sex and religion against one another. To him, religion was the enemy of sex and sexual expression. He even once said that the goal of religious conservatives was "to dehumanize everyone's sexuality and reduce us to using sex for the sole purpose of perpetrating our species."
I'm sure that's the popular perception, but nothing could be further from the truth. Scripture actually teaches that sex is very good and profoundly spiritual. And I actually think that on some level, Hefner got this. He once remarked, "Sex is the driving force on the planet," and, "It's the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go 'round."
I'm sure many Christians today are denouncing Hefner and his legacy, and they are right to do so. He perverted and distorted sex and made it into a god, instead of highlighting how it points to God. But I think there's something we can learn from examining Hefner's legacy. Hefner recognized the power of sex; he just missed its ultimate purpose and meaning. And because of that, he sadly never understood the true value of women or experienced true love.
The Spiritual Meaning of Sex
There's no doubt human beings crave intimacy and union with one another and Hefner got this. To him though, this craving flowed from a purely physical drive. At times, he entertained the idea that a spiritual realm might exist, but certainly lived as a practical atheist. "Yeah, I would vote in favor of (an afterlife)," he once said. "But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife . . ."
As far as Hefner was concerned, sex was simply obeying bodily urges. And since obeying these urges produces pleasure, he indulged them frequently.
Yet Scripture reveals sex not as an end in itself, but actually as a symbol pointing to a greater spiritual reality. Genesis 1:27 says God made man in His image, "male and female He created them." And then in Genesis 2:24, we read that the two become "one flesh."
For years, I missed the significance of this one-flesh union and equated the imago Dei with merely nonmaterial qualities like the human will or soul. But as Dennis Hollinger, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary writes, "In sex a couple reflects something of the very image of God, for it points to a oneness of two which mirrors the oneness of the Triune Godhead."
So the human body is not just a collection of cells to be used recreationally however we wish, as Hefner espoused. In the sexual union, the body becomes a symbol of the Trinity, of distinctly different persons becoming one. Sex, then, takes something that is beyond our comprehension – the Triune God – and makes it understandable and compelling. But there's more.
In Ephesians 5, the apostle Paul refers to the one-flesh union of husband and wife as a "profound mystery" revealing Christ's relationship with His church. Husbands are to love their wives as their own body, and in sex, that's precisely what they become. Similarly, we are the Bride of Christ and He is our Bridegroom – and we are to become one with Him.
Speaking of how the one-flesh union reflects Christ's relationship with the church, John Paul II once said, "In this entire world, there is not a more perfect, more complete image of God, Unity and Community. There is no other human reality which corresponds more, humanly speaking, to that divine mystery."
In some ways, then, Hefner was right in saying that sex is a "civilizing force" and makes "the world go round." Sex points to these ultimate spiritual realities without which we could not exist. Yet because Hefner missed these realities, he maintained a breathtakingly low view of sex and women, and promoted the gross misuse of both.
The Value of Women
Hefner was very open about how he viewed women. "Women are sex objects," he said. "If women weren't sex objects, there wouldn't be another generation."
The accounts of how Hugh Hefner used women for selfish pleasure are so incredibly degrading they're hard to read. According to some of his Playboy bunnies, sex with Hefner was an expected part of the job, even into Hefner's very old age.
Yet this wasn't sex as any kind of expression of love. It was multiple women taking turns with Hefner and exposing themselves to possible STD's. As ex-Bunny Jill Ann Spaulding said, there was "no protection and no testing. He doesn't care."
This is what happens when people embrace a completely utilitarian view of sex. It is reduced to physical pleasure – and human beings, most often women, become nothing more than tools. This is so sad given that women are equally made in God's image, and meant to be loved and cherished, not used and discarded.
Looking for love in all the wrong places
Yet even in his deplorable abuse of women, Hefner's life reveals some truth. Sadly, by Hefner's own account, his promiscuous use of women was a vain attempt to fill a longing in his heart. Hefner once lamented that in his home growing up there "was absolutely no hugging or kissing." And in an interview with Vanity Fair, he said this unaffectionate home created a "need to feel loved," which became "the key to my life."
Unfortunately, Hefner never found real love. His first wife reportedly broke his heart by having an affair when he was in the army. "(I)t was probably the most devastating experience of my life," he said. "But I think it gave me permission to live the life I've lived."
Yet the life Hefner lived was pretty empty. He once said, "I think that what I'm probably doing is avoiding being hurt again. Safety in numbers." At age 85, the man who once bragged about sleeping with more than 1,000 women admitted, "I never really found my soulmate."
Ironically, this man who devoted his life to sex never actually grasped its true meaning. If he had, he would have recognized that his ultimate soulmate isn't a woman, and his most essential need is not sex.
Both are wonderful and incredible gifts, but they point to a far greater need – our need to know, love and be loved by God Himself. He is the greatest longing of our heart, and the joy and even ecstasy of sex is just a foretaste of the glory of one day being united with Him.