What lies beneath

Why fewer Americans believe in hell than in heaven

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / June 29, 2008

LIFE IS HELL, or so the expression goes, but, for many Americans, the afterlife is looking up.

Last week's release of a sweeping study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life confirmed a long-developing trend in popular cosmology: belief in heaven is outstripping belief in hell.

The Pew survey, significant for the breadth and depth made possible by its unusually large 35,000-person sample, found that 74 percent of Americans say they think there is a heaven, "where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," while just 59 percent think there is a hell, "where people who have led bad lives, and die without being sorry, are eternally punished."

At first blush, the idea of a God who rewards good but does not punish evil seems counterintuitive, after centuries in which one of the key benefits of eternal salvation - and one of the promises of conversion to Christianity - was the avoidance of eternal damnation.

But hell experts - and yes, there are scholars who spend this life studying the next one - say the underworld has been losing favor for some time. Since the Enlightenment, a liberalizing trend in religion has favored conceptions of God as benevolent, rather than judgmental. But also, there are peculiarly American characteristics to this emerging hell gap: an insistent optimism, perhaps a kind of cultural self-contentedness, and a tolerance born of diversity that makes damning the other more problematic.

"Hell is for nonbelievers, and most Americans don't believe there are nonbelievers next door, even if their religion is different," said Alan F. Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College and the author of "Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion."

"They believe everyone has an equal chance, at this life and the next," Segal said. "So hell is disappearing, absolutely."

Hell and its many variants have a complex history, posited by many cultures and faiths as a place, often beneath the earth, where sinners are punished, where the devil reigns and God is absent. In Mesopotamia, hell was the land beyond, a territory for the dead that kept them apart from the living. In ancient Egypt, rulers prepared for immortality in the heavens, while others risked torment by demons.

The Hebrew Bible does not describe hell, but rather a dark and silent place called Sheol, where the spirits of the dead reside. But in the New Testament, more details start to emerge - in the parable of Lazarus, as recounted in Luke, a selfish rich man is tormented in a netherworld by flames after his death, while a poor man is comforted at the bosom of Abraham.

But it has often been writers and artists, rather than scriptures, who have elaborated on what perils or paradise might await. Dante, the Italian poet, famously wrote of a journey to hell, welcomed by the sign, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," and encountering nine circles of wickedness and punishment. Hieronymus Bosch, the Flemish painter, offered a nightmarish vision of fires and torments meted out by animal-like demons. John Milton, the English poet, depicted Satan in a lake of fire.

"In the body of literature about hell, you see a range of punishments," said Martha Himmelfarb, a professor of religion at Princeton University and the author of "Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature."

"Some are measure for measure, so if you blaspheme, you get hanged by your tongue, while others are lakes of fire, or pools of excrement and horrible fluid that people are sunk in," she said.

The prospect of hell, for the nonbeliever as well as the sinner, has been of particular importance for evangelizing faiths - that is, those that place a major emphasis on the conversion of new members - and missionaries often cited the avoidance of hell as one of the enticements to conversion to a faith such as Christianity or Islam.

But in a large multicultural society, such as the United States, people are likely to encounter others whose faiths are different from their own, and that, scholars say, has led to a decreasing willingness to accept the notion that a particular faith offers an exclusive ticket to heaven. The Pew poll found that large majorities now say they do not believe their religions provide the only path to salvation, regardless of what their religious leaders tell them.

"People are increasingly less willing to say, 'I have the truth, and you either have my truth, or you're going to hell,' " said Nancy T. Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University.

The survey found that about three-quarters of Americans - 74 percent - believe in life after death. This belief is most pronounced among Mormons, 98 percent of whom believe that there is life after death - a stunningly high number for any survey, but reflective of Mormon teaching that the bodies and spirits of its adherents will be reunited - resurrected - sometime after their physical death. Atheists, not surprisingly, are the least likely to believe in life after death, followed by agnostics, Jews, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

One of the benefits of the large sample size of the Pew study is that it allowed attention to minority faiths that are often too small to be accurately studied by general surveys. The Pew work was one of the first major studies to examine attitudes to life after death among American Buddhists and Hindus, and found that 62 percent of Buddhists in the United States say they believe in nirvana, which the pollsters defined as "the ultimate state transcending pain and desire"; 61 percent of Hindus in the United States say they believe in reincarnation.

But the consensus about an afterlife masks considerable variation in the details.

Only among evangelical Protestants and Muslims does belief in hell run close to belief in heaven; the gap is significant among adherents of all other faiths.

"Once upon a time, belief in heaven and hell were very closely related - they were in many people's views two sides of the same coin - [but] that does not seem to be the case any more," said John C. Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron and also a senior fellow with the Pew Forum. "Many more people believe in heaven than believe in hell. It does seem to be associated with a decline in viewing God as a judge, and as someone who punishes people, but a continuing emphasis on a view of God as someone who is merciful and generous and forgiving."

Mormons are the most likely to believe in heaven, but just average in their belief in hell. The biggest believers in hell are evangelical Protestants, African-American Protestants, and Muslims.

Sizable majorities of Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, as well as atheists, agnostics, and the rest of the unaffiliated, say they do not believe in hell. But hell is most unbelievable to Jehovah's Witnesses, just 9 percent of whom say they believe, reflecting that faith's teaching that the wicked are simply annihilated upon death. There are also regional differences - belief in hell is highest in Mississippi (82 percent), and lowest in New Hampshire and Vermont (37 percent); Massachusetts ranks near the bottom, with 45 percent of people saying they believe in hell.

"There has always been this tug of war in American religious history, between the older conservative tradition - fire and brimstone and hell - and the liberal tradition, which stems from the Enlightenment," said Carlos M. N. Eire, a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University.

The decline of hell may be related to a certain American Pollyannaism. Segal, the Barnard scholar, notes that American visions of heaven increasingly resemble, well, America, without the problems; "it's sort of like a retirement home in the sky, or maybe an assisted living community without the physical deficiencies," he said.

The gap in belief between heaven and hell may also be part of a general tendency to emphasize the sunnier side of the divine. In many churches, for example, portraits of Jesus as the good shepherd are now favored over depictions of him dying on the cross - an emphasis on salvation, rather than suffering, although both are part of the Christian story.

"It's perhaps about American optimism - we would really like to think that there are nice things in store for us on the other side of death, and we are very reluctant to be judgmental, or to think about punishment, even for people who have done bad things," Ammerman said.

Of course, that optimism is challenged constantly by evidence of evil. In fact, some polls have suggested that belief in hell rose after Sept. 11, 2001, and, although the evidence is debatable, it is clear that believers struggle to reconcile their faith in a good God with all the suffering and wickedness they see.

"Evil is always a hot topic among people who study religion, and it's one of the big questions people always grapple with - 'If there's an all-powerful God, why is there a holocaust?' " said Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"People who believe in hell still think that if God is a just god, he has to punish evil," said Ehrman, who is the author of "God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer."

"But in our modern age, there's enough skepticism around for people to doubt whether hell makes sense, whereas heaven makes sense because they want to live forever."

Michael Paulson covers religion for the Globe. He can be reached at

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