Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hell is for Real? Psychology and Belief in Hell

Psychology of Hell
Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo, 1552

A Christian nurse said she preferred to work with children because if they died they would go to heaven.

An evangelical Christian chaplain explained he was ethically bound to minister to all persons regardless of their faith. He gave examples of being with people who were dying. I asked him how he handled a situation (given his belief about hell) that in a few hours a person would enter hell for eternity unless he made an attempt to offer salvation. He seemed genuinely perturbed by the question as he indeed believed in a literal hell for those who were not born again.


According to Harris Interactive (2013, December 6), 58% of U S adults believe in hell (25% don’t and 18% aren’t sure).

More Republicans (74%) than Democrats (53) believe in hell. (I am sure those affiliated with either party could make a lot of jokes about the political rift.)

Of course, the polls do not tell us what kind of hell believers imagine. And we do not know their beliefs about who goes to hell. We do know that fundamentalist Christians attempted to scare people into the faith by warning of an eternity in hell often portrayed as burning forever. In this context, salvation meant being saved from a certain hell-bent afterlife unless one accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. In simple terms, children followed a leader in a prayer that will guarantee an afterlife in heaven and salvation from hell. That's the old time religion of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Heaven has better odds in survey data (USA). The same poll found that 68% believe in heaven (16% don’t believe, 15% aren’t sure). (Republicans are big on heaven, 80%, Democrats 66%).


Hell & Counselor Beliefs. My colleague, Chris Arnzen, and I surveyed Christian counselors and psychotherapists to discover the components of what they consider Christian counseling. Following the trend in psychology of religion research, we asked several questions to gauge their spirituality. Like others, we asked about beliefs in hell but we tailored the question to counseling by asking their agreement with a statement:

“Clients who do not accept Jesus as their personal savior will spend eternity in hell.”

It turns out this was the better of a few spirituality questions from a psychometric perspective. In other words, most people believed Jesus is the Son of God (83.7%) and reported being “born again” (78.5%) but when it came to their clients going to hell, a diversity of response was more evident: 52.9% agreed or strongly agreed whilst 29.5% were neutral or disagreed (17.5%) did not respond.

Belief in Hell was a key marker to identify conservative counselors in the sample. And you will find other research linking this belief in hell to conservatism. In other analyses belief in hell was a good predictor of conservative social values, which is also consistent with other data in this post.

Hell linked to distrust. Hempel, Bartkowski and Matthews (2012) found that a commitment to a set of conservative beliefs was linked to lower trust in unknown persons. The conservatism was measured using a three-factor model. A belief in hell was a key component of the sin factor (the other two factors were belief in the authority of the Bible and the need to be born-again to be saved).

Hell is linked to negative well-being. “We find that a belief in Heaven is consistently associated with greater happiness and life satisfaction while a belief in Hell is associated with lower happiness and life satisfaction at the national (Study 1) and individual (Study 2) level. (Shariff & Aknin, 2014).

Scared of hell. In a recent study of Turkish children (n = 1,315), Going to Hell, was in the top three of lists of fears—just behind fear of God and losing friends (Serim-Yildiz, Erdur-Baker, & Bugay,2013).

High crime is more likely in cultures promoting heaven than those cultures where hell is emphasized (Shariff & Rhemtulla, 2012). A related idea is that God is like a supernatural set of eyes-on parent who always knows what a person does and will administer punishment. Also, forgiveness may encourage immoral behavior. People primed with ideas of a forgiving God stole more than others (DeBono, Shariff, & Muraven, 2012).  The devil may be in the details. Blaine Robbins identified the problem of highly correlated predictors (heaven and hell) in the Shariff and Rhemtulla 2012 article. You can find a detailed presentation of the Shariff & Rhemtulla article at this PT link.

Hell & Donations. Hell and Heaven won’t help your church budget. A study of Christian giving found that immediate factors were better predictors of religious participation and donations.

“Our data suggest that immediate sanctions (e.g., community, fellowship, criticism) may be considered relatively more certain to congregation members than future sanctions (Heaven and Hell), and that positive immediate sanctions in particular are most effective.  (Borch et al., 2011).

There isn't much in the way of empirical studies linking beliefs about hell to behavior.

 THEOLOGY (Christian)

Christian theologians have interpreted the biblical verses about hell in various ways. Of course that is not surprising even taking a nonskeptical stance—it is not easy work to understand ideas presented in ancient languages. It’s hard enough understanding contemporary communication. My focus is on the psychology of religion rather than theology. However, it seems that when you look at the few biblical texts about hell, you do not get a clear picture of what it might mean. Christians appear to have been influenced by Dante’s Inferno more than the Bible. Even ardent believers wonder if some form of separation from God is the nature of death after death.

Many Evangelicals are enraptured with the writings of a nonevangelical Irishman, C. S. Lewis, who portrayed The Ransom Theory in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. At this point it's important to consider that the idea of hell is connected with beliefs about sin, salvation, and judgment. People naturally sin and are in bondage to the devil with whom they will dwell in hell forever unless they are freed by the payment of a ransom. The penalty for sin is death. Jesus paid the price of redemption in his death on a cross. By connecting with Jesus, his death cover's the believers payment of the death penalty thus saving the believers from hell and ensuring everlasting life/heaven/paradise. (You'll just have to read classical Christian theology or doctrine if you want more details.)

There are logical problems with beliefs in hell. A common problem in theology: Why did a loving God create such a horrid place? And why doesn’t God just save everyone? Now enters the problem of free will—are people free to choose how they will live their lives now and presumably, where they will spend eternity? There’s much more to the centuries old concern. For example, many Christians teach that God’s love is unconditional but that is not obvious for those who believe people must do or say certain things to access that love and avoid whatever form eternal punishment-hell-might take.

According to Beth Davies-Stofka, “Muslims believe in the Day of Judgment and heaven and hell.” You can read more by following the link to her summary.


Speaking of hell. A lot of U.S. people believe in heaven and hell. If you randomly encounter 5 people in the USA, 2-3 of them will believe in hell. If you know a person is a Republican, it’s a good bet the person believes in hell. If you are in business or health care, what you say about the afterlife may be a turn-off or basis for a positive connection to a customer so be careful. If you are a psychotherapist, it might make sense to investigate this marker of conservatism related to morality and grief. Until more research is done, you will just have to be alert to how a particular Christian or Muslim links belief in hell or heaven to their behavior.

Counseling and Psychotherapy. It will be obvious to some that Christian counselors could believe a variety of things about their faith and social values just like Christians in general; however, people seeking treatment may not know what to expect from a Christian therapist. You cannot predict much from the term Christian but if you know a few beliefs, such as beliefs about hell, you will have a better sense of their position on many social values like abortion, premarital sex, women having authority over men, and same-sex marriage. Anecdotally, I see clinicians report one reason clients won't commit suicide is because they don't want to go to hell. The value of this belief in prevention needs empirical support.

Chaplains & Hospice workers. There’s not much empirical research on beliefs about hell and it’s relationship to behavior or other beliefs. One study looked at hell along with other factors in people approaching death. But the study did not provide much in the way of a clear link so I did not include it. It’s probably a good idea for chaplains and other folks who help the dying to learn more about the link between beliefs in heaven, hell, and peace near the end of life.

Self-control. I’m writing a book about morality. Beliefs about heaven and hell may be relevant to morality for some persons. The idea of being monitored seems like something parents would make-up to control a child’s behavior. The well-known researcher Roy Baumeister has studied self-control. He and Anne Zell think the God as "divine monitor" may be a helpful belief in moral behavior (2013). Researchers have found that the placement of eyes and mirrors reduce immoral acts. Anecdotally, many fundamentalists can recall stories of being afraid of what they did in case they died and went to hell before they could repent.

Hell for Muslims. Hell and heaven are linked with Christianity based on a long tradition. But the study of children in Turkey offers a reminder that the afterlife is a part of many religious traditions. About 99% of Turks identify as Muslim. And, as noted above, Muslims also believe in heaven and hell.

Cite this blogpost in APA style

Sutton, G.W. (2015, March 1). Hell is for real? Psychology and belief in hell. [Blog post].


Borch, C., Thye, S. R., Robinson, C., & West, M. R. (2011). What predicts religious participation and giving? Implications for religion in the United States. Sociological Spectrum, 31(1), 86-113. doi:10.1080/02732173.2011.525697

DeBono A, Shariff AF, Muraven M (2012) Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Priming a Forgiving (but not a punishing) God Increases Theft. Manuscript under review.

Hempel, L. M., Matthews, T., & Bartkowski, J. (2012). Trust in a 'fallen world': The case of Protestant theological conservatism. Journal For The Scientific Study Of Religion, 51(3), 522-541. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2012.01662.x

Serim-Yildiz, B., Erdur-Baker, Ö., & Bugay, A. (2013). The common fears and their origins among Turkish children and adolescents. Behaviour Change, 30(3), 199-209. doi:10.1017/bec.2013.18

Shariff, A. F., & Aknin, L. B. (2014). The emotional toll of Hell: Cross-national and experimental evidence for the negative well-being effects of Hell beliefs. Plos ONE, 9(1), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085251

Shariff AF, Rhemtulla M (2012) Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates. PLoS ONE 7(6): e39048. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039048

Sutton, G. W., Arnzen, C. A. (2015, April). Evidenced-Based Religious Accommodative Psychotherapy: Practice and Belief. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, International Conference, Denver, Colorado. (Accepted for presentation).

Zell, A., & Baumeister, R. F. (2013). How religion can support self-control and moral behavior.
In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and

spirituality (2nd ed., pp. 498-518). New York: Guilford.

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