I don’t actually have time to write a post today. I’m upgrading a bathroom in our vacation rental house in Traverse City, Michigan and have painfully little time to get it done. I also have to do a lot of other work – put out the outdoor furniture, buy and assemble a new gas grill, change locks, touch up the paint, etc. I should be taking care of that stuff while I’m waiting for the joint compound to dry in the bathroom so I can paint the walls, but I’ve been delayed by my own mind. I started thinking about heaven and hell.
In a Pew Research Center study published on November 10, 2015, 72% of Americans said they believed in heaven and 58% believed in hell in 2014. These numbers are little changed from Pew’s first Religious Landscape Study in 2007 in which the 74% of Americans reported believing in heaven and 59% believed in hell.
There are considerable differences in belief in an afterlife based on religious affiliation. The highest overall belief is found in historically black Protestant denominations (93% heaven, 82% hell), although evangelical Protestant religions (88%, 82%) and Muslim believers (89%, 76%) are close behind. Roman Catholic (85%, 63%), Orthodox Christianity (81%, 59%) and mainline Protestant denominations (80%, 60%) are all in the same ballpark. Sticking with Christianity, the largest gaps in beliefs between heaven and hell are found in the Mormon (95% heaven, 62% hell) and Jehovah’s Witness (50%, 7%) faiths.
Other than Islam, non-Christian faiths show less of a tendency to believe in heaven and hell as demonstrated by the Jewish (40%, 22%), Buddhist (47%, 32%) and Hindu (48%, 28%) numbers. Perhaps a little surprising, 5% of atheists believe in heaven and 3% believe in hell.
Since I’m trying to make this a quick post, I’m going to draw from memory and not look everything up. Sorry about that, but I really should get back to work.
Throughout most of the Jewish texts when taken chronologically as written, hell was just the place you went when you died. It was called Sheol, and when one Jewish king called back a dead profit from Sheol in an attempt to get some good advice during a troubling time, he was severely scolded by the profit. The profit wanted to go back to rest in Sheol. It doesn’t sound like the same fire and brimstone place we are warned about today.
By the time of Jesus, however, hell was thought to be an unpleasant place. Jesus is quoted as saying of hell that it is the place where fire never ends and the worm never dies. This symbolizes both external and internal pain and destruction. What changed in a couple hundred years prior to Jesus’ birth which led to this deviation from earlier believes?
Alexander the Great happened. Greek mythology had a different impression of the afterlife and it made its way into Jewish belief.
Let’s start with heaven. After Alexander’s death, his kingdom was divided among his generals who did not rule with the same respect for other cultures as their deceased leader. Well before Alexander, Israel and Judah were relatively small peoples surrounded by larger, better organized armies. Israel in particular was close to an active trade route and was lost to conquest by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE (Before Common Era).
Side Note: Israel and Judah were the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons (kind of – Joseph’s two sons were adopted by their grandfather, Jacob, making it thirteen tribes). One of the tribes – Levi – were priests and temple functionaries dispersed through the other tribes and consequently had no land of their own. That left the descendants of twelve sons as the tribes which held territory. After Solomon’s death, the united kingdom of Israel was split into a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah). Ten tribes made up Israel and two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) made up Judah.
So the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians and lost forever. Actually, some people were moved to other areas in the Assyrian empire and others moved in. The cultural mixing led to the loss of identity of a separate people previously known as Israeli. (Another side note: the Mormon faith holds that these ten “lost tribes of Israel” were transported to the Americas and that Native Americans are their descendants).
So back to heaven. In the mid-second century BCE, faithful Jewish leaders led a rebellion against the Seleucid empire which controlled Syria in response to restrictions on Jewish religious practice and the introduction of worship of the Greek gods. During the battles, some beloved Maccabean leaders died painfully, and many followers thought that God would return them to life because their bravery and sacrifice were all for the cause of God’s chosen people and God’s directed religious practices. When they were not resurrected, the people believed that they had gone to a better place to be with God. Ironically, that leap of faith was probably influenced by Greek religious beliefs.
And heaven was born. If you were specially gifted, or went above and beyond in your devotion to God, you would join him when you died. You didn’t have to wait until the end of time like everyone else.
What about hell? Since there was now a belief in an afterlife in the form of heaven, it wasn’t much of a leap to turn Sheol into fire and brimstone hell. If you got into heaven upon death because you were especially good, then the place you go to if you are not good in your life should be at least unpleasant. Okay, it should be more than unpleasant – it should be HELL. Jesus’ words show that this was an established belief a couple centuries later.
What about belief in heaven and hell? What do they do for us?
A 2012 study reported in Psychology Today on December 24, 2013, shows that there is a higher crime rate in countries in which people believe in heaven at a higher percentage than they believe in hell. The researchers Shariff & Rhemtulla argue that supernatural reward need to be balanced out with a corresponding belief in supernatural punishment.
In a 2014 study, Shariff & Aknin reported “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 and individual level.” The researches concluded from a third study that “these differences are mainly driven by the negative emotional impact of Hell beliefs.”
I attempted to research more into whether belief in heaven and hell affects behavior, but it is a contentious issue. The first several pages of a Google search seem to contain results from those with vested interests. Religious groups want to push the benefits of belief and anti-religious groups want to downplay it. I didn’t find a single “.edu” source on the first several pages, and the only news report was over twelve years old. I could have looked a little deeper, but I should be painting the bathroom walls by now.
So, belief in heaven makes you happier and belief in hell makes you less happy. In the United States we believe in heaven at a higher rate than we believe in hell which might be one of the reasons our crime rate is the highest in the developed world.
But there is something that a strong belief in heaven does for you. If you truly believe that your mother, child, spouse or whoever is in a better place after death, you can handle that death better. Conversely, if you have a strong belief in fire and brimstone hell, and you worry that your loved one didn’t meet the criteria to get into heaven, you’re probably going to have a difficult time moving on from that person’s death.
I would like to research this more some day. Specifically, how is death viewed and handled in countries with a low level of belief in an afterlife, such as Sweden And Denmark? More later – just not sure when. I really better start painting.