My father was a Protestant minister and I grew up in a rural Protestant culture in Australia, went to lots of church services and never heard anyone trying to claim hell was a real place rather than a metaphorical place. Belief in a real hell tends to be reserved for fundamentalists who are a relatively small proportion of Christians outside USA and some other countries. I think for religious people focused on love and kindness it is clear that hell is a mythological concept dating from primitive times and literally believing your God would torture people for eternity marks you out as having premodern values. While I don’t know about the distribution of the real beliefs of individuals in the Christian community I grew up with I was not aware on any discussion of hell as a real place.
Recently, on social media forums, I’ve seen quite a few questions from Christians asking why aren’t atheists terrified of ending up in hell. And assumptions (mainly from Americans) that belief in hell is the mark of being a Christian. At least in the mainstream media, hell tends to only get a mention as part of the rantings of fundamentalists and religious extremists. These are a tiny minority in Australia and Switzerland. So I decided to see what the data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Study (EVS) tell us about the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell.
I have analysed the WVS and EVS surveys using the 2021 release of combined data in the Integrated Values Surveys (IVS) 1981-2021 [1, 2]. I included all surveys carried out between 2010 and 2020 which included the two questions “Do you believe in heaven?” and “Do you believe in hell?” Both these had simple Yes/No response categories. Below are the results for the USA and Australia. I was stunned by the differences between the two countries. In Australia, less than 50% of Christians believe in hell, even among Evangelicals. The only religious group where more than 50% believe in hell are Muslims. In contrast, belief in hell is around 80% or higher in all Christian categories in the USA, and even exceeds 50% in the group who say they have no religious affiliation. There is almost no difference in the proportions of Christians who believe in heaven and hell in the USA, whereas there is a substantial difference for Christians in Australia, with 20% more Christians believing in heaven than in hell.
I expected Switzerland to have higher levels of belief in heaven and hell, and was surprised by just how few Christians in Switzerland believed in heaven or hell. For all Christians combined, 45% believe in heaven and only 20% believe in hell (lower than Australia where 32% believe in hell). To examine how much of an outlier the USA is for these beliefs, I decided to estimate belief prevalence for all developed countries excluding the USA and compare. I included all European countries including Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union except for the predominantly Muslim “stans” and Azerbaijan.
The figure below shows the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell by religious affiliation for the developed countries excluding the USA. I repeat the USA figure for ease of comparison.
In the developed countries (excluding USA), 52% of Christians believe in heaven and only 42% believe in hell. It is the orthodox and Roman Catholics who keep the belief in hell above 40%. Only one third of “Other Christian”, which includes Evangelicals, say they believe in hell and even fewer Protestants.
I will finish with two plots that show results for all the culture zones of the world. I took into account the countries missing from the survey data as follows. For the countries missing in each zone, I calculated the population aged 15+ by religious affiliation using data from the Pew Research Centre for the year 2020 . These were aggregated and the total population in each religious affiliation category was assumed to have the same belief prevalences as the average for countries included in the survey for that zone.
The country groups used in this plot are based on the 10 culture zones defined by Welzel  and used in my previous post, with one modification. Because belief prevalences in Australia, New Zealand and Canada are much closer to the countries of the Reformed West than to those of the USA, I have included them in the Reformed West (European countries strongly affected by the Reformation). The Old West includes the mostly Catholic countries of Western Europe, the Returned West those former Soviet bloc countries who have joined the EU, and the Orthodox East includes the Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the former Soviet bloc countries.
This again illustrates the difference between USA and other developed regions. Belief in heaven and hell in the USA is much higher than in any of the “West” culture zones, or the Orthodox East. But it is quite similar to the levels of belief in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, the two other regions where Christianity is the dominant religion.
In Part 2 of this post, now published, I explore the causes and implications of these major differences in belief in heaven and hell across countries and cultures.
- EVS (2021): EVS Trend File 1981-2017. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7503 Data file Version 2.0.0, doi:10.4232/1.13736
- Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno,A., Welzel,C., Kizilova,K., Diez-MedranoJ., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2020. World Values Survey: Round Seven–Country-Pooled Datafile. Madrid, Spain & Vienna, Austria: JD Systems Institute& WVSA Secretariat[Version: http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWV7.jsp].
- Pew Research Center, April 2 2015. Religious Composition by Country, 2010-2050. https://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projection-table/2020/number/all/