Eternal Destinations: Americans Believe in Heaven, Hell

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

A close look at Gallup polling reveals some interesting trends in Americans' views of deities, the afterlife, and what they will encounter on the other side of death's door. Ever since Gallup began asking Americans whether they believe in God in 1944, a vast majority has said they do. The percentage of Americans who believe in God or a universal spirit has remained near or above 90% for the past 60 years. However, there has been a significant increase in the last decade or so in the percentage of Americans who believe in the devil.

Heaven and Hell

Since 1997, belief in heaven has ranged between 72% and 83%. According to Gallup's most recent May 2004 Values and Beliefs poll*, 81% of Americans currently say they believe in heaven, 10% are unsure, and 8% do not believe. As expected, regular churchgoers are more likely than others to say they believe: Virtually all (98%) of those who attend church weekly do so versus 89% who attend "nearly weekly" and 64% of those who say they attend church seldom or never.

Belief in heaven is relatively high across all other demographic groups. The relatively high religiosity of Republicans is reflected here: 90% say they believe in heaven, compared with 82% of Democrats and 72% of political independents. Nonwhites are somewhat more likely than whites to believe in heaven (89% compared with 80%). Regionally, Southerners are somewhat more likely to believe in heaven (90%) than those in other regions are. Those with a high school education or less are more likely to believe than those with at least some college education.

From 1997 to 2004, belief in hell has ranged between 56% and 71%. The 2004 data reveal that 70% of Americans overall believe in hell, while 12% are not sure and 17% do not believe in hell. Again, the percentage is much higher among regular churchgoers: 92% of those who attend weekly believe in hell, as do 74% of those who attend nearly weekly and just half (50%) of those who attend church seldom or never.

Belief in hell varies only somewhat among other demographic categories, although likelihood to believe is somewhat lower across the board than was the case for heaven. With regard to political orientation, 83% of Republicans say they believe in hell, vs. 69% of Democrats and 58% of those who say they are independent. Americans with a high school education or less are slightly more likely to believe in hell than those with at least some college education (77% to 65%). Again, Southerners (83%) are more likely to believe in hell than are Westerners (61%), Easterners (64%), and those in the Midwest (66%). 

In 1988, Gallup asked Americans who said there is a heaven where people who had led good lives are eternally rewarded what their chances were of going there themselves. Seventy-seven percent rated their chances as "good" or "excellent," while 19% rated them as "only fair" or "poor." That same year, Americans who said there was a hell where people who led bad lives without being sorry are eternally damned were quite optimistic that they would not be going there themselves. Only 6% said their chances of going there were good or excellent, and 79% said their chances were poor.

Angels and the Devil

Although belief in God seems to have remained relatively stable over the last several decades, Gallup research indicates that belief in some other supernatural beings may be on the rise. In 1994, 72% of Americans said they believed in angels, and that percentage has increased to 78% today. Belief in the devil has increased from 55% in 1990 to 70% in 2004.

Interestingly, Gallup's 2004 survey shows that more women than men believe in angels (84% to 72%), but that belief in the devil is equal for men and women (70% for women and 69% for men).

Bottom Line

Despite the secularization of American society throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, Americans themselves seem to be increasingly spiritual. While belief in God has always remained high, contemplation and exploration of some other aspects of spirituality seem to be on an upward trend. The increasing number of individuals who believe in heaven, hell, the devil, and angels is evidence of this. As science, technology, and rational explanations uncover and explain more and more about the known world, Americans are likely becoming more intrigued by the unknown.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 519 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 2-4, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.
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