Editors commentary: Soft-pedalling hell?

In late June, the latest banking scandal concerning the rigging of market rates erupted in Britain.

At around the same time, a sociological study was published with the title Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates.1 When corruption and antisocial behaviour is evident at every level of society, from the MPs’ expenses fraud, to phone hacking journalists, to the rioting and looting in our cities last summer, the article makes interesting reading.

Supernatural punishment
The paper, by authors from the Universities of Oregon and Kansas, begins by affirming that research across the social sciences supports the long-held claim that religious belief generally benefits society. However, investigations show that not all religious beliefs are equal in this respect. In particular, their data indicates that ‘the degree to which a country’s belief in heaven outstrips its rate of belief in hell significantly predicts higher crime rates’.

The authors affirm: ‘The same pattern emerges in three out of the four continental zones for which there is sufficient data — namely, Africa, South and Central America, Europe plus Canada and America, Australia and New Zealand’.

The authors recognise the limitations of their research. The findings are only correlational and have not established that belief in hell causes less criminality. However, they say that numerous other laboratory tests point in that direction.

They explain that the threat of supernatural punishment tends to be a more effective deterrent than that of human punishment towards antisocial behaviour. Human monitors cannot see all transgressions, human judges are fallible, human police forces cannot apprehend every transgressor. Divine punishment, especially that of the omnipotent and omniscient God of Scripture, does not suffer from any of these deficiencies.

Thus, it seems that an atheistic society, which believes in no life beyond death and no future punishment, is more likely to see higher rates of lawbreaking and antisocial behaviour. Sound familiar? Furthermore the research would also appear to imply that, where religious belief majors on heaven but minimises the reality of hell, there will also be higher rates of offending.

The human condition
The first thought which occurs is that, although we are dealing with generalisations, this research underlines the Bible’s teaching about the depth of rebelliousness of fallen humanity. Though idealists tell us that people ought to do good for its own sake, the outlook of the human heart is evidently very far from that. If the thought of benevolence to others had the greatest effect in curtailing criminality, perhaps we could entertain the idea that mankind is basically good. But, when we find that it is none other than the threat of the severest form of punishment imaginable which makes the largest difference, we must surely see that there is something desperately wrong with mankind. ‘The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so’ (Romans 8.7). Perhaps this research concerning the threat of hell actually indicates something of the justice of hell? How much mankind needs the Saviour!

The second thought is that besides misleading people about their eternal future, any toying with universalism, or annihilationism damages society. This is as true for evangelicals as it is for anyone else. In 2011 a study showed that undergraduates who believed in a God who only forgives were more likely to cheat than those who believe in a punishing God. Another, by Harvard University in 2003, found that gross domestic product was higher in developed countries when people believed more strongly in hell. Perhaps the bankers at Barclays and many more of us would benefit from some hell-fire preaching.

1. Shariff, A.F., Rhemtulla, M. (20122), Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates, PLoS ONE journal 7(6)