The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

Believe or Go to Hell - Does this Message Work?

Religious scare tactics and religious belief

Ministers throughout the ages have used some version of "believe this or you will go to Hell." I've sat in on sermons where the congregation is warned that Hell will be the worst of all fates - gnashing teeth, screaming, and the smell of burning flesh. I've seen 8 year olds listen to this message while their parents sit next to them. I've seen a young child scream in church, and then say it was because he is afraid of Hell. I've also been told I belong to the Devil, if I don't buy 100% into the central tenets of Christianity.

I have to say, if I belong to the Devil, the Devil must be misunderstood. I have yet to kill someone, or punt a puppy across the room, or torment babies, nor do I just go around calling people ugly at the mall. Maybe I belong to the Devil, but he hasn't bothered checking in with me yet?

We have all heard these threatening messages, but, does this, "believe or you will go to Hell" message actually promote Supernatural beliefs?

One area of research that addresses this question is threats' impact on health behavior. For instance, research has explored if reminding people that things like smoking, drinking alcohol, and tanning cause health risks, and even early death, leads people to make healthier decisions. Perhaps. "you will go to Hell if you don't do this" functions similarly to "your skin will look hideous if you don't do this" since it is a threat trying to promote some type of behavior/attitude change.

This research finds that threatening health messages promote healthy behavior most when they also offer a solution to the problem (e.g., sex causes STDs but you can use a condom and here is how). In terms of religion, perhaps threats like "you will go to hell if you don't believe this"  work, especially (perhaps only) if it is followed by "you can avoid this by believing this." (of course the study would need to be done, but it follows from this line of research).

Other research has found that negative religious ideas (like evidence of Hell) do not protect people from mortality concerns, but, that they do elicit a physiological threat response. So, it doesn't seem logical that Hell-threats on their own would make people believe more. It isn't protecting people. But, Hell could function to increase belief indirectly, by setting the "threat" stage that makes Heaven more appealing.

Would the promise of $500 seem appealing? Sure. But now imagine that you were threatened to lose $500, unless you do something, and then you will get $500 profit. This would seem even more appealing (getting $500) after thinking you could lose $500. This is how I view the impact of Hell on religious belief.

Heaven would be wonderful, but it looks even more wonderful when there also is a threat of Hell. People probably believe in Heaven (and God) more when they have just been threatened with Hell.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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