Does belief in Hell actually work?

The Last Judgment by Jan van Eyck Corbis

Hell is a tricky thing to wrap your head around. Is it a barbaric revenge fantasy? A necessary cosmological balance? Or is it just an overgrown boogeyman tale to scare us into good behavior?

Let's talk about that last one. Hell is pretty much the most outrageous dose of negative reinforcement ever. But does this infernal threat -- no matter how empty -- actually work? Does a healthy belief in Hell mean safer streets?

Hell and Crime Prevention

According to Azim F. Shariff it might. The psychologist co-authored the 2012 paper "Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates" (read it here) and his findings were either encouraging or discouraging depending on how you look at it.

Shariff compared national crime rates with rates of belief in Heaven and Hell in 67 countries, and he came up with some interesting findings. First of all, Haven's belief rate is almost always higher than Hell's belief rate, thus collaborating my theory that Hell's kind of an unwanted add-on for many modern religious or semi-religious folks. It's the side dish we didn't order and generally don't care to eat.

But the paper's major statistical finding was that nations with higher belief rates in Hell predicted lower crime rates, while higher belief rates in Heaven predicted higher crime rates. So the idea here is that Hell-fearing citizens are more mindful of screwing up in this life, while the Heaven crowd think they've got it knocked in the next life no matter what.

Of course, as this Economist article points out, not everyone's satisfied with all the stats in the paper -- and human trafficking seems to buck the trend for some reason. I suppose the Bible doesn't expressly forbid that sort of thing. The authors admit that more work needs to be done on the topic, but the results are certainly thought-provoking. If the trend holds true, then is the notion of Hell worth holding onto?

Hell and Economic Growth

And then there's the 2003 Harvard study that determined "economic growth responds positively to the extent of religious beliefs, notably those in hell and heaven." Their take on that? Higher religious beliefs stimulate growth because they help sustain behavior.

They also found that higher church attendance actually depresses economic growth because, clearly, if you've got time to pray you've got time to earn some pay. Am I right?

Anyway, sort that all out in your head. Does it mean we make out best if we maintain a healthy but church-avoidant fear of Hell?

*Details of individual damnation may vary.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.