(RNS) — The 21st century has been hard on God, with faith in the divine and organized religion facing unrelenting decline.The devil, it turns out, is not doing much better.
Losing faith in God seems to be accompanied by disbelief in the devil, according to a new Gallup report that found that more than half of Americans (58%) said they believe he exists, down from two-thirds (68%) in 2001. About the same percentage (59%) said they believe in hell, down from 71% two decades ago.
The poll of 1,011 adult Americans, taken in May 2023, asked about beliefs in five spiritual entities: God, the devil, angels, hell and heaven. Belief in all five is at its lowest point since Gallup began polling about these five topics in 2001.
Belief in God (74%) dropped from 90% in 2001 to 74% in 2023. Belief in heaven was down from 83% to 67%, while belief in angels dropped from 79% to 69%.
“Americans’ Belief in Five Spiritual Entities, by Demographic Subgroup” Graphic courtesy of Gallup
Meghan Henning, the author of “Hell Hath No Fury,” which looks at early Christian ideas about the afterlife, said she’s not surprised that Protestants, who include the nation’s evangelical Christians, retain higher levels of belief in the devil and hell than other Americans. Both are helpful when trying to evangelize people. Preachers, she said, often used the fear of hell to motivate people to accept Jesus as their savior.
It may scare them into church: Those who attend services weekly are most likely to believe in God (98%), angels (94%), heaven (92%), hell (84%) and the devil (86%). Those who attend services less than monthly are less likely to believe in God (57%), angels (52%), heaven (48%), hell (41%) and the devil (40%).
That’s not exactly how early Christians used the idea of hell, said Henning, an associate professor of Christian origins at the University of Dayton. Those early Christians — inspired by the horror of Roman jails — created images of hell and punishment to motivate people to do the right thing in this life.
Fear of hell, she said, was used to motivate people to care for the poor or to live out the virtues of the Sermon on the Mount. That’s very different from how the fear of hell is used today, she said — where failing to care for the poor is not one of the prime sins that Americans care about.
That’s very different from the Bible’s teachings, she said.
Henning said Gallup’s findings about income and belief in hell and the devil have some parallels in early Christianity. Those early Christians who wrote the New Testament were marginalized and had very little power. The idea of hell and punishing people for their evildoing — or rewarding them for good deeds — was very empowering, she said.
When people have been treated unjustly, she said, they want to believe that there are forces at play to set things right in the end. “Otherwise, it all feels hopeless,” she said.