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date: 29 November 2020

Ideas of the Afterlife in American Religionfree

  • Kathryn Gin LumKathryn Gin LumStanford University


Heaven and hell have survived in the United States beyond scientific critiques of the supernatural. For many Americans, the promise of eternal rewards and the threat of everlasting punishments shaped how they lived their lives in the here-and-now, and how they interacted with others. Oppressed groups used the afterlife to turn the tables on their oppressors, while others used the threat of the afterlife to try to keep people in line.

The afterlife, after all, was never just after life. Heaven, hell, and their inhabitants could impinge on this life. Time and again, Americans have labeled various places or situations as hells on earth, from America itself (in the eyes of European colonizers), to the slaveholding South, to the battlefields of the Civil War, to the inner city. Reformers have sought to bring heaven to earth, even while hoping for heaven in the life to come.

Meanwhile, discomfort with predestinarian teachings on salvation and damnation led to theological innovations and revisions of traditional Christian teachings on hell. Over time, the stark hell and theocentric heaven of the early colonists waned in many pulpits, with the symbols and figures of the afterlife migrating to fill the pages and TV screens of American popular culture productions. That said, the driving threat of hell remains significant in conservative American Christianity as a political tool in the early 21st century, just as in times past.

In a 1698 election sermon, minister Nicholas Noyes of Salem reflected on the place of America in a cosmos suffused with the sacred. Some “have conjectured that America will be the head Quarters of Gog and Magog; and that it will be Hell it self,” he noted. But “Others . . . ask why it may not be the New Jerusalem, or a part of it? and this New World . . . be the New Heaven, and New Earth.”1 European colonizers like Noyes did not just see America as a physical place that broadened their geographical understanding of the world. Their cosmos was suffused with the sacred, and so they also tried to understand the place of America within imagined religious geographies.

For Noyes and for many other Americans throughout the nation’s history, the “afterlife” was not solely conceived of as “after” life, or even as all that distant from this life. Heaven and hell were thought of not just as destinations to which humans would go after death, but also as real places within the cosmos. The forces of heaven and hell could and did intrude on the here-and-now, and physical spaces on earth could be precursors to the apocalyptic overhaul of the old cosmos and its replacement with a new heaven and earth. Moreover, death was a looming presence for many Americans. Until the discovery of antibiotics, viruses, infected wounds, and childbirth all conspired to lower Americans’ average life expectancy and to leave them feeling always on the verge of heaven or hell. People of all ages, from young children to the elderly, were exhorted to set themselves right with God so that they might entertain the hope of heaven.

The promise of heaven and the threat of hell have been driving forces for many Americans, from the earliest colonial encounters up through the early 21st century. Their ideas about the afterlife have manifested not only in doctrinal developments but also in injunctions for and against certain kinds of behavior. Yet scholars have tended to treat the afterlife as peripheral and epiphenomenal, with changes in ideas about heaven and hell reflecting rather than shaping larger trends. Of course that was often the case, but beliefs about heaven and hell have also propelled theological and social change over time. What follows is an overview of how and why.

Colonial Conceptions

As Noyes’s election sermon suggests, the realization that the Americas existed challenged European colonizers’ view not only of the physical world but also of the sacred cosmos. A popular line of thinking held that God had hidden America from the knowledge of Europeans so that the devil could establish his dominion there, leading to the predicted apocalyptic encounter with the armies of Christ. To think of America as the staging grounds for the forces of hell was to justify conquest as a spiritual necessity, in order to turn America into heaven on earth instead of the devil’s playground. This idea also had profound implications for colonizers’ views of Native people. Though some saw America as a pristine garden inhabited by moral exemplars whose uncorrupted ways offered a positive contrast to European depravity, or innocents waiting for a gospel that could make them the colonizers’ equals, others viewed Native people as deluded and pitiable naïfs who needed rescuing from the devil, or as cruel and conniving agents of the devil who needed exterminating.2 Yet Europeans also recognized similarities between their own, and Native and African, attitudes toward death and the afterlife. As Erik Seeman argues, similar death rituals, respect for corpses, and belief in a life to come paved the way for cross-cultural communication, even when language barriers got in the way. On the other hand, understanding of each other’s deathways led to deliberate desecration of them, as in the symbolic mutilation of corpses, when cooperation gave way to hostility and violence.3

Colonial violence, brought on by resource scarcity and Europeans wanting ever more land, exacerbated the European move toward seeing Native people as demonic and America as the earthly portal to hell.4 In a popular and oft-reprinted narrative about her experiences as a captive during King Philip’s War, for instance, Mary Rowlandson described “the roaring, and singing and danceing [sic], and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell.”5 Even if Rowlandson and her readers did not literally think that America was hell itself, they did see it as an accurate representation of what hell would look like: a place of disorder, with loud and cacophonous noise, and dark creatures writhing in a dark environment.

Such a view of hell drew from medieval European ideas about disordered cityscapes and the correlation of light/white with goodness, and dark/black with evil. A rich literature on European views of the afterlife demonstrates how hell changed from a relatively open, ordered space in which punishments occurred at varying levels of intensity (as in Dante’s Inferno), to a constricting, “foul-smelling drain” in which putrid bodies were compacted together. As distinctions between social classes became increasingly challenged rather than accepted, the nobility feared an afterlife in which they would be forced to mingle with and, heaven forbid, have bodily contact with, the “rabble.”6 While visions of hell almost always emphasized the tortured human body, heaven, by contrast, was thought of in more theocentric and disembodied terms, as a place where blessed souls praised God for eternity.7 The beatific vision was conceived of as the highest reward for earthly suffering, allowing the blessed to experience “the full fruition and the sweet embraces of the thrice Blessed Trinity” in a radically different state than their sorry, earthly lives.8

The bodily aspect of hell had significant ramifications for the development of racial thinking in America, as Rowlandson’s characterization of Native people suggests. Europeans commonly assumed that God and heaven were light and bright, and that the devil and hell were dark and fiery. They also roughly correlated Christians with people of European descent, and non-Christians with everyone else. Not surprisingly, many European colonizers assumed that hell was primarily populated by people whom they would come to call by the colors of fire and brimstone: “red” and “black.”

African slaves and Native people of course would have none of this. As Albert Raboteau puts it in his classic Slave Religion, “African slaves in many areas of the New World were convinced that death would free them to return to Africa. This notion was based not simply upon nostalgia for the homeland but upon a firm religious belief in reincarnation.”9 This belief persisted past the early colonial years due to the lasting effects of the slave trade. In his 1837 autobiography, Charles Ball similarly explained that the native Africans who lived among the slaves “are universally of opinion, and this opinion is founded in their religion, that after death they shall return to their own country, and rejoin their former companions and friends, in some happy region.”10

Native people on the receiving end of missionary work responded by turning the tables on those who would convert them. A 1710 “Indian Speech in Answer to a Sermon,” given in Pennsylvania, alleged that the Creator had given separate revelations to different peoples, and that “to say the Almighty has permitted us to remain in a fatal error, through so many ages, is to represent him as a tyrant . . . In a word, we find the Christians much more depraved in their morals than we are; and we judge of their doctrine, by the badness of their lives.”11 Well into the 19th century, as missionary efforts to evangelize the “perishing heathen” picked up, other Native people responded by arguing that they preferred an afterlife with their own people and ancestors, since “none of their relatives had gone to the white man’s heaven; and unless they wished to be separated from their parents and kindred after death they should not learn the white man’s religion, nor pray to the white man’s God.”12

Revitalization prophets like Neolin, Handsome Lake, and Tenskwatawa had syncretistic and apocalyptic visions, in which followers would be punished or rewarded based on the extent to which they rejected or adopted certain ways of whites. Tenskwatawa’s vision of heaven was much like a restored and idealized pre-contact America: a “rich, fertile country, abounding in game, fish, pleasant hunting grounds and fine corn fields.” His hell was a temporary place of punishment where bad people would face unending fire until they repented. For these prophets, Indians were the favored people, and it was for them, and not for whites, that the Great Creator promised a revitalized heaven after the apocalyptic overturn of things as they were.13

Such visions could strike a worrisome chord among European colonizers. For, as much as their ideas about the afterlife were racialized, the Calvinists whose theology held sway in many of the colonies were not always assured that they themselves were heaven-bound. The Puritans who settled in New England were particularly anxious about their eternal state. As much as they thought that most Native Americans were damned devil-worshippers, they also worried that they themselves might be sliding into the fiery pit. Michael Wigglesworth’s bestselling The Day of Doom (1662) sought to call later generations of Puritans back to the piety of their forebears, warning of the Last Judgment and the terrible calamities that would befall as complacent “men sleeping lay,” “wallowing in all kind of sin,” turning a deaf ear to “God’s threatnings to contemn [sic].” Though the Puritans believed that God had chosen them for a mission to redeem the hellish “wilderness” that was America and turn it into a heavenly commonwealth, they did not believe themselves exempt from punishment and were not all assured that they were destined for heaven.14 Indeed, they were not supposed to be. If a Puritan felt fully confident about his or her salvation, that was a good sign that he or she might not actually have been saved at all. Calvinist predestinarian theology held that a sovereign God alone chose, or elected, whom to save for heaven, and that the proper response was humility.15

Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (first preached in 1741) is perhaps the most famous American depiction of hell to come out of colonial North America. Edwards depicted hell as a yawning fiery pit, over which sinners dangled like spiders on gossamer threads. Edwards used vivid imagery and metaphor to illustrate how precarious was the position of sinners before God—they were always a mere slip or slide away from falling into hell. Edwards described how the devils “stand waiting for [sinners], like greedy hungry lions that see their prey,” but are “restrained” by God until He chooses to “withdraw his hand.” In other words, the devils were but God’s minions, like the lions deployed by ancient monarchs to torture transgressors and enemies. God fully allowed sinners to fall into hell, but sinners who were still alive ought to give thanks for His mercy in preserving them thus far. Edwards ended the sermon with a call to sinners to repent, and to trust and hope that He might regenerate their hearts.16

Edwards’s sermon is a transitional piece between a strict predestinarian worldview in which all deserved damnation (though many would be saved through God’s grace), and one in which humans wanted more agency to determine their eternal destinations. As much as Edwards is remembered for the terrifying imagery of “Sinners,” he was also suffused with a sense of God’s love. His view of heaven emphasized how the “barriers that inhibited Christians from communing with God” would dissolve as the saints “eat and drink abundantly, and swim in the ocean of [God’s] love, and [are] eternally swallowed up on the infinitely bright, and infinitely mild and sweet, beams of divine love.”17 (That said, Edwards also suggested that the saints would be able to see the suffering of the damned from heaven, which would “double the ardor of the love and gratitude” that they felt toward God.18)

Edwards’s followers grappled with the justness of predestination and how to square it with a growing, Enlightenment-era emphasis on human agency and ability. One of his students, the 18th-century theologian and minister Samuel Hopkins, ultimately concluded that the true convert must be “willing to be damned” for the glory of God. Paradoxically, cultivating a willingness to be damned was something that could be done—an attitude that could be actively adopted. Sinners could ritualistically examine their hearts and check their pride to make sure they were sufficiently humble and selfless. They could focus their attention on helping others, instead of worrying about themselves (Hopkins stressed that the Christian should live a life of “disinterested benevolence,” a call that helped spur the moral reform movements of the 19th century). Of course, walking the fine line between selflessness for the sake of others, and selflessness for the sake of being saved, was easier said than done.19

By the time of the American Revolution, other currents began to challenge the Calvinist preoccupation with predestination. Populist denominations allowed people with less education than the Puritan and Anglican divines to preach; they accused those divines of spinning incomprehensible webs of theological gibberish to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Arminian Methodists argued that predestinarian theology was confusing, irrational, and unproductive. Lorenzo Dow, a Methodist itinerant, memorably put it like this: “We can and we can’t, we shall and we shan’t, you will and you won’t, and you will be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” Instead, they preached that humans could make an active decision to be saved (and could likewise make active choices to backslide and be damned).

Meanwhile, other members of the founding generation were influenced by Enlightenment criticisms of revealed religion. In The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine mocked the “bases of Christianity,” including the power given to the devil, to whom was promised “all the Jews, all the Turks by anticipation, nine-tenths of the world beside, and Mahomet into the bargain. After this, who can doubt the bountifulness of the Christian Mythology?”20 Universalists in Europe and the colonies began to argue that a just and merciful God would never sentence finite creatures to infinite damnation. Some allowed that there would still be a hell after death, but that it would be a place of temporary punishment and correction, purifying people for heaven, but critics saw this as nothing more than the Catholic purgatory. Indeed, these debates about the afterlife should be understood in the context of the radical changes ushered in by the Reformation. Catholic conceptions of the afterlife allowed for three destinations post-death: heaven, hell, and purgatory. In The Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff explains how this third afterlife option solidified by the 12th century, in recognition of the many humans who belonged to a grey area: not so good as to immediately deserve heaven, but also not so bad as to merit hell. The option of purgatory could be seen as increasing the ranks of the saved, since all who ended up there would eventually reach eternal heaven. The death of purgatory was a radical shift for Protestants, entailing a definitive rupture between living and dead, as well as closing off the part of the afterlife to which most ordinary people, who were neither moral exemplars nor monsters, were supposed to go. The Universalist version of a temporary, punitive hell sought to nuance the stark—and eternal—binary of the Protestant heaven and hell. John Adams found this version of the afterlife congenial; “I believe too in a future state of rewards and punishments too; but not eternal,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, while Benjamin Rush, who had grown up a Calvinist, “never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men” after reading the writings of prominent Universalists.21

Nineteenth-Century Visions

In reaction against these criticisms, some Calvinists modified their predestinarian theology and brought their teaching on the afterlife closer in line with Arminian views. Famed revivalist Charles Finney appreciatively noted how effective populist preaching was for gaining converts, and even agreed to lead revivals with Methodist and Baptist brethren. Evangelical ministers united against the threats of deism and Universalism and stressed how important a right view of the afterlife was for the future of the new nation. Though belief in hell declined across the Atlantic, American evangelicals in the early republic argued that hell was essential for ensuring the virtuousness of the citizenry in the new nation. The American form of government was an experiment. Where monarchies could rely on top-down power and punishment, republics lodged power in the people and thus were thought to thrive or fail based on the moral fiber of their citizenry. While the promise of heaven might be appealing, evangelicals argued that it gave license to people to steal, cheat, and even murder, threatening total chaos. Hell was the ultimate punishment that could keep people in line.22

The fire-and-brimstone sermons of the Second Great Awakening threatened accordingly. Evangelicals claimed that the change of heart, in which sinners accepted Christ as their sole savior, was the only way to heaven. Sinners could take steps to ensure that they experienced it by humbling themselves, repenting, renouncing unholy behaviors, and pledging themselves to Christ. Ministers deployed the threat of hell to gain conversions; ministers’ manuals from the 19th century instructed them explicitly in how to do so. They painted vivid pictures of the torments of the afterlife and also warned converts that they were responsible not only for saving themselves, but also for helping others to escape the fiery pit. That was the price of conceding that humans could actively work to avoid hell and gain heaven. Evangelicals argued that solicitude for one’s fellow sinners was a true sign of salvation (hearkening back to Samuel Hopkins’s formulation). The reform and missionary movements of the 19th century owed much to this dynamic, as evangelicals sought to save the “heathen” overseas, imbibers of alcohol, gamblers, prostitutes, and the like by telling them that they were damned if they did not reverse course.23

Evangelicals also connected the hell-worthy behavior of individuals to the welfare of the nation. Alcoholics not only imperiled their own eternal souls, evangelicals insisted; they also threatened God’s judgment on a nation of tipplers whose lack of attention to their souls and bodies made them dissolute, lazy, and subject to vile influences. Slavery called forth condemnations on each side, as abolitionists accused slaveholders of bringing down God’s judgment on themselves and the nation for keeping immortal minds in bondage, while slaveholders accused abolitionists of flouting the Bible, which, in their literalistic interpretation of it, did not explicitly condemn slavery.24 The threat of hell encouraged practices of piety, from ritualistic journal writing in which converts continually plumbed the depths of their souls, to passing out tracts and donating money to evangelical causes. The threat of hell also worked to construct white middle-class gender norms. At a time when households were shifting from small, self-sufficient sites of production to “cradles of the middle class,” where women presided over domestic affairs while men sought fortunes outside the home, popular 19th-century advice manuals deployed the prospect of future judgment to teach women and men how to shape themselves into proper examples of their kind. These manuals explained the eternal consequences of failure to control their sexuality, reading habits, and leisure activities. Women were warned that they would be held accountable at the Final Judgment for failing to ensure that their families had enough time for the contemplation of scripture. They were also told that the eternal welfare of their children rested on their ability to rear those children for Christ. Men were urged not to let the pressures of public life and the prospect of a quick buck prevent them from attending to their own and their families’ souls.25

Vivid dreams and visions of the devil torturing sinners in the fiery pit populate 19th-century diaries and memoirs, suggesting the power of evangelical rhetoric to work its way into the imaginations of listeners. One of the most striking things about these accounts is the extent to which individuals feared that they themselves might be hell-bound (a perspective that would largely change by the 20th century). A popular mid-19th-century theory held that overly frightening and intense revival preaching could even make people lose their minds.26 Catholics, who were starting to immigrate to the United States in greater numbers by the mid-19th century, heard their share of fire-and-brimstone preaching as well. Beginning in the 1850s, Catholics were treated to the “parish mission” model, brought from Europe by Redemptorist and Jesuit priests. They traveled among local Catholic communities and held morning and evening services for an intensive period of eight to fourteen days, warning their audiences of the importance of confession and the eternal dangers of falling for Protestant heresies.27 Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries attempting to evangelize Native American populations in the Northwest territories lobbed the threat of hell at each other, claiming that theirs was the only legitimate path to heaven. Catholic ladders from the period—visual representations of biblical history and paths to the afterlife—depicted purgatory in the orthodox way, as a temporart state possible for those on the road to heaven, thus effectively offering only two real choices: Catholicism and eventual salvation, or hell.28

The 19th century is renowned for the rise of alternative religions, usually explained as a result of the relatively open religious atmosphere after disestablishment, which created a spiritual marketplace in which different groups could compete for converts. But backlash against the threat of hell was also a significant component of religious creativity in the 19th century. Mormonism, a quintessentially American tradition, appealed to many converts because it offered a more nuanced view of the afterlife. Instead of a stark heaven-hell binary, Joseph Smith had a prophetic vision of a hierarchical afterlife, in which only the worst of the worst, like Judas Iscariot, would go to hell, or the region of “Outer Darkness.” The next level of the afterlife, the “telestial” sphere, would house “liars and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie”—people who would go straight to hell in the evangelical schema, but who would be redeemed in the “fulness of times” in Smith’s vision. Next was the “terrestrial” sphere, meant for “they who died without law,” including the Old Testament faithful who did not live to see Christ and those who lived beyond the reach of the revelations. Finally, the “celestial” sphere, or highest heaven, rewarded the righteous and the just, who received and accepted the revelations and had the opportunity to progress toward eternal godhood in the company of Jesus and God.29

The ever-present reality of death influenced Smith’s view of the afterlife (seven of his siblings died, and Joseph himself might have been the eighth, had he not survived a serious bout of typhoid fever). Nineteenth-century adherents of Mormonism also appreciated its afterlife options. The promise that unbelieving loved ones could still be saved in the afterlife softened the blow of death. Mormonism made the afterlife less theocentric and more anthropocentric, or human-focused, to use the language of Colleen McDannell and Bernard Lang in Heaven: A History. It stressed the future reunion of families and kin, the sanctity of marital bonds, and the salvation of children.30 Apostle Parley Pratt expressed the gratitude of many when he said that part of his reason for converting to Mormonism was its promise that “the wife of my bosom might be secured to me for time and for all eternity.”31

Some scholars have argued that Mormon teachings on the afterlife were influenced by Swedenborgianism, which similarly posited different levels of hellish and heavenly realms based on the revelations of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish Lutheran (1688–1772). Swedenborgianism never gained many adherents in the United States, but the ideas Swedenborg taught, about the correspondences between the afterlife and this life, and the ability of the soul to continue to progress after death, played an important role in making heaven still more anthropocentric, as humans either shirked their full potential, or aspired toward it through higher celestial planes of understanding and wisdom. Swedenborg’s visions had the effect of making death not so much a definitive moment deciding one’s eternal destination once and for all, but rather merely another step along the path of the mind’s perpetual progression or regression.

The idea that one could continue to learn things in heaven, to grow and to develop, became immensely popular in the 19th-century United States. During this same time, attitudes toward death were also changing. Although medical interventions remained fairly rudimentary, and people continued to die for what seem in the 21st century the most banal of reasons, many Americans began to see death less as a natural and accepted part of being human, and more as a frightening and even unfair rupture that necessitated elaborate rituals of mourning and grief. Instead of leaving their loved ones in the hands of God, seeing in their deaths a warning to prepare for one’s own immortality, Americans from a variety of denominational backgrounds instead began to search for proof of future reunion in a heaven that was now primarily a place for the enjoyment and development of humans, rather than for the praise of God. The popularity of Spiritualism, beginning in the mid-19th century, tapped into this search for proof. But Americans also found comfort in practices of mourning and commemoration, preserving relics of the deceased, from jewelry made of hair, to photographs of dead loved ones.

The view of heaven as an idyllic version of earth, where loved ones would meet again, helped to assuage the violence of the American Civil War. Such was the destruction, carnage, and suffering of battlegrounds, hospitals, and prisons that onlookers described them as hell on earth. Each side also engaged in the demonization of the other, with abolitionists arguing that slaveholders were damned, and slaveholders arguing the reverse. Meanwhile, political cartoons depicted figures like Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth as seduced by the devil.32

Mark Schantz has argued that the hope of heaven and America’s “culture of death” trained soldiers to accept the prospect of dying and helped civilians to endure, if not support, the massive carnage.33 One of the most popular books of the 19th century was a vision of heaven: Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Gates Ajar (1869), which promised a domesticated heaven where everyone would be essentially as they were on earth, just without the looming prospect of death. Having lived through hell on earth, mainstream Protestant survivors of the Civil War downplayed its threats for the life to come and instead focused on glittering, comforting, and progressive visions of heaven befitting a Gilded Age.34

But those committed to fighting injustice on earth could and did still draw on the disruptive potential of afterlife rhetoric—specifically, the threat of hell not just for wrong belief but also for unrighteous behavior—to argue that the world needed changing. As much as heaven and hell could reinforce racial divisions, the promise of ultimate justice could also be used to reverse existing hierarchies. Phelps’s heaven was completely white; she intended her story as a woman’s intervention to heal the sectional divide and comfort the mourning, without talking of political discord or uncomfortable subjects like slavery. But African Americans would not let themselves be written out of heaven.

The slaves had viewed heaven and hell not only as real places to which people went after death, but also as metaphors for freedom and slavery; such double meanings saturate slave spirituals.35 Though white masters had tried to impress upon slaves that the terrors of hell would be visited upon them for disobedience, lying, and stealing, many African Americans instead saw slaveholders as the damned, for instituting the hellish system of slavery. “In dem days it was hell without fires,” a former slave memorably put it. “This is one reason why I believe in a hell. I don’t believe a just God is going to take no such man as that [her former master] into his kingdom.”36

After the War, some African American leaders, disillusioned by the failure of Reconstruction and the corrupt compromises between North and South, rejected the promise of heaven and threat of hell as otherworldly distractions that slaveholders had used, for too long and too effectively, against black resistance. Others continued to advocate for radical visions of heaven and hell that starkly contrasted with white expectations of heavenly, whitewashed bliss. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church used the afterlife and its inhabitants to make political statements. “We have as much right biblically and otherwise to believe that God is a Negro,” Turner argued, as whites “have to believe that God is a fine looking, symmetrical and ornamented white man.” In contrast to Phelps’s white heaven, Turner argued that “there are as many blacks as whites in the universe,” and “millions of black angels in heaven.” Turner’s hell was full of “those persons who launched deadly assaults on the persons and rights of black Americans.” Turner also worked tirelessly for the “heavenization of earth,” or bringing the justice, peace, and equality of heaven to the here-and-now, and not just the life to come.37

Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Changes and Continuities

The Great Migration brought another set of innovations, as the religio-racial movements of the urban North gave followers different ways of interpreting death, the afterlife, and its inhabitants. Judith Weisenfeld explains that the Nation of Islam (NOI) “taught that an embodied God called black people to focus on salvation in the present” rather than in the life to come. This of course resonated with Black Christian leaders’ injunctions to “heavenize earth,” but the Nation of Islam offered “no resurrection or life after death” as in Christianity, and instead “focused on resurrection from the ‘mental death’ of ignorance and blindness to true identity.” In NOI theology, white people were devils, created by an evil scientist, Yacob, and they had created a hell on earth in North America. The Christian heaven was a creation of these white devils, too, a means of “accomodat[ing] the original black people to suffering in this life and, in the words of one member, to ‘keep us inferior and accept all these injustices.’”38

Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement also focused on this world rather than the life to come, seeing Divine as “the embodied manifestation of God,” whose presence enabled the creation of a raceless utopia on earth. Divine replaced the greeting “hello” with “peace” because the former included the word “hell”; he also alleged that “ministers’ focus on the fires of hell turned people away from Christian love.” Divine’s followers lived in sex-segregated dormitories with signs that often bore the name “Extension Heaven.” In the Peace Mission movement, illness was seen as a failure of belief, while death was viewed as a “failure of spiritual discipline,” and a voluntary “choice” to “separate themselves from the kingdom of God on earth.” Drawing from New Thought, Divine preached the power of right understanding to overcome the limits of the flesh, and rejected those who failed, even resigning them to pauper’s burials.39

Meanwhile, the influence of Darwinism and biblical-historical criticism, as well as the devastations of the Civil War, caused others (predominantly white Protestants) to dig in their heels and reaffirm their commitment to a biblical literalist understanding of the afterlife. They continued to “[profess] complete confidence in the Bible and [were] preoccupied with the message of God’s salvation of sinners through the death of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals were convinced that sincere acceptance of this ‘Gospel’ message was the key to virtue in this life and to eternal life in heaven; its rejection meant following the broad path that ended with the tortures of hell.”40 Fundamentalists continued to read the Bible literally and increasingly set their sights on a premillennialist, apocalyptic, end times scenario, which they believed might occur in their own lifetime.41 And they kept hell very much a live option for those who disagreed with their perspectives.

Mainline modernizers, by contrast, deemphasized hell and came up with alternative ways of understanding it (if, indeed, they acknowledged it at all), rather than as a literal place of fire and brimstone to punish the wicked. Soon after the Civil War, some postmillennialists began to hold out hope that “virtually all persons alive during the thousand years would be saved, and since the population of the earth would increase immensely during that happy era, the final ratio of the saved to the damned would be very favorable.”42 By the early 1880s, some of the faculty at Andover Theological Seminary began to question the assumption that the “heathen” who had never had a chance to hear the gospel were unavoidably damned. Instead, they offered the possibility of future probation: that “any person or any class of persons” who did not have a fair chance before death “will have it after death, prior to the day of judgment.”43 Growing awareness of other religious traditions also spurred increasing discomfort with the idea that hell awaited those who believed the “wrong” things. By the late 19th century, members of the Social Gospel movement were turning their attention to ameliorating hell on earth more than avoiding hell in the life to come.

Discomfort with the traditional hell continued to drive alternative theologies, like the idea that the wicked would simply be annihilated rather than eternally tormented, the idea that hell is a metaphor for separation from God, and the idea that hell is a temporary place of reform, rather than a permanent place of punishment (all positions that had been advocated by earlier Americans as well). These positions found some champions in the mainline denominations. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists also taught annihilationism, while Christian Scientists taught that “Damnation, along with death and sin, was an illusion or error beclouding the human mind,” which “possessed no ultimate reality.” And Mormon theology, with its emphasis on a hierarchical heaven and the eternal continuation of earthly bonds, continued to leave “hell relatively insignificant—and underpopulated.”44

Twentieth-century black theologians developed the radical reading of the afterlife begun by slaves and ministers like Henry McNeal Turner still further. In his 1970 A Black Theology of Liberation, James Cone said: “We have sung songs about heaven until we were hoarse, but it did not change the present state or ease the pain . . . We want to know why cannot Harlem become Jerusalem and Chicago the Promised Land?”45 They worked for the “heavenization of earth,” as Turner had put it, rather than just for heavenly rewards in a life to come. For African Americans to this day, as scholar and minister Eboni Marshall Turman explains, “death is not a future reality that may be indefinitely postponed,” but rather an “ever-present existential threat to black life.” Thus heaven must be understood as “a revolutionary happening now that disrupts the circularity of black oppression . . . Heaven demands that African Americans confront and dismantle the hell that troubles black flesh and demands black blood on earth right now, as it is dismantled in heaven.”46

Native American theologians and activists have likewise pushed back against the assumption that heaven and hell are otherworldly promises for those who profess Christianity or not. In his 1973 God Is Red, Vine Deloria Jr. contended that death is “natural” for tribal peoples, and that it is Christianity that has made it seem “as unnatural to the creation and as an evil presence resulting from the disobedience of Adam in the Garden of Eden.” Deloria explains that for tribal people, “death in a sense fulfills their destiny, for as their bodies become dust once again they contribute to the ongoing life cycle of creation.” He connects their view of life and death to their relationship to the land, whereas Christians, who face a fundamental “estrangement from nature,” cannot face death without fear. He ties tribal attitudes toward death and the afterlife to Native claims to the sacredness of their homelands, since tribes “knew that their ancestors were still spiritually alive on the land.47

The 20th century also saw a growing number of practitioners and teachers of Eastern religious traditions. Chinese and Japanese immigrants, who began arriving in the 19th century, but whose numbers increased after the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, brought with them forms of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and popular religion. Chinese migrants inhabited a cosmos populated by numerous deities as well as the spirits of their ancestors. Sojourning miners and railroad workers desired to have their bones shipped back to China—their sacred land—so that their descendants might properly care for them. Many Japanese immigrants practiced a form of Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, or the True Pure Land School, which held distinct ideas about the afterlife. Jodo Shinshu adherents call on the name of Amida Buddha, who created the Pure Land for people “who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and contemplate on my name even as many as ten times.”48 Understandings of the Pure Land differ among American practitioners: some have seen it as a version of the Christian heaven, while others view it as a realm of liberation from suffering, and still others see it as a “sense of joy, peace, and delight experienced within the conflicts and contradictions of this life.”49

Buddhist cosmology, especially the concept of reincarnation into realms of enlightenment or hellish suffering, has also been reinterpreted by followers of the mindfulness movement in America. In Mindful America, Jeff Wilson explains how hungry ghosts, for instance, “are one of the six forms in which a person can be reborn after he or she dies . . . Buddhist commentaries stress that rebirth as a hungry ghost is one of the direst possible states—only life in the hellish realms of punishment is worse.” But “in the mindfulness movement, hungry ghosts . . . become metaphoric images of our own mental states of desire and need.” They turn into psychological states in the here-and-now, instead of a “supernatural posthumous state.”50

Revising the afterlife into a state of being in this life is also a tactic adopted by humanists and Universalists, particularly with regard to hell, which they either jettison entirely or see as a state of suffering on earth, whether physical or psychological. Universalists joined forces with Unitarians in 1961; together, they affirm an attitude toward the afterlife that is (in their own words) “informed by both science and spiritual traditions. Many of us live with the assumption that life does not continue after death, and many of us hold it as an open question, wondering if our minds will have any awareness when we are no longer living. Few of us believe in divine judgment after death.”51

Universalist inclinations even filtered into the ranks of Protestant megachurch ministry, though those who professed it were summarily ejected from their posts. In 2004, Carlton Pearson, minister of one of the largest churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was declared a heretic for preaching what he called the “gospel of inclusion.” Pearson recalled a turning point in his thinking about God’s justice and mercy: he was “watching the evening news . . . I’m watching these little kids with swollen bellies . . . And I, with my little fat-faced baby, and a plate of food and a big-screen television. And I said God, I don’t know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell, which is what was my assumption.” Pearson questioned how a loving God could allow people to live through hell on earth only to sweep them into hell after death. The more he looked into the issue, the more he also began to question the justness of God’s damning people of other faiths, like a “little Tibetan monk” who “doesn’t kill, cuss, fight, lie.” “Is there a Jesus anywhere to receive that man? Or is the devil there sucking them all into Hell? And I would say no, no, no. My God loves you.”52

In 2011, megachurch minister Rob Bell similarly found himself embroiled in controversy after the publication of the staggeringly titled Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell’s version of the ethical “little Tibetan monk” is Gandhi. He opens his book with an anecdote about an art display in which someone stuck the note “Reality check: He’s in hell” on a quote by Gandhi. “Really?” asks Bell. “Gandhi’s in hell? . . . We have confirmation of this?” He then broadens the scope of his questions to ask about the nature of a God who would arbitrarily pick “only a select few who go to heaven,” hearkening back to early American critiques of Calvinist predestinarianism. Bell’s book became a New York Times bestseller, and raised the hackles of his former evangelical colleagues. “Farewell, Rob Bell,” tweeted John Piper in the midst of the hullabaloo.

By the 21st century, a Pew Research Center report found that belief in hell is significantly lower than belief in heaven (58 percent versus 72 percent in 2014). Explicit preaching about hell in mainline and evangelical churches has also declined, reflecting a worry about alienating congregants in an era that has seen the rise of the “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated. And yet, 58 percent of all Americans is still a solid majority. Among mainline Protestants, the numbers are further apart (60 percent believe in hell to 80 percent in heaven); Catholics are similarly split (63 percent believe in hell, while 85 percent believe in heaven). Many lay Catholics, in both Europe and the United States, assume that the relatively good go straight to heaven when they die, and no longer engage in the same rituals surrounding purgatory that were popular in the past. On the other hand, vibrant celebrations of, for instance, the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, bring Latino commemorations of the dead, combining indigenous practices with Catholicism, to the broader society.53 Almost all Mormons believe in heaven (95 percent), reflecting their faith in the continuation of family bonds after death, while only 62 percent believe in hell. Among evangelicals, the numbers are closer together (82 percent believe in hell, 88 percent in heaven). Historically black Protestants evince similarly high figures (82 percent hell to 93 percent heaven).54

Among non-Christians, American Muslims are the most likely to believe in hell and heaven (76 percent and 89 percent, respectively). While some American Muslims believe that humans are bodily resurrected to paradise or hell at the Day of Judgment, others, such as those in the Sufi tradition, hold to a more mystical understanding of the afterlife, in which humans’ ultimate goal is union with and knowledge of the divine, a process that can begin in this life. Jews, affected by modernizing and liberalizing trends over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, respond in similar numbers as the “nones” (22 percent hell to 40 percent heaven among Jews; 27 percent to 37 percent among the “nones”). Jewish views about the afterlife vary widely, as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and other Jews interpret Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come) in different ways, ranging from rejection of heaven and hell, to affirmation of bodily resurrection. Reform Jews, the largest American Jewish denominational movement (35 percent), tend to regard the nature of the afterlife as an open question. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, convened by Kaufmann Kohler and chaired by Isaac Mayer Wise, declared: “We reassert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, grounding the belief on the divine nature of human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.”55

As the overall numbers in the Pew report suggest, heaven continues to have broad appeal in the United States. Books and films that depict near-death experiences (NDEs) are popular, like Colton Burpo’s bestselling Heaven Is for Real (book published in 2010, movie released in 2014), and Don Piper’s bestselling 90 Minutes in Heaven (book published in 2004, movie released in 2015). Though critics dismissed the Heaven Is for Real movie as saccharine, the film was a box-office success, taking in $101.3 million, to a production budget of $12 million.

In Heaven in the American Imagination, Gary Scott Smith explains the popularity of such productions in terms of the “postmodern, anxiety-ridden, entertainment-oriented, therapeutic, happiness-based culture” of the new millennium. According to Smith, heaven serves as a salve in the wake of September 11, 2001, natural disasters, and economic depression. “Many Americans felt awash in a sea of woes, and depictions of heaven expressed and addressed their concerns. The prospect of paradise provided a soothing antidote to the anxiety-arousing and disconcerting events that led most newscasts and newspaper headlines.”56 Much like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s heaven, paradise in the early 21st century has been a place intended for the enjoyment of humans, rather than the worship of God. In reaction to criticisms of heaven as “boring,” “some authors and ministers portrayed [it] as the great entertainment center in the sky,” as Smith puts it. Others have tapped into the therapeutic culture of the current era, depicting the afterlife as a place where “Hurts, not sins, were washed away,” in which “‘the language of trauma and recovery’ replaced the rhetoric of good and evil.”57

But even as heaven changes to reflect American society’s current needs and longings, and as the afterlife helps Americans to work through existential questions in popular culture, a literal and eternal hell of punishment remains a potent tool that believers use to exercise cultural and political influence. Although a strikingly low percentage of Americans believe that they themselves are in danger of going to hell (only 6 percent in a 1998 Gallup poll), the conviction that others are hell-bound remains compelling. One of the 6 percent, Bill Wiese, published a bestselling account of his 23 Minutes in Hell (2006), rivaling the heavenly near-death-experiences for its vividness. Wiese claims to have experienced imprisonment in a putrid cell with terrifying beasts who pummeled and tore his flesh; after escaping, he heard the screams of the countless damned.

While Wiese’s narrative spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, evangelical “hell houses” have been putting hell on display for thousands of American attendees for a much longer duration. Jerry Falwell first introduced the “Scaremare” in 1972, using the format of a traditional haunted house to “confront people with the question ‘What happens after I die?’” The Scaremare website announces that more than 300,000 people have attended since its inception, and of those, “approximately 26,000 people have made decisions for Christ.”58 Thousands of other churches have caught on to the trend, and Assemblies of God minister Keenan Roberts facilitated their doing so by creating hell house-in-a-box kits beginning in the 1990s. These hell houses target specific hot-button issues. Most present a grisly abortion scene, a drug/rave scene, a suicide, a hospital scene with a dying AIDS patient, and a drunk driving scene. Just as 19th-century moral reformers crusaded against activities they saw as corrupt and damaging to individuals and the nation, from drinking to novel-reading to Sabbath-breaking, so the new Christian right also targets issues that they think imperil not only the practitioner, but also the wider culture of which they are a part.59

Religious Studies scholar Jason Bivins argues that this “religion of fear,” which manifests not only in the hell houses but also in popular apocalyptic literature (like the Left Behind series of novels, and Jack Chick tracts), is “committed to (and reliant upon) a declension narrative” that “single[s] out the 1960s as the moment when a previously safe and stable ‘Christian America’ came under siege from the forces of secularism and moral permissiveness.” Hell works, through the “religion of fear,” to police bodies and to shore up the stakes for the faithful, creating a “set of rules for moral and political behavior, where emotional experiences are linked to a politics of prohibition and a combative orientation to pluralism is commended through images of damnation.” But the “religion of fear” also serves to titillate its followers, for even as they warn others of the consequences of bad behaviors, they also take part in an “erotics of fear” that allows them to produce, consume, and perform the very habits they condemn.60

Review of the Literature

The literature on the afterlife in America is not voluminous. Scholars of the afterlife have tended to focus much more on European developments. The Annales school, which sought to assess broad mentalités, analyzed afterlife beliefs as essential components of cultural attitudes. Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Purgatory (1984), Jean Delumeau’s Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture (1990), Philippe Ariès’ The Hour of Our Death (1977), and Peter Marshall’s Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (2002), exemplify this kind of approach. Other works, such as D. P. Walker’s The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment (1964) and Geoffrey Rowell’s Hell and the Victorians: A Study of the Nineteenth-Century Theological Controversies Concerning Eternal Punishment and the Future Life (1974), offer intellectual histories of theological developments, focusing on elite educated figures. By contrast, Stuart Schwartz’s All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (2008) bridges Europe and the Americas in order to argue that toleration developed among laypeople in the early modern Iberian world, rather than primarily among elites.

These works posit a general decline in afterlife beliefs as a result of the Enlightenment. Jeffrey Burton Russell’s four-part series on the devil and two-part series on heaven similarly illustrate growing challenges to the concepts of evil and heaven from antiquity to the present. Along the same lines, Andrew Delbanco’s The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil claims that we no longer have a language with which to confront the evils of contemporary life. These works fit into a secularization paradigm in which the enchanted hereafter slowly fades as the world becomes increasingly disenchanted. By contrast, Colleen McDannell and Bernard Lang’s classic Heaven: A History (1988) offers an undulating trajectory in which beliefs about heaven cycle between anthropocentric and theocentric.

In the field of American history, more scholars have addressed death in the American experience than the afterlife specifically. Classic publications on death in America include Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963), Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying (1969), David Stannard’s The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change (1977), Gary Laderman’s The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799–1883 (1996) and Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (2003), Robert Wells’s Facing the “King of Terrors”: Death and Society in an American Community, 1750–1990 (2000), Stephen Prothero’s Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (2001), Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), and Erik Seeman’s Death in the New World (2010). Taken together, these texts forward a narrative in which death once seemed natural and expected, to excessively mourned (the era of hair jewelry and death photography), to outsourced to hospitals and funeral homes. These works discuss the afterlife to varying degrees, though their focus is often on changing attitudes toward death itself, psychological preparation for and reactions to it, and rituals of grieving and commemorating that accompany it. As with the literature on the afterlife in Europe, some of these books also posit a trajectory in which the declining fear of hell gives way to the hope of heaven, which was once conceived of in scriptural terms, but is increasingly voided of Christian content.

Since the 1990s, scholars have begun to devote more sustained attention specifically to the afterlife in the United States. Jonathan M. Butler’s Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling (1991) and James Moorhead’s World Without End (1999) offered steps in this direction; both analyzed the period after the Civil War and concluded that hell diminished, while a progressive heaven took hold of the American imagination. Gary Scott Smith’s Heaven in the American Imagination (2011) delves earlier and later chronologically in order to trace how ideas about heaven have reflected Americans’ anxieties and hopes, from the Puritans to the 21st century. “When peace and prosperity prevail,” he argues, “Americans have typically either ignored the afterlife or emphasized its kinder, gentler aspects. In times of depression and war, Americans have tended to view heaven as a place where people can escape earth’s problems and sin.”61 Smith’s sources range from sermons to movies, illustrating how the field is moving beyond intellectual histories focused on elite ministers and theologians to include wider analyses of how the afterlife manifests in lived experience and popular culture. These works reflect the revisitation of the secularization paradigm by American religious historians more broadly; scholars like Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern argue that although traditional theologies and denominations are indeed losing ground, religion and religious ways of being saturate the popular and political spheres in America. Along these lines, Gregory Garrett’s Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Culture (2015) analyzes how heaven, hell, and purgatory are reflected in contemporary popular productions, including television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, and Doctor Who. Garrett argues that while some Americans continue to find meaning in older sacred traditions, popular culture can also work as “alternative wisdom traditions of a sort, helping readers and viewers to find comfort and make meaning about ethical and spiritual questions,” even “along the way, . . . offer[ing] us some peace of mind.”62

With regard to hell and the darker side of the afterlife, W. Scott Poole’s Satan in America: The Devil We Know (2009) explicitly challenges Andrew Delbanco’s contention that Americans have lost the sense of evil, showing how hell’s prince of darkness has been alive and well from earliest colonial encounters to this day. Kathryn Gin Lum’s Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (2014) similarly exposes the continued significance of the idea of eternal damnation past the Enlightenment. The political climate of the 21st century has had a bearing on this literature; where once it was easy to suggest that the supernatural had lost its sway in America, the language of good and evil has permeated the political atmosphere after September 11. As Poole puts it, “President Bush deployed the ideas of evil and evil-doers, hard and clean ideas that swept all ambiguity from history and historical experience while focusing rage and sorrow to a sharpened spear tip.” The “war against terror” became more than a strategic attempt to target a specific group (Al Qaeda), and instead turned into an amorphous “mythic battle with monsters. Like those who murdered our fellow citizens, we were fighting the Great Satan.”63 This kind of rhetoric is not the exclusive province of evangelicals and conservatives alone, as political polarization encourages demonization of opponents, whatever one’s proclivities. It also hearkens back to colonial-era justifications of religio-racial violence against indigenous people in an America then believed to be in the clutches of hell’s master. As we have seen, Jason Bivins’s Religion of Fear also analyzes the political ramifications of the afterlife, while Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (2014) takes a hard-nosed look at the political power of premillennial dispensationalism from the 20th century to the present.

As these scholars are showing, ideas about the afterlife (and the endtimes) are not merely epiphenomenal: that is, they do not just reflect the times in which they rise to cultural power, but can also shape them. In a cultural climate in which this is apparent, it is no surprise that the scholarship has reversed course on the simple secularization narrative of earlier literature.

Primary Sources

Heaven and hell saturate publications and manuscripts in the colonial era and 19th century. Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom: or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment (1662) and Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741) are perhaps the most famous colonial accounts of the afterlife and end times; readers are also encouraged to consult Edwards’s other writings (many available online at the Jonathan Edwards Center ( at Yale University) to balance his view of hell with his sense of God’s love in heaven. The writings of John Murray (1741–1815) are instructive on Universalism in colonial and early America, while the autobiography of Lorenzo Dow (The Life and Travels of Lorenzo Dow, 1804) is useful for understanding the Arminian backlash to Calvinism on the issues of predestination, salvation, and damnation.

Evangelical newspapers like the New York Evangelist, Zion’s Herald, and The American Revivalist, and Rochester Observer provide a window onto 19th-century revivalism, often including entire reprinted sermons. The afterlife is also a frequent subject of the American Tract Society’s 19th-century publications. On the theory of religious insanity, see Amariah Brigham’s Observations on the Influence of Religion upon the Health and Physical Welfare of Mankind (1835), as well as published reports of state asylums. On the afterlife in the Civil War era, see Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Gates Ajar (1869).

On slave and ex-slave views of the afterlife, see the narratives in George Rawick, God Struck Me Dead: Religious Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Negro Ex-Slaves (1945), as well as collections of spirituals (for Library of Congress recordings, visit Those interested in heaven and hell in black theology are encouraged to consult the A.M.E. Church Review, the collection of Henry McNeal Turner’s writings in Edwin Redkey, ed., Respect Black: The Writings and Speeches of Henry McNeal Turner (1971), and James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (1970). For a 20th-century Native view of death and the afterlife, see Vine Deloria’s God Is Red (1973), especially chapter 10, “Death and Religion.”

Heaven and hell suffuse contemporary popular culture. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven (2004 book, 2015 movie), Don Wiese’s 23 Minutes in Hell (2006), and Colton Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real (2010 book, 2014 movie)—all bestsellers—illustrate how compelling near-death experiences and supernatural visions remain for Americans living in a postmodern age of scientific ascendance. Other films and TV shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), What Dreams May Come (1998), Lost (2004–2010), and Supernatural (2005 to present) highlight how ideas about heaven, hell, and their inhabitants operate outside the realm of Christian-specific productions.

On the controversy over Universalist tendencies creeping into Christian churches, see Brian McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christian (2005), Rob Bell, Love Wins (2011), and Francis Chan, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up (2011). Those interested in hell houses might find George Ratliff’s 2001 documentary, Hell House, of interest.

Further Reading

  • Bivins, Jason. Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Brown, Samuel Morris. In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Butler, Jonathan M. Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling: Heaven and Hell in American Revivalism, 1870–1920. Chicago Studies in the History of American Religion. Brooklyn: Carlson, 1991.
  • Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1500–1700. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.
  • Faust, Drew. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
  • Garrett, Gregory. Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Culture. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Laderman, Gary. The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799–1883. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
  • Lum, Kathryn Gin. Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • McDannell, Colleen, and Bernhard Lang. Heaven: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.
  • Moorhead, James. World without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things, 1880–1925. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Pasulka, Diana Walsh. Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Poole, W. Scott. Satan in America: The Devil We Know. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
  • Raboteau, Albert. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. Updated ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Rubin, Julius. Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Seeman, Erik. Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
  • Smith, Gary Scott. Heaven in the American Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Stannard, David. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Thuesen, Peter. Predestination: An American History of a Contentious Doctrine. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


  • 1. Nicholas Noyes, New-Englands Duty and Interest, To be an Habitation of JUSTICE, and Mountain of HOLINESS (Boston in New-England: Printed by Bartholomew Green, and John Allen, Printers to the Governour & Council, 1698), 74–75.

  • 2. See Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1500–1700 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

  • 3. Erik Seeman, Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

  • 4. See, for instance, Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998), Rebecca Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), and Richard Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 5. Mary Rowlandson, Narrative of the captivity, sufferings, and removes of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson: who was taken prisoner by the Indians at the destruction of Lancaster in 1675 (1682).

  • 6. See Piero Camporesi, The Fear of Hell (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1990), and Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

  • 7. Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).

  • 8. Quoted in Gary Scott Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 9. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, updated ed.(Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 32.

  • 10. Charles Ball, Fifty Years in Chains (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), 265; reprint of Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, A Black Man (New York, 1837).

  • 11. “An Indian Speech in Answer to a Sermon, preached by a Swedish Missionary at Conestogo, in Pennsylvania (Stanford, NY: Printed and sold by Daniel Lawrence, 1804). Other versions were printed earlier in the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century.

  • 12. Augustus Ward Loomis, Scenes in the Indian Country (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, No. 821 Chestnut Street, 1859), 188–190.

  • 13. Vernon Kinietz and Erminie Voegelin, eds., Shawnese Traditions: C. C. Trowbridge’s Account (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1939), 42.

  • 14. David Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

  • 15. On predestinarian theology see Peter Thuesen, Predestination: An American History of a Contentious Doctrine (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  • 16. Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741).

  • 17. Quoted in Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination, 32.

  • 18. Jonathan Edwards, The Eternity of Hell Torments, in The Works of President Edwards: Volume IV (New York: Leavitt & Allen, 1856), 276.

  • 19. See Kathryn Gin Lum, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), chap. 1.

  • 20. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2004), 29.

  • 21. Quoted in James Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 221–222. Adams quote from Adams to Francis van der Kemp, July 13, 1815; Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress. Rush quote from “Travels through Life,” in Corner, Autobiography of Rush, 163–164.

  • 22. Lum, Damned Nation, chap. 1.

  • 23. Lum, Damned Nation, chap. 2.

  • 24. See Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, esp. Section V, “Crisis” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

  • 25. Noll, America's God, chaps. 3 and 5.

  • 26. See William Sims Bainbridge, “Religious Insanity in America: The Official Nineteenth-Century Theory,” Sociological Analysis 45, no. 3 (Autumn 1984): 223–239; see also Julius Rubin, Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

  • 27. E. Brooks Holifield, God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 139.

  • 28. Lum, Damned Nation, chap. 2.

  • 29. Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints: Carefully Selected from the Revelations of God, and Compiled by Joseph Smith Junior, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, Frederick G. Williams, Presiding Elders of said Church (Kirtland, Ohio: Printed by F. G. Williams for the Proprietors, 1835), 227–30.

  • 30. Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination, chap. 9. On Mormonism, death, and the afterlife, see also Samuel Morris Brown, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • 31. Parley Pratt, The Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, One of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (New York: Published for the Editor and Proprietor by Russell Brothers, 1874), 329.

  • 32. See Edward J. Blum, “The First Secessionist Was Satan': Secession and the Religious Politics of Evil in Civil War America,” Civil War History, 60, no. 3 (September 2014): 234–269.

  • 33. Mark Schantz, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

  • 34. On the avoidance of hell among big-name ministers like Henry Ward Beecher and Dwight L. Moody see George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 23, 25, and 35; Jonathan M. Butler, Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling: Heaven and Hell in American Revivalism, 1870–1920 (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1991); James Moorhead, World without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things, 1880–1925 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999).

  • 35. Lewis Baldwin, “‘A Home in Dat Rock’: Afro-American Folk Sources and Slave Visions of Heaven and Hell,” Journal of Religious Thought 41, no. 1 (1984): 38–57; Raboteau, Slave Religion.

  • 36. “Slavery was ‘Hell without Fires,’” in George Rawick, ed., God Struck Me Dead: Religious Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Negro Ex-Slaves (Nashville: Social Science Institute, Fisk University, 1945), 215.

  • 37. See Henry McNeal Turner, “God Is a Negro,” first printed in Voice of Missions, February 1898; Stephen Angell, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), and Kathryn Gin, “‘The Heavenization of Earth’: African American Visions and Uses of the Afterlife, 1863-1901,” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies 31, no. 2 (June 2010): 207–231.

  • 38. Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 58–59; 161.

  • 39. Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming, 75; 101; 156–165; 236; 270.

  • 40. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 3.

  • 41. See Matthew Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).

  • 42. Moorhead, World without End, 49.

  • 43. “The Andover Controversy,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette (04-20-1882): 4.

  • 44. Moorhead, World Without End, 49.

  • 45. James Cone A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970), 241.

  • 46. Eboni Marshall Turman, “Heaven and Hell in African American Theology,” in Anthony B. Pinn and Katie G. Cannon, eds., The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • 47. Vine Deloria, chap. 10, “Death and Religion,” in God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th anniversary ed. (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2003).

  • 48. Quoted in Kenneth K. Tanaka, Ocean: An Introduction to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America (Berkeley, CA: Wisdom Ocean Publications, 1997), 73.

  • 49. Richard Hughes Seager, Buddhism in America: Revised and Expanded Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 86–87.

  • 50. Jeff Wilson, Mindful America: Meditation and the Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 46–47.

  • 51. “Beliefs about Life and Death in Unitarian Universalism,” The Unitarian Universalist Association,

  • 52. “Episode 304: Heretics” (transcript), This American Life, originally aired December 16, 2005,

  • 53. On changing attitudes toward purgatory see Diana Walsh Pasulka, Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • 54. Percentages by tradition come from Carlyle Murphy, “Most Americans Believe in Heaven… and Hell,” Pew Research Center, November 10, 2015.

  • 55. Murphy, “Most Americans Believe in Heaven… and Hell.”

  • 56. Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination, 207.

  • 57. Smith, 209, 214.

  • 58. “Scaremare: About–Mission,” Liberty University,

  • 59. See Jason Bivins, chap. 5: “Hell Houses and the Conservative Evangelical Theater of Horror,” in Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • 60. Bivins, chap. 1, “Scary Jesus: Locating the ‘Religion of Fear’ in Conservative Evangelicalism,” The Religion of Fear.

  • 61. Smith, Heaven in the American Imagination, 3.

  • 62. Gregory Garrett, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 16.

  • 63. W. Scott Poole, Satan in America: The Devil We Know (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 214.