Ernie Long believes he has been to hell. He can even narrow it down to a particular moment.
His mother was dying of cancer. As she lay on her deathbed, he swiped her last $5 and the car keys from her purse, went out and got high. When he returned, she was dead.
Long goes quiet, thinking about it in the chapel of Guiding Light Mission in Grand Rapids, Mich. When he first moved to the homeless shelter, he recalls, he would wake up in the night haunted by what he'd done.
“The shame and guilt engulfed me,” he says quietly. “I couldn't stop crying.”
Today, Long is an intake supervisor for Guiding Light's recovery program. He believes Jesus saved him from the pit of hell and wants other men to be saved too, here and hereafter.
“I think hell is being in the absence of purpose,” says Long, 64, who was addicted to crack cocaine before coming to Guiding Light two years ago. “When I had no purpose, no direction, I actually felt like I was living in hell.”
For Long, hell is all too real – a temporary torment in this life, an endless agony in the next. But for more and more Americans, hell is a myth.
In a survey released this summer by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, just 59 percent of 35,000 respondents said they believe in a hell “where people who have led bad lives, and die without being sorry, are eternally punished.”
That's down from the 71 percent who said they believed in hell in a 2001 Gallup survey. And it is lower than the 74 percent who said they believe in heaven in the recent Pew poll. (A different poll indicates Carolinians are much more likely to believe in heaven and hell; see box with this story.)
Skepticism about hell is growing even in evangelical churches and seminaries, says one theologian here, a bastion of conservative evangelicalism.
“In a pluralistic, post-modern world, students are having a more difficult time with (the idea of) people going to hell forever because they didn't believe the right thing,” says Mike Wittmer, professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.
“That's the biggest question out there right now: ‘Would God send someone to hell if they were someone as good as me, but didn't believe what I believe?'”
It was easier to believe in hell 20 years ago when missionaries tried to convert people in far-flung places, Wittmer says. In today's global village, many live next to good, non-Christian neighbors and wonder why an all-powerful, loving God wouldn't eventually empty out hell, Wittmer says.
“I've noticed in the last five years how that view is making inroads even in conservative churches, whereas five years ago it wasn't even uttered or discussed,” he adds.
Americans' optimism and tolerance for diversity complements a growing view of God as benevolent, not judgmental, other experts say.
“They believe everyone has an equal chance, at this life and the next,” said Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College and the author of “Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.”
“So hell is disappearing, absolutely.”
But for those who believe, hell can be a terrifying place of eternal punishment or the complete extinction of the soul.
The Pew survey showed the biggest believers in hell are evangelical Protestants, African American Protestants and Muslims. Sizable majorities of Jews, Buddhists and Hindus – as well as atheists, agnostics, and the rest of the unaffiliated – say they do not believe in hell.
Wittmer holds to a literal Christian view of hell as a place of physical torment. He points to Revelation 14:9-11, where an angel describes the damned burning in sulfur: “And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.”
“The whole person is suffering, probably in utter hopelessness, just being absent from God and goodness,” says Wittmer, author of “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”
Though the popular image of hell as eternal torment while drowning in a lake of fire has been popularized by evangelical notions of salvation, it's not solely an evangelical – or even Christian – concept:
Over at the Islamic Center and Mosque of West Michigan, Imam Sharif Sahibzada also listens for the devil's footsteps. Though faithfully following God, Sahibzada says he nevertheless fears hell.
“I don't know how I will end up,” Sahibzada says following Friday prayers. “I have to show trust in God and his mercy all the time. Always Satan is circling and trying to misguide me.”
He says Islam teaches that those who reject God are condemned permanently to hell, where the Quran says they will be “fuel for Hellfire.”
Believers who have totally surrendered to God will go directly to heaven. Those who have not totally followed God's commands must first go to hell and be punished according to their sins. God decides everyone's fate, including those who believe in God but reject the Prophet Muhammad, Sahibzada says.
Although many Jews believe in neither hell nor heaven, others have varied views of the afterlife, says Rabbi David Krishef of Congregation Ahavas Israel.
One is that souls go to a place called Gehenna, often translated as hell in the Bible. It is derived from a burning valley south of Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and children sacrificed. Their souls are purified in a kind of purgatory before most go to heaven, but some are so evil they are punished or utterly destroyed, Krishef says.
He tends to believe in the latter as the fate of unrepentant evildoers such as Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In any case, the morality by which one lives is the key, he says.
How we live can keep a lot of people out of hell, if you ask Sister Carmella Conway.
She is a Grand Rapids Dominican Sister who spent 55 years teaching religion. She believes in a gracious God who relies on people to help save others from hell, both on earth and beyond.
“We can transform the world by helping others,” Conway said following a morning Mass at Marywood, the Dominican motherhouse. “We're kind of guilty if anybody goes to hell.”
Starvation, war, lack of charity: These sins make life hellish for many, she argues. Between God's grace and people's faithful work, very few if any will go to hell, she says.
“I think we're going to be surprised when we get there,” she adds with a smile.