Next stop, the Pearly Gates ... or hell?
Nearly two-thirds think they're going to heaven, while few believe they're hell-bound, survey finds
By K. Connie Kang
Los Angeles Times
Posted October 24 2003, 10:57 AM EDT
LOS ANGELES -- An overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe that there is life after death and that heaven and hell exist, according to a new study. What's more, nearly two-thirds think they are heaven-bound.
On the other hand, only one-half of 1% said they were hell-bound, according to a national poll by the Oxnard-based Barna Research Group, an independent marketing research firm that has tracked trends related to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984.
"We're optimists at heart," Robert Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said of the survey's results. "If you really believe in hell, you wouldn't want to be there. By definition, hell is the denial of goodness." The survey, released this week, found that 76% of Americans believe in heaven and 71% in hell — the same as a decade ago, and that 64% believe they're heaven-bound.
Among those who believe in heaven, nearly half (46%) described it as a "state of eternal existence in God's presence," and almost a third (30%) said heaven was "an actual place of rest and reward where souls go after death." One in seven said heaven is just "symbolic" (14%), 5% said there was no afterlife and 5% said they weren't sure.
Researchers found two popular perspectives of hell in the study. Nearly four out of 10 (39%) believe hell is "a state of eternal separation from God's presence," while nearly one-third (32%) believe it is "an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death." About one in 8 believe hell is just a symbol of an "unknown bad outcome after death" (13%).
The poll interviewed 1,000 adults during September in every state except Hawaii and Alaska. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Millions of Americans mix secular and various religious views to create their personal belief systems, said David Kinnaman, vice president of Barna Research Group.
"Americans don't mind embracing contradictions," he said. "It's hyper individualism. They're cutting and pasting religious views from a variety of different sources — television, movies, conversations with their friends. Rather than simply embrace one particular viewpoint, and then trying to follow all the specific precepts or teachings of that particular viewpoint, what Americans are saying is, 'Listen, I can probably put together a philosophy of life for myself that is just as accurate, just as helpful as any particular faith might provide.' "
Pollster George Barna, a former minister who founded the research group, noted that one out of 10 born-again Christians — those who believe entry into heaven is solely based on confession of sins and faith in Jesus Christ — also believe in reincarnation, which violates Christian tenets. Nearly one in three claim it is possible to communicate with the dead, and half believe a person can earn salvation based on good deeds even without accepting Christ as the way to eternal life.
Many who describe themselves as either atheistic or agnostic also harbor contradictions in their thinking, Barna said. He said that half the atheists and agnostics surveyed believed that everyone had a soul, that heaven and hell existed and that there was life after death. One in eight atheists and agonistics believe that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible.
Therefore, labels — be they "born again" or "atheist" — might not give as much insight into a person's beliefs as one might assume, he said.
"Postmodernism is actually a move toward spirituality, not away from it," Johnston, the theologian, said, adding that embracing postmodernity means living with contradictions. "So, at the same time we are mired in the muck of life, we also hold evermore preciously to spiritual sustenance."