An overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe there is life after death and that heaven and hell exist, according to a new study. What's more, most think they are heaven-bound.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans in the national survey said that they believe they will go to heaven. Only one half of 1 percent said they were hell-bound, according to the poll by the Oxnard, Calif.-based Barna Research Group, an independent marketing research firm which has tracked trends related to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984.
"We're optimists at heart," theologian Robert Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said, commenting on 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 percent of Americans believe in heaven and 71 percent in hell — same as a decade ago.
Among those who believe in heaven, nearly half (46 percent) described it as a "state of eternal existence in God's presence" and almost a third (30 percent) said heaven is "an actual place of rest and reward where souls go after death." One in eight said heaven is just "symbolic" (14 percent), 5 percent said there is no afterlife and 5 percent weren't sure.
Researchers found two popular perspectives of hell.
Four out of 10 (39 percent) believe that hell is "a state of eternal separation from God's presence" and one-third (32 percent) "an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death." One in 8 believe that hell is just a symbol of an "unknown bad outcome after death" (13 percent).
The poll interviewed 1,000 adults in all the states 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 Protestant minister who founded the research group, noted that one out of 10 people who describe themselves as born-again Christians — those who believe entry into heaven is solely based on confession of sins and faith in Jesus Christ — also believe that people are reincarnated in another form after death, which violates Christian tenets. Nearly one in three claim it is possible to communicate with the dead, and half believe that a person can earn salvation based upon 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, he said. He said half of all the atheists and agnostics in the survey said every person has a soul, that heaven and hell exist and that there is life after death. One in eight atheists and agnostics even believe that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible.