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The Great Beyond

Is There Life After Death?

We asked people 50 and over to share their most deeply held beliefs. The result is an illuminating glimpse into America’s spiritual core.

Life After Death

— Cameron Davidson/Getty Images

Location, Location, Location

A copyeditor I once knew insisted that you should always capitalize the word heaven. “Heaven,” he explained, “is a place. Like Poughkeepsie.”

He’d be in the minority among those 50 and over who believe in heaven. Just 40 percent believe heaven is “a place,” while 47 percent say it’s a “state of being.” As for the alternate destination, of those who think hell exists, 43 percent say it’s a “state of being”; 42 percent say it’s “a place” (although not, presumably, like Poughkeepsie).

“Heaven’s a place, all right,” says Ed Parlin, 56, of Salem, New Hampshire. And he’s got some ideas of what to expect. “It’s a better place than this is—that’s for sure,” he says. “And I guess everybody gets along. It’s always a beautifully clear day, and sunny, with great landscaping.”

“Americans see life after death as a very dynamic thing,” says Barnard College’s Segal. “You don’t really hear about angels and wings, sitting on clouds playing melodies. A lot believe there will be sex in the afterlife, that it’ll be more pleasurable, less dangerous, and it won’t be physical, but spiritual. They talk about humor in the afterlife, continuing education, unifying families—like a retirement with no financial needs.”

There’s a line in Matthew’s Gospel that states: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And perhaps not so coincidentally, our survey shows the richer people are, the less likely they are to believe there’s a heaven. Among those with a household income of $75,000 or more per year, 78 percent believe in heaven—compared with 90 percent of those earning $25,000 or less. Similarly, 77 percent of college-educated people think there’s a heaven, compared with 89 percent of those who have a high school diploma or less.

The Price of Admission

While the overwhelming majority of Americans 50 and over believe in heaven, there’s a lot of splintering when it comes to just what it takes to arrive there. The largest group, 29 percent of those who believe in heaven, responded that the prerequisite is to “believe in Jesus Christ.” Twenty-five percent said people who “are good” get in. Another 10 percent said that people who “believe in one God” are welcomed into heaven. Likewise, 10 percent took a come-one, come-all philosophy, saying everyone gets into heaven.

And while 88 percent of people believe they’ll be in heaven after they die, they’re not so sure about the rest of us. Those responding said 64 percent of all people get to heaven. And many think the percentage will be a lot smaller than that.

“Fifteen percent,” says Ira Merce of Lakeland, Florida. He admitted it’s just a guess on his part, but he’s still not happy about it. “I’d like to see the percentages turned exactly around, but I can’t see it happening. If you read Scripture, it says, ‘Broad is the way that leads to destruction, and narrow is the way that leads to eternal life.’ ”

Among those who told us they believe in hell, their attitudes about who goes there generally mirrored the poll’s results about heaven. Forty percent of those who believe in hell said “people who are bad” or “people who have sinned” go there; 17 percent said, “People who do not believe in Jesus Christ” are condemned to spend their afterlife in hell.

And in what has to be the understatement of all eternity, Ed suggests, “It’s probably a place where you’re gonna do things that you don’t like to do.”

Second Time Around?

Twenty-three percent of those responding said they believe in reincarnation—meaning there are a fair number who have an overlapping belief in heaven and a return trip to Earth. The percentage was highest in the Northeast (31 percent), and boomers were most likely to believe in reincarnation.

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