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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

For all the nudging and pushing and jockeying for position among the sweaty tourists who surround me on the floor of the Sistine Chapel this summer morning, it’s nothing compared with the cyclone of activity going on up there on the front wall.

In Michelangelo’s painting "The Last Judgment" there’s little doubt about who’s going where. On the left, a swirl of saints and martyrs ascend Heavenward, their faces a mix of rapture and shock. They soar triumphantly, flanking the figure of a Risen Christ. On the right, it’s a decidedly downward trend, a slightly more populated mix of eternal unfortunates being dragged, pushed, and hurled into the abyss. I step around behind the altar—a vantage virtually no one else seems interested in—and marvel at the nearly hidden figures of three apelike creatures, seemingly the gatekeepers of a fiery furnace that is glimpsed just beyond.

In appearance and execution "The Last Judgment" is archetypical Mannerist art. But the fact is, the nuts and bolts of Michelangelo’s vision are shared by the vast majority of 50-plus Americans.  
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