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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.  

In an exclusive survey of 1,011 people 50 and over, AARP The Magazine  sought to learn just what Americans in the second half of life think about life after death. Over the years we’ve seen countless surveys examining Americans’ attitudes and beliefs about the afterlife, but we wanted to hear specifically from the AARP generation—those who are more than halfway to the point of finding out, once and for all, precisely how right or wrong they were about life after death.

To begin, we found that people 50 and over tend to be downright conventional in their basic beliefs: nearly three quarters (73 percent) agree with the statement “I believe in life after death.” Women are a lot more likely to believe in an afterlife (80 percent) than men (64 percent).

Two thirds of those who believe also told us that their confidence in a life after death has increased as they’ve gotten older. Among them is 90-year-old Leona Mabrand. Born in North Dakota, she moved to Oregon in her 20s, married—and watched, one by one, as every member of her family passed on before her. “I’m the only one left of my family tree,” she says, her voice a mix of pride and sadness.

Turning down her radio to chat one recent afternoon—Paul Harvey is one of her favorite companions these days—she tells me that the longer she lives, the more miracles she sees, and the more that convinces her that what her Christian faith tells her about the hereafter is true.

“The Lord has shown me a lot of good miracles happen,” she says. “I’m looking forward to seeing my husband and my family and all those who have gone to their rest before me.”

Of course, Christians like Leona aren’t the only ones with their eye on an afterlife.

“It reflects our multicultural environment,” says Barnard College professor of religion Alan F. Segal, author of "Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion" (Doubleday, 2004). “Most Americans believe they will be saved no matter what they are. In the ’60s and ’70s there was this thought that the boomers were not particularly religious; they were busy finding jobs and setting up house. But as they entered their fourth decade, they returned. I’m not sure it was a religious revival—it may have been they were just returning.”

It may also reflect a repudiation of the long-held notion that science is the source of all of life’s answers, adds Huston Smith, Syracuse University professor emeritus of religion and author of the 2.5 million-copy-selling "The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

“Belief in an afterlife has risen in the last 50 years,” he says. “Serious thinkers are beginning to see through the mistake modernity made in thinking that science is the oracle of truth."

Believers show general agreement over the choice of destinations in the afterlife, as well: 86 percent say there’s a heaven, while somewhat fewer (70 percent) believe in hell.

After that, the groups break down into subsets. While most people 50 and over believe there’s life beyond the grave, there’s a spectrum of visions regarding just what’s ahead.

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