Oct 21, 2003

From the Archives

Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death

Despite the constant flux in many dimensions of Americans’ lives, a new study from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California, shows that most people have retained surprisingly traditional views about life after death. Although the lifestyles, values, and self-perceptions of most adults have undergone significant change – and millions of Americans have embraced many elements of a postmodern worldview – the vast majority continues to believe that there is life after death, that everyone has a soul, and that Heaven and Hell exist. However, more than 50 million adults are uncertain regarding their personal eternal fate.

The Afterlife

Belief in life after death, like the existence of God, is widely embraced: 8 out of 10 Americans (81%) believe in an afterlife of some sort. Another 9% said life after death may exist, but they were not certain. Just one out of every ten adults (10%) contend that there is no form of life after one dies on earth.

Moreover, a large majority of Americans (79%) agreed with the statement “every person has a soul that will live forever, either in God’s presence or absence.”

Evangelicals, born again Christians, and Elders (ages 58 and older) were the most likely segments to embrace the idea of life after death. Those least likely to believe in life after death were Hispanics, Busters (ages 20-38), residents of the West, atheists and agnostics, those associated with a faith other than Christianity, and unchurched adults – although more than two-thirds of each of these groups accept the existence of an afterlife.

Heaven and Hell

The survey also explored peoples’ views of Heaven and Hell. In all, 76% believe that Heaven exists, while nearly the same proportion said that there is such a thing as Hell (71%). Respondents were given various descriptions of Heaven and asked to choose the statement that best fits their belief about Heaven. Those who believe in Heaven were divided between describing Heaven as “a state of eternal existence in God’s presence” (46%) and those who said it is “an actual place of rest and reward where souls go after death” (30%). Other Americans claimed that Heaven is just “symbolic” (14%), that there is no such thing as life after death (5%), or that they are not sure (5%).

While there is no dominant view of Hell, two particular perspectives are popular. Four out of ten adults believe that Hell is “a state of eternal separation from God’s presence” (39%) and one-third (32%) says it is “an actual place of torment and suffering where people’s souls go after death.” A third perspective that one in eight adults believe is that “Hell is just a symbol of an unknown bad outcome after death” (13%). Other respondents were “not sure” or said they that they do not believe in an afterlife (16%).


Most Americans do not expect to experience Hell first-hand: just one-half of 1% expect to go to Hell upon their death. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) believe they will go to Heaven. One in 20 adults (5%) claim they will come back as another life form, while the same proportion (5%) contend they will simply cease to exist.

Even though most Americans believe in life after death and the existence of the soul, not everyone is clear about their own ultimate destination. One in every four adults (24%) admitted that they have ”no idea” what will happen after they die. Those who felt their eternal future is undefined were most likely to be Hispanics, singles, men, atheists and agnostics, residents of the West, and 18- and 19-year-olds (i.e., young adults who also happen to be the first members of the Mosaic generation to enter adulthood).

Among those who expect to go to Heaven, there were differences in how they anticipate such an end would be attained. Nearly half of those who say they are Heaven bound (43%) believe they will go to Heaven because they have “confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.” Others felt they will get to Heaven because “they have tried to obey the 10 Commandments” (15%) or because “they are basically a good person” (15%). Another 6% believed their entrance to Heaven would be based upon the fact that “God loves all people and will not let them perish.”

One of the intriguing findings from the research is that education and income are negatively correlated with belief in Heaven and Hell. In other words, the more education a person gets or the more income they earn, the less likely they are to believe that Heaven or Hell exists. While most high-income households and college graduates maintain belief in Heaven and Hell, the finding reinforces the popular notion – and, indeed, Jesus’ teaching – that people of economic means and those with considerable education struggle to embrace biblical teachings on such matters.

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The New Views

Although a comparison of current beliefs to those held over the past two decades shows that Americans’ views about life after death have been relatively stable over time, new perceptions about the hereafter are being grafted into the traditional perspectives. For instance, nearly 1 in 5 adults (18%) now contends that people are reincarnated after death. And one-third of Americans (34%) believe that it is possible to communicate with others after their death. As evidence that this belief is gaining traction, consider that nearly half of all Busters (48%) embrace the concept of communication with the dead, while just 35% of Boomers (39-57) and 15% of Elders (ages 58+) do so.

Contradictions Reign

George Barna, the founder of the company that conducted the research, pointed out that “Americans’ willingness to embrace beliefs that are logically contradictory and their preference for blending different faith views together create unorthodox religious viewpoints.” For instance, he noted that among born again Christians – who believe that they will experience eternal existence in Heaven solely because they have confessed their sins to God and are depending upon Jesus Christ to spare them from eternal punishment or rejection – 10% believe that people are reincarnated after death, 29% claim it is possible to communicate with the dead, and 50% contend that a person can earn salvation based upon good works.

“Many committed born again Christians believe that people have multiple options for gaining entry to Heaven. They are saying, in essence, ‘Personally, I am trusting Jesus Christ as my means of gaining God’s permanent favor and a place in Heaven – but someone else could get to Heaven based upon living an exemplary life.’ Millions of Americans have redefined grace to mean that God is so eager to save people from Hell that He will change His nature and universal principles for their individual benefit. It is astounding how many people develop their faith according to their feelings or cultural assumptions rather than biblical teachings.”

The California-based researcher indicated that born again Christians are not the only ones confused about what happens after death. Many of those who describe themselves as either atheistic or agnostic also harbor contradictions in their thinking. “Half of all atheists and agnostics say that every person has a soul, that Heaven and Hell exist, and that there is life after death. One out of every eight atheists and agnostics even believe that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible. These contradictions are further evidence that many Americans adopt simplistic views of life and the afterlife based upon ideas drawn from disparate sources, such as movies, music and novels, without carefully considering those beliefs. Consequently, the labels attached to people – whether it be ‘born again’ or ‘atheist’ may not give us as much insight into the person’s beliefs as we might assume.”

Research Methodology

The data described in this report are based on national telephone surveys among random samples of 1000 or more adults (age 18 or older) living within the 48 continental states conducted in September 2003, October 2002, and October 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with each sample of 1000 adults is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. (There are other types of error besides sampling error that may also be present in surveys.) All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The distribution of the survey respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population according to Census Bureau estimates. Multiple callbacks to each respondent were used to increase the probability of obtaining data based on a reliable sample of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; contending that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not based upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

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About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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