Since the dawn of history, many people have believed that human beings do not simply cease to exist upon their death. Numerous religions and cultures teach that the physical body may die and decompose, but that some element of the person goes on to what many call the "after-life." Between 1972 and 1982, when the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research asked the American public, "Do you believe there is life after death?," 70 percent said they believed in an afterlife, and 20 percent said they did not. In 1996, when the Roper Center asked the same question, 73 percent of respondents said yes, and 16 percent said no. A 2002 poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, as part of its General Social Survey, revealed similar results. Seventy-two percent of those polled said they believed that there is a life after death, 17 percent did not, and 11 percent were undecided. (See Figure 11.1.) Clearly, the proportion of the U.S. population believing in an afterlife appears to have remained relatively consistent over three decades.
When asked in polls conducted by the Gallup Organization about an afterlife and what that "eternal destination" might be, many Americans expressed a belief in heaven, where people who led good lives are eternally rewarded after death, and hell, where unrepentant people who led bad lives are eternally punished. From 1997 to 2004, a majority of Gallup Poll respondents—72 percent in 1997 and 81 percent in 2004—acknowledged a belief in heaven. (See Figure 11.2.) In the 2004 survey, 10 percent were unsure whether or not they believed in heaven, and 8 percent did not believe in it. In addition, a majority of respondents—56 percent in 1997 and 70 percent in 2004—acknowledged a belief that hell exists in the afterlife. (See Figure 11.3.) In the 2004 survey, 12 percent were unsure whether or not they believed in hell and 17 percent did not believe in it.
In a 1997 poll conducted by the Gallup Organization for the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Fetzer Institute, published in "A Roper Center Data Review: Facing Death" (Public Perspective, March/April 2001; hereafter cited as Roper), 83 percent of those surveyed thought that existence in the afterlife would be a positive experience as opposed to negative or neutral. Further, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of those who believe they will exist in an afterlife also believe they will experience spiritual growth after death.
Because so many people believe in an afterlife and anticipate a spiritual life after death, it is not surprising that more than half of respondents expressed concern about "not being forgiven by God" (57 percent), "not reconciling with others" (56 percent), and "dying when … removed or cut off from God or a higher power" (51 percent). About half (49 percent) worried about "not being forgiven by someone for something."