According to a 2004 Gallop poll, 81% of Americans believe in heaven and 70% believe in hell. An earlier Gallup Poll found that 77% of Americans were optimistic about making it to heaven. Very few saw themselves as headed to hell.
A Beliefnet.com poll held recently of 10,567 respondents had similar findings – 76% believed in hell and 72% listed “unlikely” or “not a chance” when asked what their chances are of ending up in hell 55% of the “not a chance” respondents also happened to be Born-Again Christians.
Yet according to a recent Associated Press article, what people mean by “heaven” and “hell” has changed significantly over the last 50 years.
According to Prof of History, Jeffrey Burton Russell (who has a new book out called Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It)
“For Christians, basically, heaven underneath all of the decorations means living in harmony with God and the cosmos and your neighbors and being grateful,” said Mr. Russell, who studied hell and Satan for 15 years before first turning his attention to heaven in a 1997 book.
To him, it’s healthiest to see heaven as starting on Earth, not an existence that “suddenly happens when you die.”
What about hell and its fire and brimstone? “There is a tendency to over-dramatize hell in order to get [it] across to people,” he said, but it’s simply “the absence of God, the absence of heaven.”
Perhaps – but as with any belief, I wonder how Russell can say with any type of certainty what hell is and isn’t. It still all comes down to belief. The “absence of God” argument just seems easier to swallow than eternal torment among the fires of hell even though both interpretations are prevalent in Christian traditions. I suppose you have to read his book for the full debate.
What’s interesting is that according to a Newsweek/Beliefnet.com poll last year, 79% of respondents thought that a person who wasn’t of their religious faith could go to heaven or attain salvation. That’s in alignment with what the Catholic Church has believed since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) – that those who don’t know the Christian Gospel but sincerely seek God “can attain to everlasting salvation.”
That is reflected in the more recent Beliefnet.com poll, 56% of respondents thought that someone they know might end up in hell. 60% of Born-Again Christians said that was because those people didn’t have “right beliefs” compared with just 19% of Catholics. 80% of Catholics said it was because of “immoral actions” compared with 40% of Born-Agains.