Heavenly Books

This week, as I was browsing the New York Times nonfiction best sellers list, I couldn’t help but notice “Heaven” in the title of four books in the top 20.  Number 20 was “Waking Up in Heaven,” a book about what happened during nine minutes of unconsciousness.  Number 17 was called “When Will the Heaven Begin?” a book where a sister remembers the visions of heaven as experienced by her brother who died at the age of 18.  “Heaven is for Real” tells the story of a five- year-old boy’s encounter with Jesus and angels while having surgery after his appendix ruptured.  It was number 11 on the list.  The number one book this week was written by a neurosurgeon who recounts his near death experience during a coma in the book entitled “Proof of Heaven”.

What do Americans think of heaven?

A Baylor study from 2007 found that 82 percent either “probably” or “absolutely” believe in heaven.  Pew found in the US Religious Landscape survey (2007) that 74 percent of Americans believe in heaven.  An equal number believe in life after death.  The General Social Survey (2010) found 71 percent of Americans believe in life after death.

How did U.S. Congregational Life Survey respondents answer similar questions about heaven and life after death?

The majority of respondents (94%) said “yes”, they believe in heaven.  More Catholic and conservative respondents believe in heaven (96% and 99%, respectively) while 87% of mainline congregants believe in heaven.   The majority of respondents (88%) believe there is a life beyond death.  Nearly seven out of ten respondents (66%) do not believe in reincarnation.  The table below compares religious traditions.

Belief Chart

Those who believe in life after death are generally more involved in church life. Usually, they:

  • attend worship weekly or more often
  • are more likely to be a member of a congregation
  • are involved in Sunday or church school,
  • are more likely to believe that worship helps with everyday life
  • are involved in devotional activities weekly or more often
  • are more likely to have said they grew spiritually in their faith over the last year
  • believe the Bible is the word of God
  • are more likely to say their spiritual needs were being met
  • are more likely to have said they had a conversion experience
  • are more likely to say they were at ease expressing their faith
  • are more likely to invite family or friends to attend worship
  • have a high school education or less

These characteristics are especially true for mainline Protestants.  Also, for mainline Protestant worshipers, those with a strong sense of belonging, those who tithe, and those who value sharing in Holy Communion are more likely to believe in life beyond death. For Catholics, those who believe in life after death are involved in devotional activities, report that they had grown spiritually in their faith, and are at ease expressing their faith.  For conservative Protestants, those who believe worship services help you with everyday life and those with a high school education or less are more likely to believe in life after death.

What are your beliefs concerning the afterlife?  Are they similar or different from others in your religious tradition? It might be interesting to read any of these books on the list to see if it shapes or changes your opinion.