Many American evangelicals love C. S. Lewis’s writings yet balk at his depiction in The Last Battle of Emeth, the soldier who gets to enter Narnia’s heaven despite having followed the god Tash and not Aslan the lion.
Yet such theological inclusivism (often misrepresented as universalism) is now supported by a quarter of evangelicals and a majority of mainline Protestants and Catholics, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
Most Americans more or less believe that “hell is other people” (apologies to Sartre), according to Pew’s pandemic-inspired study, released today, on suffering and the problem of evil.
Yet when it comes to the actual hell and heaven, in the same survey Pew found “many Americans believe in an afterlife where suffering either ends entirely or continues in perpetuity.”
Pew surveyed 6,485 American adults—including 1,421 evangelicals—in September 2021 about the afterlife, specifically their views on heaven, hell, reincarnation, fate, prayer, and other metaphysical matters.
Today 73 percent of Americans believe in heaven while 62 percent believe in hell, similar to 2017 when Pew last asked the questions.
Meanwhile, 1 in 4 Americans don’t believe in heaven or hell. Instead, 7 percent believe in “a different kind of afterlife” while 17 percent don’t believe in any afterlife.
According to Pew researchers:
The vast majority of those who believe in heaven say they believe heaven is “definitely” or “probably” a place where people are free from suffering [69%], are reunited with loved ones who died previously [65%], can meet God [62%], and have perfectly healthy bodies [60%]. And about half of all Americans … view hell as a place where people experience psychological and physical suffering [53%] and become aware of the suffering they created in the world [51%]. A similar share says that people in hell cannot have a relationship with God [49%].
Four in 10 Americans believe those in hell definitely or probably can meet Satan.
Meanwhile on the fate of nonbelievers, Pew found support for inclusivism among Catholics was “far more likely” than among Protestants (68% vs. 34%), and especially evangelicals (21%).
A related research question touched on universalism, though it asked Christian respondents to assess both “my religion” and “Christian religions.” As researchers described:
There also is wide variance among Christians on the question of whether “many religions” can lead to eternal life in heaven or if their religion is the “one true faith” leading to heaven. Protestants are more than twice as likely as Catholics to say that their faith is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven (38% vs. 16%), with half of evangelicals expressing this view. On the other hand, 44% of evangelical Protestants say that many religions can lead to eternal life in heaven, though they are split on whether this reward is granted only to members of other branches of Christianity (19%) or if followers of some non-Christian religions also can go to heaven (23%).
Here is how Americans describe what they believe heaven and hell are like:
Other findings from the survey include:
- 1 in 3 Americans believe in reincarnation.
- 4 in 10 believe in fate—including two-thirds of Black Americans.
- 8 in 10 believe “things can happen that cannot be explained by science or natural causes.”
- 7 in 10 believe in “definite answers to specific prayer requests” but only 5 in 10 have experienced it.
- 7 in 10 believe in receiving direct revelations from God but only 3 in 10 have experienced it.
- 7 in 10 believe it is possible to “feel the presence” of someone who has died and 4 in 10 have experienced it.
- 5 in 10 believe it is possible to “get help” from the dead and 2 in 10 have experienced it.
- 5 in 10 believe it is possible to communicate with the dead and less than 2 in 10 have experienced it.
- 8 in 10 believe in near-death experiences.
Among members of evangelical churches:
- 90% of evangelicals believe in “definite answers to specific prayer requests,” but only 73% have experienced it.
- 88% believe in receiving direct revelations from God, but only 46% have experienced it.
- 63% believe it is possible to “feel the presence” of someone who has died and 37% say they have experienced it.
- 38% believe it is possible to “get help” from the dead and 15% say they have experienced it.
- 35% believe it is possible to communicate with the dead and 11% say they have experienced it.
The religiously unaffiliated have nearly the same belief as evangelicals in all three, while mainline Protestants and Catholics report higher levels of belief in all three. Black Protestants are the highest: 55 percent have experienced the presence of the deceased, 28 percent have experienced help from the dead, and 25 percent say they have communicated with the dead.
Editor’s note: This post will be updated.