More than three years after Pope Francis sparked a firestorm of religious debate by telling a young boy that his deceased atheist father might still end up in Heaven, a new study from the Pew Research Center shows a majority of Catholic and mainline Christians also believe people who don’t believe in God will go to Heaven.
Data for the study, conducted Sept. 20-26, was collected from a nationally representative sample of 6,485 U.S. adults.
Pew researchers decided for the first time to tackle deep philosophical questions like the meaning of life, the purpose of suffering and why bad things happen to people. The national study was released amid a backdrop of major life-changing events for many, most notably the coronavirus pandemic which has claimed millions of lives globally.
In discussing American views on the afterlife, the study showed that majorities of U.S. adults believe in both Heaven and Hell, but significantly more believe in Heaven. Some 73% of respondents reported belief in Heaven, while 62% of respondents reported belief in Hell.
When it comes to Christians as a group, the study showed that the overwhelming majority of all Christian groups supported belief in Heaven. Protestants from historically black and evangelical churches were more likely than mainline Protestant Christians or Catholics to express belief in Hell.
And while 39% of all American adults, in general, believe people who don’t believe in God can still go to Heaven, 68% of Catholics and 56% of mainline Protestant Christians were found to hold this belief compared to 21% of evangelicals and 31% of Christians from historically black churches.
When it comes to suffering in the world, few respondents in the study blamed God. In general, most agreed that suffering is due primarily to the actions of people. For majorities of black and evangelical Christians, though, Satan is believed to have a hand in human suffering, too, the study shows.
Some 86% of American adults say suffering is at least due in part to random chance. Overall, 44% of respondents said the phrase “sometimes bad things just happen” captured their perspective very well. Another 42% said the statement reflected their views somewhat well.
Despite this widely held view on the reason for suffering, however, most people didn't also see suffering as something negative. Some 68% believed “everything in life happens for a reason” and suffering exists “to provide an opportunity for people to come out stronger.”
For many respondents in the study, the way they view suffering was also connected to their ideas about God.
The study found that 91% of Americans believe in God or a higher power, and 80% of this group say that most of the suffering in the world comes from people rather than from God. Some 70% of this group also believe that humans are free to go against God's plans or that of a higher power.
While just 44% of all U.S. adults polled for the study said Satan is responsible for most of the suffering in the world, this view had much stronger support among black and evangelical Protestants.
Some 69% of respondents in the study who attend historically black churches blamed Satan for most of the human suffering in the world, while 73% of evangelicals were found to believe the same. Less than half of mainline Protestant Christians and Catholics blamed Satan for suffering in the world.