"I want to know one thing, the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore."
--Methodism founder John Wesley
In attending the annual convention of the End-Time Handmaidens some 15 years ago, what made an immediate impression was the intensity of the faith of followers who believed the Second Coming was near.
For 16 hours a day, they prayed and swayed, at times singing of the day they will "dance on streets that are golden," at other times keening in lament for those who will not be with them.
The promise of heaven, and who would get in and who was in danger of being left behind, was a matter of the greatest urgency for those women in white-and-gold robes gliding through a hotel ballroom in Washington.
These days, it often seems, both in public and religious circles, more voices are being raised questioning traditional beliefs in heaven.
Authors hostile to religion such as Richard Dawkins have made best-seller lists by attacking beliefs in God and in eternal life as a delusion. Both some liberal religious leaders focusing on social and political change and some conservative voices assuring believers of Earthly prosperity have shifted attention from the next life to this one.
Yet, in the hearts and minds of most Americans, hope in heaven has remained consistently strong.
In the 1976 General Social Survey, 72 percent of respondents said they believed in a life after death. The percentage holding that belief was unchanged in the 2012 survey.
Among worshipers, the belief is even stronger. The 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey found 94 percent of respondents believed in heaven. Beliefs were high among all groups, with 99 percent of conservative Protestants, 96 percent of Catholics and 87 percent of mainline Protestant worshipers affirming their faith in heaven.
Belief in heaven could even be said to have become more expansive as people have greater contact with individuals from diverse faith backgrounds.
More than four in five respondents to the 2006 Faith Matters Survey said they believed a good person who is not of their faith can go to heaven or attain salvation.
That does not mean religious leaders from different traditions have the same attitudes toward heaven.
In a Baylor University study of pastors in three cities, 83 percent of Assemblies of God clergy strongly agreed with the statement, "If I remain faithful, my trials on Earth will be rewarded in heaven." Just 43 percent of United Methodist clergy and 20 percent of Episcopal leaders expressed the same beliefs.
However, it does not appear there will be dramatic changes in beliefs in heaven anytime soon as younger generations also hold strong beliefs in heaven. In the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, about a third of respondents ages 18 to 29 said they were very certain they will get into heaven, while just 23 percent of respondents ages 70 and older had the same level of confidence.
Research has indicated that in general the belief in a loving God who cares for individuals throughout this life and into eternity can help sustain many individuals even in their darkest times.
For the End-Time Handmaidens, heaven is a promise to be embraced with joy and a burden to reach out to "lost souls." For many other Americans, heaven is the promise of hope that allows them to face the challenges of this life with a spirit that overcomes despair and enables them to be a source of love for others.
The path to hell may at times be paved with the best of human intentions, but it also could be said following a path to heaven paved by faith may help believers love their neighbors as themselves in this life.
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