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January 11, 2006

Belief in Heaven Remains Strong

by Jon M. Sweeney

The loss of twelve miners in West Virginia last week reminded us not only of the fleetingness of life, but also of the persistence of hope.

You’ve probably heard the story of what happened last Wednesday, when for three hours the family and friends of thirteen trapped miners believed that their loved ones had survived, only to learn later that they were dead and the earlier information had been wrong.

Just before midnight on Tuesday, the families were told that the miners appeared to be safe, and church bells rang all over town in celebration. Then, just before 3 a.m. Wednesday, mine company chief Ben Hatfield announced that twelve of the thirteen men were dead and the other was in critical condition. Hatfield apologized for the earlier message that had given the families false hope.

According to news reports, one family member screamed in outrage: “We have got some of us...saying...that we don’t even know if there is a Lord anymore. We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us.”

CNN reported that family members “were cursing God.”

Such feelings are understandable, even expected, in situations where individuals and families face tragedies that seem humanly impossible to bear. Yet there is an unexpected side as well; instead of losing all hope in divinity, most Americans still believe that tragedy is not the final word. Even all the scientific discoveries, technological advances, dramatic improvements in medicine, and modern catastrophes have not dulled Americans’ belief in the afterlife.

We are a nation devoted to the idea of a “better place.” According to a poll conducted last month by ABC News, nearly 90 percent of us believe in the existence of heaven. Just as many Americans believe in heaven now as have so believed in the last century, according to experts.

Perhaps most surprising, nearly 5 percent of those who believe in heaven also believe that they will not be going there after death. In fact, 10.5 percent of Catholics doubt that they’ll be getting in. The ABC News survey did not ask respondents why they didn’t feel they would personally see heaven, but a good guess is that the answers would have centered around not being good enough.

Tragedies happen all of the time—perhaps now more than in the recent past. But tragic events don’t diminish our belief in the afterlife—that there is some way in which we live beyond our deaths. Whether it is our bodies or just our souls that go there, or whether or not it is a real place or only a spiritual one, opinions differ widely.

Though they often do not turn out the way we hope and pray, we still believe in miracles, with eternity spent in the presence of God being the most profound miracle of all. In the meantime, it is up to us to fix the coal mines. And along the way, God doesn’t stop loving us here, in this life—or beyond.

© 2006 Jon M. Sweeney.

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including THE ST. FRANCIS PRAYER BOOK.

More by Jon M. Sweeney.

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