Black Americans Believe in Heaven More than Every Other Racial Group. There are Reasons Why that Is
A December survey conducted by Lifeway Research indicated that Black folks in America more than others believe they will live in Heaven in the afterlife. There's layers to this hopefulness.
The other day while scrolling Instagram, I ran across a post by the Black News Channel (BNC) that grabbed my attention. BNC commentator/New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, was reporting on a December 2021 survey conducted by Lifeway Research that examined American views on the afterlife and the belief that Heaven is the final destination for those who subscribe to the doctrine of the Christian religion.
Of the 1,002 people who participated in the survey, Black Americans outpaced other groups in their belief that they “will be with God in Heaven” after transitioning from the physical realm. The survey’s results were divided into assuredness in Heaven as an afterlife destination, uncertainty in Heaven as an afterlife destination, and the overall importance of believing in the afterlife/Heaven. The numbers broke down as the following:
37 percent of survey participants were sure they will be with God in Heaven in the afterlife
23 percent of survey participants hope to reach Heaven
17 percent of survey participants said that no one can really know if they will go to Heaven or not
55 percent of participants said that it was important to have certainty about going to Heaven in the afterlife
Now, when the data was aggregated along racial lines, 49 percent of Black Americans selected the response that read “I am sure I will be with God in Heaven” in the afterlife compared to 37 percent of white survey participants and 28 percent of Hispanic survey participants. I did not find these numbers to be startling at all. In fact, the survey further affirmed thoughts I’ve had for a long time in relation to Black American suffering and the prospect of joy in the hereafter — which is that for many Black folks who have endured centuries of racial subjugation, systemic inequity, an unjust legal system and general dehumanization in America, there has always had to be a belief that our suffering on Earth, and specifically in this country, was but a temporary sacrifice we would go through en route to streets paved with gold and everlasting Paradise.
“When we all get to heaven/what a day of rejoicing it will be…”
I’ve often believed that Black folks in the United States are deserving of two lifetimes; the one we are initially born into, and a do-over void of systemic oppression/dehumanization after our first life has expired. This theory was never an idea of us living one life in the physical realm and another life in the spiritual realm. I’ve always wanted us to have two opportunities to walk in the flesh and experience the physical world from a privileged position. To be actual beneficiaries of the labor and effort and life we poured into making America what it is.
I grew up attending a Southern Black Baptist church. As did my mother and her siblings. As did their parents. As did their parents’ parents and so on and so on. I’ve gone to enough Southern Black Baptist funeral services to understand how sensory overload works. How Black folks weep heavily for our loved ones on a personal level, and let out guttural wails for lives deprived of full humanity, irrespective of the deceased’s social or class status. We can’t always articulate why the deeper cry hurricanes out of our bodies the way it does, but we know that if the body that lies before us is Black, it also lived through some degree of trauma relative to the Black American experience. By the time the service crescendos to hymns and a eulogy that speaks to how our dearly departed have been granted a new life, the mood in the room often pivots to one of relief and joy that the Black body before us no longer has to suffer the troubles of this old world.
A Black church funeral anywhere, but especially in the American South, is a marathon of emotions that exhausts its attendees. If it takes place in the late spring or summer, the swelter of heat combined with grief, and a setting emblematic of disenfranchised living, is enough to reduce its attendees to rubble. And after all the hoop and holler and song and faint, you need to believe that the person you’ve come to pay your respects to has ascended somewhere better than the muck you’re left to wade through without them.
You need to believe that they are somewhere rejoicing and that their joy can no longer be compromised under any circumstances.
“I won’t have to cry no more/when I reach the other shore…”
There is a myriad of reasons that Black Americans experience shorter life spans than their white American counterparts. There are diseases that fatally impact Black bodies differently than white ones. There are instances of violence (communal, vigilante/race-related, police) that disproportionately impact Black Americans more than white Americans. There is a higher likeliness of Black women dying during childbirth than white women. And then there’s the general strain of inequitable living and/or poverty that triggers negative physiological reactions in Black bodies, often resulting in premature deaths.
Yes, there are absolutely Black septuagenarians and octagenarians that walk among us. There are Black folks who cross the century mark every year and Black folks that have been living witnesses to a long arc of history. The life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans has improved over the past few decades, but the lifestyle metrics that would enhance the quality of life for Black Americans are still grossly inequitable, so a lot of our elders may be living longer lives but not better ones.
So it is within reason that Black folks wholeheartedly believe Heaven to be their final destination, because if the God they serve is fair then it would only be fair for God to level the playing field after a Black life in the physical realm has come to an end.
“I’m gonna put on my robe/tell the story/how I made it over…”
Spirituality and religion have sat at the cornerstone of the Black American experience long before Black people were considered citizens of this country. Enslavers perverted biblical text as a means to justify the atrocity of chattel slavery and to initially take advantage of the illiteracy of enslaved people. Ultimately, the enslaved would go on to create “invisible churches” on plantations across America that were not traditional church buildings, but the slave quarters where they would assemble to share the gospel outside the interpretations of enslavers.
Christianity did not begin as the dominant religious belief of the enslaved. It wasn’t until close to the end of the 1800s and just before the Civil War that America’s enslaved population began to largely embrace Christianity as it was presented in the western world. Whereas the enslavers sought to indoctrinate the enslaved with Christianity as a tool of subjugation, the enslaved fellowshipped and sang and came to learn of Christianity through a lens of liberation, with the ultimate prize being the freedom that would come in death when they would be able to sit at the right hand of the Father. Amid the cruel and inhumane institution of slavery, the enslaved gripped tightly to the belief that their souls would know unfettered peace in the by and by.
It was a promise of joy that was passed down from generation to generation, impacting the way present-day Black folks view the prospect of acquiring a heavenly home as an eternal residence.
“Soon will be done/troubles of the world…”
There is a line from a well-known hymn in Black churches that goes I ain’t gon’ study war no more which more or less perfectly surmises why Black folks are so sure that our afterlife has to consist of the tranquility and harmony that Heaven is advertised as being. To be Black in America is exist in a state of perpetual conflict. It is to know that white supremacy culture is fluid in attempts to oppress you, and propagates war or rumors of war against your humanity at all times.
It’s not that Black folks in America don’t know joy or have not experienced variations of lowercase heaven throughout our history. Black folks are the originators of finding joy in spite of America’s attempts to derail our best lives and have modeled for this country how to exist jubilantly in spite of not being afforded the spoils of first-class citizenship.
But after all of the jokes and trends we set and styles we introduce and culture we generously share, we know that there is always some form of battle on the horizon. Therefore it is possible that Black folks subscribe to the idea of Heaven more than other races because if we do not believe there’s somewhere to eventually lay down our swords, then we are forced to reckon with the idea that the battles we fight in the physical world are just a primer for the ones we will have to continue to fight throughout eternity.
And the possibility of eternal conflict is a sorrowful outlook on life after death when you consider the alternative of believing in a place where every day is Sunday and every month is the month of May. Even if you have no way of proving such a utopia actually exists.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donney Rose is a Writer, Educator, Organizer and Chief Content Editor at The North Star