Most Americans believe in heaven, hell, and a few old-fashioned heresies.
Americans disagree about mixing religion and politics and about the Bible. And few pay much heed to their pastor’s sermons or see themselves as sinners.
Those are among the findings of a new study of American views about Christian theology from Nashville-based LifeWay Research. The online survey of 3,000 Americans was commissioned by Orlando-based Ligonier Ministries.
Stephen Nichols, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries, says the study was intended to “take the temperature of America’s theological health.”
Ligonier founder and chairman, R.C. Sproul, says, “What comes screaming through this survey is the pervasive influence of humanism.”
Researchers asked 43 questions about faith, covering topics from sin and salvation to the Bible and the afterlife. They wanted to know how people in the pews—and people on the street—understand theology.
Many Americans get the basics right, but they’re often fuzzy on the details, says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research.
“People like to believe in a generic Christian-ish god with cafeteria doctrines,” says Stetzer. “However, when we asked about harder beliefs—things that the church has and still considers orthodoxy—the numbers shift.”
Among the study’s findings:
Americans say heaven is a real place. But they disagree about who gets in.
Two thirds (67 percent) of Americans believe heaven is a real place. That includes, following standard demographic categories, 9 in 10 Black Protestants (88 percent) and evangelicals (90 percent), three quarters of Catholics (75 percent) as well as a third of non-Christians (37 percent).
Just under half of Americans (45 percent) say there are many ways to heaven—which conflicts with traditional views about salvation being linked to faith in Jesus.
Catholics (67 percent) and Mainline Protestants (55 percent) are most likely to say heaven’s gates are wide open with many ways in. Evangelicals (19 percent) and Black Protestants (33 percent) are more skeptical.
About half of Americans (53 percent) say salvation is in Christ alone. Four in 10 (41 percent) say people who have never heard of Jesus can still get into heaven. And 3 in 10 (30 percent) say people will have a chance to follow God after they die.
Hell is a real place, too. But you have to be really bad to go there.
About 6 in 10 Americans (61 percent) say hell is a real place. Black Protestants (86 percent) and Evangelicals (87 percent) are most likely to say hell is real. Catholics (66 percent) and Mainline Protestants (55 percent) are less convinced.
Overall, Americans don’t seem too worried about sin or being sent to hell. Two-thirds (67 percent) say most people are basically good, even though everyone sins a little bit—an optimistic view of human nature at odds with traditional teaching about human sin.
Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans (18 percent) say even small sins should lead to damnation, while about half (55 percent) say God has a wrathful side.
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SOURCE: Lifeway Research