Survey results released yesterday by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research suggest that Evangelical Christians are becoming more accepting of a softer version of Christianity, rather than the fire-and-brimstone position you might hear from your local street preacher or aging televangelist.
The State of Theology (SoT) is a study of what “Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible,” and is based on a survey of 3,000 evangelical Christians which asked respondents questions like:
- Is God perfect?
- Does God accept the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam?
- Did the resurrection actually happen?
- Are most people basically good by nature, despite sinning a little?
- Does the smallest sin deserve the punishment of hell?
- Is the Bible 100% accurate?
- Is hell a real place?
For the purpose of the survey, LifeWay identified evangelicals as people who strongly agreed with the following four statements:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Despite the up-front agreement by participants about the basis of their belief systems, the variation in responses is really fascinating and shows that Christians are all over the board in what they believe. Aside from that, it’s causing panic among some hardline church leaders.
For example, 53% of the Christians surveyed believe that “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.”
In response to this finding, Dr. Stephen Nichols, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries and president of Reformation Bible College, said:
“These results are a serious cause for concern. It is the depth of man’s sin that led Jesus to die on the cross. How, then, can a majority of evangelicals say most people are good by nature? Down through history, Christians have proclaimed that Jesus is truly God, not some sort of created being. The evangelical world is in great danger of slipping into irrelevance when it casually forgets the Bible’s doctrine.”
On the SoT study’s web page, they say this about the contrast between Biblical doctrine and the beliefs of its followers:
This idea flatly contradicts the Bible, which teaches the radical corruption of every human being and declares that no one does good by nature (Rom. 3:10–12). This is why we need the gospel in the first place—because none of us is good.
That’s right, Christians — no room for optimism in the eyes of hardline Evangelical Christianity. According to Dr. Nichols and SoT, if we’re not ensuring that people understand the sinful nature of humans, then how can we sell them Jesus as the cure to their unavoidable affliction? You might as well go out and buy a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus, what is it good for?”
On the question of whether or not God accepts the worship of other religions, 51% agree that God is cool with people following Judaism or Islam.
That seems pretty strange, considering that the respondents agreed up-front that salvation only comes through acceptance of Jesus Christ. Here’s what SoT had to say about it:
The Bible is clear that the gospel is the only way of salvation, and God will not accept the worship of other faiths. It is only through Jesus Christ and by His Spirit that we are able to worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
Needless to say, the church leaders behind this survey aren’t too pleased with the disparity in responses to these and other questions and are calling for local pastors to help right the ship. Chris Larson, president and CEO of Ligonier Ministries, said:
“The State of Theology survey highlights the urgent need for courageous ministry that faithfully teaches the historic Christian faith. It’s never been popular to talk about mankind’s sinfulness or the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ, but at a time when a darkened world needs the light of the gospel, it’s disheartening to see many within the evangelical church confused about what the Bible teaches. We hope this survey provides local churches with a little more insight into what people in our neighborhoods and in our pews actually believe.”
In reading through the survey results, I think this is a good sign for those of us who feel secularism is necessary for a progressive and inclusive society. If self-described evangelicals are leaning toward values that can be adopted and carried forward without being rooted in fundamentalism, then we’re heading in the right direction. Just having the mindset that most people are naturally good, and that it’s not necessarily religion that makes them that way, is great. It means that even evangelical Christians are realizing people can be “good without God.” Attitudes like this can be very beneficial for the acceptance of non-Christians (especially atheists) in a Christian-dominated country like the US.
And if you’re a data nerd like me, you can see all of the survey questions, sort and manipulate the data, and get more insight into the pulse of a seemingly more liberal, softer Christian outlook here.
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