Beliefs News

On God and heaven, Americans are all over the map

"American Theological Views: Charcter of God." Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

“American Theological Views: Character of God.” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

(RNS) Two-thirds of Americans believe God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The exception: Americans with evangelical Christian beliefs, according to LifeWay Research’s 2016 State of American Theology Study. Only 48 percent of evangelicals share the belief God accepts all worship.

Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

The study comes in the same year that Larycia Hawkins — Wheaton College’s first black, female professor to receive tenure — parted ways with the evangelical flagship school after she posted on Facebook that both Christians and Muslims worship the “same God.” The controversy stirred fresh debate among evangelicals about whether all religions worship the same God, and whether God accepts the worship of all religions.

That’s not the only theological question on which evangelicals part ways with the rest of America, according to the study.

And the study also suggests Americans as a whole hold seemingly incompatible beliefs: Seven in 10 Americans said there’s only one true God — expressed as the Christian Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the survey found.

“Contradictory and incompatible beliefs are OK for most people,” LifeWay Research Executive Director Scott McConnell said in a press release about the study gauging Americans’ understanding of Christian theology.

"American Theological Views: The Trinity." Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

“American Theological Views: The Trinity.” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

Among those beliefs, 6 in 10 Americans said “heaven is a place where all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones.” But on a separate question, 54 percent of Americans said “only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”

And nearly two-thirds of Americans said Jesus is God, it said. But then, more than half said Jesus was a creature created by God.

Other notable beliefs shared by Americans:

  • Most believe in the power of prayer. Two-thirds (66 percent) said God continues to answer specific prayers. Evangelicals were most likely (94 percent) to agree.
  • Most also see the best in others: 65 percent agreed “everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” Evangelicals were less likely (54 percent) to agree.
  • Americans are split on whether the Bible is literally true. Nearly half of Americans (44 percent) answered “like all sacred writings, (it) contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true,” while about the same number (45 percent) disagreed. Evangelicals were less likely (17 percent) to agree the Bible contained helpful myths and most likely (95 percent) to say it is “100 percent accurate in all it teaches.”

    "American Theological Views: The Bible." Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

    “American Theological Views: The Bible.” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

  • Forty-four percent of Americans agreed modern science discredits the claims of Christianity, while 40 percent disagreed.
  • Less than half of Americans (40 percent) believe hell is an “eternal place of judgment where God sends all people who do not personally trust in Jesus Christ.” Evangelicals were more likely (84 percent) to believe in hell as a place of judgment.
  • Americans also disagree about issues of homosexuality, gender and abortion. About the same number of Americans said Bible verses that seem to condemn homosexual behavior do (44 percent) and don’t (42 percent) apply today. That gap widens when it comes to gender identity: 38 percent agreed it is “a matter of choice,” while half disagree. On abortion: 49 percent of Americans said it is a sin, while 40 percent said it is not.

The 2016 State of American Theology Study asked 47 questions on prayer, the Bible and heaven and hell.

LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm, conducted the online survey of 3,000 Americans from April 14-20. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, though margins of error are higher in subgroups.

It was sponsored by Orlando-based Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian discipleship organization founded by R.C. Sproul.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

44 Comments

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  • The best thing about beliefs?
    As the red queen said, “I can believe six impossible things before breakfast.”

  • “Methodology:
    A demographically balanced online panel was used for interviewing American adults.
    Three thousand surveys were completed from April 14-20, 2016. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error from the online panel does not exceed plus or minus two percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. Slight weights were used to balance gender, age, ethnicity, income, region and religion.”

    Wow. Fairly good survey methodology!! Commendable and surprising in this day and age!!

  • Well, you’re right. Regarding God, the Bible, Sin, Salvation, Sexuality, Heaven, Hell, Jesus Christ (and what Jesus did or didn’t accomplish on the Cross), it’s true that we Americans are all over the map. Our national situation has become a just plain total mess now.

    Which is why our nation is in such deep trouble at this time.

    Not only has America forgotten God — a potentially fatal mistake all by itself –but we’re no longer even sure what kind of God we forgot about. Sheesh!

  • It would appear that some of the responses by percentage are counterintuitive to one another, which would indicate conflict in the minds of at least some of the respondents. Though by Mormon theology it would not be a contradiction for Jesus to be both God (or a god) and a created being. At least that is my understanding.

  • We’ll work on that part AFTER the election. For now, just figuring out where this backslidden fallen nation is really at, is a good enough priority.

  • Yet if any of the Abrahamic religions didn’t exist but tried to take root in the western world they would be laughed at. Anyone claiming to be a prophet or messenger of god would not be taken seriously. Yet these same superstitious ideas are held so highly today.

  • Muslims do not worship Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is GOD.
    To say that Muslims and Christians worship the same god is false

  • Muslims trace their origins back to Ishmael, the first son of Abraham. The divinity, called “El” in much of Genesis, became “Allah” in Islam. It is fair to say that Muslims worship the same god as Christians, as do Jewish people.

  • Looking at the chart at the top of the article (about the character of God), I am reminded of the irresolvable contradictions in the Book of Job. At the start, Yahweh tells The Prosecutor that Job is without fault of any kind. And yet Job suffers horribly in the rest of the story. So, not all of the following three propositions can be true;

    Job is free from all fault.
    God is good and just.
    God is all-powerful.

    If God is all-powerful and Job is free from all fault, then God is not good and just, because Job suffers at the whim of God.

    If God is good and just and Job is free from all fault, then God is not all-powerful, because he does not prevent Job from suffering.

    If God is good and just and also all-powerful, then Job is not free from all fault, but then God is a liar.

  • or 44% believe science disproves Christianity yet 66% believes god answers specific prayers. Good for the 10% who must accept that their faith is just faith, not science.

  • I’m not sure any of this is new. There is no shortage of theological opinions in the churches, and Christians have many different opinions about freewill vs. God’s sovereignty, the ‘person-hood’ of the Holy Spirit, questions about the Trinity, and many others. If you think there should be lock-step agreement on every question, write about cults. Christian thought is much bigger and open than that.

  • Ed, I think I’d remove evangelicals from your “Christian thought” sentence. Based on the information gleaned from the survey, they are apparently a monolithic, rigid, one dimensional group.

  • Well, there are ‘evangelicals’ who are Baptists, and others who are Assembly of God, and others who are highly Pentecostal, and still others who are ‘Christian in Name Only’. And there are black churches that would qualify as ‘evangelical’, but vote heavily Democratic. I just don’t think the term ‘evangelical’ means the same thing as it did several decades ago.

  • The survey was interesting. As time goes on it becomes easier to conduct surveys, yet, the concept of the title “On God and heaven, Americans are all over the map” is nothing new considering all of the varieties of Christian denominations. We will never know what surveys would have revealed centuries ago.

    I personally reject the import of the article that implies syncretism is the quintessence that is acceptable to the God of the Scriptures.

    More recently, religious syncretism can be seen in such religious systems as the New Age, Hinduism, Unitarianism, and Christian Science. These religions are a blending of multiple different belief systems and are continually evolving as the philosophies of mankind rise and fall in popularity.

    Therein lies the problem, for syncretism relies on the whim of man, not the standard of Scripture. The Bible makes it very clear what true religion is. Think on just a few things stated in Scripture: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37); “Jesus replied, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'” (John 14:6); “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31-32); and “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

    Religious syncretism is simply not compatible with true Christianity. In fact, any modification to biblical law and principle for the sake of a “better” religion is heresy (Revelation 22:18-19).

  • YOU WROTE: “… if any of the Abrahamic religions didn’t exist but tried to take root in the western world they would be laughed at.”

    ~~~~~ How can you make such an unfounded statement?
    It makes no difference in what part of the world where God’s word in the Scriptures has been taught that there was no evidence of great results due to the working of the Holy Spirit.

    Of course, there will always be those who are unregenerate [ not renewed in heart and mind or reborn in spirit ] who will laugh at the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Jude 1:17-20
    Dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ said before. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who laugh about God, following their own evil desires which are against God.” These are the people who divide you, people whose thoughts are only of this world, who do not have the Spirit. But dear friends, use your most holy faith to build yourselves up, praying in the Holy Spirit.

  • YOU WROTE: ” … they [Christians] are apparently a monolithic, rigid, one dimensional group.”

    ~~~~~~ And that is a beautiful example of the Holy Spirit’s work in their hearts that will not compromise what Jesus says:
    John 14:6
    Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

  • Your ad hominem was only an antagonism toward God. God is not anything like what you are trying to portray Him. You failed to include the entirety of the message and took everything out of context.

    If you are sincere in understanding the book of Job, you will read the following. If not, you will know in your heart what your motives are.

    A surface reading of the book of Job usually evokes a reaction such as “Why is God making a ‘bet’ with the devil? God is being unfair to Job!” If we are honest and not just trying to defend God, He seems at first like some kind of cosmic ogre. God not only wagered Satan over the outcome of Job’s trials, but He actually provoked the bet (Job 1–2). To make matters worse, Job never finds out why he was afflicted in the first place. This is very disturbing for those who hope to see God as just, gracious and loving and not just “playing” with us as if we were pawns on a chessboard. So, in a way, the story of Job puts God on trial. To really understand what is going on in Job, we need to evaluate how this “trial” is litigated in the book’s argument.

    On the surface, when God finally “testifies” in Job 38–42, the way He “grills” Job may seem to suggest that God is “against” Job rather than “for” him. The God-speeches are notable for their deep sarcasm, as if God were simply highlighting Job’s cluelessness (Job 38–39). However, a deeper look reveals a more redemptive dynamic in this trial: first, Job’s friend Elihu actually serves under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, both as Job’s advocate before God and God’s advocate before Job (Job 32–37); second, we find that God indeed did express His love to Job, both in His speeches (Job 38–41) and in finally vindicating Job. God confirms that Job had spoken “what was right” about Him, whereas his first three friends had not (42:7).

    As Job and his friends debate God’s fairness, it becomes apparent that all of them basically believe in the doctrine of “retribution theology”—every act receives just punishment or reward in this present life, so we should be able to tell who is righteous or wicked by whether they are visibly blessed or cursed on earth. This is a false doctrine, but Job thought it should be true and went on the offensive, charging God with injustice and calling for a trial (Job 29–31). Surprisingly, God condescends and agrees to be put on trial. The speeches in Job 38–41 actually consist of God’s testimony in His own defense. In the “trial” we see that Job has no legal standing to convict God. Job cannot demonstrate how God runs the universe, so he cannot present any evidence of injustice (chapters 38–39). Also, God establishes His absolute right to act as He sees fit. As proof, He points to two creatures—behemoth and leviathan—that mankind has no control over whatsoever and that answer only to God.

    Even before God shows up, Elihu makes the same points and argues that God is deeply redemptive in His dealings with man in spite of man’s notorious tendency toward self-destruction (32–37). Since God validates Elihu’s points (38–41), the adversarial tone in God’s answer to Job makes even more sense: throughout Job’s dialogue with his friends (4–27) and in his formal complaint to God (29–31), Job had assumed that God was unaware of what happened to him or that He was deliberately persecuting him or that Job had inadvertently sinned and God was not willing to tell him what the problem was. Job thought he was being punished entirely out of proportion to any conceivable offense he may have committed. In fact, Job questions God incessantly throughout the dialogue. His protest climaxes in a direct indictment of God on the charge of injustice (29–31).

    So what did Job “get right” (42:7)? The upshot of the trial is that Job finally sees that God’s governance of the universe is much more wonderful than he could have imagined, and he openly concedes this (42:2-5); so this is what Job spoke about God that was “right” (42:7). Now, it is absolutely crucial to note the sequence of events at this point: it is only when Job obeys God and intercedes on behalf of his three friends—who had now become his enemies—that God actually blesses Job with a twofold inheritance (42:8-17). This “reward” was not at all some kind of “consolation prize” for Job’s unfair treatment; rather, it was the inheritance God promises to all who serve faithfully as redemptive agents of the Creator (cf. Daniel 12:3). Job obeyed God and was rewarded for his obedience.

    In the end, God’s wager with Satan actually achieved an incredible coup: He harnessed evil and turned it to good (cf. Genesis 50:20), and He transformed Job into the most effective servant of all, one who took on God’s own redemptive character and loved his enemies. And this, in fact, is what God wants us to know about His sovereignty and that He makes everything work out for our spiritual benefit and deepening our trust in Him.

  • False statement. Sophistry.

    Islam does not recognize Jesus Christ as God who is our redemption from sin and God’s wrath. They view Him only as a prophet. That is NOT worshiping Christ as our God and Savior.

  • I do not believe that Christians want to make our government a theocracy.

    Our Contitution wisely forbids any favoritism concerning religion.

  • Well, you know how it goes with us Evil Sadistic Bible-Believing Christians, Ben…

    …One minute we’re building homeless shelters and handing out truckloads of free food to the poor, the next minute we’re buying truckloads of torches and pitchforks for the monthly Friday Night Heretic Hunt.

    (Hey don’t tell anybody, but I recently bought a couple of torture racks from the local museum to speed up the action a little bit.)
    C’est la vie, baby !!

  • First of all, I think you need to look up the definition of “ad hominem”. You have misused it in your reply.

    Second, I have read your reply. I have also previously read at least two books and several commentaries and essays about the Book of Job, because it is one of the most interesting in the Hebrew Bible.

    Third, the “devil” does not appear in the Book of Job. “Satan” or the “devil” is a much later creation, appearing first in the apocalyptic literature that commences in the early second century BCE. One of the earliest books to make use of a devil figure is 1 Enos, which, of course, is not part of the Hebrew or Christian Bibles, but which is extensively quoted in the Christian canonical texts. (That is the source, by the way, of the war in heaven and the damnation of the rebel angels.)

    In the opening scene of Job, we have a setting in Heaven with Yahweh gathering the “sons of El”. Among them is Ha-Satan, or more properly Ha-Shatan – הַ שָּׂטָ֖ן. The Hebrew particle “ha” means “the”. So we know that Ha-Satan is not a proper name, but a title. The word “satan” means adversary or prosecutor, and connotes a legal setting. Hence, the text refers to one of the sons of God in the role of prosecuting attorney, whose duty is to challenge statements or ideas.

    You say that the Book of Job puts God on trial. I think that is a fair interpretation. And on that interpretation, my thesis stands. God does not fare will in this trial.

    As for Job’s “friends”, who needs friends like them?! All of them associate punishment with guilt. In essence, they all condemn their “friend”. I refer you to Job: A Commentary by Solomon Freehof (1958). The author of the Book of Job refuses to accept this analysis. After all, Yahweh has from the start declared Job free from fault. But the “friends” represent the prosaic view of most people. And yes, Elihu’s speech, a later addition, simply repeats what the “friends” say.

    So, we come to God, who does not present himself very well. In fact, he looks rather like Trump in the recent debate; full of himself, power hungry and claiming enormous powers, and intimidating, in particular, intimidating and threatening to Job. Job cowers and acquiesces before the superior demonstration of power. But that leaves us with the open question, since Yahweh has not in fact answered Job, does might make right?

    Your interpretation is a Christian one, reading back into an earlier text beliefs obtained from later texts. You cannot do that. You cannot interpret Moby-Dick in light of To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • By that analysis, you would have to conclude that Jews do not worship the same god as Christians, and I know no one who thinks that – except you – because Jesus himself was a Jew.

    Islam, by the way, does recognize Jesus as a very important prophet. This was the position of many early Christian views as well, such as Arianism, Psilanthropism, Adoptionism and Apollinarism, to name a few.

    And Mormons do not accept the Holy Spirit, being dualists, not trinitarians. Would you say they are not Christians?

    I think you have too narrow a view of beliefs that you do not hold.

  • Okay, and thanks. Being all over the map in terms of what’s right and what’s wrong, has NEVER yielded good results for Christians and nations.

    How much good did it do for the churches in Germany to be all over the map regarding the rightness or wrongness of Nazism?
    How about American churches being all over the map on the “Dred Scott” Supreme Court decision and the U.S. slavery horror show?

    So the more the American (or any nation’s) churches are divided and spread apart on issues that the Bible is clear about (gay marriage, for example) ,,, the more such churches help the American (or any nation’s) people to fall down, get worse, and slide into poisonous disasters and judgments.
    A matter of history.

  • It’s good that you put “Christians” in brackets, since I didn’t say that. I was referring to only evangelicals. There are lots of churches, including mainline and others, who are not rigid and monolithic, but open to the ongoing work of the spirit. There is plenty of room in orthodoxy for differences.

  • Assuming

    a) The Bible is clear – many disagree with you: it certainly contains factual errors, untrue stories and contradictory positions. (And it doesn’t actually mention same-sex marriage does it?)

    b) That the Bible’s positions, even if they were consistent, clear and comprehensible are beneficial to society: some might be, some are wicked and wrong.

    c) That if a nation’s churches agreed on a position they would agree on the “right” one; who defines what is “right” – you?.

    d) Many people claim that, far from helping people to slide into disasters and judgements, churches have been responsible for much good. Sometimes churches do produce good outcomes, I see no reason to believe that that is because of their irrational belief in deity/deities. For your comments to be valid you need to establish that connection, so far you haven’t done so.

    e) That you actually understand history, rather than relying on the inaccurate wishful thinking of pseudo-historians who can’ t even remember whether they have an academically-earned qualification.

  • YOU WROTE: ” There is plenty of room in orthodoxy for differences.”

    ~~~~~ “Difference” in WHAT? I hope you don’t mean Biblical doctrine!

    Orthodoxy (from Greek ὀρθοδοξία, orthodoxia – “right opinion”)[1] is adherence to correct or accepted creeds, especially in religion.[2] In the Christian sense the term means “conforming to the Christian faith as represented in the creeds of the early Church”.[3] The first seven Ecumenical Councils were held between the years 325 and 787 with the aim of formalizing accepted doctrines.

  • RE. — By that analysis, you would have to conclude that Jews do not worship the same god as Christians, and I know no one who thinks that – except you – because Jesus himself was a Jew.
    ~~~~~~ Do you realize what you just wrote? Of course, the Jewish religion does NOT worship the same God as Christians! CHRISTians worship CHRIST – the God-man who came into the world to make us right with God. The Jews do not. God is one in the Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    RE. — Islam, by the way, does recognize Jesus as a very important prophet.
    ~~~~~ I already stated that. A prophet is not God. God is the only one who could redeem mankind so He took on our likeness, except for sin, and as the perfect God, He did for us what we could never do…. be perfect and pay for all sins on the cross.

    RE. — And Mormons do not accept the Holy Spirit, being dualists, not trinitarians. Would you say they are not Christians?
    ~~~~~~ Yes, because they reject what the Scriptures clearly teach.
    They believe their salvation must include some works that will make them worthy in God’s eyes. The Scriptures teach that it is ONLY through what Jesus has done FOR you that makes us worthy.

    EPHESIANS 2:4
    But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by GRACE you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his GRACE, expressed in his KINDNESS to us in Christ Jesus.
    N.B. – For it is by GRACE you have been saved, through FAITH—and this is NOT FROM YOURSELVES, it is the GIFT of God— NOT BY WORKS, so that no one can boast.

    RE. — I think you have too narrow a view of beliefs that you do not hold.
    ~~~~~ God wrote the Scriptures – not I.

  • Christians don’t. But theocratic, hyper conservative Christians do. They post on these very pages,I fact, telling us how we are a Christian nation, our laws are Judeo Christian. And that Christians are just the best forgiven people on earth.

  • I take it that you are denying that “God the father” of the New Testament is somehow not the same god that the Jewish people worshiped and that Jesus adored. That will be news to the Pope and most, if not all, Christians. You must also be denying a sacred principle of the Nicene Creed, namely, ” being of one substance with the Father”. That would make you the heretic.

    Actually, God could not have written the scriptures. One would think that if God had written the scriptures, he would have avoided the nearly uncountable contradictions they contain. Simple example: In the synoptic gospels, the last supper is a Passover sader (there is Jesus being a good Jew again); in the Gospel of John, it is not, as Jesus is taken down from cross before the start of Passover. Now one would think that God would have straightened that out.

  • John 14:6 I am the way the truth and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me(Jesus)

    The only way to GOD is through Jesus Christ alone (New Testament)

    Jesus died on that Cross and was Resurrected. I worship a living GOD and He lives inside of me and all Christians.

    Christians have a relationship with GOD through Jesus Christ alone.
    No one on this earth can not have a relationship with GOD without Jesus
    John 3:36
    Thank GOD for Jesus!!!

  • I hope that you realize that just about every religion makes the same type of claim. Perhaps, you would care to respond to the problem of ” being of one substance with the Father” in the Nicene Creed. That would mean that Jews and Muslims worshiping the god of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, if you prefer, are in fact worshiping the very same god (substance) as Christians.

  • Claus, I know all that from years of study. It’s better to simply ask me, rather than lecture and resort to punctual hysteria.

    If you had simply asked me, “What do you mean by that?” I would have offered a short list of examples, not at all inclusive.

    1. How wet must baptism get the subject?
    2. Must communion be wine and bread, or is juice and crackers acceptable?
    3. Must worship be in Latin, or can the local dialect be used?
    4. Is the bible perfectly written, copied, translated, and therefore perfectly inerrant, or may it be considered divinely inspired?

    That, dear Claus, is what I meant by that.

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