Evangelical Christians are supposedly united in their belief that only those who believe the gospel — that Jesus Christ died on the cross for humanity’s sins and rose from the dead three days later — will be saved. But not all who identify as evangelicals even believe this.
According to a September study by LifeWay Research, Americans don’t know much about theology. While most Americans identify as Christians, they seem confused about the details of their faith.
“Contradictory and incompatible beliefs are OK for most people,” explained Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. Even those who identify as evangelicals often fell into some of the worst theological errors.
Here are twelve lies about God, morality, and salvation which Christians in the study believed, and why they are wrong.
1. Personal salvation depends on good works.
Three quarters of Americans (77 percent) agreed that people must contribute to their own effort for personal salvation, according to the survey. A full half (52 percent) said good deeds help them earn a spot in heaven.
At the same time, 60 percent said Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of their sin. This is much closer to the biblical position: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9.
While James 2 declares that “faith without deeds is dead,” that does not mean that good deeds are what earns salvation. Romans 10:9 promises “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It is faith, not works, that earns salvation.
2. Everyone goes to heaven.
The study found that almost two thirds of evangelicals (64 percent), and nearly as many Americans (60 percent) described heaven as a place where “all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones.” Overall, just over half of Americans (54 percent) agreed with the biblical view that only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone receive eternal salvation.
Americans seem unable to grasp the contradiction: either everyone goes to heaven or only those who believe in Jesus Christ will go to heaven.
At least a vast majority of evangelicals (84 percent) held the biblical view that hell is a place of eternal judgment, where God sends all people who do not personally trust in Jesus Christ. Even so, this means that 16 percent of evangelicals either disagreed or were unsure. Only 40 percent of all Americans believed this.
Next Page: Does God accept the worship of all religions?
3. Sin isn’t important.
Original sin seems anathema to most Americans. Almost two thirds (65 percent) said that most people are good by nature, even though everyone sins a little. Three quarters (74 percent) of Americans disagreed that the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation — and 62 percent strongly disagreed!
Romans 3:22-23 explicitly declares that “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Orthodox Christianity holds that only the perfect may enter heaven, and that even the slightest sin separates a person from God. Only the death and resurrection of Jesus can restore the relationship between the believer and God.
Seen as an eternal punishment for temporary sins, hell seems unfair. But orthodox Christianity holds that hell is the state of separation from God. Seen in terms of a relationship with a perfect God, even a little sin prevents the reuniting of man with God that is heaven.
While most Americans said sin does not deserve eternal damnation, more than half (57 percent) agreed it would be fair for God to show His wrath against sin. Perhaps pastors can open their congregation’s eyes by emphasizing the fairness of God’s wrath, rather than the eternal damnation meted out for every sin.
4. God accepts worship of all religions.
Sixty-four percent of Americans said God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Indeed, this belief united all kinds of Americans: 62 percent of those 18 to 34 years old believed it, as did 67 percent of those 50 and older. African Americans (69 percent), Hispanics (65 percent), whites (63 percent) and Asian-Americans (57 percent) also agreed that God accepts at least these three types of worship.
Even 48 percent of evangelicals agreed that God accepts all kinds of worship. The difficulty with this view is that these religions disagree on the nature of God. Christianity (and some forms of Judaism) sees God as one being with multiple persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Islam, by contrast, says that Allah is a monad — He is not multiple persons and He does not have a son.
Throughout the Old Testament, God showed Himself as a jealous God — ordering the destruction of idols and praising the kings who defiled pagan temples. While Jesus did liberalize worship to some extent, he also emphasized that worship must be rooted in the reality of God and man: He said it mattered less where people worship than that they worship God “in spirit and in truth.”
5. Jesus was created by God.
While a vast majority of Americans (69 percent) agreed in the idea of the Trinity — that there is one true God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — more than half (52 percent) said that Jesus is the “first and greatest being created by God.”
This is incompatible with the Nicene Creed, which declares that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, “begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Small-o orthodox Christianity insists that Jesus was not made by God, but begotten of Him, being the same nature as God the Father.
A majority of Americans (61 percent) agreed with the orthodox view of the dual nature of Christ: that He is both divine and human. This is an important doctrine, because Jesus is the bridge to reunite God with mankind. If He is not fully human, He could not die for the sins of man. If He is not fully divine, he could not unite them with God Himself.
Next Page: Was the Bible written for everyone to interpret it as he or she pleases?
6. The Holy Spirit is a force.
Fifty-six percent of Americans said that the Holy Spirit is not a person but a force. More than a quarter (28 percent) described the Spirit as a divine being but not equal to God the Father and Jesus.
A full half (51 percent) disagreed, standing by the orthodox position that the Holy Spirit is one of the three equal persons of God. He may come from the Father and the Son, but that does not make Him any less God.
7. The Bible was written to be interpreted as each person chooses.
According to the study, 51 percent of Americans said the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses. This nonsense does not fit with what the Bible actually says.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” St. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. If the Bible were written to be interpreted as each person wants, it could not teach, rebuke, correct, or train in righteousness.
Interestingly, while many Americans believed the Bible is meant to be interpreted personally, 64 percent said the accounts of Jesus’ bodily resurrection are completely accurate. Only 23 percent disagreed. Not surprisingly, 98 percent of evangelicals agreed in the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, while even a majority of non-evangelical Americans (56 percent) also did.
Nevertheless, only 47 percent of Americans said the Bible is 100 percent accurate in all it teaches, while 43 percent disagreed. This might be due to the various scientific approaches to Genesis 1. Forty-four percent said the Bible contains helpful myths but isn’t literally true.
8. Extramarital sex is not a sin.
Only about half of Americans (49 percent) said that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin, while 44 percent said it isn’t one. Women (53 percent) are more likely than men (45 percent) to call extramarital sex sinful, while people with bachelor’s degrees (44 percent) and graduate degrees (40 percent) were less likely than those with high school diplomas or less (56 percent) to do so.
Jesus Himself explained that sex is reserved for marriage, and He even went so far as to say that lusting after someone is a form of fornication. Perhaps due to these clear doctrines, a full 91 percent of evangelicals agreed that sex outside of marriage is a sin, compared to only 40 percent of non-evangelicals. Still, it might be concerning that 9 percent did not believe so.
Next Page: Is abortion a sin?
9. Abortion is not a sin.
Forty-nine percent of Americans in the survey said that abortion is a sin, while 40 percent said it is not. Eighty-seven percent of evangelicals agreed that abortion is a sin, while only 41 percent of non-evangelicals said so.
Abortion is less clear directly from the Bible, but the text describes fetuses in the womb as though they were human. Genesis 25:22 describes Jacob and Esau “struggling together” inside Rebekah’s womb. Luke 1:44 describes John the Baptist inside his mother Elizabeth’s womb leaping for joy when Jesus, who was inside Mary’s womb at the time, was near. Exodus 21:22-25 is arguably the world’s first fetal homicide law, and Psalm 139 describes God’s personal knowledge of the author in his mother’s womb.
Early Christians opposed the practice, which was in vogue across the Roman Empire, and most Christians today oppose it. Modern DNA science testifies that at conception, a new being is created with the entire genetic code of a human being.
If a fetus is a human being, then the practice of abortion can be considered homicide, and the Ten Commandments clearly condemn murder.
10. Gender identity is a matter of choice.
Thirty-eight percent of Americans in the survey said that gender identity is a matter of choice, while 51 percent disagreed. Only 32 percent of evangelicals said gender identity is a choice, while 40 percent of non-evangelicals said so.
Scripture does not speak specifically to the sense that a person was born in the wrong body (gender dysphoria), but it does emphasize two basic ideas on sexuality: humans were made male and female, and sexuality is a good gift of God. While people who struggle with gender dysphoria should be treated with love and respect, Christians cannot believe that their birth sex is a mistake.
The idea of original sin — that people are born into a fallen world with sinful desires, diseases, and other weaknesses — explains where gender dysphoria comes from, and the idea of God’s ultimate redemption of humanity promises an answer that does not require “gender-affirming” surgery. (Indeed, such surgery mutilates the human body as God designed it, and there are real victims of transgenderism.) Christians should sympathize with those struggling with dysphoria, and offer them the ultimate hope in Jesus Christ that motivates our faith.
Next Page: What about gay marriage? The prosperity gospel?
11. Homosexual behavior is no longer a sin.
Forty-two percent of Americans in the survey said that the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior does not apply today, while 44 percent disagreed.
Small-o orthodox Christianity holds that homosexual practice is a sin, because sex is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. Romans 1 makes clear that homosexual acts are sinful — a penalty for separation from God and a sin with its own consequences. (An aside, this passage does not call for the execution of homosexuals, as The New York Times ignorantly reported.)
That emphatically does not mean that people with same-sex attraction cannot be saved or are more sinful than others. Christians all acknowledge their sinfulness and accept forgiveness only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. No Christian should pretend to be “holier-than-thou,” but no Christian can support homosexual behavior either. It is a hard thing for Christians with same-sex attraction to be abstinent, but they are held to the same standard as unmarried straight people.
12. The prosperity gospel.
Thirty-seven percent of American evangelicals agreed that God will always reward true faith with material blessings. Sixty-three percent of Americans in general disagreed with this notion, and only 23 percent of non-evangelicals agreed with this “prosperity gospel.”
Perhaps ironically, poorer Americans, those with incomes under $25,000, were more likely (28 percent) to agree with the prosperity gospel than wealthier Americans. Only 20 percent of those making $100,000 or more bought this notion.
The prosperity gospel flies in the face of orthodox Christianity and the plain text of the Bible. While the New Testament promises heaven for those who believe in Jesus, it does not promise riches in this life. Rather, Saint Paul, the author of most of the letters in the New Testament, himself faced penury, prison, and even death for the gospel he preached. The apostles all faced gruesome deaths, with the one exception of Saint John, and thousands of martyrs laid the foundation for the church.
This does not mean that every believer is called to give his or her life to preach the gospel, but it should emphatically disprove the message of preachers like Joel Osteen, who proclaim that faith can bring riches.
Americans with more education are less likely to believe this prosperity gospel (18 percent of those with graduate degrees said they believed it, while 33 percent of those with high school degrees or less did so).