Yesterday—December 18, 2008—the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a new study confirming what they had reported last year: most Americans, including about half of American evangelical Christians, believe that many religions can lead people to eternal life. The report was based on “a national survey conducted…from July 31-Aug. 10, 2008, among 2,905 adults.”

The key question in the survey asked respondents who identified themselves as having a religious affiliation (which, according to the Pew Forum’s 2007 report, includes 83% of all Americans) to choose one of two statements. In response, 29% chose to affirm, “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life,” while 65% agreed with the statement, “Many religions can lead to eternal life.” (6% said neither, both, or did not answer.)

Now, in its survey taken about a year earlier, the Pew Forum asked the same question of the same demographic (adults with some religious affiliation), with the same two statements from which to choose. In that survey, 24% said they thought their religion was the one true faith leading to eternal life and 70% said many religions could lead to eternal life. It seems unlikely that 5% of the population would shift on this question in only a year—and in the direction of a larger percentage of Americans asserting that their religion was the only true way to eternal life. Yet this is what the survey indicates.

Even more surprising, the percentages of white evangelicals and black Protestants[1] affirming that their religion was the only way to eternal life rose by 10% or more from one survey to the next: from 36% or 37% to 49% for white evangelicals and from 34% or 35% to 45% for black Protestants.[2] One has to wonder if evangelical and black Protestant opinion really changed this dramatically in one year, or if one of the samplings differed in some marked way from the other.

There are, then, some reasons to be cautious about the precise figures in these reports. However, assuming that the most recent figures are reliable, slightly less than half of U.S. evangelicals consider their religion to be the one true path leading to eternal life, and slightly more than half disagree. For all practical purposes, it appears that American evangelicals are evenly split on this question.

The survey asked those who affirmed that other religions could lead to eternal life whether they thought this was so with regard to several specific religions. The Pew Forum reports that 72% of the white evangelicals in this category identified at least one non-Christian religion they thought could lead to eternal life. This means that although about half of U.S. white evangelicals said they believed that many religions can lead to eternal life, more than a quarter of those who said this could not say this about any specific non-Christian religion.

The vast majority of those white evangelicals who did identify a specific non-Christian religion that could lead to eternal life specified Judaism as such a religion. 64% of those who said other religions could lead to eternal life identified Judaism as such a religion. No other religion gets nearly that much credit among white evangelicals: of those who thought other religions could lead to eternal life, 35% said Islam could do so, 35% said that nonreligious people could find eternal life, and 33% said that Hinduism could lead to eternal life. (Only 26% of these white evangelicals thought atheists could attain eternal life.)

The bottom line can be stated this way: Among all American evangelicals, roughly one in six thinks that people can attain eternal life through non-biblical religions such as Islam and Hinduism, or through no religion at all. Nearly one in three think those following Judaism can do so. The high esteem in which many evangelicals hold Judaism, then, appears to be skewing the numbers considerably.

Black Protestants tend to view Judaism in much the same way as white evangelicals, but a much larger percentage of black Protestants view other non-Christian religions as potential avenues to eternal life. Notably, about a third of black Protestants reported viewing Islam in this way, as compared to a sixth of white evangelicals. This is not all that surprising, since a majority of American converts to Islam come from black Protestant backgrounds. In general, African-Americans tend to view Islam much more favorably than white Americans.

Although there is much here about which we should be concerned, I would qualify somewhat Al Mohler’s assessment: “When 34% of white evangelicals reject the truth that Jesus is the only Savior, we are witnessing a virtual collapse of evangelical theology.” I almost always agree with Mohler, and in general I agree with him that evangelical theology in America is in serious trouble. However, the issue here is somewhat more complicated. In practice only about one in six white evangelicals consistently view non-Christian religions as potential paths to salvation. That’s still too many, but a lot less than one in three. We will have to take a hard look at evangelical assumptions and attitudes toward Judaism. Furthermore, many of these evangelicals probably hold to some form of inclusivism (the view that Jesus is the only Savior but saves many people who did not come to faith in him during their lifetime). On this subject, may I refer interested readers to my book Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, which examines and critiques inclusivism in detail.

NOTES

[1] Black Protestants includes a spectrum of church types, including liberal and conservative, Baptist and Pentecostal. Reliable figures for most historically black Protestant denominations are notoriously hard to obtain.

[2] The uncertainty as to the numbers reflects variations in the Pew Forum reports. The 2007 report gives the lower figures of 36% and 34% for white evangelicals and black Protestants, while the 2008 report says that in 2007 the figures were 37% and 35% respectively.

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5 comments so far

Mitch Larramore
 1 

I am one of those white evangelicals who hold that all people can be saved, but nobody enters heaven apart from the work of Christ upon the Cross. Have you read Who Can Be Saved by Tiessen?
Here is the reason all can be saved: God holds man responsible for the light (revelation) he has received and how he responds to that light.

Remember, Saul of Tarsus, who was killing the church, was considered faithful, and that is why God put him into the ministry.

Muslims who respond the revelation they have can be saved, but their salvation is BASED ON the work of Christ upon the Cross.

Remember those let into the Kingdom in Matt, where they were told that they feed the poor, clothed the naked, etc. and they responded, “When did we do this?” They weren’t even aware of what they did that qualified them for the Kingdom.

Mitch Larramore

December 20th, 2008 at 7:24 am
 2 

Mitch,

I interact in some detail with Tiessen in my book on heaven and hell, mentioned at the end of my post.

The “light” or “revelation” that Muslims have tells them that Jesus is not God and that he did not die for their sins. How can believing these falsehoods lead to salvation?

December 20th, 2008 at 12:04 pm
Mitch Larramore
 3 

Rob:

First, you are probably under the assumption that people are born eternally damned. This is not true. Remember what Christ said to the Jews (who were rejecting him), “If I had not come, you would have no sin.”

I think the reason it would be hard for us to interact on this issue is based on many, many assumptions you hold.

Remember Saul of Tarsus. He rejected Christ, yet God tells us the “he was counted faithful, being put in the ministry.” (Counted is Aorist tense. This references his time of persecuting the church who believed in Jesus as God, something Saul denied.) Note that it was “faith” in God (not to mention faith in the God who did not send Jesus to come and die for our sins.)

Children go to heaven without even knowing a God exists. (2 Sam 12)

Rahab was saved without knowing the Mosaic Law and all it taught.

Abram was saved without knowing anything about Jesus or the Christ. (He was saved back in Ur; God did not call an unbeliever to be the one through whom the world would be blessed.)

Gen 3 gives the consequences for Adam and Eve’s sins. Not one consequence goes beyond the grave.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they did not need to “get saved.” They remained God’s children, and God unilaterally clothed them.

Jesus told those rejecting Him, “If I had not come, you would not have sin.” (The implications of this are enormous.)

Those who are granted entrance into the kingdom because they gave food to the hungry, or clothes to the naked, we a bit surprised when God said they were entering the Kingdom.

I agree that Christ made salvation possible for all people, and that one’s eternal destiny is based on what Christ did. But a person is only responsible for what God has revealed to them. You are working under the assumption that God has revealed to Muslims who Christ is, something that you and I didn’t even know when we accept Him. Sure, we were told about him, but we ourselves didn’t know until years later after intense study.

Obviously I’m not an evangelical. But the main reason is because of all the presuppositions that evangelicals hold.

The thief on the cross was granted eternal life, and he had very little information as to who it was being crucified right next to him.

I could go on for quite a while giving examples of people being saved who had no information about YHWH or the OT Scriptures. What God held them accountable for was how they responded to what the DID know.

Remember, you could respond to each of the items I listed about, but its the assumptions you hold (and I hold) that make this blog exchange rather difficult.

If you can remove sin from the picture (sin is not the basis of one’s eternal destiny) then you can begin to have some insight into my views.

I believe that God has blinded the eyes of the Jews, but not to salvation. They are blinded, to some extent, to who Jesus is. Their salvation must come via the OT route. This doesn’t block them from salvation, only from being a member of the body of Christ (just as Rahab was not a member of the elect, but was redeemed).

I would enjoy more interaction in this area, but I realize that blog exchanges are exceptionally difficult to discuss such points as these. I’ve spend over 20 years coming to this conclusion.

To close with a shocker: I don’t see much difference in Saul of Tarsus and Osama bin Ladin. Saul worshipped YHWH, but not according to knowledge. And if Osama was taught at a very early age that God goes by the name ALLAH, it would be hard to convince me that he is not a man of faith.

Thanks for your interaction.

December 21st, 2008 at 9:13 am
 4 

Mitch,

I won’t attempt to respond to this shotgun barrage of prooftexts in this comment. Perhaps in one or more separate blog entries I could respond to some of them.

I agree that children who die at a young age, and Old Testament believers, are saved without knowing specifically about Jesus. This doesn’t lead to inclusivism as you hold it, though.

I’m not sure why you said that I’m assuming God revealed to Muslims who Jesus is. My point was that God obviously did not reveal who Jesus was to Muhammad, or the Qur’an would not deny what the Bible taught.

I’d be interested in your assessment of my book Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, if you’re interested.

December 21st, 2008 at 1:29 pm
Mitch Larramore
 5 

Rob:

Sorry for the shotgun approach, but I was trying to highlight that without our understanding each others presuppositions, passages like the ones I list are just that: shotgun points; they are not a coherent whole. I was trying to show how difficult it is and how varied the issues that need to be resolved are before coming to an understanding of God’s love (offer of salvation), and its extent.

What I liked about Tiessen was that in this book you have a Calvinist trying to figure this all out without abandoning any of his presuppositions. I think this is why he fails. He could not get away from “sin” being the basis of condemnation (he also holds a pretty standard view of Election, making it somewhat equal to Salvation).

Your comment on God NOT revealing to Muslims tells me you too are Calvinist. That I didn’t know: forgive my assumption.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas holiday!

December 22nd, 2008 at 8:58 am

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  1. The Residue of Slavery? « reGeNeRaTe X    Dec 20 2008 / 11am:

    […] 20, 2008 Rob Bowman at Biblical Researcher had an interesting post yesterday about the implications of evangelical theological when it comes to how evangelicals view others […]

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