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 about God.
According to a September 2016 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 12 lies about God, morality and salvation that 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 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.
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.