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The State of Theology

What do Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible? Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research partnered to find out. These are the fundamental convictions that shape our society.

What do Americans actually believe? The State of Theology data set is rich with information useful for discerning the beliefs of Americans about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible in a way that goes beyond simple labels and religious affiliations. Read some of our key findings below and explore the data for yourself.

Evangelical?

Many self-professing evangelicals reject foundational evangelical beliefs. The survey results reveal that the biblical worldview of professing evangelicals is fragmenting. Though American evangelicalism arose in the twentieth century around strongly held theological convictions, many of today’s self-identified evangelicals no longer hold those beliefs.

Statement No. 6

God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Self-identified evangelicals

Finding:

46% of self-identified evangelicals agree or somewhat agree with this statement.

Statement No. 18

By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.

Self-identified evangelicals

Finding:

36% of self-identified evangelicals agree or somewhat agree with this statement.

The term evangelical locates within itself the gospel, the evangel. The heart of the gospel is the truth that Jesus Christ alone is the way, the truth, and the life, and that His work alone accomplishes our redemption (John 14:6; Romans 3:21–25). The two above statements undermine the gospel, and significant numbers of evangelical respondents agree with them.

The first statement undermines the exclusivity of Christ. The second undermines the truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. In 2016, we’re on the eve of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We find that evangelicalism is faltering. The stakes could not be higher. Salvation is found in Christ alone and not in any other mediator, any other religion, or by any other means.

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Contradictory Beliefs

Many Americans live with a great deal of theological confusion and even hold contradicting sets of beliefs. 48% of people who deny that God is the author of Scripture also believe that science discredits the Bible’s claims. That’s not surprising. But 43% of people who agree that God is the author of Scripture also agreed that modern science discredits the claims of the Bible.

Statement No. 4

God is the author of Scripture.

All participants

Statement No. 14

Modern science discredits the claims of Christianity.

All participants

Americans both consider the Bible to be a divinely authored book and at the same time see the Bible as a book that fails to measure up to twenty-first century sensibilities. This issue is crucial for evangelicals. The authority of the Bible is the first and fundamental domino. If it falls, so falls the whole chain of beliefs.

Adamantly Wrong

Not only do Americans increasingly hold unorthodox and contradictory beliefs, but they hold these beliefs vigorously. Over the past two years, the strength of unorthodox convictions has grown.

Statement

An individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.

All participants from 2014 (No. 3)

All participants from 2016 (No. 24)

Finding:

In 2014, only 40% agreed with this statement.
In 2016, 50% agreed.

Note the 10% increase in only two years. Not only are Americans evidencing increasingly wrong beliefs, they are growing more adamant in holding those wrong beliefs. This trend announces the twilight of Christian belief in America. This trend, however, should not simply be observed. Instead, this trend calls the church to action.

I Can Do It

Ben Franklin said, “God helps those who help themselves.” Most Americans agree. Evangelicals are sympathetic.

Statement No. 18

By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.

All participants

Finding:

52% agree or somewhat agree with this.

Statement No. 23

A person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace.

All participants

Profile: Self-identified evangelicals

Finding:

83% of self-identified evangelicals agree or somewhat agree with this.

The Bible says we are dead and we are helpless. There’s no pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps when it comes to God’s grace and salvation. Salvation is not a work that we can accomplish. Only God can do it.

Ethics

What we believe shapes how we behave. As we see evangelicals slipping away from foundational beliefs, we also see them rejecting biblical teaching on Christian living. Convictions about the key ethical issues that previously defined evangelical ethics, especially in the public sphere, are weakening as church attendance slackens.

Statement No. 39

Sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin.

Self-identified evengelicals who attend church once or twice per month.

Finding:

Only 52% of self-identified evengelicals who attend church once or twice per month strongly agree with this statement.

Statement No. 40

Abortion is a sin.

Self-identified evangelicals who attend church once or twice per month.

Finding:

Only 48% of self-identified evengelicals who attend church once or twice per month strongly agree with this statement.

These are shocking numbers. One intriguing pattern revealed here is that evangelicals whose church attendance has slipped from weekly, but has not fallen to less than once per month, are the least likely to hold strong convictions about these issues. Their peers with less frequent attendance hold stronger convictions.

The Holiness of God

When asked to respond to the following, “Even the slightest sin deserves eternal damnation,” the results are startling. Many statements show an evening out of the results across the spectrum, but not this one.

Statement No. 17

Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.

All participants

Finding:

61% of all participants strongly disagree with this statement.

The results jump off the page as the strongly disagree column spikes to 61%. That conviction is fundamentally a conviction about the character of God. If he is perfectly holy and just, he cannot let sin go unpunished. But God is no longer holy—in the minds of six out of ten Americans.

American Higher Education

Americans with college degrees are less likely to hold orthodox Christian beliefs. Ever since the early decades of the twentieth century, the gatekeepers of American higher education have consciously pushed God and the Bible out of the sphere of public education. We now see the results of those efforts.

Statement No. 21

The Bible alone is the written word of God.

All participants

Profile: Participants with a graduate degree.

Finding:

Only 27% of participants with a graduate degree strongly agree.

Statement No. 47

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

All participants

Profile: Participants with a graduate degree.

Finding:

56% of participants with a graduate degree disagree or somewhat disagree with this statement.

This is not an indictment on higher education. It is an indictment on American higher education. The sad irony is that America’s original institutions of higher education were built upon the truthfulness of the Bible. They have long since left that foundation.

Church Attendance Matters

Evangelicals might be jettisoning orthodox beliefs because they are no longer going to church. In statement after statement, across a wide array of demographics, there is a clear correlation between regular church attendance and theological orthodoxy. Christianity apart from the local church is not theologically robust Christianity. Though pastors often despair that their efforts have little effect on their listeners, and popular culture often lampoons lazy or distracted attendees, this new data shows a clear correlation between regular church attendance and theological conviction.

Statement No. 6

God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Self-identified evangelicals who attend church once a week or more.

Self-identified evangelicals who attend church less than once a week.

Finding:

Church attendance has a dramatic effect on Evangelical convictions.

Statement No. 18

By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven.

Self-identified evangelicals who attend church once a week or more.

Self-identified evangelicals who attend church less than once a week.

Finding:

Church attendance has a dramatic effect on Evangelical convictions.

What we believe about God, about sin, about salvation, what we believe about ourselves as human beings, about other religions and about the Bible, what we believe about controversial social issues—all of these beliefs are influenced by our culture. But this survey indicates that regular exposure to Christian worship may have a tremendous counter-cultural effect. Evangelicals who attend church each week are far more likely to hold biblical convictions than their less regular peers. Infrequent church attendance leaves many uncertain about their beliefs and adrift theologically, even if they still consider themselves evangelical.

Conclusion

Faithful Christians can look at these survey results and lament the state of theology in America. Or, we can look at these results and engage our Great Commission work with a renewed urgency and purpose. Ligonier Ministries is taking the latter approach. It is easy to get distracted by cultural trends and apply our resources toward chasing novel methodology. This survey reminds us of the necessity of teaching foundational truths: God’s holiness, Christ’s person and work, humanity’s true need to be saved from the wrath of God, and the Bible’s authority—even in the twenty-first century.