This week we will take a look at the nation’s beliefs about eternity and salvation. One of the most controversial aspects of Christianity in contemporary America relates to salvation. In a culture obsessed with tolerance, notions such as sin and judgment ‘offend’ millions of citizens. The idea of a holy God judging – and saving – people has been such an ingrained part of our culture for so long that many people possess contradictory views on eternal life, wrestling with the competing views of a secular and a traditional Protestant interpretation of the Bible. Catholics have additionally been challenged with the traditional Roman view of salvation…eternal life awarded due to a winning combination of grace and works…against more recent papal views emphasizing grace alone.
Nearly nine out of ten Americans (85%) believe heaven is real [Gallup Organization, “Religion”, national survey among 1,000 adults, conducted May 2011…www.gallup.com/poll/1690/Religion.aspx#2]. We are more likely to believe in heaven than to accept the idea of a personal God who inhabits heaven or a Savior who was resurrected from the dead to return to heaven. To a nation whose foundational document – the Declaration of Independence – talks about the pursuit of happiness, the idea of heaven is a winner. Heaven is almost universally seen as a happy place.
The idea of personal judgment by an omnipotent God, though, is not so popular. In the past two decades we have dropped from 81% to 76% for those who believe they will have to answer to God for their sins on Judgment Day [Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Partisan Polarization Surges in Busy, Obama Years”, section 6]. A similar proportion…75%…believe that there is such a place as hell [George Gallup, Religion in America (Princeton, NJ:Princeton Religious Research Center, 1996)]. We as a nation have also declined from 83% to 76% of those who maintain that there are clear guidelines of good and evil that apply to everyone, regardless of their circumstances [Ibid., Gallup Organization, national survey of adults].
Americans have also struggled to embrace the idea of a completely evil being who is God’s enemy. We are divided into three groups. About a quarter of adults believe that Satan is a real, living being who can influence people’s lives in ways that oppose the work and desires of God. Another quarter believe that Satan is not a living being but simply a symbol of evil. The other half of the nation is in the mushy middle, uncertain of what to believe about Satan [Barna Group, “OmniPoll 1014 OL-PH”].
In a nation founded largely by Protestants for the purpose of religious freedom and the practice of their Biblical beliefs, where do we find Americans on the matter of eternal destiny? Currently 36% of the adult public are those who might be described as evangelicals… who consider themselves to be “saved” from the “wages of sin” and assured of eternal life with God in heaven. These are people who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, have confessed their sins to God, and have accepted Christ as their savior. That percentage has unfortunately dropped 9% since 2006 [Barna Group, “OmniPoll 1-06”, national survey of 1,005 adults eighteen or older, January 2006]. The largest counter to the notion of salvation by grace alone is the idea that salvation is based on being ‘good’ or doing ‘good’ works…’good’ in whose eyes. 33% hold this view. The remaining adults are split between those who do not believe there is any type of afterlife and those who are content professing confusion about what is coming [Barna Group, “OmniPoll 1-14 OL-PH”].
It has been consistently found that very few Americans believe they will go to hell…usually 1% to 3% [George Barna, The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2009)]. A surprising number of Americans associated with Christianity believe in reincarnation. About 24% of the population believes they will return to the earth in some other life form after they die [Harris Interactive, “Americans Belief in God, Miracles, and Heaven Declines”].
These weekly e-mail letters are to help us understand the challenges that we as Christian individuals, our pastors, and churches are facing. We are being attacked from all directions. It is important to know the character of out government officials and then vote for who best represents God’s foundational principals. The government can either be our friend or our enemy. Next week we will take a look at the Church’s involvement in out national “Pledge of Allegiance” and why the secular world may want it removed from our schools and government meetings.
– Bob Munsey
‘The government is the people; the church is the people’